The Quixotic Quest to Comprehend Conservatism, Part 1

  • Posted on: 16 May 2014
  • By: benfell

This is the final version of the second qualifying essay for Ph.D. candidacy (the first was originally published here on March 11, the second on March 19, and the third earlier today, on May 16). It has now been approved.

Part 2 is the third qualifying essay for Ph.D. candidacy, published here (link updated June 20, 2015).


This essay analyzes conservatism employing a taxonomy based on that offered by George Nash (2006) in the post-World War II era, prior to a splintering of the movement into several sub-movements. It is apparent that conservatism is not monolithic, with apparently contradictory strands of thought, and yet the factions that make up the conservative movement in the United States exhibit an interdependence that discontented conservatives may underestimate and which strengthens the movement as a whole. To the extent that this analysis proves valid, complexity theory may be an appropriate lens for examining conservatism.


A picture of the conservative movement has emerged in recent decades that is unappealing even to some conservatives. Here, for example, is Alan Pell Crawford (February 26, 2014), writing for American Conservative:

My kind of conservatives, at least as they existed in my fantasies, provided responsible guidance to their constituents. When their constituents were aggrieved, they sought reforms that held some promise of relieving their distress. The conservatives I conjured up would respect the people who looked to them for leadership; they would not pounce on fears and anxieties just to inflame them. They would treat their political opponents, likewise, with respect and even forbearance. Being conservatives, they realized that impatience in politics was a vice, not a virtue. Leaders like this, of course, are rare, but Robert A. Taft seemed to fit the bill. With the research arm of a think tank behind me, I’m sure I could find a few others—but not many. By the mid-1970, the “movement” seemed bereft of such worthies, and the few who still gave lip service to Burke and Kirk also sneered at Viereck and took their cues, politically, from Joe McCarthy. (Crawford, February 26, 2014)

If Crawford was unhappy by the mid-1970s, his complaint would be magnified by a vicious backlash that has appeared since Barack Obama’s first presidential inauguration in 2009. It features an elevated and prolonged prominence of protesters, activists, and politicians whom former Labor Secretary, Democratic partisan, and University of California, Berkeley, professor Robert Reich (February 27, 2012) derides as “birthers, creationists, theocrats, climate-change deniers, nativists, gay-bashers, anti-abortionists, media paranoids, anti-intellectuals, and out-of-touch country clubbers.” The presence of such groups, with their fury and absolute certitude supports Crawford’s view:

A man toting an assault rifle was among a dozen protesters carrying weapons while demonstrating outside President Obama's speech to veterans on Monday, but no laws were broken. It was the second instance in recent days in which weapons have been seen near presidential events. . . . Last week, a man protesting outside Obama's town hall meeting in New Hampshire had a gun strapped to his thigh. That state also doesn't require a license for open carry. (CNN, August 18, 2009)

At Town Hall meetings held by members of Congress returning to their home districts during Obama’s first year as president, he was compared to Adolf Hitler (Etheridge, August 13, 2009). At some presidential events, gun rights protestors carried firearms outside the venues. "I think that people need to get out and [openly carry firearms] more so that they get kind of conditioned to it," an unidentified man told a CNN affiliate (CNN, August 18, 2009). A reason for this? According to one poll, taken five years later, 44 percent of Republicans believe “that an armed revolution in order to protect liberties might be necessary in the next few years” (Farleigh Dickinson University, May 1, 2013).

“Not all of them are ‘birthers,’” Washington Post editor David Maraniss (July 27, 2012) writes of this particular strain of conservative opposition, “but the notion that the president was not born in the United States remains at the epicenter of the anti-Obama mythology.” To refute this notion, Maraniss then lays out a far-fetched conspiracy that would have had to be executed to cover up Obama’s alleged foreign birth, without any advance knowledge that it would ever be an issue, let alone the knowledge that he would grow up to become president. Maraniss felt it necessary to write this nearly four years after Obama was first elected president. Since then, and increasingly ignored by mainstream media, “birthers” appear to have continued to pursue legal remedies to prove Obama’s alleged ineligibility to be president, most recently suggesting that he has been using a social security number that may have been assigned to one of his wife’s ancestors (Before It’s News, February 1, 2014).

Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has now voted fifty times to rescind or amend the president’s signature health insurance reform law, the Affordable Care Act, usually called “Obamacare,” even though the law is now in effect and a repeal would deprive people of health insurance (Benen, March 5, 2014; Beutler, March 3, 2014; Kasperowicz, March 5, 2014). In addition, many Republican-controlled state governments have sought to impede Obamacare implementation in any way they could (Gawande, October 7, 2013; Morris, October 7, 2013).

Republican leaders have described [Obamacare going into effect] in apocalyptic terms, as Republican leaders have described proposals to expand health coverage for three-quarters of a century. In 1946, Senator Robert Taft denounced President Harry Truman’s plan for national health insurance as “the most socialistic measure this Congress has ever had before it.” Fifteen years later, Ronald Reagan argued that, if Medicare were to be enacted, “one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” And now comes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell describing the Affordable Care Act as a “monstrosity,” “a disaster,” and the “single worst piece of legislation passed in the last fifty years.” Lacking the votes to repeal the law, Republican hard-liners want to shut down the federal government unless Democrats agree to halt its implementation. (Gawande, October 7, 2013)

And shut down the government they did. Supremely confident of victory, despite polls making clear that voters would blame them for a shutdown, they refused to approve a budget, then refused to approve once-routine debt limit increases (Isquith, September 30, 2013a; Parker, September 30, 2013; Pollak, September 29, 2013; Thiessen, September 30, 2013). Republican Senator John McCain, who ran against Obama in 2008, opposed the strategy and was quoted by the Associated Press saying, “I know how this movie ends. I don’t know all the scenes before it ends, but I know how it ends. We don’t defund Obamacare” (Cassata, September 24, 2013). And indeed they did not. This story appears to have culminated in outright capitulation, early the following year, as Republican leadership stepped forward in both the House and the Senate to pass a “clean” debt limit increase, possibly sparing Republicans the wrath of voters angry about Congressional gridlock (Isquith, September 30, 2013b; Pollak, September 29, 2013; Steinhauser, September 30, 2013), but denied conservatives any amendment, let alone a repeal, of Obamacare; denied them any further budget cuts; infuriated them and denied them even the barest consolation prize for their intransigence (Berman, February 6, 2014, February 11, 2014; Dinan, February 11, 2014, February 12, 2014; Levinson, February 11, 2014; Marshall, February 11, 2014; McLaughlin, February 11, 2014; Newhauser, February 11, 2014; Parker & Weisman, February 11, 2014, February 12, 2014; Sanchez, February 14, 2014; Shiner, February 12, 2014).

The story of how this happened is a story of the interplay between those conservatives I label functionalist conservatives and those I label authoritarian populists. These are not, by any means, the only kinds of conservative. Indeed, when I began to review the literature for this essay, I thought that I would confirm a taxonomy of conservatism consisting of the principal groups that Nash (2006) focuses on in a history Kim Phillips-Fein (2011) labels the “most influential synthesis” of conservative intellectual history (p. 729). Nash lists anti-communists, (capitalist) libertarians, and traditionalist conservatives as the ingredients of a fusionist alliance that propelled the conservative movement from a self-perceived pariah status to power with the Reagan administration. In close alliance to traditionalists, he mentions social (religious) conservatives. To his list, I would first add functionalist conservatives. Second, I include anti-communists as one phase in many of authoritarian populists, reflecting a body of conservative thought that dates back to the revolution that separated the United States from Britain (Tilden, 2011). Finally, I defer for another essay (Benfell, May 4, 2014) neoconservatives and paleoconservatives, but in this second essay, I argue that Nash (2006) may have considerably underestimated the role of neoconservatives.

To be fair, Nash’s (2006) is an intellectual history, and he seeks to portray conservatives as having a legitimate argument against a certain widespread disdain in academia that has often sought to explore conservatism as a psychological condition or deficiency (see, for examples, Crowson, 2009; Crowson, Thoma, & Hestevold, 2005; De Zavala, Cislak, & Wesolowska, 2010; Duckitt, Bizumic, Krauss, & Heled, 2010; Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003; Koleva & Rip, 2009; Matthews, Levin, & Sidanius, 2009; Mehrabian, 1996; Miller, 1995; Stenner, 2009a, 2009b). Authoritarian populists undermine Nash’s claim by presenting an appearance of political avarice and a multitude of unreflective stances which they consider beyond challenge. As prominent as they may be at this writing, to take them as representative of all conservatives, as some on the left do, is to reduce conservatism to a caricature. And yet even taken in its own right, authoritarian populism is somewhat more than a caricature. These populists can be shown to be integral to the conservative movement as a whole.

This essay explores the strains of thought suggested by Nash’s (2006) taxonomy and begins to develop a view of these strains as synergistic, as shown in Table 1, suggesting that conservatism is better described as an ecosystem in which there is an interplay of ideas and people, and that to the extent that it can be suggested there are factions, these factions often cooperate, complement each other, and interact in ways that undermine the notion that these are distinct factions.

Table 1Strains of Conservatism and their Interactions
Strains of Conservatism Interactions with other strains
Traditionalist Conservatives
  • Allies with social conservatives on religion, but traditionalists are more concerned with the size of government.
  • Less likely than capitalist libertarians to endorse laissez-faire economics.
  • Allied with capitalist libertarians in Meyer’s fusionism.
  • Do not share authoritarian populists’ hyper-patriotism and do not see the U.S. as an ‘exceptional’ nation.
  • Object to functionalist conservatives’ alliances with big business.
Social Conservatives
  • Often focus on gender and sexuality issues, which are of less interest to all but traditionalist conservatives.
  • Agree with traditionalist conservatives that government’s legitimacy derives from a Christian god.
  • Benefited from anti-Communist (authoritarian populist) and functionalist conservative sponsorship of religious revival movement in the early Cold War.
  • Support anti-Communism because authoritarian communism as practiced in the Soviet Union was atheistic.
Capitalist Libertarians
  • Allied with traditionalist conservatives in Meyer’s fusionism.
  • Mostly oppose government intervention in economic and personal matters, bringing them into conflict with functionalist, social, and traditionalist conservatives.
  • Authoritarian populists adopt the capitalist libertarian economic agenda in hierarchically invidious monistic form.
Authoritarian Populists
  • As anti-communists, the ‘glue’ of the fusionist coalition with traditionalist conservatives and capitalist libertarians.
  • Often share social and traditionalist conservative views on sexuality, seeing sexuality education and advocacy of non-heterosexual rights as impinging upon their own rights.
  • In conflict with functionalist conservatives over federal government prerogatives (see Benfell, May 4, 2014).
Functionalist Conservatives
  • Often unrecognized as conservative by other groups, but an essential part of the coalition that, in seeking to preserve elite privileges, is in a position to advance other conservative priorities, as with decreasing availability of abortion for traditionalist and social conservatives, an early Cold War religious revival movement for social conservatives, neoliberal policy for capitalist libertarians, and social safety net cuts for authoritarian populists.

Traditionalist Conservatives

Apart from their prolific and highly literate writings, if there is a single defining characteristic of traditionalist conservatism, it is defensiveness. This is a defensiveness against those they label as usurpers, opportunists, and apostates, that is, competing forms of conservatism; against the Jacobins of the French Revolution (Bishirjian, July 10, 2008; Blum, August 14, 2008; Champ, August 15, 2008; Hart, September 23, 2008; Kinneging, September 26, 2008; Kirk, 1985/2001; Milione, February 11, 2008; Thompson, October 1, 2008; Weaver, 1964/1995); a defensiveness of the "Southern Way of Life" against anti-racists; and a defensiveness of the Texas Aggie Bonfire as embodying white Southern masculinity against instrumental reason (Malvasi, Spring 2008; Smith, 2007; Weaver, 1964/1995). It is a defensiveness that leads traditionalist conservatives to spend more time than any others I have so far found seeking to define conservatism and asserting an authority to do so. Traditionalist Russell Kirk (1985/2001), whose history evaluates conservatives by their adherence to Edmund Burke, lists six canons, four of which assert a Christian theocracy, another which links property with freedom, and another which claims to value diversity among human beings, although it is readily apparent that this diversity is of a strictly vertical hierarchical and authoritarian sort.

The traditionalist preference for vertical hierarchy appears strikingly when Richard Weaver (1964/1995) approvingly quotes at length from Goethe’s autobiography. Goethe’s home town is presented as idyllic and harmonious; class envy is absent even in the presence of considerable discrepancies. Even of the poor, Weaver writes, “a ‘lowest’ class often finds satisfaction in knowing itself ‘superior’ to other classes in certain respects—in hardihood, in industry, or in religiousness” (p. 17). Weaver (1964/1995) does not review possible alternative explanations for the supposedly tranquil nature of this German society; his argument simply proceeds from 1) these Germans have social stratification, to 2) this is why they are happy. Nor does Weaver offer anything like an adequate perspective on this society; for this, we only have Goethe's, who, in his autobiography, is apparently permitted to speak authoritatively for everyone in his society, as if he knew—or could reliably know—all their inner thoughts. Reference to the 'lowest' class comes almost as an afterthought and in what seems to be a patronizing way: they are religious, or they are hardy, or they are hard-working (and, it seems, poorly rewarded for their hard work), as if these virtues would not befit someone of higher standing, and as if we can be assured, simply because Goethe says so, that such virtues are indeed adequate compensation for their lot in life.

This preference for hierarchy appears repeatedly in traditionalist works (see also Kirk, 1985/2001). T. S. Eliot (1948/1962) offers an indispensable explanation, deriving vertical hierarchy directly from specialization of labor. Noting that, for example, craftspeople may be elevated in a hierarchy by virtue of their skills and talents, Eliot conflates this with a political hierarchy of domination—there is, for him, apparently no distinction between these hierarchies.

Further, this hierarchy is favored even when it was brutal. For example, the defense of the “Southern Way of Life” follows a logic of its own. Writing for the traditionalist conservative journal Modern Age, Mark Malvasi (Spring 2008) regrets “the apology for slavery and segregation [that] twice discredited the Southern conservative tradition” (p. 108). That “apology” includes a blistering condemnation of industrial capitalism by then-Vice President John C. Calhoun:

After we are exhausted, the contest will be between the capitalists and the operatives; for into these classes it must, ultimately, divide society. The issue of the struggle here must be the same as it has been in Europe. Under the operation of the system, wages must sink more rapidly than the prices of the necessaries of life, till the portion of the products of their labor left them, will be barely sufficient to preserve existence. For the present, the pressure is on our section [the agricultural, slaveholding South]. (Calhoun, quoted in Kirk, 1985/2001, p. 171)

But traditionalist conservatives do not generally oppose capitalism. Rather, their primary focus, stated repeatedly, is on the “leviathan,” a centralized government grown large and intrusive, which advances an ideology of progress rationalized through positivism, inevitably making things worse than before. Kirk (1985/2001) makes clear that to seek social justice is to interfere with the Christian god’s will. So Calhoun, “the conservative planter of Fort Hill,” who wrote “[t]hese words . . . in 1828, two decades before the promulgation of the Communist Manifesto” (Kirk, p. 171) offers instead a remedy of nullification, “which held that a state could declare a federal law null and void,” on a theory that acceding to the Union was a voluntary act, and therefore that states must ultimately retain sovereignty, including, ultimately, a right to secede from the Union altogether (LaFantasie, December 19, 2010).

To follow this logic is to follow a path with many turns. To begin, one might notice that nullification offers no obvious remedy for economic injustice. Indeed, Michael Lind (October 10, 2012) argues that nullification is intended, rather, to preserve economic injustice, that a cheap, subdued labor force is the southern plan for economic growth. One might also note that while Calhoun spoke eloquently on the evils of industrial capitalism, he was a slaveholder, and that traditionalists are mostly silent about farm labor conditions or about the dehumanizing and abusive practices that have become increasingly prevalent under neoliberalism (Ballman, November 22, 2013; D’Addario, July 30, 2013; Dreier, November 19, 2013; Eidelson, November 18, 2013, January 22, 2014; Head, February 23, 2014; Kilkenny, November 18, 2013; Krugman, December 24, 2013, December 26, 2013; Nolan, July 29, 2013; Pilisuk & Rountree, 2008; Semuels, April 7, 2013a; Semuels, April 7, 2013b; Semuels, April 7, 2013c; Soper, September 11, 2011). The only exception I have so far found to this silence appears in an article by Christopher Olaf Blum (2006): “We sense,” he writes, “that we are interchangeable, standardized, disposable parts within the modern economy and bureaucratic state—which is to say that we are not parts at all, but mere particles of sand in some great heap or pile” (p. 26).

While Blum’s (2006) article seems to be an exception, it is one I will treat at some length, for it helps to clarify the traditionalist logic. Blum’s primary focus is to celebrate a French politician, Louis de Bonald, who, following the Restoration that ended the French Revolution, succeeded in repealing the legalization of divorce. Blum seems to regard this as the highlight of a great life, a life he reviews in service to a traditionalist and social conservative agenda that opposes divorce, defends patriarchy against charges of tyranny, opposes nudity or revealing attire of women, reasserts the place of religion as essential to preserve social order, and opposes both abortion and contraception. Blum approvingly quotes T. S. Eliot writing, “It would perhaps be more natural, as well as in better conformity with the Will of God, if there were more celibates and if those who were married had larger families” (p. 30).

Given that a repressive attitude toward sexuality may be a means of disparaging women (Holland, 2006), Blum (2006) risks an accusation of misogyny. He assumes that husbands and fathers will be protectors rather than rapists or assailants. And in this light, it is hard to see where women exist as persons in themselves rather than as receptacles for others, in sex, in pregnancy, and for other forms of abuse.

The logic of traditionalist conservatism may now become clear, for just as this strain of conservatism fails to protect women, it also does not answer Calhoun’s critique of industrial capitalism with economic justice, but rather, with a patriarchal notion of the “squire,” that is, with a local landlord who putatively understands his role as caring for and protecting his tenants (Blum, 2006; Goldman, March 2012; Kirk, 1985/2001; Weaver, 1964/1995), that is, on an upward extension of the metaphor of a father in George Lakoff’s (2002) “strict father” (conservative) morality system.

Thus the notions of states’ rights and nullification may be adequate for a state on the scale of Rhode Island but, as seen with state secession movements across the country (CBS, July 1, 2011; Bastasch, September 25, 2013; Cillizza, December 31, 2013; N. Cohn, October 17, 2013; Hecht, October 10, 2013; Medina, July 12, 2011; Millhiser, September 4, 2013), become less so in larger states. They would seem to offer an uneasy compromise between on one hand, the ancient notion of mostly autonomous villages and manors, and on the other hand, the modern behemoth of federal government.

Lakoff’s “strict father”

I am reluctant to conclusively assign Lakoff’s (2002) “strict father” morality system exclusively to any one particular strain of conservatism, but his image of hierarchy and domination—including in relations within the family—helps to elucidate traditionalism’s interrelations with other strains of conservatism. Lakoff has developed an argument that metaphor is intrinsic to the way that humans conceive and categorize the world around them, the objects, animals, and people in it, and all the relationships among those objects, animals, people, and themselves (Lakoff, 1987; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). From this, Lakoff (2002) argues that many people apply a metaphor of the family to politics, even when to do so is to commit the fallacy of a false analogy.

Lakoff (2002) posits two basic morality systems. While there are variations on these morality systems, the basic morality systems offer a starting point for understanding how people think about their families and how their societies should operate. People on the left subscribe to a “nurturant parent” morality system, which is beyond the scope of this essay. People on the right subscribe to a “critical father” morality system. The sexist language is intentional: Among many features, this morality system features a hierarchy of dominance ranking the presumably Judeo-Christian god over people, people over “animals and plants and natural objects,” adults over children, and men over women (p. 81). The binaries, or rather, hierarchically invidious monisms (Minnich, 2005) that make up this hierarchy appear elsewhere in this morality system as well, in the metaphor of moral strength associating ‘good’ with “being upright” and ‘bad’ with “being low,” and morality with strength (against evil). The metaphor of moral authority, second in importance only to the one of moral strength (Lakoff, 2002), states:

  • A Community Is a Family.
  • Moral Authority Is Parental Authority.
  • An Authority Figure Is a Parent.
  • A Person Subject to Moral Authority Is a Child.
  • Moral Behavior by Someone Subject to Authority Is Obedience.
  • Moral Behavior by Someone in Authority Is Setting Standards and Enforcing Them. (Lakoff, 2002, p. 77)

These are Elizabeth Minnich’s (2005) hierarchically invidious monisms par excellence, not dualisms, for dualisms would imply parities between authorities and their subjects and these relationships are explicitly not parities. Lakoff (2002) goes on to note that “[t]his metaphor takes the special case of parental authority and generalizes it to all moral authority” (p. 77). The ‘moral’ qualifier in ‘moral authority’ relates to ‘legitimate authority’, which Lakoff defines as that of someone who knows what is best for the society and for those ‘children’ subject to the authority figure’s authority, acts accordingly, and when the ‘child’ does not know what is in his or her own best interests.

Just as there is “legitimate” authority in Lakoff’s (2002) model, so there is “illegitimate” authority, where the conditions of “legitimate” authority do not apply, as, for example, when the putative ‘child’ is able to know and act in his (sexist language again intentional) own best interests. The line between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” authority is one that partly accounts for authoritarian populist fury, directed at liberals personified by Obama. Many conservatives will reject the notion that “bureaucrats” in Washington, D.C., can possibly know what is best for people and societies outside of Washington, D.C. In Lakoff’s (2002) “strict father” system, this is because they see themselves as adults who should be empowered to choose and act in their own best interest without interference: They see the government acting like a father who continues to interfere even after the children are grown. Lakoff’s explanation thus also helps to explain first, why capitalist libertarians, which this essay will deal with in a succeeding section, should be seen as conservative; and second, how they come into conflict with social and traditionalist conservative expectations that the government should legislate morality.

As we extend a moral image of the family beyond the family, inevitably we encounter economics, which draws out the capitalist libertarian connection further. Here, Lakoff (2002) argues that in the “strict father” morality system, the most important thing that parents can teach their children, and the most important attribute a person can possess is self-discipline—hence the primacy of a “moral strength” metaphor—because it is self-discipline that it enables people to succeed in a difficult and competitive world, in which people must struggle to survive, a world which some might recognize as a “scary world.” To do this, conservatives foundationally assume that parents, and thus by extension, all authority figures, must impose strict discipline, rewarding the behavior they want, and punishing the behavior they do not want.

The difficult and competitive world—the “scary” world—is its own form of discipline; it will punish those who lack self-discipline. Therefore, in Lakoff’s (2002) “critical father” morality system, a condition of scarcity is essential; it is of higher moral importance than the provision of people’s needs. As Lakoff puts it,

Competition is a crucial ingredient in such a moral system. It is through competition that we discover who is moral, that is, who has been properly self-disciplined and therefore deserves success, and who is fit enough to survive and even thrive in a difficult world.

Rewards given to those who have not earned them through competition are thus immoral. They violate the entire system. They remove the incentive to become self-disciplined and they remove the need for obedience to authority. . . .

Even if survival were not an issue, even if the world could be made easier, even if there were a world of plenty with more than enough for everybody, it would still not be true that parceling out a comfortable amount for everyone would make the world better and people better. Doing that would remove the incentive to become and remain self-disciplined. Without the incentive of reward and punishment, self-discipline would disappear, and people would no longer be able to make plans, undertake commitments, and carry them out. All social life would come to a grinding halt. To prevent this, competition and authority must be maintained no matter how much material largesse we produce. (Lakoff, 2002, pp. 68-69)

A couple comments are in order here. If competition is considered essential, one might expect—as we find in the underlying U.S. mythology—that the competition should be “fair,” that is, that there should be equal opportunities for all. In fact, this is far from the case (Bernanke, February 6, 2007; DeParle, January 4, 2012; Gerson, January 6, 2014; Gerson & Wehner, 2014; Krugman, January 8, 2012, January 19, 2014; Muller, March/April 2013; Pilisuk & Rountree, 2008; R. Reich, December 19, 2013; Shapiro, 2005; Stiglitz, June 5, 2012, October 26, 2012, February 16, 2013), but it is nonetheless widely assumed (Harwood, January 11, 2012; Sobecki, February 11, 2013; Walsh, December 5, 2013). But particularly in the wake of the financial crisis that began in 2007, it is increasingly clear that while there may be competition, it is not a game that anyone can win:

As America and Europe have changed over time, so have the attributes that exceptionalists claim distinguish us [the United States] from them. But for the contemporary Right, there are basically three: our belief in organized religion; our belief that America has a special mission to spread freedom in the world; and our belief that we are a classless society where, through limited government and free enterprise, anyone can get ahead. Unfortunately for conservatives, each of these beliefs is declining fast. (Beinart, February 3, 2014)

As Lakoff (2002) lays out earlier in his text, to be rich is indeed good, but it is also to be good, that is, morally superior, which legitimizes authority of the rich over others (see also Bump, January 20, 2014). For capitalist libertarians, such moral authority can stem from fair competition, but traditionalist conservatives simply attribute socioeconomic status to “God’s will” (Kirk 1985/2001; Weaver, 1964/1995) and social conservatives, who are often Protestant (Nash, 2006), derive it in significant part from doctrine of the Protestant Reformation, as I have previously explained:

The Protestant Reformation introduced the notion of an individual relationship—in contrast to one mediated by Roman Catholic Church hierarchy—with the god of Abraham, and that a sign of the latter’s favor could be found in the success or failure of the individual (Tarnas, 1991). From this it follows that those who fail do not enjoy this god’s favor and may be presumed not to be among the “select,” that is, those who are bound for Heaven. If they are indeed condemned (bound for Hell), then it follows that those who are “select” owe nothing to them, that is, quite apart from any pious notions of charity, “winners” owe nothing to “losers” (Benfell, April 26, 2013). (Benfell, October 15, 2013)

The downside of that, that is, the assumed price of not being among the so-called “select,” helps us to understand the conservative disdain for a social safety net. While it is possible to see in traditionalists Russell Kirk (1985/2001) and Richard Weaver (1964/1995), and in capitalist libertarian Friedrich Hayek (1944/2007) an acknowledgement that some sort of social safety net may be necessary, all place constraints on a safety net that raise doubts that they would ever actually agree to one. Lakoff (2002) talks about the importance of ‘discipline’ in the “strict father morality system, and we may well suspect that he is correct: Kirk and Weaver object strenuously to any kind of “levelling” or “equalitarianism.” They also object to the “leviathan” of federal government and bureaucracy. Hayek objects to “central planning,” which he sees almost inevitably as leading to a totalitarian system. All object to “redistribution” (Hayek, 1944/2007; Kirk, 1985/2001; Weaver, 1964/2995).

Indeed it seems that conservatives have consistently and vociferously opposed social safety nets, beginning no later than with the New Deal. For instance, while Medicaid has long ensured that the poorest of the poor have access to medical care, “Obamacare” extends this further, but even worse, does so with an individual mandate, in which an “illegitimate” authority, the federal government, supersedes adults’ own judgments about whether to purchase health insurance. And it feeds the authoritarian populist “maker”/”taker” hierarchically invidious monism, in requiring healthy people to obtain insurance in part to subsidize the unhealthy and the poor (Dumain, September 30, 2013; Gawande, October 7, 2013; Krugman, January 12, 2014; MacGillis, January 7, 2014; Morris, October 7, 2013; C. Reich, 1970; Seldes, 1948/2009).

Despite the severe problems of long-term unemployment (Drum, December 23, 2013; Hall, April 24, 2013; Konczal, December 21, 2013; Krugman, April 23, 2013; Lowrey, June 7, 2013; Matthews, August 20, 2013; O’Brien, April 13, 2013, April 25, 2013, August 23, 2013; Rampell, July 12, 2011; Yglesias, April 15, 2013, April 23, 2013)—using seasonally unadjusted data and counting those who are not in the labor force but say they want a job now (Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2014, April 2014a, April 2014b), I calculate that in December 2009, after the recession was declared to have ended in June 2009 (National Bureau of Economic Research, September 20, 2010), the ratio of jobs needed to openings approached ten to one; and at this writing, this ratio is over four to one, with a labor force participation rate still in a range last seen in 1978 (data and methodology available through Benfell, March 20, 2014)—this unyielding opposition to a social safety net also appears with conservative opposition to continuing extended unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term unemployed (Beutler, December 10, 2013; Cox, February 6, 2014; Everett, January 14, 2014; MacNeal, February 5, 2014). Authoritarian populist Rand Paul, for instance, blames such unemployment not on a lack of jobs, but rather on benefits, saying “[w]hen you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy” and “you get out of a recession by encouraging employment, not encouraging unemployment” (Paul, quoted in Eidelson, December 10, 2013). As Lakoff (2002) suggests, conservatives suspect the unemployed—especially the long-term unemployed—of lacking discipline rather than opportunity.

Social Conservatism

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare,” [Representative Todd] Akin told KTVI-TV in an interview posted Sunday. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” . . . A 1996 study by the American Journal of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found “rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency” and is “a cause of many unwanted pregnancies” — an estimated “32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year.” (McMorris-Santoro, August 19, 2012b)

For many, Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remark, intended to justify a hard-line ban on abortion that would allow no exception even in cases where a woman had been raped, was yet another salvo in a “war on women.” The resulting uproar led to 1) a quick retraction (Marshall, August 19, 2012; McMorris-Santoro, August 19, 2012a; McMorris-Santoro, August 19, 2012b; Robinson, August 20, 2012), 2) Crossroads GPS and the National Republican Senatorial Committee cutting off financial support for Akin’s campaign challenging Democratic incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill, and 3) many Republicans calling on Akin to quit his campaign for the Senate (Kroll, August 21, 2012).

Despite Akin's refusal to quit, Republican politicos say he's doomed anyway if he doesn't have the GOP's biggest spenders fighting on his behalf. "He's not going to get grassroots support from individuals; I don't think he'll get organized support by the party or 501(c)(4)s and I don't know how you survive without that kind of support," Bradley Blakeman, a GOP strategist, told Politico. (Kroll, August 21, 2012)

But Akin was not the only Republican to feed the perception of a “war on women,” and some Republicans returned to Akin’s corner after the furor had died down (Eligon, October 6, 2012; Mascaro, September 26, 2012; Murphy, September 25, 2012), even after Akin compounded his difficulties by criticizing McCaskill for, as a Kansas City Star reporter paraphrased his remarks, “not acting ‘ladylike’ during their recent debate” (Hancock, September 28, 2012).

“Are they willing to let a guy who should win a seat lose a seat because they sat on their hands?” asked Michael Centanni, the chairman of Freedom’s Defense Fund, which announced late last month that it would spend a quarter of a million dollars in support of Mr. Akin. “They’re going to be in a much worse situation if he ends up losing by a point and they sat on the sidelines.” (Eligon, October 6, 2012)

Before the furor over Akin’s remarks had a chance to die down, Richard Mourdock, a Republican candidate for the Indiana state Senate, was quoted, again in opposition to abortion rights, saying, “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen” (Blake & Cillizza, August 24, 2012). While it is possible to argue, as Amy Sullivan (October 25, 2012) does in the New Republic, that Mourdock was referring to the pregnancy, rather than to the rape, as “something that God intended to happen,” many may well have inferred that if the god of Abraham intended the pregnancy, he must have intended the act that initiated the pregnancy. Further offense was taken when Representative Joe Walsh, claiming medical knowledge, as had Akin, claimed that abortions were never necessary for the health of the mother, let alone to protect her life (Viebeck, October 19, 2012).

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood is criticizing [Representative Paul] Ryan on not only his extreme stance on abortion but also his endorsement of a so-called "Personhood Amendment," which supports defining a fertilized egg as a human being. Ryan was a co-sponsor of the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which even the conservative state of Mississippi rejected last November. The consequences of such an amendment passing are unclear, but many infer it would make infertility treatments and birth control possibly illegal and would all but certainly equate abortion with homicide. Supporters of the measure hope to use it to mount a legal attack on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the right to abortion. Congressmember Ryan is also in favor of defunding Planned Parenthood, dismantling Medicaid, repealing Obama’s Affordable Care Act, as is of course Mitt Romney. (Goodman, on Democracy Now!, August 13, 2012)

The issue is not just about abortion. While denying that the issue was about contraception itself, Representative and then-Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan argued against a regulation requiring health insurers cover contraception on the grounds that it might violate some people’s freedom of religion. “What we’re getting from the White House with this conscience issue,” Ryan said in an excerpt played on Democracy Now! (August 13, 2012), “it’s not an issue about contraception. It’s an issue that reveals a political philosophy that the president is showing that basically treats our constitutional rights as if they’re revocable privileges from our government, not inalienable rights by our creator.”

Ryan, at least, skirts an issue that many thought resolved with the Supreme Court’s decision in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965). During the 2012 primaries, Republican then-presidential candidate Rick Santorum was more explicit, emphasizing that contraception is

not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be within marriage, they are supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal, but also [inaudible], but also procreative. That’s the perfect way that a sexual union should happen. We take any part of that out, we diminish the act. (Santorum, quoted in Scherer, February 14, 2012)

One might well notice a pattern in that these are men seeking political power, diminishing the violence of rape, promising to legislate women’s bodies, and who seem obsessed with sex. While the psychology of this must be left for others, there is a history to it. Up into the 19th century, abortion was previously often intentionally confounded with treatment for delayed menstrual periods. Until the 1870s, the procedure was entirely legal prior to “quickening,” that is, when the pregnant woman felt—or, one might presume, admitted feeling—the fetus moving in her womb (Kerber & De Hart, 2004). It seems not to have been an issue until

A high proportion of the women whose abortions contributed to the soaring incidence of that practice in the United States between 1840 and 1880 appeared to be married, native-born, Protestant women, frequently of middle- or upper-class status. (Kerber & De Hart, 2004, p. 188)

It was in the 1870s that Anthony Comstock led “a massive anti-obscenity campaign, . . . [and, with his assistants] aided in the indictment of 55 persons . . . identified as abortionists” (Kerber & De Hart, 2004, pp. 188-189). This seems to have indeed been partly about preserving traditional gender roles (Kerber & De Hart), but also that as Deborah Rhode (1993) puts it, “the decline in fertility rates among the ‘better classes’ during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sparked fears of ‘race suicide’” (p. 642).

How ‘race suicide’? Immigration was bringing more (darker-skinned, Catholic, and non-English speaking) southern and eastern Europeans to the country. The 15th amendment, one of three passed in the wake of the Civil War, granted the right to vote to all men, including those Black slaves freed by the 13th amendment. Finally, the 14th amendment sought, among other things, to ensure that all men had equal protection under and access to due process of law (Boyer et al., 2005). ‘Race suicide’ thus very much appears to refer to a white Protestant male fear of losing control of the country. It may well be that for this reason they sought to ensure that white women fulfilled their roles as mothers (Kerber & De Hart, 2004), and it is at this very moment in history when massive Christian revivals prominently appeared (Rhode, 1993) and when the Comstock Act, banning contraception and so-called “obscenity” from the land, came into force (Heins, 2001/2007; Rubin, 1984).

The argument since has not progressed far. When, in 1913, “[t]he alarming prevalence of prostitution and venereal disease was the simplest and clearest proof that silence did not protect innocence” (Moran, 1996, p. 494), reformers sought to introduce “sex hygiene education” to Chicago public schools (Moran). The resulting—and furious—backlash would not be much more out of place today than it was then:

[W]hen [reformers] questioned the inherited image of the innocent child, when they attempted to usurp parental authority, and when they arrogated to themselves the proper functions of religion, it seemed they had gone too far. . . . “Smut smutches,” commented one acerbic editorialist, and he denied that “smut” was any less dangerous in the classroom than it was in “the cheap theatre, in the department store . . . or on the street.” In the opponents’ opinion, children were indeed tabulae rasae, and sex information would mar their minds just as surely as exposure to tuberculosis would destroy their bodies. . . . Gov. E. F. Dunne of Illinois vetoed sex instruction even for undergraduates at the University of Illinois, in fear that it “may create, and probably will create, in their young minds a prurient curiosity which will induce, rather than suppress, immorality and unchastity.” . . . If instruction in sex hygiene aroused a curiosity that had not previously existed, asked opponents, then how was it protecting the innocent youth? “Safety,” remonstrated a Jesuit educator, “lies in diverting the attention from sex details.” (Moran, 1996, p. 502)

It is among social conservatives that one will find such bumper stickers as “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” They are, according to Nash (2006), closely allied with traditionalist conservatives on most issues, but where traditionalists often tend to be Catholic and intellectual, Nash states, social conservatism tends to be Protestant and populist.

There are other, important, differences. Where traditionalist conservatives are vehemently opposed to neoconservatism, social conservatives make common cause with neoconservatives. Here, for example, is the traditionalist Jeffrey Hart, writing while George W. Bush was still president:

In his democratizing plans for Iraq and for the entire Middle East, Bush and his colleagues were world-class destructive ideologues, their abstract neoconservative theories disconnected from reality. Bush smashed the Iraqi state. His invasion dismantled the bureaucracy and internal security, wrecked the economy and sent the army home with its guns. Bush, not surprisingly, could not put Iraq back together. Inevitably Iraqis turned to their sects and local militia for community and protection. The result has been sectarian civil war. Iraq is now a predictable catastrophe. Bush was not conservative. Very far from it. He belongs among Burke's revolutionary philosophes, joining the party of Robespierre and Antoine St. Just. In the near future, Iraq will remain Iraq, and, as Burke foresaw a Strongman arising out of the chaos the ideologues caused, a Strongman will probably emerge in Iraq to restore order. To be sure, Robespierre and St. Just went to the guillotine. Bush will merely retire to Crawford, to be judged by history. (Hart, September 23, 2008)

Hart’s position is in striking contrast to several experiences that seem to conflate neoconservative policy with a crusade (Weinstein, May 2, 2012), such as Bible references embossed on gun sights (Eckholm, January 21, 2010), or the evangelism described by Jeremy Scahill (2007) in his exposé of Blackwater, or in a scandal still not entirely put to rest of proselytizing at the Air Force Academy and elsewhere in the military (Banerjee, April 26, 2008; Goodstein, June 23, 2005; Lichtblau, February 28, 2009; Quinn, April 26, 2013).

Capitalist Libertarians

Conservatism itself has changed markedly in recent years, forsaking the old fusionist synthesis in favor of a new and altogether unattractive species of populism. The old formulation defined conservatism as the desire to protect traditional values from the intrusion of big government; the new one seeks to promote traditional values through the intrusion of big government. Just look at the causes that have been generating the real energy in the conservative movement of late: building walls to keep out immigrants, amending the Constitution to keep gays from marrying, and imposing sectarian beliefs on medical researchers and families struggling with end-of-life decisions. (Lindsey, 2006)

Brink Lindsey (2006, 2010), a vice president for research at the capitalist libertarian Cato Institute, has occasionally made waves by seeking to distance capitalist libertarianism from the Right. Certainly, a coalition that includes capitalist libertarians, traditionalist conservatives, and social conservatives seems like an odd thing. As Jonah Goldberg (2006), writing for the conservative National Review, puts it,

From Terri Schiavo to diarrheic spending, the GOP has betrayed its commitment to limited government. So, the libertarians reason, why not “experiment” with the Democrats a bit? They expand government too, but at least they’re more liberty-loving when it comes to drugs, sex, abortion, etc.

The problem here is that “libertarian” is a shmoo-like word but libertarians are not shmoo-like people (shmoos being the magical creatures from Lil’ Abner who could take any form and be anything). Everyone likes to think he’s in favor of maximizing freedom. But in reality most folks want to maximize only the freedoms they like. I often ask self-described libertarians if they support government censorship of hardcore pornography on Saturday-morning broadcast television. If they say yes, then they aren’t really pure libertarians. If they say no, I congratulate them on their consistency and tell them why their political ambitions are doomed. (Goldberg, 2006, pp. 18-19)

Goldberg’s (2006) analysis remains largely valid, though this essay will leave for others his assertion that “Meyer’s libertarianism,” that is, the libertarianism that formed a ‘fusionist’ coalition with traditionalist conservatism and anti-communism (Nash, 2006), “was primarily concerned with the ability of the individual to find the virtuous path within ‘an objective moral order based on ontological foundations’ best expressed in Western civilization” (Goldberg).

I understand capitalist libertarianism rather as Lindsey (2006, 2010) seems to, and as Goldberg (2006) says it once was, that is, as “primarily concerned with negative liberty—i.e. delineating a zone free of government intrusion” (p. 20) and, again as Goldberg notes, for its influence in economics: The neoliberal policies adopted in the late 1970s, “favor[ing] privatization, deregulation, and unfettered free markets over public institutions and government” (Clune, February 26, 2013), when some judged “bleeding heart” liberal and Keynesian policies to have failed, are, Nash (2006) claims, the product of capitalist libertarian thinking (but see Benfell, May 4, 2014). Friedrich Hayek (1944/2007), however, was principally concerned with avoiding centralized planning to the maximum extent possible and with ensuring a level playing field for competition. Within those constraints, Hayek was open to “government interference” as long as it was limited to those areas where the profit motive would fail to serve social needs and as long as it did not favor any entity over another.

Lindsey’s (2006, 2010) complaint, then, stems largely from the intrusions of social and traditionalist conservatism into what libertarians—whether capitalist or socialist—would consider personal affairs. But “personal liberty” is, as Goldberg (2006) notes, indeed a slippery term. Some, notably Ayn Rand (1957/1999) and her adherents, have interpreted it as hyper-individualism, understanding any government involvement beyond the defense of state territory to be “looting.” But Hayek (1944/2007) admitted that some social goods could not be supported by a for-profit model on the free market and allowed for government to provide these necessities. Because of the difference between Hayek and Rand, I am inclined to draw a line between them, to treat Hayek as capitalist libertarian, and Rand, instead, as authoritarian populist (Lind, July 30, 2013). In addition, Rand’s hierarchically invidious monism between “creators” and “looters” aligns with the dualism between producers and “parasites” that have helped to motivate authoritarian populists since at least the Reconstruction era. As Chip Berlet (2011) explains it,

Right-wing [authoritarian] populism often is based on racialized, patriarchal, and heterosexist narratives that buttress a sense of privilege and entitlement among a targeted audience of straight White Christian men. It tends to frame economic questions in terms of hard working producers pitted against parasites above and below. This technique was used to mobilize poor and working class Whites against newly-freed Black former slaves after the Civil War. It was utilized by George Wallace in his first Presidential Campaign, and later borrowed by Richard Nixon and the Republican Party to create the “Southern Strategy.” It exists in stories of “welfare queens” where race need not be mentioned. Ironically, today anti-elite populist rhetoric is used by Republicans to invert the historical account and claim that the Democratic Party is the enemy of true civil rights. (Berlet, 2011, p. 22)

It is to such authoritarian populists, that this essay turns to next.

Authoritarian Populism

You know the definition of “normal,” right? A world wherein straight, white Christian men still call all the shots. That world has been under assault for the last 50 years, and the pressure has only increased in the last 10 as gay people roll back restrictions of their human rights, as a black man with an exotic name makes an improbable ascent to the presidency, as a woman positions herself to make the same climb.

The political right has responded with apoplexy, a temper tantrum of epic proportions. (Pitts, March 1, 2014)

Although President Obama has downplayed or even denied the role of racism in the animosity that has been directed against him (White House, September 16, 2009), it is hard to see how the “birther” movement, challenging his origins, frequently alleging that he was born in Kenya rather than in Hawaii, can be interpreted otherwise. Even without that suspicion, it is apparent that racists have reacted vociferously to his presidency (Berlet, 2011; Kimmel, November 17, 2013; Koppelman, September 16, 2009; Lyngar, December 28, 2013; Martin, August 2, 2012; MacAskill, September 16, 2009; Pugh, January 12, 2012). Yet it seems there is more to it:

Right-wing [authoritarian] populist grievances are also interacting in a global economy often eager to accommodate corporate interests. And now we add in the fact of an economic downturn that has left millions unemployed or underemployed leaving the largely White, middle-class, Republican Tea Party activists scared that they may be kicked down the socioeconomic ladder next. This fear is infused with anxiety over the election of a “mixed-race” self-identified black man as president at a time when the demographics of the country reflect a growing percentage of people of color—all in the context of the unfinished conversation about race in America. A study released by the University of Washington shows that prejudice toward Blacks and Latinos is significantly higher among Tea Party supporters than among those who oppose the Tea Party movement. (Berlet, 2011, p. 12)

Berlet (2011) is not alone in suggesting that economic insecurity exacerbates racism, and to this we may add sexism and classism, and paradoxically, that it has led working class people to vote and act against their own interests (Faludi, 2006; Gans, 1995; Minnich, 2005; Mohanty, 2003; Sernau, 2006). Critical theory suggests that power relationships distort communications and produce false consciousness, which is to say that lower status individuals in such relationships may come to identify with interests that are not their own (Morrow, 1994). Another explanation may simply be that white men in particular may feel that the gains of affirmative action and of women have come at their expense, just as well-paid manufacturing jobs have disappeared overseas.

Some of the grievances of the right-wing populists are legitimate. They get a final paycheck from a lost job while Wall Street executives get multi-million bonuses. Their children are downwardly mobile. Many in the working class are distraught because they see their sons and daughters coming home in wheelchairs and body bags. They sense that Washington does not really care or really listen. (Berlet, 2011, p. 13)

Responding to the financial crisis that began in 2007, politicians bailed out the financial sector with alacrity, but, owing to a neoliberal ideology of “austerity,” have done nowhere near enough about unemployment or the problems of people who suddenly owed more on their mortgages than their houses were worth. This has compounded the sense that Berlet (2011) refers to, that politicians care about the rich and not about the middle class or people who are—or fear—falling out of the middle class (Barofsky, 2012; Chittum, October 11, 2012; Hacker & Pierson, September 27, 2012; Konczal, December 21, 2013; Krugman, December 6, 2012, April 18, 2013, June 9, 2013, July 7, 2013, September 22, 2013, September 26, 2013; Krugman & Wells, July 12, 2012; Powell & Martin, March 29, 2011; Ritholtz, July 9, 2013; Tankersley, May 20, 2013; Yglesias, May 22, 2013). This further combines with a sense that the social safety net—programs such as welfare, food stamps, and the like—come at the expense of the middle class. Hence a hierarchically invidious monism, principally directed against the poor (Cooke, Rohde, & McNeill, December 20, 2012; Gans, 1995; Katz, December 21, 2013; McClelland, March 1, 2014), but which 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other wealthy people have attempted to exploit on their own behalf, phrased variously as “makers” and “takers,” of “creators” and “looters,” and of “producers” and “parasites” (Berlet, 2011; Blow, January 2, 2013, December 11, 2013; J. Cohn, September 18, 2012; Healy, November 18, 2012; Klein, September 17, 2012; Krugman, January 27, 2012, September 26, 2013; MacGillis, January 7, 2014; Mikkelson, November 4, 2012; O’Brien, August 20, 2012; Rainey, August 12, 2012; Rand, 1957/1999; Walsh, August 12, 2012, January 7, 2014, January 8, 2014).

With that rationale, the question arises as to whether the Tea Party and the “birthers” and the like can be isolated as a singular response to the Obama presidency or should instead be considered as part of a longer-term phenomenon:

We are invited to consider populism in the 1930s, the first Red Scare following the Bolshevik Revolution, the mass Ku Klux Klan (KKK) of the 1920s, and employers’ fight against labor unions in the early 1900s to uncover a conservatism that has spanned more than a century. (Durham, 2011, p. 757)

This still understates both the longevity of the movement and the breadth of its issues. John Fonte (2003), advocating what I mean by authoritarian populism, describes a movement that succeeds anti-communism as a “glue” in the post-World War II “fusionist” coalition with traditionalist conservatives and capitalist libertarians (Heard, 2008; Nash, 2006). Authoritarian populism appears to be characterized by an utterly unreflective hyper-patriotism. It is authoritarian in a presumption, labeled “national cohesion,” that becomes a requirement that people should essentially be the same and indeed where difference may be understood as disloyalty (Anderson, 2006). Indeed, Fonte objects to statehood for Puerto Rico on grounds that it would introduce Spanish as an official language.

This series of equations — self with community, community with nation — underlies, I believe, the characteristic elements of the Tea Party’s vision of politics. In the quotation above, [Glenn] Beck makes explicit the identification of “our country” with what we “believe,” such that a change in our “ideas” must prompt the question, “Who are we?” It never occurs to him that America might be seen as a prolonged argument about which ideas we should adopt, or that even when we agree on what these ideas are (liberty, say, or equality or fairness), we tend to disagree about exactly what they mean. In Beck’s mind, those whose definition of freedom differs from his own — who don’t take it to mean that we “make … our own way in life” for instance — aren’t advocates of an alternative notion of freedom; they’re simply people who don’t understand what “freedom” is. Because Beck’s community — the Tea Party community — is normative for America as a whole, its vocabulary is the standard reference for all political actors. Their lexicon is our dictionary. Anyone whose usage differs from theirs literally speaks a foreign tongue. (Messick, August 10, 2013)

Amos Esty (2005) concludes his history of the Republican Party in North Carolina, a history which covers the period since the Goldwater presidential campaign, writing that “[b]y appealing to what they believed to be traditional American values, polarizing politics along racial lines, and linking spending on social programs to the loss of liberty and morality, conservatives turned their once ridiculed ideology into national policy” (p. 32). These putatively “traditional American values” include neoliberalism, that is, the economic portion of the capitalist libertarian agenda; social conservatism; and gun rights (Berlet, 2011), and while there are inconsistencies such as that between social conservatism and capitalist libertarianism, this authoritarian populism offers a little something for each of the factions it unites. In its anti-communist phase, for example, capitalist libertarians objected to the Soviet system for extreme centralization and collectivization, while social and traditionalist conservatives could object to its atheism—and indeed, anti-communists, with the support of the federal government and major corporations, launched a national religious revival campaign to counter the Soviet “religion” (Herzog, 2010).

William Tilden (2011) associates the Tea Party movement, and a series of other movements dating to the so-called “American” revolution, with the Freudian anal personality type. He attributes a “defiant resistance to any form of external interference” as a fundamental trait of this type (p. 218) and thus explains laissez-faire and anti-taxation attitudes.

Thus was established a pattern of resistance to "outside" interference which, ironically, throughout American history, was to justify both radical reform movements and rigid defenses of the status quo. In such doctrines as strict construction, states' rights and due process, in Andrew Jackson's Veto Message on the Second Bank, Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and Frederick Jackson Turner's theory of frontier democracy, in anti-trust legislation of the Progressive Era and conservative resistance to the New Deal in the 1930s, in right-wing anti-communism of the 1950s and 1960s, and, most recently, in the Tea Party movement of the 2000s, runs the common theme of opposition to concentrated power and monopoly, which is viewed, uniformly, as unfair, external and conspiratorial. (Tilden, 2011, p. 220)

Tilden (2011) also observes a certain conspiratorial paranoia. Berlet (2011) connects the Tea Party movement with anti-communism and the resistance to the New Deal. I quote Berlet here at length:

In Europe right-wing populist movements are largely based in xenophobic anti-immigrant constituencies, often joining with more elite libertarian ideologues. Both sectors define government laws, regulations, and tax policies as at the root of their problems. In the United States, dissident right-wing populist movements have appeared periodically since the colonial period in the 1700s; and were especially strong during the Presidency of Andrew Jackson in the mid 1800s. The various incarnations of the Ku Klux Klan starting in the late 1800s are examples of a militant and highly racist form of right-wing populism.

Kevin Phillips (1992), a conservative analyst, compared a similar populist resurgence in the 1990s to previous examples in the 1890s and 1930s and found many of the same elements, including “exaltation of the ordinary American against abusive, affluent and educated elites; contempt for Washington; rising ethnic, racial and religious animosities; fear of immigrants and foreigners, and a desire to turn away from internationalism and concentrate on rebuilding America and American lives” (p. 41).

What is clearly different in the United States is that xenophobes (sometimes referred to as “nativists”) and libertarians are joined by an unusually large movement of conservative Christian evangelicals. The resulting broad right-wing populist movement is sometimes called the “Patriot,” “Constitutionalist, or “Americanist” movement. The Tea Parties are an extension of this lineage. (Berlet, 2011, p. 14)

While we frequently remember McCarthyism and a Cold War that threatened the world with nuclear holocaust, and some might remember that some anti-communists advocated a first strike on the Soviet Union on a mere hope that some of them might survive (Nash, 2006), we rarely recall that the reactionary response to the New Deal even included a coup plot against Franklin Delano Roosevelt, meant to be led by retired Major General Smedley Butler, who instead testified about the plot to Congress, and which would have employed ex-soldiers drawn from the ranks of the American Legion (Seldes, 1948/2009). By such standards, the Tea Party might seem tame.

Functionalist Conservatives

“You know, Mother Teresa is a saint now, but if Congress wanted to make her a saint, and attach that to the debt ceiling, we probably couldn’t get 218 votes for it,” [House Speaker John] Boehner told reporters in the Capitol. (Berman, February 6, 2014)

For John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, the priority was getting a federal debt limit passed without another round of obstinate brinksmanship that had recently damaged Republicans’ standings in the polls (Berman, February 11, 2014; Isquith, September 30, 2013b; Steinhauser, September 30, 2013). Announcing a decision to allow a “clean” bill, that is, one which would allow the increase without conditions, he had to ask his fellow Republicans, “You’re not even going to clap for me for getting this monkey off of our backs” (Boehner, quoted in Newhauser, February 11, 2014)? When the bill passed, largely with Democratic Party support (Parker & Weisman, February 11, 2014), conservatives of the authoritarian populist variety, who do not face election and were seeing new fetters on their influence on Congress, were furious nonetheless:

“There’s only one solution. John Boehner must be replaced as Speaker of the House,” said Matt Hoskins, [Senate Conservative Fund’s] executive director.

“Conservatives helped Republicans win a majority in the House of Representatives, which made it possible for John Boehner to become speaker. Unfortunately, he has chosen to ignore us and help President Obama enact his liberal agenda.” (Dinan, February 11, 2014)

The Senate followed suit, the following day, with Republican leadership stepping up to cast deciding votes (Parker & Weisman, February 12, 2014; Shiner, February 12, 2014). Again, conservatives of the authoritarian populist variety were furious:

“Let’s be clear about the motive behind this vote — there are too many members of Congress who think they can fool people and they will forget about it the next week,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who led the attempted filibuster [against a spending bill in September 2013]. “But sometimes, come November, the people remember.” (Dinan, February 12, 2014)

The difference between Republican leadership in both houses of Congress and the dissident conservatives is the difference between functionalist conservatives and authoritarian populists. It is the difference between governing with the intention of retaining power and acting to make a point—even if, in February, 2014, authoritarian populists were unable to agree on the point that should be made.

I have found very little in the literature about functionalists or a like group that is identified as conservative. I take the label from Gerhard Lenski (1966), whose classic study of social inequality poses a binary distinction between conservatives, whom he labels “functionalist,” and egalitarians, whom he labels “radicals.” Functionalists are authoritarian and are characteristic of our present system of social organization. Lenski (1966) notes that the authorities maintain power through the use of propaganda, and over time, at least in the U.S., Marc Pilisuk and Jennifer Rountree (2007) observe that this has been internalized in myths, such as those surrounding capitalism and the availability of opportunity, which are counter to ordinary people’s interests. Lenski, having written prior to the adoption of neoliberal policies in the late 1970s (Clune, February 26, 2013; Hacker & Pierson, 2010), concludes, on balance, that society benefits from authoritarianism, in part because the resources amassed by the elite are available to society as a whole during times of hardship. However, this has clearly not been the experience since the 1970s as the U.S. economy has suffered a series of recessions, as social inequality has widened, and economic gains have gone almost exclusively to the well off, especially following the financial crisis that began in 2007 (Mishel, Shierholz, & Schmitt, November 19, 2013; Noah, September 3, 2010; Seitz-Wald, July 30, 2013; Stiglitz, June 5, 2012). Some of this is inherent to the operation of capitalism, which is why a social safety net is necessary (Muller, March/April 2013; Weber, 1978/2010). Some of it has been due to neoliberal policies (Hacker & Pierson, 2010). And some of it is clearly due to greed: capitalists benefit from a desperate and therefore pliant workforce (Kent, 2011) and it is apparent that the current state of the labor market is indeed characterized by a severely unbalanced power relationship between workers and employers (Ballman, November 22, 2013; D’Addario, July 30, 2013; Dreier, November 19, 2013; Eidelson, November 18, 2013, January 22, 2014; Head, February 23, 2014; Kilkenny, November 18, 2013; Krugman, December 24, 2013, December 26, 2013; Nolan, July 29, 2013; Semuels, April 7, 2013a; Semuels, April 7, 2013b; Semuels, April 7, 2013c; Soper, September 11, 2011).

Functionalist conservatism is about preserving and enhancing this inequality, in significant measure through a self-serving capitalist libertarian-like ideology (C. Reich, 1970; Seldes, 1948/2009) internalized as myth by a wide proportion of the people (Pilisuk and Rountree, 2008), such as the neoliberalism that has become a state ideology, retained even after the intellectual case for it has been utterly discredited (Konczal, April 20, 2013; Krugman, April 18, 2013, April 25, 2013, June 6, 2013; O’Brien, April 22, 2013; Parramore, April 18, 2013). The authoritarian system of social organization may be rationalized as a meritocracy, but it functions to entrench an increasingly incompetent elite that, as Christopher Hayes (2012) explains, has failed the United States in countless ways, including climate change, the financial crisis, economic mishandling, accounting scandals, corporate malfeasance, and, I would add, the garden variety incompetence of bosses so often witnessed by so many workers. It functions to insulate the elite from challenge, both by setting the standards by which workers may be considered eligible for promotion, and through a social structure that isolates the wealthy from everyone else, and thus determines who has increasing access to the opportunities, protections, and privileges of the upper class (Cookson & Persell, 2005; Domhoff, 2005; Mills, 1956/2000), while both diverting the attention and maintaining the acquiescence of middle and working classes by stigmatizing the poor as criminals to be feared and as undeserving “parasites” on society whom ‘good’ people should neither empathize with nor in any way emulate (Gans, 1995; Pilisuk & Rountree, 2008; Reiman, 2004).

It is in this way, by “pounc[ing] on fears and anxieties [of authoritarian populists] just to inflame them” (Crawford, February 26, 2014), by “[dramatizing] their followers’ feelings of powerlessness . . . and [aggravating] their alienation” (Frank, 2005, p. 121), all the while sustaining the myths of U.S. exceptionalism, those being, “our belief in organized religion; our belief that America has a special mission to spread freedom in the world; and our belief that we are a classless society where, through limited government and free enterprise, anyone can get ahead” (Beinart, February 3, 2014), that the functionalist conservatives enjoy a complementary relationship with authoritarian populists that is sometimes rocky, but functions to keep both where they are:

[T]he leaders of the backlash—the same canny people, remember, who are responsible for such masterpieces of political strategy as the Florida 2000 election result and the campaign for Social Security privatization—have chosen to wage cultural battles where victory is impossible, where their followers’ feelings of powerlessness will be dramatized and their alienation aggravated. Take, for example, the backlash fury-object du jour as I write this, the Alabama Ten Commandments monument, which was erected deliberately to provoke an ACLU lawsuit and which could come to no other possible end than being pried loose and carted away. Or even the great abortion controversy, which mobilizes millions but which cannot be put to rest without a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. (Frank, 2005, p. 121)

On the one hand, in What’s the matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank (2005) depicts a binary between “the ‘heartland,’ a region of humility, guilelessness, and, above all, stout yeoman righteousness” (p. 16, emphasis in original) and a largely urban liberal elite, stereotyped by “the places that people live [in] and the things that they drink, eat, and drive,” that is, “the Volvos, the imported cheese, and above all, the lattes” (p. 17). On the other hand, Frank shows how functionalist conservatives exploit both authoritarian populists and social conservatives to a single end: building a conservative movement that will elect and re-elect Republicans. And when people outside that movement show signs of becoming so fed up that they just might “throw the bums out,” or at least enough of those obstructionist conservatives in Congress to threaten Republican control (or hopes for control) of one or both houses of Congress (Isquith, September 30, 2013b; Kane & Cohen, January 11, 2012; Lightman, May 22, 2012; Mann & Ornstein, April 27, 2012; Steinhauser, September 30, 2013), functionalists will do whatever they can to at least stay in the race, just as they did in urging Todd Akin to abandon his campaign following his ‘legitimate rape’ remarks (Kroll, August 21, 2012)—and later beginning again to fund him (Eligon, October 6, 2012; Mascaro, September 26, 2012; Murphy, September 25, 2012) and when, late in 2013, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner fired the executive director of the Republican Study Committee (Palmer & Sherman, December 11, 2013) and said of authoritarian populist and capitalist libertarian groups opposing a budget deal, “They're using our members and they're using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous” (Boehner, quoted in O’Brien, December 11, 2013).

Conclusion: Symbiosis

Conservatism may not be an ideology (Kirk, 1985/2001; Müller, 2006; Young, 2008), or it may have lost something in having been reduced to an ideology as a movement (Crawford, February 26, 2014). What should be beyond doubt is that it is not a monolith. Rather, there are a number of often incompatible ideas that are somewhat paradoxically mashed together.

But I believe it would be a mistake to cynically reduce the relationship between, on one side, the functionalist conservatives, and on the other side, authoritarian populists and social conservatives; or on one side, the authoritarian populists in their anti-communist phase, and on the other side, social conservatives to relationships of exploitation. Certainly, anti-communists used social conservatives to advance a notion of the Soviet system as evil, but social conservatives received a massive state- and corporate-sponsored religious revival in exchange (Herzog, 2010). And while Frank (2005) aptly shows how functionalist conservatives exploit social conservatives and authoritarian populists, restrictions on access to abortion are spreading across the country (Eckholm, January 3, 2014; Guttmacher Institute, January 2, 2014) and a deficit-cutting austerity remains the political order of the day (Firestone, March 9, 2014; Krugman, August 8, 2013, September 5, 2013). Finally, despite a series of horrific shootings, gun control legislation remains stymied (Dickerson, April 22, 2013; Zeff, April 13, 2013). These are all successes which discontented conservatives seem to overlook and which a functionalist conservative emphasis on electoral success in a polarized country has had a hand in facilitating. There may be much more of an interdependence and more of a synergy to conservatism than might be ascertained by looking specifically at issues.

To the extent that this is the case, a reductive approach may be insufficient in examining conservatism. Complexity theory, viewing conservatism as an ecosystem—no matter how perverse it may seem to apply that word to this movement—may well prove to be an appropriate lens.

And to the extent that conservatism can be viewed as a system, a tenet of complexity theory is that the whole cannot be reduced to its parts (Capra, 1996; Macy, 1995; Morin, 2008), and the withdrawal of any faction, capitalist libertarians, for example, as recommended by Brink Lindsey (2006, 2010), may be destructive to the movement as a whole in ways that cannot be foreseen.


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