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raised some important questions about how we think about politics. The issue is important because if we
can no longer communicate reasonably clearly abut politics, about all we have
left is either to yell at one another, or avoid the entire subject as a cess
pool. I am inclined towards the
latter, but believe I have no choice but to be involved since we must live
together. The first reaction aids the very worst
elements in society in coming to power whereas the second does nothing to
prevent them from doing so.
am writing only about Americans who use these ideas as a means to try and
support the values that motivate them.
To appreciate the cynics and sociopaths we first need a vocabulary that makes
sense to us.
are other labels that I do not discuss because this is a blog, not a magazine
article or even a book – which would be needed to really give depth to our
“Neoconservative” is not discussed.
Neither is “Paleoconservative” or “libertarian” or “populist.” All are important terms – but I believe
the five I discuss are the most basic.
When we cannot use these words reasonably intelligently, we are crippled
in our ability to reason with our fellow citizens.
words are “Left-wing,” “Right-wing,” “Liberal,” “Conservative,” and “Progressive.” The more these words become simply
symbols for “good” and “bad” our ability to discuss issues intelligently
evaporates, so I hope to show that all these words can describe positions held
be decent and intelligent people.
these words are products of the modern and increasingly democratic world. John Locke is the man most identified
with the initial rise of Liberalism, and the American Revolution
marked the first time liberal ideas had come to define a transformative change
in human life. What made it
different from anything before was that all people were regarded as equal in
their rights, so that no one could be justly ruled over by another. In other words, all individuals are
equally the fundamental moral unit of society. Our Declaration of Independence
is an explicit statement of these principles and our major Founders to a man
regarded these Lockean principles as foundational to our country.
Conservatism arose in reaction to
liberalism, particularly in reaction to the next liberal revolution, the
French, which turned out much less successfully than the American. Its initial spokesperson was Edmund
Burke. Burke emphasized that
societies were multi-generational affairs, where each generation was simply a
part. Political change should
always be within a specific social context, not some universal abstract
standard that, by rejecting everything that could not be rationally justified,
would unintentionally destroy the social glue that enabled people to live
together peacefully. Interestingly,
Burke supported the American Revolution, but he did so not because of universal
human rights but because the Monarchy was rejecting traditional rights of
Englishmen as applied to the colonists.
from the beginning liberals believed we could deliberately change society for
the better and conservatives believed change should be piecemeal, working
within established traditions, and always hesitant. Interestingly, today this conservative insight is most often
encountered among environmentalists who urge caution in manipulating nature.
Left and Right arose during the French
Revolution as well. In the French
Parliament supporters of the Old Order, the monarchy and the aristocracy, sat
on the right side, liberals and opponents of the aristocracy sat on the left. So from the very beginning
Liberal and Conservative referred to philosophical principles and Left and
Right referred to political alliances.
Initially these terms broadly overlapped in terms of practical politics in Europe, but were never the same.
Europe conservatism’s defense of the Old Order from radical criticism supported
the aristocracy and monarchy and therefore a society based on fundamental legal
inequalities between people, because what most distinguished aristocrats from
commoners was not a title, but different standing under the law. The titles simply affirmed that
superior privileged status.
But the new US had no aristocrats and was founded on
the principle of legal equality as a fundamental ideal. (The first place women ever voted in world history was in
some Northern states right after the Revolution. So also did Blacks. New Jersey
was the most liberal in this regard.) Most everyone knew slavery was a
contradiction to these principles, and in a majority of states it was
abolished, but it remained in the South because it was economically so
important that no one could find a practical way to eliminate it. Attitudes towards Indians also usually did not fit well with these principles, though men like Washington hoped in time they would be fairly treated.
Because of our unique situation, initially American ‘conservatism’ was liberal. Our system, the system to
be conserved, was based on liberal principles. Originally we also did not think of
politics in terms of right and left. We had a different vocabulary. Conservative American liberals simply had more
respect and regard for the elites who had arisen within American society and
distrust for liberals who wanted to reduce the influence of those elites.
developments disrupted this fairly harmonious political worldview among EuroAmericans.
slavery’s revitalization as cotton became immensely profitable. The South loved its new wealth far more
than its founding principles, and by Andrew Jackson’s time major Southern
leaders, such as John C. Calhoun, were redefining our principles to eliminate
their liberal justification. This
continued up to the Civil war, when Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s Vice President, explicitly
arguing the Founders were wrong and the Confederacy was founded on the principle of human
inequality and the goodness of slavery.
South became our first and far the most radical “counter-culture.” Southern conservatism then departed
from northern conservatism, endorsing inequality so long as the right elite
ruled. It’s intellectual elites became very suspicious
of Northern culture with its commercial and egalitarian bent. Seeking a moral and philosophical
justification for an institution our Founders had universally detested, most
Southern thinkers found it in a literalistic reading of the Bible, with its
apparent endorsement of slavery.
It was at this point that Southern Christianity began distinguishing
itself from Northern Christianity, a distinction that has lasted to this day.
The South also increasingly rejected the Enlightenment, out of which Liberalism
disruption of our original relative unity was liberalism’s success in the
north. It led not only to massive
increases in the number who could vote, it also generated an industrial
revolution, made the north a magnet for immigration, created huge cities (for
the time), and sparked massive technological change. These developments led to new problems unforeseen by our
Founders, who lived during a pre-industrial era.
new problems were basically three: the relations between wage workers and
business elites, the rise of mass democracy in cities as well as nationally,
and the inequality of wealth, that increased with industrialization.
liberals split over how to address the problems these developments
generated. With some exceptions,
they tended to fall into three groups, depending on which modern development
they most relied on to address these issues. Classical liberals believed that over time the market would gradually
lift everyone up to prosperity, and that government should not get in the way
of economic development. Managerial liberals believed that government was under popular control, unlike the old aristocracies
and monarchies, could safely be used to smooth out the problems caused by big
business, regulate their excesses, especially the railroads, and occasionally
take over certain industries on which everyone depended. This usually meant the utilities and sometimes the railroads. Finally, Egalitarian liberals believed the best cure to our problems was
more democracy, and so inequalities in influence should be moderated and popular influence increased. They supported the initiative,
referendum, recall, and political primaries. All were and remain liberals. All supported the original
liberal insight that all people should be equal under the law.
From the Left and Right
terms Left and Right were mostly imported to this country
in the last half of the 19th century.
In Europe there was a genuine right, supporting the old order of
established families, titles, and privilege. They saw liberals as their enemy. Increasingly there was also a Left that also saw liberals as
their enemy because they believed that the most exploited class, the
proletariat, should take over businesses and so abolish property rights, which
liberals believed were a necessary defense against “the State.” In Europe you had a anti-liberal right, liberals, and an anti-liberal left. In modern terms think Fascism, Liberalism, and Communism. The modern left and right developed in opposition to European liberalism.
European Left came to this country during the time of mass immigration, and brought with it a hostility to private ownership of business and to wage labor. It took two broad forms, anarchist
and state socialist. The latter
believed a strong state controlled by ‘the people’ or ‘the workers’ could solve
the problems of wage exploitation.
Combined with home grown organizers who by comparison were simply reformist in their
views, these folks helped start our labor unions.
European right never really established itself here on a mass basis, but the
South provided a natural home for similar attitudes.
the first half of the 20th century different kinds of liberals and
the anti-capitalist Left all sought to influence government, and entered into
various alliances to do so. Ideologically
speaking, the Progressive Movement that Glenn Beck and some other right-wingers
see as the beginning of our fall was an alliance of Managerial and Egalitarian
liberals against Classical liberals.
The anti-capitalist Left allied itself with Progressives some of the
time but were always minor and often distrusted partners.
the Russian Revolution massive struggles took place in the American labor
movement as the Communist element was gradually eliminated from leadership
positions almost everywhere. Unions often became an alliance of egalitarian and managerial liberals combined with simple interest group politics.
the same time Classical liberals, many Southerners, and many business leaders
gradually came together against “the Left” into which they lumped all these
forces. Battling “the Left” and
with a strong Southern element that distrusted liberalism, they came to think
of themselves as “the Right.”
American liberals, having divided over issues arising within liberalism, and
all arguing they were the ‘true” liberals, at times allied themselves
with illiberal partners who identified with the illiberal Left and the
Our most illuminating terms, the ones most accurate for American realities, are
conservatives, classical liberals, managerial liberals, and egalitarian
liberals, with the last two often allied as “Progressives” and the first two
allied as “Conservatives.“ Then there is the Southern anti-liberal culture that, when it entered national politics, sought to transform it based on Southern models, and so became radical. So, within
“Conservatives” there were two central tensions: Northern conservatism based on
a particular understanding of the Founders differed at its core from Southern
conservatism, rooted in an explicit repudiation of the Founders. In addition, classical liberals
emphasize liberal values with a pro-market emphasis, which stand in a strong
tension with a conservative acceptance of strong elites that grew up within a liberal context in the North or in an illiberal one in the South.
corresponding tension within Progressivism is between Managerial liberals who support enlightened
bureaucracies serving the public and Egalitarian liberals who want to strengthen the
influence of voters against elites, and so want changes that make bureaucratic
management more difficult.
culture war arose powerfully when Republican leaders became convinced they
could not win against Democrats on the basis of competing economic
visions. At the same time
Democrats were losing Southern support because Northern liberals, Egalitarian
and Managerial and some Republicans with Classical sympathies had ended
segregation by law. Similar
liberal values were clashing with the anti-liberal Christianity of the Southern
Baptists and allied groups, mostly in the south, but also particularly among
Mormons. So, beginning with Nixon
and paying off big time beginning with Reagan, Republicans began emphasizing
“values” to de-emphasize economic issues where they were sure to lose, and try
and pry away “blue collar Democrats.”
long as they kept the allegiance of Northern conservatives and added to them
their new allies, they could
win. But in time moderate Northern
republicans began being turned off by the genuinely anti-liberal Southern conservatives,
and drifted away. If Americans can
think clearly about politics, the Republicans will become a regional party of
illiberal right-wingers centered in the South and in Mormon areas – both
regions with strong theocratic tendencies.
issue of states’ rights is very illustrative here. Southern conservatives talked about states’ rights but not
believed in them. They supported
states’ rights because they ruled in Southern states. When they finally took over the Republican Party and that
Party won national control under Bush II, they launched a sustained attack on states rights in favor of
national power. For them the issue
had always been power. Northern Republican conservatives, particularly secular ones, began drifting to the Democrats.
Now that Republicans are out of power they again talk incessantly about states’ rights and even
secession. But the real issue here is
no longer different interpretations of a constitution’s setting limits on
government, a constitution both sides support. Since the Constitution is a liberal document, and so limits
power, Southern based Republican leaders seek to subvert it, rewriting its meaning. This is most obvious concerning the
separation of church and state as well as civil liberties.
for an illiberal Republican leadership to succeed, they need to eliminate
American identification with broadly liberal principles most Americans support. So they focus on those edgier principles which divide us. This requires that liberalism become a dirty word, depriving
us of our common heritage in the American Revolution and divide us into two feuding factions. It requires that uniting icons like Thomas Jefferson be
demoted and if possible eliminated – hence what happened in Texas. (Also attacked here – obliquely – is our Declaration of Independence, principally authored by Jefferson and explicitly invoking liberal and Enlightenment values.) It requires that those liberal elements
that became Progressives be identified with the European Left in its worst
forms, hence Glenn Beck and Jonah Goldberg crusade to equate them with Nazis and Communists.
It requires that as a people we be degraded into two groups of monkeys hurling feces
and epithets at one another, making the assumption that, as Pat Buchanan wrote,
they would have the “bigger half.”
So I write with a bias: to preserve and respect the
differences that will always characterize a free society. Secularly speaking, my personal bias
has shifted from classical liberal with a egalitarian sympathy to a egalitaran
liberal with a classical sympathy. But I believe that genuine American conservatism and other traditions in harmony with our Declaration of Independence have important insights that are neglected at our peril. On the other hand, those positions that are not in harmony with our Declaration of Independence are subversive to all that is best about our country.