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Austin Cline

Shifting American Conservatism: Goverment & Power

By August 29, 2009

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What does the future hold for conservatism in America? Traditional conservatism is largely dead and the leaders of the current conservatism movement have little or no respect for the traditional values conservatism has stood for. Fiscal conservatism hardly seems to exist anymore. Only religious "conservatives" remain prominent, and they are more radical than anything else.

Andrew Sullivan wrote a couple of years ago:

[C]onservatism as we have known it is now over. People like me who became conservatives because of the appeal of smaller government and more domestic freedom are now marginalized in a big-government party, bent on using the power of the state to direct people's lives, give them meaning and protect them from all dangers.

It's sad to see such a prominent conservative demonstrate such an abysmally poor understanding of conservatism. A person attracted to conservatism because they want a smaller government has either been duped by a political swindler or they simply have no idea what they are doing when it comes to political philosophy.

Or, more likely, both.

Conservatism is not about having a smaller government — never has been, never will be. Conservatism is about conserving: conserving traditions, morals, values, social structures, principles, civilization, etc. Conservatives may differ on what exactly needs to be conserved and why (some for example focus more on religion while others don't), but the one unifying principle that differentiates all conservatives from all non-conservatives is that the conservatives are trying to preserve and conserve something from the past for the future (in a political, social, economic, and/or moral sense).

This does not necessarily mean having a smaller government. On the contrary, it can often mean having a bigger government because sometimes you need more government spending in order to preserve something. A conservative government might, for example, spend money in order to promote traditional beliefs about marriage, procreation, religion, etc., which is one of the ways in which traditional and religious conservatives come together with a common cause. Indeed, religious conservatives are among the few conservatives who are open about this — about specifically trying to conserve the past for the future.

American conservatism has become associated with smaller government because over the past 40 years or so only because liberals have tended to advocate big government programs that have had, as one effect, a negative influence on many traditional social structures. Conservatives could have argued against these programs directly by arguing that they undermined traditions and values that needed to be preserved, not unlike the common religious conservative arguments against gay marriage today, but the general popularity of these programs means that such arguments would lead to electoral losses.

So, conservatives have had to be less honest about what they wanted by framing their arguments around less spending and smaller governments. Instead of openly saying that they wanted to end public education or publicly funded healthcare, most have simply said that they wanted to lower government spending. This apparently led to people like Andrew Sullivan being deceived about the nature of conservatism — which is odd because if anyone were to be educated about the history and nature of conservatism, I would have expected it to be him.

But once again, notice how religious conservatives are more likely to be open about what they intend. You're more likely to find religious conservatives, for example, openly saying that they would like to eliminate the Department of Education and public education generally. When they do so they are regarded as fringe nuts, but the fact is that opposition to government spending and support of smaller government originated as a code for exactly that sort of policy: eliminate large government programs, departments, and institutions so that society can regress back to a time when private institutions — mostly religious — managed public affairs while government sat idly by, impotent to redress grievances or injustices.

This is not an attack on conservatism. The idea of conserving principles and values from the past is not necessarily a bad one. Sometimes it can be, sometimes it isn't. I do not, however, have much time for people who misrepresent conservatism in order to make it appear different from what it really is. Both liberalism and conservatism are compatible with both larger and smaller government, with both more and less government spending, depending on the cultural, historical, economic, and political context. This is basic political philosophy or political science like you'd learn in any introductory college course. There is simply no excuse for errors so basic and fundamental.

What's also very important to pay attention to here is the degree to which religious conservatives are more ready and willing to admit to what their long-term political goals are. That isn't always the case, of course, and it's not because religious conservatives are inherently more honest. I'm not entirely sure why this would happen, but it may be that because they are so open about the religious beliefs which inform their political positions that it wouldn't make much sense to mask their agenda with codes about "smaller government." They make no bones about the fact that there are specific (and of course religious) values, ideals, power relationships, and institutions which they wish to preserve.

Comments
June 30, 2009 at 10:12 pm
(1) eric says:

Its really quite simple, Conservatism is about the conservation of our nations founding documents. If we actually lived by the principles of the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Constitution, then we would by necessity promote…
* life
* individual liberty
* limited government
* private property
* free enterprise
* personal responsibility
* strong defense

All of which are Conservative principles.

July 1, 2009 at 6:09 am
(2) Austin Cline says:

Its really quite simple, Conservatism is about the conservation of our nations founding documents.  If we actually lived by the principles of the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Constitution, then we would by necessity promote…

Slavery?

Women not having a right to vote or to have property?

Less democracy?

All of which are Conservative principles.

When the nation’s founding documents were drafted, were they conservative or liberal?

July 1, 2009 at 11:13 am
(3) eric says:

So your argument is that since we failed to achieve immediate Utopia then the principles outlined in the Declaration & Constitution are invalid?

It is sad but often people fail to live up to their ideals, it doesn’t mean that there is a defect in the ideals. Recognition of the failure of mankind to live up to its principles is why we have a system of checks and balances. Conservatives recognize the sinfullness of man.

Just because slavery, for example, existed doesn’t negate the truth that “All men are created equal”.

I remind you that these founding documents provided a system in which slavery was abolished. Freedom loving people in America fought perhaps the bloodiest war in history to end it. I believe it was/is mostly freedom loving conservatives who champion the cause of liberty.

Therefore the conservative principle still stands.

July 1, 2009 at 4:47 pm
(4) Austin Cline says:

So your argument is that since we failed to achieve immediate Utopia then the principles outlined in the Declaration & Constitution are invalid?

No, I’ve made no such argument. I didn’t make any arguments in my comment. I did, however, ask some questions.

Why didn’t you answer?

It is sad but often people fail to live up to their ideals,

You seem to be assuming that the problems I referenced were a failure to live up to ideals, rather than expressions of different ideals. It isn’t always the case that all of one’s ideals are in perfect harmony.

Conservatives recognize the sinfullness of man.

That would preclude atheists from being conservative.

I remind you that these founding documents provided a system in which slavery was abolished.  

I guess I’ll have to remind you that slavery was abolished elsewhere before America did it and without those documents.

Therefore the conservative principle still stands.

“The” conservative principle? There is just one underlying conservative principle? Well, what is it?

I’m also curious as to whether you can or will answer any of the earlier questions.

July 2, 2009 at 11:59 am
(5) eric says:

I did, however, ask some questions. Why didn’t you answer?

Actually, you only asked one question in your initial response. Just taking a word and putting a question mark at the end doesn’t make it a question. What are you actually asking about “slavery?”… or “less democracy?”… or “Women not having a right to vote?”. None of these are questions.

I thought your main premise was that Conservatism isn’t really about liberty, or smaller government, or less taxes because it is about conserving traditions, etc. instead which could mean big government, higher taxes etc. I believe I answered you main premise quite succinctly in saying that conservatives want to conserve, adhere to, actually “live out” the principles of our founding documents.

On to the only question in your reply…

When the nation’s founding documents were drafted, were they conservative or liberal?

Based in my initial reply this question seemed silly. If a conservative is one who wants to preserve and live out the principles of our founding documents (which was my claim) then I would think that the founders must be conservative in that sense. Doesn’t it seem obvious that they wanted the principles that they articulated to endure? As to whether they were “liberal” I supposed it depends on your definition. They were liberal in the sense that they obviously loved liberty and wanted to advance its cause, even at the expense of their own fortunes and lives. I don’t know of anyone who would describe them as liberal in “2009 sense” of the word. I can’t find any evidence that any of the founders had political views anything like that of a Barack Obama or a Nancy Pelosi.

You seem to be assuming that the problems I referenced were a failure to live up to ideals, rather than expressions of different ideals

There are at least two problems with this sentence… One, you havn’t made an argument to advance this claim. And two, my position is that conservatism is based on our founding documents, not on an individuals personal prejudice.

To advance my argument, I gave the example that slavery and the ideal “all men are created equal” are in opposition to one another. Slavery then is a failure to live up to this ideal.

Furthermore, and you can’t find any evidence in the Declaration, Constitution, or Bill of Rights that would support slavery as a “different ideal” as you claim. Our nation is founded on the principles of life, liberty, and private property. When America fails to treasure life, cherish liberty, or honor private property then it falling short of her ideals.

I guess I’ll have to remind you that slavery was abolished elsewhere before America did it and without those documents

My point was that there is nothing inherent in our founding documents that promoted slavery, etc. Our documents provided a system in which we can recognize when we veer from our founding principles and correct our course. Also, any other country that had and then abolished slavery did so as they recognized the same principles that we recognized. Its not an issue of who wrote them down first, its an issue of the truthfullness, and enduring nature of the principles themselves.

That would preclude atheists from being conservative

Not really. My atheist and agnostic friends recognize the same propensity in mankind, some just call it something different. I don’t know a single atheist that is in favor of finding one, really smart, nice guy and then making him our all powerful dictator because they understand the predisposition of man to be corrupted by power and to use that power for his own selfish ends.

“The” conservative principle? There is just one underlying conservative principle? Well, what is it?

The principle that conservatives affirm, defend, and desire to live out our founding documents. My point still stands as you have said nothing in your two responses that either fefutes this understanding of conservatism or the ideals of life, liberty, & property.

You challenged me to answer you and I believe I have. I am more than happy to continue the dialogue but I would prefer that we stick to the main point as opposed all these rabbit trails.

July 2, 2009 at 1:29 pm
(6) Austin Cline says:

Actually, you only asked one question in your initial response.  Just taking a word and putting a question mark at the end doesn’t make it a question.  

I’m asking if those are among the principles in the founding documents which you think conservatism is all about conserving. Slavery is official recognized and accepted. Women are not accorded a right to vote. The Constitution in its original form is less democratic than our system is today. Ergo, these are all principles which those documents express, promote, accept, and/or enshrine.

I thought your main premise was that Conservatism isn’t really about liberty, or smaller government, or less taxes

Since I said nothing of the sort, perhaps should have asked instead of making wild assumptions.

When the nation’s founding documents were drafted, were they conservative or liberal?

Based in my initial reply this question seemed silly. If a conservative is one who wants to preserve and live out the principles of our founding documents (which was my claim) then I would think that the founders must be conservative in that sense.

Except that those principles were, to varying degrees, quite radical for the time. So what you seem to be saying is that being a “conservative” is about conserving any set of principles no matter how radical they happen to be in the context of the culture.

Now, what label would you apply to those who, at that time, were trying to conserve the traditional structures of authority and social institutions which were being undermined by the principles in the founding documents? They certainly weren’t “liberal,” but according to you they also weren’t “conservative.”

Don’t you suppose it might help to have some sense of what “conservative” means independent of particular historical and cultural circumstances? If we limited ourselves to what you said, we’d be defining conservatism in all other times, nations, and cultures based on how closely they adhere to just a few political principles written down in just a couple of documents in one nation at one point in time. That makes little sense.

I don’t know of anyone who would describe them as liberal in “2009 sense” of the word.

Maybe that’s because what’s “liberal” and what’s “conservative” is always relative to where and when you are.

You seem to be assuming that the problems I referenced were a failure to live up to ideals, rather than expressions of different ideals

There are at least two problems with this sentence… One, you havn’t made an argument to advance this claim. And two, my position is that conservatism is based on our founding documents, not on an individuals personal prejudice.

First, I didn’t advance any arguments in that comment, so if that’s a “problem” then it’s equally a problem with the interpretation you tried to apply. Yet, for some reason, you didn’t have a problem applying that interpretation. Ergo you were working from personal prejudice. Furthermore defining conservatism in reference to just a single set of ideas written in just a couple of documents by a few people at a single point in time, as if there weren’t any other sort of conservatism anywhere else at any other point in time, is definitely an expression of personal prejudice. It’s privileging that on point in time above all others as if nothing else could form the basis of conservatism — and on the basis of no foundation that I can see aside from your personal preference for it. Yes, that’s personal prejudice.

To advance my argument, I gave the example that slavery and the ideal “all men are created equal” are in opposition to one another. Slavery then is a failure to live up to this ideal.

It might also be an example of two different ideals: all men are created equal and blacks are inferiors who deserve or who are better off in slavery. If you’re convinced that the former must be the case, perhaps you can explain how we can tell that it must be true and the latter can’t be true.

Furthermore, and you can’t find any evidence in the Declaration, Constitution, or Bill of Rights that would support slavery as a “different ideal” as you claim.

You mean, aside from counting slaves as three-fifths of a person? Beyond that, those documents aren’t the only places where ideals and principles were explained and explored.

Our nation is founded on the principles of life, liberty, and private property.

Really? I don’t see “private property” in the DoI or Constitution. I guess you agree that founding ideals and founding principles can be made explicit in other documents. If you can derive “private property” as a founding principle from sources other than those you listed, then you can derive slavery the same way.

When America fails to treasure life, cherish liberty, or honor private property then it falling short of her ideals.

Of course, what “cherish,” “treasure,” and “honor” mean is open to debate.

My point was that there is nothing inherent in our founding documents that promoted slavery, etc.

You mean, aside from establishing right at the beginning that slaves weren’t even to be counted as full persons for the purpose of counting the number of human beings in a geographical area?

That would preclude atheists from being conservative

Not really. My atheist and agnostic friends recognize the same propensity in mankind, some just call it something different.

Not really. “Sin” is a particular theological concept that is not captured by giving it another name. Sin is about separation from God and disobedience to God’s Will or God’s Laws. Atheists don’t believe in the Christian idea of sin, so if you’re going to describe conservatism as a recognition of sinfulness in humanity, you’re necessarily excluding atheists. The only way to include atheists is to use a different term yourself. Perhaps you can’t though, if you implicitly assume that conservatism must be joined with religious theism.

The principle that conservatives affirm, defend, and desire to live out our founding documents. My point still stands as you have said nothing in your two responses that either fefutes this understanding of conservatism or the ideals of life, liberty, & property.

Actually, the burden is yours to demonstrate that this is true, not mine to prove that it is wrong. I tried asking some simple questions to get you to expand upon your claim and provide details that refine and support it, but they seem to have gone over your head, causing you to make bizarre assumptions. So I’ve asked more detailed, specific questions so you can provide substantive detail and support.

If you can’t do so, I’m more than justified in dismissing your claim as so much nonsense — especially given that I’m actually familiar with the use of “conservatism” and “liberalism” in political science and political philosophy, rather than in the service of ideological agendas.

I am also compelled to point out that you yourself have done nothing to argue against the explanation of conservatism contained in my post – and which you must be responding to, if your comment was intended to actually be on topic and relevant. All you’ve done is assert a different definition of conservatism, one limited in time, geography, and ideology, without providing a single reason to agree with it or a single argument for how it might be superior. If you truly have something substantive and serious to offer on the subject of conservatism generally or conservatism in America, don’t you think you should address the original points made and make a case for how and why you might have a superior position?

August 29, 2009 at 1:46 pm
(7) fauxrs says:

The principle that conservatives affirm, defend, and desire to live out our founding documents.

If this is the case then why is it the “conservatives” who are so intent on returning prayer to school classrooms, teach religious ideology in the same public classrooms, dictate to certain americans that they are NOT equal by denying them rights all in contrary to the documents they hold so dear?

These things are being proposed, acted and enacted by conservatives that are in direct conflict with the very self same ideals they claim to uphold.

Life, Liberty and Property. Well I can guess whose life you feel has been attacked by the “liberals” but I’m interested to hear whose liberty has been threatened? Whose property has been threatened that hasnt been threatened in the past?

August 29, 2009 at 3:12 pm
(8) BlackSun says:

The only salient characteristic of “modern” conservatism is the ability of its adherents to hold astounding levels of cognitive dissonance.

There is nothing “conservative” about it. It is intellectually dishonest, obstructionist, xenophobic, fear-based, theatrical, self-parodying demagoguery. It is human weakness writ large as an inconsistent and failed attempt at political philosophy. And it seems to be getting more that way every day.

It’s what people do when they have no intention of changing their position in the face of reality. As reality looms larger, their denials of it grow larger still. It’s the “slack-jawed gaze of true profanity. Feels more like surrender than defeat.”

Minds surrendering to willful malfunction and insanity–in service of obsolete passions.

August 30, 2009 at 2:35 am
(9) ChuckA says:

Just some ‘long festering’ personal tidbits…
There were a lot of things, regarding the “Founding Fathers”, which have stirred up a whole lot of debates amongst historical scholars; and, of course, are the subject of a seemingly endless number of books.
It seems to me, that practically speaking, it’s the American Constitution which is really the basis of all the laws, as well as all the endless “swearing” (as in right hand erected) that has gone on since the founding of the American Republic.
Not to get tangled in all of this (I’m certainly no legal or linguistic expert, of course!); but “eric”, in his personal definition of “Conservative principles” emphasizes all THREE documents; which includes one which I’ve always thought to be oddly phrased; and not without some not clearly defined terminology.
I’m referring, in particular, to the “Declaration of Independence”.
For the full, rather amazingly (and surprisingly!) long original document, see:
http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/index.htm
In particular, however, I’m referring to the most commonly known, often quoted, and extremely brief, excerpt; which would be:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Here are some words which I’ve always found troubling…and which, if I had the chance, would’ve questioned the Founding Fathers about:
1) “We hold”
As in what? Belief? Taking a rational atheist tack…is there any evidence for that so-called “belief”? Wishful thinking, perhaps?
2) “these truths”
How so? Established by what method? You have Evidence?
[Remember, of course; 'they' didn't have the so-called 'Modern Scientific Method']
Or perhaps, more simply (as Austin often says)…Prove it!
3) “to be self-evident”
You mean like 1+1=2? or perhaps (kidding): “Cogito ergo sum!” [I think; therefore I am! Yeah...I know that's been argued about.]
4) “that all men are created equal”
“all men” What about women? And, what about those slaves you rich guys own?
are “created” Huh? By what…or whom? Oh, that’s right; it was termed “NATURE’S god”…as in Deism. A point missed by most Christians.
5) “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”
“endowed” As in “inherited through birth”, perhaps?. Certainly not by some “magic”, I assume. How ’bout…”by way of Evolution”?
[Darwin, of course, was totally unknown to the Founding Fathers.]
“by their Creator”…that (like “created”) was basically covered in #4…i.e…the Deistic “Nature’s god”. [Although, curiously, “Creator”, unlike “created”, is capitalized.
That pretty much covers the portion which I’ve always considered…especially since I’ve been an atheist…to be the most linguistically problematic portion of the “Declaration”. The rest of the selected passage is pretty mundane; and I was very surprised at just HOW long the whole document is; which is never talked about in the usual references.
That’s it! I know…picky, picky…but the definition (daffynition?) of words is very important when people start referring to and quoting documents; especially documents like those referred to in “eric’s” comments. In some cases, way too much is taken for granted when people with their frequently self-righteous attitudes start running ‘roughshod’ over others, in order to fulfill their particular selfish agendas.

August 30, 2009 at 1:45 pm
(10) fauxrs says:

Yes the Declaration of Independence is an amazing document, but let us not forget that the Declaration is NOT a part of the Constitution and thus has no legal strength in court.

August 30, 2009 at 8:44 pm
(11) ChuckA says:

^ (10) Yes, fauxrs, that’s extremely important; and how incredibly ‘fortunate’ it is that the Founding (Floundering?) Fathers had enough wisdom and foresight to completely exclude any and all reference to ANYONE’S notion of a god in the Constitution.

After untwisting my ‘shorts’ (and unwarping my brain?) after that little exercise in futility, I realized that I forgot a couple of rather mundane items in my above blabbing which have frequently popped up in my mind when thinking of the Declaration of Independence.
Both are relate to the phrase:
“all men are created equal”.
I would respond to that in two ways…
1) “Wait, just a Declarative minute! Are you SERIOUS? Have you ever just taken a really close gander at the people all around you…even in your own friggin’ family?”
2) That very old, anonymous…and familiar to many…sarcastic joking response (I’m paraphrasing it, of course.):
“You mean, I’m assuming, that…some are just created MORE equal than others! Roit?”

September 5, 2009 at 11:48 pm
(12) Mike says:

Where do libertarians fit in all this? They are not liberal or conservative.

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