By Jefferson Smith (reprinted by permission from BadRepublicans.com)
Suppose you had a friend you had known for many years, one who was very opinionated, who always seemed absolutely certain about everything, and yet who was always turning out to be wrong. He got you to buy stock in Enron and swore it would just keep on rising. He bet on the Yankees to sweep the Red Sox in ’04. He said mobile phones were just a fad, and before long people would give them up and go back to sending telegrams.
Would you trust this person’s powers of analysis? Would you continue putting any faith in his predictions?
“Conservatives,” or those who call themselves this nowadays, have an equally good and much longer record of faulty analysis and wrong prediction. In order to exist as a viable movement, they depend on everyone forgetting that they’re basically always wrong.
Unfortunately, progressives and liberals have obliged. They seem to have forgotten who they’re actually dealing with. I’m not the first to point out that conservatives are always wrong – on any longer view, it’s hard to miss – but after years of observing the dispirited moderate left and the hapless, helpless leadership of the Democratic Party, I thought it was about time for a few reminders. If we step back from the issues that preoccupy us at the moment, it’s easier both to see that conservatism has consistently been failing and to examine the deeper reasons why. There are flaws in conservative positions that eventually cause them to collapse, and those same flaws are at work today. It’s true that one side in America’s great political debates is playing a very weak hand. Fortunately, that side isn’t ours.
If they recognized this, if they remembered how reliably the conservative cause has come to grief in the past, I think my fellow progressives would be in much better spirits. I hope the analysis I’m offering here will not only brighten their mood, but suggest some specific arguments and approaches they might find useful once they figure out that they’re already winning – and have been for a very long time.
How are they always wrong?
Conservatives’ terrible track record
Conservatives depend on everyone forgetting their past positions because those positions consistently come to look worse as time goes on. We find this happening in every generation and every century. Whatever the issue, a new consensus on it eventually develops around some view that conservatives once opposed, and the old conservative ideas are so discredited that even conservatives themselves no longer try to defend them.
In a few cases the conservative error was so clownish that it passed into legend and therefore hasn’t been forgotten. The old belief that the sun and everything else in the universe went around the earth, for instance, wasn’t merely what people assumed when they looked at the sky; it was a carefully structured system of doctrine with a great deal of ancient authority behind it, including Aristotle, the Bible, and an elaborate theology that put human beings and human history at the center of the cosmos.
By the 16th and early 17th centuries, though, evidence was mounting rapidly that this doctrine was wrong. It didn’t fully explain the movements of the planets or the things people saw when they began looking through telescopes. So scientists like Galileo looked for new explanations. Based on the data, they said, it seemed that the earth actually goes around the sun.
Ideas like this were a giant step toward modern science. They cleared the way for a whole new picture of the universe as governed by a common set of physical laws that could be understood through calculation and experiment. Galileo and his like-minded colleagues plainly weren’t conservatives; their goal was not to save the orthodoxies of the past. The conservatives in this dispute were the theologians and churchmen who tried to defend the old religiously-based theories. And while they did have the power to stage a heresy trial and force Galileo to recant, today we know who really got the worst of that confrontation. As Galileo said, eppure si muove: For their efforts, the conservatives have gone down in history looking both vicious and idiotic.
Because other examples are less well-remembered than Galileo’s, it’s easy to see his as an isolated case and to imagine that progress is usually widely applauded. In fact, though, virtually every development of the last few hundred years that increased knowledge, improved society or made people’s lives better was met in its time with furious conservative resistance. If we scratch the historical surface just a bit, we can see how wretched a record conservatism has actually been compiling since the dawn of modern times:
- Æ In the 16th century, medical pioneers set out to chart the workings of the human body. Where the old doctrines relied on sacred symbols and mystical “spirits” and “humours,” the new science mapped internal organs, watched blood circulate and began to uncover the physical causes of disease. These first steps toward modern medicine filled conservatives with horror, and they tried hard to bring the whole enterprise to a stop. They opposed the use of autopsies to learn how the body worked. They insisted that disease was caused by Satan’s influence, epidemics by collective sin, and mental illness by demonic possession. And even as the scientific facts were becoming known, later conservatives kept up the fight against further new developments, like vaccines and anesthetics – which, they said, violated “nature” and usurped God’s right to decide who should suffer and die.
- Æ In the 17th century, while Galileo was fighting his battles, other debates were getting underway over the sources of government power – whether it lay within families and was rightly conferred by birth, or whether it rose from the people and should rest on the consent of the governed. Against proposals for electing rulers and other novel “democratical” ideas, conservative opinion came down firmly on the side of aristocratic privilege and the so-called divine right of kings.
- Æ In the 18th century, movements developed with the aim of reforming the system of criminal justice. Liberal thinkers argued for speedy and public trials, rejected the “cruel and unusual” in favor of penalties that fit the crimes, and supported modest efforts to see that even prisoners were treated humanely. Why did these arguments need to be made? Because at a time when dozens of minor offenses carried the death sentence, when political and religious dissent was criminalized and when legal penalties included literally cutting people to bits, conservatives thought the laws were, if anything, too soft.
- Æ In the 19th century, women were still unable to vote, own property or practice professions. When reformers called for giving them these rights, conservatives invoked both nature and the Bible to prove that women were created subservient to men, belonged in the home, and didn’t need to participate in public decision-making because men knew their interests better than women themselves did.
- Æ In the 20th century, another movement declared that people should be treated equally regardless of race. Progressive reformers like Martin Luther King Jr. called on America to live up to its founding promise, and to honor Scripture’s true meaning, by guaranteeing civil rights for all. Conservatives – including some still alive today – replied that King was distorting both the Constitution, which left it up to each state to decide how racist to be, and the Bible, which licensed white supremacy based on some tale of an ancient curse. Defiantly standing in the schoolhouse door (literally and figuratively), conservatives darkly warned that “unnatural” mixing of the races would lead to all manner of social evils.
In these and innumerable other history-shaping debates the conservative position was discredited, sometimes quite soon thereafter, and the godless, un-biblical, unnatural, liberal / progressive position came to be all but taken for granted. Today it’s not controversial that the earth goes around the sun, and that, in any case, priests shouldn’t be prosecuting scientists for heresy. Today it’s universally agreed that people should be able to elect and un-elect their leaders, that women should be able to vote, and that a person’s skin color shouldn’t determine what school she can go to or where she can sit on a bus. But the reason these matters aren’t controversial is that in each case, the conservative side lost.
Precisely because they lose, however, it’s forgotten that conservatives have repeatedly taken positions that no one but a crank would even try to defend today. Conservatism perversely benefits from its own failures: Because its past arguments were beaten back and its fierce resistance overcome, we don’t hear those arguments anymore. They’ve faded into history, and we have to study history even to know they were once made.
This is crucial to the conservatism of today. If the public recognized the American conservative movement as the latest growth of the same tangled weeds that previously tried to choke off science, democracy and civil rights, today’s conservatives would have a much tougher time. Like the friend who’s always wrong, they’d be asked to explain why the rest of us should put any stock in the typical conservative arguments of today – arguments like:
- Ä The Bible is the best guide to the natural history of life on earth. Evidence indicating that human beings evolved like any other species will prove to be some kind of illusion or huge mistake, and even though science eventually displaced biblical doctrine in astronomy, physics, geology, chemistry, meteorology, historiography, and even linguistics, in this one case the Bible (or one interpretation of it) will at last be vindicated, and a whole, worldwide scientific enterprise proved wrong. Also wrong and contrary to nature, meanwhile, is research on cloning and stem cells, which should be subordinated to theology even if this delays discoveries that could cure diseases and save lives.
- Ä Huge inequalities of wealth and power, and the persistence of these from one generation to the next – the various means by which privilege is routinely passed on from parents to children – are just the way things are. Any serious attempt to reform these arrangements will lead to either anarchy or totalitarian oppression.
- Ä Due process is fine – except for criminals, and especially “terrorists,” for whom some of the old methods need to be revived (and have been). OK, maybe the death penalty is wrong for children under, say, 14. (Or maybe not.) But life sentences aren’t. And while we grudgingly accept a penal system that treats even the worst offenders somewhat humanely, we nonetheless want those people killed, in substantial numbers, and the sooner the better.
- Ä America is a uniquely virtuous nation; its decisions in world affairs are best for people everywhere, even when those people themselves don’t see this. It’s ludicrous to think that anyone else, even in the democratic West, might have equally good ideas about how the world should be organized.
- Ä Same-sex relations are sinful and should never stand on an equal footing with the natural, God-given, heterosexual order of things. The fact that America lags most other advanced societies, which have rejected this view and are rapidly liberalizing their policies in this area, isn’t a sign of where the world is headed; it’s merely further proof of America’s unique virtue (see previous point).
Looked at in historical perspective, all these arguments rest on one big claim: that conservatism is finally getting it right. OK, conservatives are in effect saying, maybe conservative positions of the past look foolish to us now. Maybe, time and again, conservatism has subverted reform, perpetuated injustice and slowed changes which, in retrospect, we can all see were needed. But never mind all that. The issues today are different, and if you don’t agree with us now then you’re the fool or subversive. The positions we conservatives are taking today, unlike conservative positions of the past, won’t be found lying on history’s trash heap in thirty, fifty or a hundred years, after we’ve lost these arguments too and the world has once again moved on.
Needless to say, contemporary conservatives would deny that this is their message and reject the parallels I’ve been drawing. If we remind them of their sorry track record, they’ll swear it isn’t theirs at all: They can’t be blamed for the mistakes and limited vision of those benighted conservatives of old. They weren’t even around when Galileo was on trial or when women were demanding suffrage. If they had been (they no doubt imagine), they would have taken the forward-looking side in those disputes. They, unlike their forebears, would not have been loudly insisting that progressive proposals were wrong-headed, impossible, and a threat to everything good. No, they merely insist that today’s progressive proposals are wrong-headed, impossible and a threat to everything good.
Why do they keep getting it wrong?
Conservatism’s faulty assumptions
Comparisons with the past would provoke other objections from conservatives too (which is ironic, since conservatives often claim to revere the past). We’ll get to those a bit later. But to the big objection just stated, there’s one big answer. Think again about the friend who’s always wrong. If that friend insists that no, this time he’s right, that the idea he’s urging on you now is different from any he’s had before, wouldn’t the obvious question be: But is it based on different principles than those other, failed ideas? Are you making different assumptions or following some new line of reasoning? Or are you asking me to believe that the same way of thinking that steered you wrong before is now, improbably, steering you right?
In waving away past mistakes, conservatives are in essence making just that claim. They’re asking us not to notice the basic, structural similarities between their current views and the discredited ideas of yore. Because if we do examine today’s conservative positions closely, we find they’re just as deeply rooted as yesterday’s were in a few basic attitudes and axioms:
“We’ve reached the limit”
Conservative positions usually assume that even if past progress was good, further progress along the same lines is no longer possible. We’ve reached a historical horizon; developments that were underway for several centuries, and which virtually everyone today agrees made the world better, have come to an end. Thus, astronomy, physics and chemistry did need to be freed from the dead hand of religion, yes. But possibly not geology, and certainly not biology: There we should still take our cues from the Bible. Maybe it was wrong in the past to deny that the earth is just another planet, but it’s right, in the present, to deny that homo sapiens is just another species.
Or, today’s conservatives might concede – some of them grudgingly – that it’s good that democracy eventually won out over absolute monarchs and landed aristocracies. But that’s as far as we can go: There’s no need, and no justification, for further reforms aimed, for instance, at limiting the disproportionate power of a wealthy few. And yes, it’s good that laws against interracial marriage were eventually struck down; even most conservatives now agree that marriage between people of different races isn’t unnatural or un-biblical. But there’s no extending that point to today’s arguments over same-sex marriage – that is unnatural and un-biblical, and it must be forbidden by law. The progressive project was essential, once, but now it’s over. In fact it’s even gone too far and now needs to be rolled back.
We find this in every generation. Conservatives are forever insisting that further reforms will cause chaos, even while (silently) conceding the wisdom of reforms already achieved. Those who opposed women’s suffrage were, in some cases, the same people who had backed earlier extensions of the voting franchise. Those who opposed desegregation would have agreed (one hopes) that outright slavery was an evil that earlier reformers had been right to condemn. Thus far, OK, but no further, has been the essential conservative position. Then we go further, and conservatives of the next generation say, OK, yes, that was a good development too. But no further! And so on. Why, it’s fair to ask, should we believe that this time conservatives finally have it right – that the limits they’re always wrongly claiming we’ve reached have, at last, actually been reached?
“You’re on your own”
A related assumption that conservatives bring to most issues is that inclusion – expanding the reach of society’s benefits to new groups of people – isn’t terribly important. Some of this is simple prejudice against out-groups, the familiar psychologies of fear of those who are different and disdain for the lesser number. It also rests on a kind of circular logic: Groups that historically have been forced to the margins or kept “in the closet” can seem for that reason less important than those in the mainstream, and therefore less deserving of full inclusion in it.
But there’s something else at work too. Inclusion doesn’t seem like a high priority if people are basically on their own. This is another and very important conservative postulate. The difficulties of others aren’t urgent concerns for the rest of us. It’s a mistake to regard them as “social” problems, failures of some larger system that it might be in our power to fix. (As Margaret Thatcher explained, there can’t be social problems because “there’s no such thing as ‘society’ ” at all, only individuals and families.) Poverty, famine, child labor, depressions, bank failures, unemployment – conservatives comfortably ensconced at a distance have never had trouble explaining away problems like these. Often they’re said to be the fault of the individuals themselves, signs of their poor character or, at least, lack of enterprise in finding some escape. If not that, they may be signs of a “cultural pathology” afflicting the group to which the victims belong, a persistent, collective failing to which those victims also contribute. Or, if not that, then they’re the fault of “the economy,” or nowadays “the global economy,” which is a system of uncontrollable forces like the weather: “the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster,” as Franklin Roosevelt sardonically called them. But fortunately there’s no real cause for concern, because an economy like ours is self-correcting. The “free market,” conservatives assure us, will eventually solve our remaining problems if we just let it alone. Where people are suffering it’s due to ungoverned forces, but if we try to govern those forces we’ll just make things worse.
Now, knowing what forces you’re dealing with is obviously important. You’re more likely to get your ship safely to harbor if you do understand winds and hurricanes and have a decent chart of the ocean currents. But even the best chart can’t tell you why you set sail in the first place or which ports of call you’ll be happiest visiting. Economics charts the “currents” of wealth and finance, and conservatives – whether mistakenly or cynically – point to its theories as if they were, in and of themselves, either blueprints for a healthy and prosperous society or the nearest substitutes we can ever hope to have. They deny that we can also chart our own course, that economic currents can be navigated toward destinations of our choosing. While allowing that government plays an economic role, conservatism “fatalistically” denies, as FDR put it, that democratic processes can be “the instrument of our united purpose,” a means of mastering forces and solving problems that had “baffled and bewildered” us in the past. Conservatism leaves us collectively at sea, reduced to drifting where the winds and tides happen to take us.
To be sure, not all forces have been mastered, and the winds of chance will never stop blowing. Nor will every problem yield to a democratically chosen solution. But many will. Even so, conservatives can always argue that “government” programs and regulations don’t work. One reason they get away with this is that even successful programs don’t make everything perfect, and the perfect can easily be made the enemy of the good. People’s attention is more readily focused on what’s wrong than what’s right, so if a given reform is only 50 or even 80 percent effective, whatever remains of the unsolved problem can be held up as proof that not only is this particular solution a failure, but the problem is beyond solving and shouldn’t even be addressed. (If only total solutions count, then yes, many problems are “beyond solving.”) Soon we’re hearing that public action always fails and that “Government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem” – a point that’s all the easier to “prove” if conservative opposition has kept the best measures from being adopted to begin with.
Another reason the conservative view isn’t more widely dismissed is that successes tend to become part of the landscape. Like any reforms that conservatives once opposed, rules and programs that solve problems create a new state of affairs that’s easy to take for granted. Today we can deposit our life savings in a bank without worry, safely assuming that the banking system is sound. How long that situation was in coming, what a free-for-all the system used to be and what continual grief this caused is remembered, if at all, as the stuff of ancient newsreels. Since conservatives like reliable banks too, they don’t call for restoring the old, more lightly regulated system outright. They content themselves with merely chipping away at the rules in ways that make a few people rich while wreaking general havoc, as in the Savings & Loan fiasco of the 1980s. But the disappearance of most arguments over regulating banks has the odd effect of making the reforms themselves invisible as well. As the old problems fade from memory, trustworthy banks come to seem like the natural state of things, and the aggressive government actions that were needed to create them no longer impress people as models for other reforms or evidence that such actions can work.
Likewise, rules regulating wages and hours, child labor, and workplace safety have been successful enough to bring the long political struggles over these questions largely to an end (though here, too, there’s continual chipping away). The occasional sweatshop abuse is the exception that proves the rule, which is that workdays typically aren’t 16 hours long anymore and that most children are in school instead of working in fields, factories or mines. It’s easy to take these facts for granted, and to forget that demands for better working conditions were once met with literally murderous resistance. Nowadays conservatives don’t have troops they can call out to shoot at protesting workers, but they do have economists armed and ready to shoot down any proposals that might further benefit workers directly. The weapons nowadays aren’t guns and goons, but studies claiming to prove that labor standards cost too much and were never needed anyway: Child labor, for instance, was a problem that the spread of industry didn’t cause, but rather solved (albeit only after several generations of children had been sacrificed). If children in the Third World still spend their days stitching soccer balls, that proves not that unregulated capitalism is prone to such abuses but simply that free markets need to keep working their magic. And magic, needless to say, is a very convenient thing. Who wouldn’t like to believe that problems are best solved by standing back and doing nothing?
“The Bible tells me so”
If there’s one thing that most strikingly distinguishes conservatives – one large faction of them, at least – from progressives and liberals, it’s their urge to root both science and social policy in the authority of Holy Scripture. And here, more than anywhere else, we see present efforts that should be discredited by a long string of historic failures. No one today, for instance, even in the deepest depths of the Christian right, doubts that there are people living in Australia. And yet Christians of earlier times called it “senseless folly,” not to mention heresy, to suppose that anyone could live with their feet above their heads on the other side of the earth, or even that it had another side. The Bible, after all, was quite clear on this, speaking in several places of “the four corners of the earth” with the heavens stretched above “as a curtain.”
Confronted with such passages, today’s so-called biblical literalists explain that they’re just poetic images and not to be taken literally. But that would have been news to the people who wrote them down, as well as to the Bible’s most careful and pious interpreters in earlier ages. Leading scholars and “Church Fathers” like St. Augustine were just as certain that the Bible ruled out the existence of Australia as today’s conservative Christians are certain that it rules out evolution. And the consequences of thinking otherwise, they believed, were just as dire; to imagine that people inhabit another hemisphere would do as much moral and spiritual harm as imagining them related to apes. For how, then, could the Gospel be preached “to the ends of the world,” as God demanded? Doubting the plain meaning of Scripture on one point means doubting it on everything, right? And this amounts to abandoning God.
Of course, it wasn’t God who was abandoned but rather those baffling interpretations. Today’s conservatives don’t realize they were ever made, let alone that they reigned as doctrine for more than a thousand years. Therefore they don’t bother to explain how the Bible’s most attentive readers could misunderstand it so badly for so long. Nor do they explain why we should suppose that contemporary creationists and other alleged literalists are any smarter than St. Augustine and his fellow authorities, any better than they were at using the Bible to do science. Nor, further, are conservatives able to account for the many social and moral truths that were crystal-clear from the Bible, until they weren’t: that slavery is good in God’s eyes, that blacks and whites mustn’t marry, that Jews should be rounded up and deported (or worse).
Thankfully, these old orthodoxies have also gone the way of the flat earth. Apart from some fringe groups, conservatives themselves have given them up; they no longer hold that Christian devotion requires believing that God blessed the ancestors of some races but cursed others, or that biblical prophecy proved the world would end by 1844, or that epidemics are collective punishment for a people’s sins. (Well, that one’s had a modern revival.) Giving up those beliefs, however, can mean only one of two things: Either the Bible has been wrong on some points, or these were never truly among the Bible’ teachings. But that in turn means accusing most Christians of the past, including the most influential, of completely misunderstanding their own most sacred texts.
It must be acknowledged that Christian teachings of the past also helped pave the way for democracy and (real) science, and in the hands of genuine saints, like Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King Jr., biblical faith has sometimes been a spur to mercy and justice. But that’s the point: The scriptures, plural, contain many ideas, including some of the most enlightened sentiments ever written down. The problem isn’t the Bible as such, it’s a certain fundamentalist way of reading it on the premise that “it” offers a single, clear, timelessly relevant message. In fact the Bible is many books with many messages, and 2,000 years of repeated and serious misuses have shown how hard these are to sort through, even for the most well-meaning interpreters.
In light of that history, and given how many certainties of the past they’ve had to abandon, one might hope that today’s conservative Christians – or rather, members of the political movement that has appropriated the name “Christian” – would approach their Bible-reading with a little humility. But no, the Christian right today is just as confident of its dogmas as the flat-earthers once were. They’re evidently much smarter than the countless faithful Christians before them, because they find in the Bible only what’s really there. In them, at last, the long reign of error has come to an end: The human race really was created on a single day, a microscopic fertilized egg really is a person, Armageddon really is just around the corner, homosexuality really is sinful and discrimination against gays OK. Whatever their similarities to the discarded doctrines of old, these at last are the correctly interpreted, God’s-honest truth – not just cultural prejudices dressed up as divine revelation, and destined to wind up in the same dusty museum case as those medieval maps that said “Here be dragons.”
“It’s what nature intended”
Both to reinforce appeals to Scripture and to fill in gaps where it’s silent, conservatives reflexively rely on another source of ultimate authority. We noted earlier that medical advances have regularly met with conservative hostility. Changing, or even studying, the body’s functions in order to reduce pain and sickness has often been said to defy “nature.” It’s obvious why nature, as conservatives define it, would play this kind of role in their arguments against science. But conservatives wield nature as a club to beat back changes in society too. There’s nothing obviously wrong, conservatism teaches, with systems of privilege that rank some groups of people higher than others. Social hierarchy and exclusion, “survival of the fittest” (here conservatives suddenly embrace Darwin), territoriality, dominance and submission, even heartless violence – these are only natural, the human counterparts of conditions found everywhere in the “dog-eat-dog” animal world. Liberals may object to them, but they might as well object to the earth’s going around the sun (as it’s – ahem – now conceded to do). Interfering with these tough realities in the name of “reform” is useless, unless your real goal is to replace them with the unnatural.
If this were true it would be a strong argument. Nature, including human nature, does set limits on how human beings can live, and any way of organizing society that violates those limits will be unstable and unlikely to last. But conservatives keep claiming to have identified those limits, and they keep turning out to be wrong. In defending existing arrangements, as they frequently do, conservatives are apt to claim that whatever manner of social organization we happen to live under at present is the very one that nature intended. Over the generations we’ve been informed that nature requires landed aristocracies, tyrannical rulers, second-class citizenship for women and third- or fourth-class (if that) for nonwhites. Particularly alarming, and a special target of conservatives, has been the threat to the social order posed by unnatural sex. Nature, we’ve been told, limits legitimate relations to people of the same race but different genders. They must resemble each other in the one respect, but by no means in the other.
To the extent that arguments like these get any mileage, it’s partly by confusing the natural with the normal. This is an easy trick to pull with things that are new or rare, since they’re likely to be untypical – different from the “norm.” Gay and interracial couples are still abnormal numerically, which can easily be painted as “abnormal” in a more sinister sense. The merely uncommon thus becomes the “unnatural.” Likewise, a lot of important social change is historically quite recent. Women have been subordinate to men in many centuries and most societies; if you want to keep them that way, you can point out that they typically have been and conclude that nature must want them to be.
The logical flaw here should be obvious. Great violinists are also uncommon, yet no one thinks that nature abhors a violin. Landed aristocrats were never more than a tiny part of the population, nor are billionaires today, yet these glaring abnormalities don’t put conservatives in fear for the future of civilization. (Apparently the piling up of great wealth is just nature taking its course.) Meanwhile, across much of the planet, slavery was a common practice throughout most of history. For its conservative apologists this once proved it was “natural,” yet no one seriously argues this anymore – or, if they do, they don’t insist that we’re therefore obliged to keep it going.
Only by being highly selective, then, can we justify particular social arrangements based on what’s either historically or currently normal. If anything really is normal, it’s that all such arrangements are forever in flux. Conservatives might have a better case if they pointed out that every society that’s ever existed has rested on some system of hierarchy. There have always been some groups lording it over others, which would suggest that hierarchies are inevitable – just a “natural” part of life. But this argument can’t justify any given hierarchy or the practices associated with it, because those are always changing. The really striking fact is that no particular hierarchy has lasted forever. No social circumstances, institutions or customs have ever been final, and there’s no reason to assume that those that oppress or disadvantage some people today will be either. Nothing in nature locks in today’s arrangements or stops us from looking for better ones.
“Life is fair”
In embracing existing hierarchies and disparaging most proposals for change, conservatives like to think they’ve accepted the fact that life isn’t fair. Some people have more advantages than others? Some people get lucky breaks that others don’t? So be it. Progressives’ insistence on making things “fairer” is mostly just utopian scheming, notwithstanding the many times in the past when they’ve actually succeeded.
But this self-image is a delusion. In truth it’s conservatives who are assuming that life is fair. Their view isn’t just that some injustices can’t be fixed, it’s that many of those conditions aren’t injustices at all. Some people deserve greater privilege than others. They “earn” it, either through some kind of effort on their part or simply by virtue of their better character. And by the same token there are people of lesser industry, ingenuity or character who deserve to find themselves holding the short end of the stick. As long as that’s the reason it happens, it’s fine if the so-called “outcomes” that different people experience are different.
What makes this attitude a belief in life’s fairness is the assumption that our society already gives people their fair opportunities and just deserts – most people, anyway, most of the time. After many centuries in which this obviously wasn’t true (which didn’t stop conservatives back then from saying it was), we’ve reached that happy state in which, by and large, there are no big, structural injustices left. Arbitrary obstacles to achievement have been removed, and an individual’s circumstances are therefore whatever he makes them. This of course isn’t the case everywhere, conservatives would acknowledge, but it’s true enough in America, and that’s part of what makes America the uniquely great nation it is. (And in another sense it is true everywhere, because the people of any nation that falls short of this greatness must be lacking whatever cultural virtues made it possible for Americans.)
If any idea ever lent itself to circular reasoning, it’s this one. To test the conservative hypothesis, we would need to know whether the people who succeed best in our society are the people who most deserve to. That means having some way of knowing who’s deserving. But since we don’t know most people personally and can’t peer into their souls, we’re bound to rely in judging this on what we can see from the outside. And from the outside, the personal qualities that are easiest to measure are fame, wealth, power, status, and the popularity these lend a person (often leading to more fame, wealth, power and status). Thus the strong temptation, to which conservatives happily succumb, is to treat such advantages as themselves evidence of fine character, and therefore as proof of what the person deserves. Worldly rewards thereby justify themselves. And once it’s assumed that the people currently reaping such rewards are also in general the best people, then of course it will seem that the system is fair – it is, after all, rewarding the best people.
It wasn’t so long ago that phrases like “the best people” and “one’s betters” were in common use, as was language that marked a select few as people of “rank” or “quality.” What these terms referred to was frankly unearned privilege. Shakespeare, for example, like everyone in his day, often used them as synonyms for lords, ladies and other titled aristocrats, people whose “quality” was established the moment they were born into one of “the better families.” Even where formal titles were later abandoned, as in the U.S., terms like these continued to function as, basically, euphemisms for wealth.
Over time, reforms for which progressives can take credit (and which conservatives, as always, resisted) have weakened the links between birth, wealth and perceived “quality.” But progressive success at discrediting the old notion of social ranks has had the ironic effect of making the class barriers that do remain harder to see. It gave life to a new conservative myth – the “classless society” – in which those barriers have supposedly disappeared altogether, and those who are determined enough can now achieve whatever they want. Which means that if they don’t, then the fault lies with them, not the system.
“Our betters know what’s best for us”
The conservative faith in “better people” and in the system’s fairness in rewarding them has an important corollary. By and large, conservatives believe, our society is run the way it should be. Conservatives object, of course, when progressives get hold of political power, which conservatism’s own failures periodically ensure they’ll do. But even then, most of society’s institutions are in the hands of elites in whom the rest of us can have confidence, because in our society, as just noted, the best people rise to the top. And since “best” includes wisest, fairest, and most visionary and courageous, the decisions our betters make from their high positions will almost always be the best for rest of us too. At the top of our social hierarchy are the people best able to see things whole, and to act, not in their own interests or those of their class, but in everyone’s.
Like most of the conservative axioms we’ve reviewed, this one is extraordinarily convenient. If it were true it would remove one big issue, class oppression, from the agenda of needed reforms, and would reassuringly suggest that other unsolved problems are already in good hands. And like most conservative views it has a long history, reappearing again in every era even as each group of overdogs gives way to the next. It was explicitly invoked to justify the old systems of aristocracy; in fact the term “aristocracy” is this argument, since it comes from Greek roots that mean “rule by the best.” Who wouldn’t agree that it’s best to be ruled by the best? Granted, the best were once thought to be the nobility, as opposed to the vulgar new class of money-grubbing merchants and bankers; then later it was those worthy, responsible merchants and bankers as opposed to the vulgar “Democracy” of ordinary farmers and laborers (when Democracy was still a term of abuse). Then those sturdy farmers and honest laborers became paragons of virtue, this time in contrast with the “filthy” masses of urban industrial workers and the onrushing “hordes” of alien-looking immigrants. Somehow, in every era, there’s at least one large group we just can’t accommodate – an unruly “mob” incapable of sharing America’s time-honored values and about to overrun us if they’re not kept at bay. Luckily, stalwart conservatives stand atop the barricades to sound the alarm if they get too close.
But hasn’t the left been wrong too?
Some conservative excuses
The six pillars of conservative unwisdom we’ve just reviewed seem to be operating in every age. We find remarkably similar versions of them in periods which, because the world has changed and moved on to new issues, are otherwise very different. (Another set of six “canons,” not the same as but overlapping with these, is the very definition of conservatism, according to one of its own gurus, Russell Kirk.) Once the conservative ideas current in any given period are discredited and abandoned, conservatives of the next era simply build a new structure on the same old supports. For centuries now they’ve been serving themselves and the rest of us poorly by spurning scientific evidence in favor of biblical revelation, insisting that certain social arrangements are natural or God-given and mustn’t be changed, putting their faith in the powers-that-be of the moment and assuming that these would and should continue in power, reacting with hostility to efforts to extend rights to groups that previously lacked them, and warning with utter confidence that reform efforts would wreck society instead of making it better. And yet, to paraphrase one of their heroes, Ronald Reagan: “Here they go again.” However badly these impulses have failed them as guides to the situations and controversies of the past, conservatives are always arguing anew that they’re just what’s needed to meet the challenges of the present.
Once in a great while a conservative acknowledges that his side got some great issue wrong. Pope John Paul II apologized for several of his church’s most notorious mistakes, including the Galileo fiasco as well as much more serious crimes against Jews, women and many other groups. (He drew the line at gays and lesbians, leaving that inevitable apology for some future pope.) Newt Gingrich, when he took over the Speakership of the U.S. House in 1995, told his colleagues the following:
No Republican here should kid themselves about it. The greatest leaders in fighting for an integrated America in the 20th century were in the Democratic Party. The fact is, it was the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that ended segregation. The fact is that it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who gave hope to a nation that was in distress and could have slid into dictatorship. Every Republican has much to learn from studying what the Democrats did right.
But that moment of magnanimity was not to be repeated, and remarks like these are, as a rule, very rare. Usually, as conservative views are discredited their old proponents just move on, refocusing their ire on some new progressive idea or initiative. And the irony is that by resolving the previous issue and consigning it to history, the progress achieved over conservative opposition makes people forget that conservatives had been on the wrong side. In effect, the very fact that they were wrong shields them from having to explain why. Conservatism’s failures are their own cover-up.
Some conservative rhetoric nonetheless implies a partial explanation. In a backhanded tribute to progressivism’s success, conservatives sometimes try to suggest that they’re actually progressives themselves. This argument comes in a couple of varieties:
“We’re continuing the reforms of the past”
In recent years the right has been offering its own set of historical analogies. Conservatives, we’re told, aren’t repeating their same old errors in a new form, they’re acting in the spirit of the great progressive causes of the past. Their position on abortion is analogous to the 19th-century abolitionists’ position on slavery, since both movements aimed at rescuing oppressed and vulnerable beings. And in advocating creationism, prayer in schools, public funding for religious education and the like, conservatives are carrying forward the great, historic movement for civil rights – in this case, in defense of Christians and their rights to freedom of expression and equal status. Against such efforts it’s progressives who are close-minded and conservative, who refuse to question established ways and institutions, who bind over schoolchildren to the tyranny of dogmatic secularists, and who even try to censor the holidays by “banning” the phrase “Merry Christmas” while, for good measure, striking “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.
Is there anything to these comparisons? It’s true that anti-abortionists resemble the old abolitionists in their militancy and moral absolutism; and it’s true that the Christian right has aimed its efforts at schools, which were also a major battleground of the real Civil Rights Movement. But if conservatives’ new analogies haven’t been winning over a majority of the public, it’s because they have some obvious flaws. By seeking to require women, as a matter of law, to carrry pregnancies to term, the anti-abortion movement doesn’t seem to be freeing slaves so much as creating them. And comparing supposedly oppressed Christians to African-Americans forced to live under Jim Crow segregation is even more dubious. Christians are a majority in the U.S., not a minority. To hear conservatives tell it, America is “a Christian nation” – yet for some reason it doesn’t nurture Christianity, which is evidently about as robust as a soap bubble. (The civil-rights analogy conservatives are reaching for might work better if they compared their movement to feminism, another struggle to free an oppressed majority. But that would involve the unthinkable idea that feminism achieved something good.)
Beyond those problems, the movements in question rest on the same pillars that conservatism has been shakily leaning on all along. They don’t match up well with progressivism’s past campaigns because they’re so plainly tied to the backlash politics of the right. The anti-abortion movement most obviously arose in reaction against expanding rights for women – the new respect for their autonomy that logically included the “right to choose.” Creationism and “intelligent design” are obviously the latest in a long, losing series of Bible-thumping objections to science, which continues to rout the fundamentalists by explaining more and more phenomena that used to be consigned to tradition and mysticism. And calls for prayer in schools or forcing students to pledge “under God” are efforts to bring back a little of the old coercive power that Christianity once exercised, back when schools and other government institutions put their muscle behind the dominant faith. Even by analogy, rearguard actions like these aren’t very plausibly called “progressive.”
“We’re defending the reforms of the past”
A second and more promising way to claim a share in progressivism’s success would be to point out, as conservatives legitimately could, that they stand for things like capitalism, property rights and free enterprise that were progressive reforms once upon a time. Perhaps these boil down to the rights of anyone to make, keep and spend as much money as he can, which on their face don’t seem like such noble things to fight for. But they did have to be fought for, and since then they’ve been the engine for much of the progress that made advanced societies “advanced.” Along these lines, conservative could also argue that some of their positions were “right for their time” even if they now seem wrong. Maybe Western nations needed absolute monarchies at one stage; these too were reforms, in a way, since it undermines the old aristocracy if everyone is equally subject to the king. Advocates of the king’s divine right, therefore, weren’t merely toadying to power or dressing it in mystical totalisms, a classic conservative undertaking. They were building an essential, if temporary, bridge along the road to the democratic present.
But even if we grant that some current conservative stand was necessary or made sense in the past, that wouldn’t mean it makes sense in the same unqualified way today. Having helped usher in democracy, divine kingship serves no further purpose, and capitalism works well only in combination with other mechanisms that conservatives still resist even now. (More on that below.) Plus, if a given position did once represent reform, the next question would be: reform of what? Who was resisting the onset of free enterprise, or the consolidation of power that gave us the modern nation? The answer, of course, is conservatives of those earlier eras, whose appeals to nature, authority and revelation were prototypes for those that conservatives make today, even when they’re defending the very things that those earlier conservatives opposed. To put it another way, there’s some circular reasoning involved in suggesting that a particular idea was right “for its time.” What do we mean by “its time”? Presumably an era when things were less advanced or less developed than today. But why were they less advanced? In part because conservative resistance to change kept them that way. Conservatives themselves, in other words, are instrumental in creating the “times” in the first place. To argue that equal rights for women, for instance, wouldn’t have suited the 19th century because it was “a time” when women weren’t seen as men’s equals is to use conservatism to justify itself.
At best, the fact that some (though not all) of today’s conservative ideas are “classical liberal” or onetime progressive ideas is only a partial excuse. Conservatives are those who defend, or seek to intensify, existing structures of privilege and power. Those structures are part of a state of things that we wouldn’t have reached if not for earlier progress. So we might say that conservatives favor progress in retrospect, belatedly taking the better side in the old disputes that led to our present state. But if conservatives sometimes dress in the hand-me-downs of past progressives, that doesn’t make them progressives too – as they themselves acknowledge when they call themselves “conservative.” Today’s arrangements may be an improvement over those of the past, but unless conservatives are finally right that we’ve reached the limit, they can still be further improved. So the question remains, why are progressive efforts to improve things today still being met with the same opposition, framed and phrased in almost exactly the same terms, as those earlier progressive ideas that even conservatives now accept?
“We’re fighting radicalism, not reform”
Because, conservatives would say, the progressive ideas of today are wrong. An idea isn’t good – in fact, it isn’t necessarily even progressive – just because it upsets the status quo or purports to advance existing knowledge. If what you want is sensible, modest, practical reform, then you really belong politically on the right, not the left. True, there were times in the past when conservative opposition was directed against reforms that we all now see were worthwhile. But it was also directed against proposals that would have taken the world down the wrong path – and, in some notorious cases, did. The great example is Communism, a bad set of ideas and even worse political and social program that Western conservatives opposed from start to finish, even as some progressive “fellow travelers” were oblivious to its evils. On this, one of the great political challenges of the past two hundred years, it’s progressives who were wrong and should be explaining away their mistakes, isn’t it? For that matter, aren’t they persisting in the same faulty ways of thinking that gave us Communism in the first place? Aren’t most of them basically Communists themselves?
No question, for the last century or so such arguments have been getting conservatives a lot of mileage. Even though America’s official response to Communism was crafted in large part by liberals like Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman, conservatives never tire of conflating moderate reform with Communism, or in general with the kind of leftist radicalism that has appeared in various forms since the French Revolution and has caused untold suffering whenever it’s managed to seize power. Liberals and progressives themselves seem sensitive to the comparison; one political philosopher recently explained that he calls himself a liberal, not a progressive, because the word progressive is tied to a “long since discredited” theory of the forward march of events, whereas liberalism is a philosophy that “doesn’t necessarily believe it will win.”
Marxist visions of “progress” certainly did include a theory of inevitable victory, and some of history’s greatest crimes resulted from Communist rulers’ efforts to hasten that victory by force. In this, some self-described progressives were irresponsibly complicit. Some flirted with Communism while willfully ignoring its dangers. Other backed, or even helped dream up, big reform projects that might not have been Communist, but that were grandiose and overly ambitious in their own right and that either failed spectacularly or deserved to. America’s imperial adventures in Cuba and the Philippines had the support of some prominent members of the early-20th-century Progressive Movement, as did the misguided campaign to use the Constitution as a sponge for wiping alcohol out of American life. And some of the Great Society programs of the 1960s were criticized even from the left for their gigantism, bureaucratic inflexibility and reliance on “top-down” solutions. It’s fair to ask whether there’s some feature of progressive thinking that encourages these tendencies, some unifying error that links together the moderate and more radical left in the same way that the right’s persistent errors link conservatives across generations (and at times put them in league with radical reactionaries, let’s not forget).
As it happens, the best candidates for Grand Unifying Leftist Error that progressivism’s opponents have put forward are essentially those same pillars of conservatism turned upside down. Thus, in place of the faulty conservative assumption that we’ve reached the limit, the left (it’s said) believes there are no limits at all: Utopia is just around the corner, and by applying whatever force is needed we’ll march people into it sooner rather than later. In place of leaving people on their own, the left opts for collective solutions to everything, with no regard – with contempt, in fact – for individual freedom. In its skepticism toward faith, the left has rejected the wisdom of the ages in favor of a soulless pseudo-religion, “secular humanism,” which it promotes through indoctrination and forced re-education. Instead of adhering to nature, the left has arrogantly sought to reshape reality to its totalitarian will. On the question of whether life is fair, the left denies the obvious and inevitable differences among people and insists on reducing everyone to the same dismal “equality.” And in place of faith in existing elites, leftists want to change society for a simple reason: So they can run it. Reform and improvement are their cynical pretexts; what really motivates them is the sheer lust for power.
Such ways of thinking do exist on the left, but clearly they’re not what gave us the advances in scientific knowledge, or the great movements for democracy, inclusion and civil rights, that moderate progressives of earlier periods struggled for against conservative opposition. To reject conservative premises doesn’t mean embracing their diametrical opposites; you can refuse to believe that we’ve reached the limit, or that some things are natural and others aren’t, without rejecting the whole notion of nature or limits and giving yourself over to utopian fantasy. Progressive reform not only shouldn’t aim to force everyone in the direction of some grandiose vision, it should work with conservatives to defeat radical schemes of that kind.
But if there’s no wisdom in political perfectionism, there’s also none in ignoring progressivism’s generally good record (and conservatism’s uniformly bad one) at finding fairer, more reasonable ways of organizing our lives. Maybe these reforms, taken together, really are a forward march of events, or maybe they just look a lot like one and have brought us to the same better state. Either way, progressives can continue their search for such improvements without sacrificing the practical in pursuit of the ideal. Their goal, as FDR elegantly put it, shouldn’t be to substitute one for the other, but to erase the line that divides the two.
Why do they hate America?
What we’ve been analyzing here are faulty ideas – the intellectual errors that conservatism is based on and tends to perpetuate. There are other ways, too, that we could try to understand it. We could look at the material interests that conservatism serves (a popular approach on the left), or we could analyze it in terms of political psychology, looking for its sources in people’s personalities, upbringing and maybe even DNA. But as interesting as they might be, material and psychological analyses wouldn’t tell us what’s wrong with conservatism. At most they might help explain why, besides historical forgetfulness, a given group of people would choose to keep repeating the same mistakes.
That said, it’s important to note that the flawed intellectual premises described earlier – we’ve reached the limit; you’re on your own; the Bible tells me so; it’s what nature intended; life is fair; and our betters know what’s best for us – do all reflect a certain underlying mentality, a characteristic way of perceiving and thinking about things. Conservatism depends on oversimplifying, on putting too much stock in what appears to be obvious. At its core is a specific kind of naïveté about how the world is constructed and what makes it work.
This, of course, is the opposite of what conservatives themselves allege. In their view it’s the liberal approach that ignores life’s harsh realities in favor of “social engineering” based on naïve, impossible dreams and schemes. Liberal and progressive ideas are liable to this caricature because they’re based on hope, and hope requires being able to imagine what doesn’t yet exist – to “look at things as they might be and ask ‘why not’?”, in Robert F. Kennedy’s famous description. In fact the progressive hopes of one era are continually becoming the new realities of the next; but until that happens it’s easy to point at something imagined and declare it merely imaginary, an absurd figment of an overactive mind. Serious people, as conservatives fancy themselves, don’t sit around imagining things and asking “why not,” they look at what is – and say “fine.” Or “live with it.”
In the many past instances where conservatives failed to see viable possibilities that others did see, we could simply say they lacked imagination. But that’s not quite right. A lack of imagination isn’t just a missing part or malfunctioning mechanism, like some kind of mental film projector with a burned-out bulb. It’s an over-investment in “what is,” in the already real and visible. It’s mistaking superficialities, the hard surfaces of things that we see around us, for realities too solid to be moved or changed.
Naive overconfidence in appearances is what once led people to see the earth as the center of the universe: the simplest conclusion (to all appearances) as well as the most comforting. Real realism, in that case, meant not only rejecting the seemingly obvious in order to follow the evidence where it led, but making several spectacular leaps of imagination – like imagining that there were whole worlds no one had ever set foot on, entirely different “earths” circling not just “the” sun but numberless others over distances too vast to comprehend. It’s not a coincidence that Johannes Kepler, the first scientist to describe the solar system with mathematical precision, also wrote the first-ever story imagining alien life on another world. (Conservatives harassed him for both achievements.)
If anything, it’s even harder and more threatening to reimagine society than it is to reimagine the universe. Most of the time, the institutions that give a society its shape will seem solidly in place. They’ll often claim the authority of long tradition, however exaggerated those claims tend to be. Some will have the means to maintain themselves by force. And, most importantly, people will be invested in them, not just psychologically but materially, making them objects of love and loyalty for those who benefit from them and even for some of those who don’t. It may be disconcerting to encounter a different theory of the solar system, but unless you’re an astronaut it won’t disturb the way you actually live. But a reconfigured social system can and probably will.
It’s much easier, then, to assume that the social order we happen to find ourselves in is just the way things are, the way they’re meant to be, and/or the only way that things can be made to work. And from this core assumption the other conservative premises follow. To say that this is how things are meant to be is to say that we’ve discovered what nature intended. That means we’ve reached the limits of collective improvement, and we’ll each have to make any further progress on our own. But we’ll all have a fair chance to do that, because a social order that conforms to nature won’t pose any significant artificial barriers – and therefore will sort people into their proper roles and places, which includes putting the right people in charge. And, of course, a natural and fair system must also be God’s will, so surely we’ll be able to find justifications for it in the Bible.
The reverse is true too: If we look past surface appearances, if we consider how things really work, then the foundations of much conservative ideology crumble. Indeed it turns out that the whole structure has been pointing in directions opposite the one conservatives thought they were facing. Conservatives themselves, it turns out, don’t know what they actually stand for. I’m not referring here to everyday inconsistencies of the kind that are often noted – the way, for instance, that they carry on about “freedom” even while routinely siding with police against ordinary citizens and demanding Patriot Act-style powers for government. Some of that just reflects unresolved disagreements within conservatism (or among different sub-movements that use the name), like the tension between its smaller libertarian and its larger authoritarian factions. What I’m talking about is more fundamental, a set of deep contradictions whereby conservative ideology undercuts its own premises. If we take their own analyses seriously, we have to conclude that, underneath it all, conservatives believe the opposite of what they they’ve convinced themselves they believe in several key areas:
They ignore economic reality
Thinking themselves sober realists, conservatives imagine that they’re keen students of “the dismal science,” as economics has been called. Unlike fuzzy-headed liberal idealists who see pie in the sky and money growing on trees, they think they’ve achieved a mature recognition of how little scope there is for politically managed reform before it interferes with the capitalist forces essential to generating wealth.
But here another analogy might be useful. If you asked a little kid what makes an airplane fly, a likely answer would be “the pilot.” That’s a good answer as far as it goes, but anyone even a little bit better informed knows that the pilot is just one element in a much larger system, and it’s actually that whole system that makes the plane fly. Without the coordinated efforts of thousands of people, most of whom will never even lay eyes on the plane, there’s no flight. In fact there’s no plane, because just getting one built requires engineers, designers, metallurgists, computation experts and many others, as well as any number of investors, workers and supervisors, who then hand it off to an operational network of trainers, mechanics, air-traffic controllers and on and on. The pilot wouldn’t be in position to fly – wouldn’t even be a pilot – if not for these innumerable other contributions.
In economics, conservatives are prone to the fallacy of the pilot. They have all kinds of praise for business leaders and entrepreneurs, the pilots of modern enterprise. But they seem naïvely unaware of just how much else is needed to create a modern economy and keep it functioning. In particular, they’re indifferent if not hostile to the crucial role of public investment. Virtually every advance that made great enterprises (and great fortunes) possible can be traced to initiatives that the public supported through taxes and government. Computers, transistors, silicon chips and the internet all began either as government projects, or in laboratories that depended on government grants. Before that it was communications systems, rural electrification, highways and the rest of the infrastructure of transport. Before that, it was public schools and universities, land grants, homesteads and railroad rights-of-way. Before that it was the exploration, surveying and mapping of unknown lands. And beyond these foundations, modern economies are also sustained – however distasteful this may be to conservatives – by government regulations and social-welfare programs, which help keep demand high and faith in the system intact. All this lays the groundwork on which private entrepreneurs build. Whatever kind of computer and business genius Bill Gates might be, he would never have been heard from if not for two things: key technologies developed with a strong push from government, and a trustworthy, well-governed market in which business can get done.
If we keep this larger picture in mind, then we also have to say this about conservatives:
They love government
Again, they would say: No we don’t, we love private enterprise. But in their high regard for the entrepreneurial whizzes who develop, manufacture and market things, conservatives unwittingly endorse the government support that made those things possible. And what also reveals conservatives’ secret fondness for government – secret even to them, apparently – is their reverence for wealth, which they’re forever struggling to keep in “private” hands (which means, in the hands of people who don’t have to account to the public for what they do with it). But just as modern technologies have roots in government, so do most if not all private fortunes. Besides being built out of materials the government made available, they often grow directly out of public concessions of some kind: land grants and charters, government contracts, direct and hidden subsidies, leases on favorable terms for mining, grazing, lumbering and broadcasting rights, business-friendly tariffs, military protection of land claims, and past missions of exploration and (unfortunately) conquest, including suppression of native peoples through a mix of purchases, treaties, force and fraud. Plus, once the fortunes are made they’re usually passed down to heirs, some of whom use them to build still bigger fortunes.
Compared to the business savvy and heroic risk-taking that liven up the biographies of tycoons, these precursor steps in the making of great wealth are seldom celebrated in song and story. In fact they’re usually not remembered at all. “It’s your money,” President George W. Bush liked to say by way of promoting a more regressive tax system. Yet multi-billionaires themselves, people who would seem to know the “making” of money better than anyone, are sometimes the first to point out that this conservative formula is too simplistic. Endorsing proposals for a tax on large estates, Andrew Carnegie – whose own massive business success owed something to U.S. government patronage and munitions contracts during the Civil War – wrote, “Men who continue hoarding great sums all their lives, the proper use of which for public ends would work good to the community from which it chiefly came, should be made to feel that the community, in the form of the State, cannot thus be deprived of its proper share” (emphases added). In other words, “it’s our money” could just as rightfully be the people’s and government’s claim on the wealthy, not the other way around. A hundred years after Carnegie, Warren Buffett and a number of other very rich people joined a campaign organized by Bill Gates’ father to save that same inheritance tax. Fighting back against efforts to abolish the tax, which conservatives had polemically re-labeled “the death tax,” Buffett ridiculed what seemed to be the conservative premise: that wealth was rightly distributed according to luck and accidents of birth. Not only would that bring back aristocracy, said Buffett, it was “absolute folly” on its face – like picking an Olympic team based on which athletes’ parents had once been Olympic champions themselves.
As we’ve noted, conservatives’ default assumption is that the wealthy must deserve to be where they are (because our society is basically fair), and by the same token most people who aren’t wealthy must not be trying or willing it hard enough. It follows that social-welfare programs are mostly just subsidies or, worse, breeding grounds for the shiftless. Attacks on “government handouts” are a standard part of the conservative repertoire. But when we trace wealth to its original sources, what we find – besides the fact that some people “earned” their fortunes while still in the womb – are the friendly policies, favorable treatment and sometimes outright giveaways that are the taxpaying public’s contribution to the social welfare of big moguls. The same holds when we trace the origins of society’s larger “fortune,” the prosperous modern economy, which could never have come into existence without big helpings of public investment. Conservatives fully support these government handouts of the past, even treat them as a kind of entitlement. They’re not praised openly, of course, because that might lend them credibility as precedents for today. Instead they’re just conveniently left out of the story. In this as in many other ways, conservative mythology depends crucially on a lot of things being forgotten.
Conservatives’ naïveté about government, the economy, and the real bases of “private” enterprise distorts their understanding – and even their understanding of their understanding – of how great things actually are achieved, both for individuals and for societies. Put simply, it amounts to ignorance of how the modern world came to be, and therefore of what’s needed to keep it going. That makes these errors the most important examples of naïve conservative self-contradiction. But not the only ones; a few others are worth noting too:
They’re given to grand, unworkable schemes
Since way back when Edmund Burke attacked the radical “Jacobins” of the French Revolution, conservatives have been claiming that what separates them from the foolish and dangerous left is their acceptance of the slow workings of history. Gradually, they say, the wisdom of many generations accumulates and is shaped into the institutions that we then inherit. That’s a key reason the world works as well as it does. But all this is threatened by liberal schemers with their fantastical plans, their wild faith “that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning,” as the conservative icon Russell Kirk disdainfully put it.
Again, part of the answer to this charge is that there’s a difference between radical Jacobins and the moderate progressives who don’t propose to reconstruct the world from the ground up, who seek instead to end particular injustices, and whose past efforts helped push things in directions in which everyone now sees they undoubtedly needed to go. But the other part of the answer is that conservatism itself has proved highly susceptible to its own, characteristic style of grand scheming and schematizing.
By way of enforcing the supposed moral order of the ages, conservatives tend to draw sharp lines, to the point of making Manichean, black-and-white distinctions, between virtue and vice, in-groups and out-groups, patriots and “traitors,” divinely revealed absolute truth and abject error, the storied greatness of the past and the tawdry degradation of the present. When they’re not accusing progressives of creeping Jacobinism, one of conservatives’ most common complaints about liberal thinking is that it tends to smudge those lines. The line between virtue and vice, for instance, becomes blurrier when we start psychoanalyzing criminals or talking about the “root causes” of social unrest. The line between patriotism and treason begins to vanish if we spend too much time dwelling on America’s failures, let alone “crimes,” in its dealings abroad. The line separating truth from error is gradually erased when we insist on applying “historical-critical” methods to the Bible, accepting some of its teachings while setting others aside. And so on.
What complaints like those reveal is the naïve hope that the world’s complexities can be sorted into a few neatly drawn boxes. Attach these boxes to each other, as the conservative worldview does, and what you’ve got is a grand scheme. And this grand scheme will have the same consequences as the grand schemes of the radical left. It will encourage visions of perfection, achievable if only we can stamp out whatever doesn’t fit inside the boxes. Therefore it will be useful in rationalizing violence. And it will fail to work, because it won’t match up with reality any better than leftist fantasies of utopia do. The right’s grand schemes may differ from the left’s “positive law and positive planning”: They’re often more like negative law and negative planning. But that doesn’t make them less utopian, or less dangerous.
Having said this, it’s also the case that:
They reject Christianity
American conservatism today is closely identified with a fundamentalist, i.e. especially strict, strain of Christianity. Openly avowing their Christian faith, and contrasting themselves with liberals who belittle or reject religion and (so they say) persecute its adherents, many conservatives present themselves as defenders of ultimate truths: those handed down directly from God to humankind, mostly through the Bible but occasionally through visions, revelations, “gifts of the Spirit,” or simply “having Jesus in your heart.”
In fact, though, it’s been a while since most conservatives took their own religious claims seriously. Again I’m not referring to some superficial self-contradiction, startling though it might be – like supporting war while preaching a religion of peace, or hiring gay prostitutes while denouncing gays from the pulpit. I’m referring to yet another of conservatism’s many climbdowns, its unacknowledged abandonment of core positions that have become less and less tenable as the world has continued changing. The conservative churchmen who persecuted Galileo were at least consistent, more or less. They may have ignored the sorry record of archbishops trying to do science, but they acted forcefully in defense of what the Bible appeared to be saying. Few conservatives today do that, even if imagining they do is a key part of their self-concept.
Surprising though it may seem, it’s hard to find any mention of religion in the Bible. Although some modern translations have added it, the word never appears at all in the classic King James Version of the Old Testament, and I would guess its Hebrew equivalent, if there was one back then, doesn’t either. There’s a lot of talk of “children of Israel” who observe their “customs” and follow “God’s laws” (or don’t). There are descriptions of other groups who worship “idols” and practice “abominations.” All of these are religious activities and concepts, but originally they weren’t called that. Why not?
Presumably because, if you actually believe in one true God who authorizes one true faith, then the concept of “religions” has little meaning. It’s a term that presumes there are various modes of spiritual expression, maybe some better than others but all of them belonging to the same general category. But a true believer wouldn’t see things that way. He wouldn’t claim to be “practicing” a religion at all, still less choosing one religion over others. He’d see himself as choosing God, as seeking and speaking God’s truth and infusing it into every thought and act. He’d say he was worshipping God in the only way one can, because there aren’t any other real gods to be worshipped (only “idols”) nor any legitimate ways of worshipping the true God other than those that God commands. Far from counting as alternative forms of “worship,” any other practices would be offenses against God.
So to the true believer in one God, and one path to that God, those who take some other path can’t be excused as legitimately “choosing a different religion.” They’re just forsaking God to wander in darkness. The whole notion that there are other legitimate religions, as opposed to wicked and godless cults, presumes some respect for alien societies and their traditions, some acknowledgment of the diversity of humankind. It presumes, in other words, cultural relativism – the very thing that conservative Christians claim to be fighting. (In Christian circles the modern respect for different ways of seeking God is sometimes traced to Friedrich Schleiermacher, a “liberal” theologian of two centuries ago who is a bogeyman to the Christian right.)
Not least of the great progressive achievements of recent centuries is the gradual discrediting of this exclusivist approach to faith. Ecumenicism and religious tolerance were especially important achievements, not just because they’re good in themselves but because they laid the basis for liberal democracy and its guarantees of freedom of conscience. Violent, unyielding exclusivism had made religion, for far too long, a vehicle of tribal loyalties more than a spiritual quest. It was the occasion for wars of stupefying viciousness, as well as the kind of oppression and instability we find today in other societies where religious tolerance hasn’t yet taken hold. In our own society there are still residues of the old intolerance here and there, but even conservatives at least pay lip service to tolerance – as seen in their recent efforts to put the shoe on the other foot by claiming that it’s really liberals who are intolerant (of religion).
But where does this newfound tolerance leave the Christian right? To hear them tell it, conservatives oppose the whole relativizing, secularizing modern project. They refuse to compartmentalize religion, to treat it as just another colorful cultural institution and off-hours pursuit. Instead they claim all of America as “a Christian nation,” and they speak of a transformation in their own lives so total that it amounts to being “born again.” Many look forward to a “millenialist” cosmic drama in which those who aren’t thus reborn will soon find themselves “left behind” in the “End Times.” And meanwhile, any compromise on the question of ultimate truth will open the door to all manner of social evils. “The secularist liberal insists on the ‘privacy’ of religious belief in an effort to trivialize it,” writes one conservative contributor to an online discussion. “But religious belief, in particular Christianity, cannot be understood as purely personal superstition. It makes universal claims about the nature and destiny of human life.” Indeed it does. “No one comes to the Father except through me,” says the Son of God in the unerring pages of Scripture.
It follows from this that Christians can’t worry just about their own spiritual well-being, but must actively work to “save” those who haven’t yet found the way. Saving people means converting them to Christianity, and that’s exactly what the Bible commands: “All nations” are to be baptized in Christ. Conservative “evangelical” Christians are those supposedly most committed to this goal. (Evangelical means “Gospel-spreading.”) And the goal makes perfect sense, for if Christianity isn’t merely one religion among others but, rather, the only true orientation for human souls, then those still on the outside aren’t just wrong, they’re cut off from God. As individuals they’re in grave danger of eternal damnation, a state described in varyingly vivid detail but never as anything good. And as a group, they can’t just be blandly “tolerated.” The world’s remaining communities of professed non-Christians shouldn’t be disbanded by force, perhaps, but the truly faithful Christian would try to persuade them that they have no further reason to exist.
And yet, in recent years, and regardless of what they say they believe, most members and virtually all leaders of the Christian right have silently retreated from these biblical claims and commands – in particular those that might inconvenience them politically. In the political arena they happily build coalitions that cross faiths. They make common cause with other Christian groups, including those that they or their forebears would have once denounced as “heretics” and perhaps even taken up arms to wipe out. And not only that: They’ve aligned themselves with, and sometimes welcomed as leaders, conservative and orthodox Jews. (Some have drawn the line at Mormons, but that may be changing.) The very existence of Judaism used to be seen as a standing rebuke to Christianity, which is why the Inquisition of earlier centuries forced many Jews to convert. That was, to be sure, an atrocity, but one that at least could claim to follow logically from the exclusivist teachings of the faith. For today’s Christian right, by contrast, Judaism isn’t just tolerable, it’s part of a vital political movement. Many evangelicals have become “Christian Zionists,” strongly supporting not only the nation of Israel but its most conservative political parties and projects.
Again, it’s always good to see old enemies embrace and old battle lines disappear. But what the Christian right has made clear is that the battles it really cares about are political, not spiritual. It’s especially odd to see conservative Christians allied with conservative non-Christians, who after all are those most adamant about their own faiths and, therefore, least likely to let Jesus into their hearts. One millenialist view holds that Jews, at least, will convert en masse as part of the End Times – but even that would mean that what they believe at present is all wrong. Yet the Christians who acclaim themselves the most literal and “Bible-believing,” who pronounce their own faith the one rule for every society and soul, seem remarkably untroubled by the spiritual barrenness of the friends and colleagues they may be leaving behind.
From their works, by which we shall know them (says the Bible), it appears, then, that conservatives have tacitly conceded that Christianity is not in fact the only path to God, but merely one religion among others. For them, personally, Jesus may be Lord and Savior, and they may not be shy about telling everyone that. But in the end they accept the modern, secular view that faith is a private matter to be left to each individual’s choice. Liberal Christians, of course, have long since accepted this and accorded other faiths equal political and spiritual status with their own. But that’s what makes them liberals. Christian conservatives still claim to have bought the whole business lock, stock and barrel, exactly as written down and received of old. They claim to take the Bible and the teachings of Christ literally, and to ground their shrill politics and cramped vision for society on their unique knowledge of the one true way. Somehow, though, they don’t seem concerned that their allies in advancing this supposedly faith-based vision have rejected that very faith.
If that particular contradiction, finally, doesn’t bother many conservatives, it’s partly because they’re still in denial about this fact:
They hate America
The real religion of today’s American right is a kind of pumped-up nationalism, a modern instance of what used to be called the sin of idolatry: making a false god of some human creation. In this case that human creation is the United States of America. To many conservatives, America has the attributes of God, and it’s owed a kind of devotion which, in practice, is often more intense than that directed toward the God of tradition. Some conservatives explicitly claim that America’s founders and founding charters, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were divinely inspired, and therefore carry an authority like Holy Scripture’s. America is the modern world’s “chosen nation,” favored with continuing guidance from above, perhaps not omnipotent (though the closest thing to it on earth) but essentially, and by definition, unable to do wrong, just as God is by definition unable to do wrong.
Some examples of this attitude are particularly striking – like the speech in which President Bush referred to American might as “wonder-working power,” borrowing those words from a hymn well known among evangelical Christians. Of course, in the hymn the “wonder-working power” isn’t anything earthly, it’s the power of Christ. But such ease in swapping divine for secular power helps makes sense of a number of other policies and pronouncements of the Bush Administration. As is often noted, it framed the so-called “War on Terror” in religious terms, as a struggle not merely to defeat a militant political movement but to “rid the world” of “evil” and “evildoers.” And to that end, Bush authorized practices that grimly echo the inhuman methods of the old Inquisitors.
But such methods didn’t count as “torture” because, as Bush and other officials put it, “We don’t torture.” That statement was really the conclusion of an unstated syllogism, a logic chain that goes something like:
Evil is done by evildoers.
We’re the scourge of evildoers.
Thus: We don’t do evil.
“Torture” is evil.
Thus: We don’t “torture.”
If you keep the quote marks around “torture,” it’s clearer that those who said this (and who made the policy) weren’t “reasoning” at all – they were speaking in tautologies, defining terms so that their preferred conclusion had to follow. We could even skip the first part: We don’t do evil doesn’t need to be proved, it’s already an article of conservative faith. America is good, not “on balance” or “all things considered” or “with some unfortunate exceptions,” but in some mystical and ultimate way. The U.S. might make mistakes or even do “wrong,” although some conservatives come close to denying even that. But Good is built into its very existence, and the Good does not do Evil.
In the right’s view it’s the left – in which, again, they indiscriminately include moderate liberals – that “hates” and “blames” America. Among the licenses for that claim is the left’s refusal to accept America’s goodness purely on faith, its insistence instead on weighing individual U.S. actions and policies to see if they’re good, evil or somewhere in between. To be open in this way to nuances (unlike Bush, who famously said “I don’t do nuance”) means rejecting the idea of the nation as quasi-divine. You don’t question whether God’s works are good or evil, so if that’s what you’re doing then you must not be talking about (a) God.
On the surface it might seem that this kind of superpatriotism stems from love for the country – a naïve or blind love, perhaps, but certainly not hate. But then the question is what we mean by “the country.” The all-good Creator God of Judeo-Christianity is highly abstract, difficult if not impossible to conceive of or comprehend (especially compared to the imps, tricksters and colorful personalities to be found among the gods of many other religions). A nation can be assigned the perfect virtues of such a God only to the extent that it, too, is an abstraction. It won’t have those virtues if it’s an actual community of human beings, with a political system that barely contains their antagonisms and a government that works pretty well except when it doesn’t. If what you love is America as an abstract, metaphysical vehicle of ultimate Good, then it will be hard to have much patience with the imperfect America that actually exists.
Sure enough, conservatives regularly take stock of America and find it’s a wretched mess. In one notorious example, the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson declared that part of the “blame” and “burden” for the September 11 terrorist attacks rested with “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians,” as well as with “the highest levels of our government” where “we’ve adopted their agenda,” and ultimately with the American people at large, because “we’re responsible as a free society for what the top people do.” That’s an awful lot of evil on the loose. After an outcry the Reverends apologized, but only for seeming to excuse the terrorists – not for blaming America, which conservatives do with remarkable zest. A few years earlier Robertson had predicted that tolerating homosexuality would “bring earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor.” He and his fundamentalist colleagues have preached that hurricanes are God’s punishment on gay-friendly coastal locales like New Orleans, and even Disney World. When Republican Mitt Romney, running for president, attacked American culture as “a cesspool of violence, and sex, and drugs, and indolence, and perversions,” he was merely quoting anathemas already commonplace on the right. To conservatives, the world’s best, greatest and godliest nation is somehow also in the grip of sinners, sodomites and <insert your favorite bogeymen here>, who have made a cesspool of the whole (literally) damned place.
Conservatives hate the cesspool America even as they love “America,” by which they mean the timeless, good-by-definition land of the flag, founding myths, patriotic holidays and the Pledge of Allegiance. That storybook America is the one they say they’re optimistic about, that “projects its strength and goodness to the world,” as Romney put it. The hateful thing is America’s “culture,” which oddly is not strong and good but filthy, degraded, and “increasingly polluted and turbulent.” (For conservatives, evils are always increasing.) One might wonder how a nation can be one thing and its culture another. Isn’t culture just a word for the manners, mores and folkways of a people? No, in conservative doublethink the two are separate but equal: The American people are “hard-working, educated, risk-taking, God-loving, family-oriented, sacrificing, patriotic, freedom-loving,” even as their culture is somehow a cesspool of perversions.
But then “the American people” of conservative rhetoric is an abstraction as well, an idealized people for an idealized country. They’re hard-working, family-oriented, and God- and freedom-loving by definition, the same way that America is good by definition. As Platonic essences rather than actual citizens, they don’t inhabit any culture. The culture’s pollution therefore doesn’t touch them; it can’t make them less God-loving and family-oriented, but they also can’t lend those traits to the culture. The two are simply unrelated, neither one assuming the shape of the other.
What does shape the culture are the pagans, perverts and pornographers. These are the cess in the cesspool; though they must be small minorities in such a God-loving country, their tawdry activities nonetheless contaminate everything else. The American people, meaning the hard-working, patriotic majority, can’t just ignore the perverts and go about their virtuous lives, because there are no lives: That “people” is just a rhetorical device. For actual people – Americans who really exist – “the sound of our culture” echoes everywhere and can’t be escaped. “It comes from all parts of our culture and reaches all parts of our culture, and all the people in it, which is everybody,” according to Peggy Noonan, a presidential speechwriter whose words have sounded through all parts of conservative political culture since the 1980s. Culture is what people actually experience; in another Noonan metaphor, it’s the ocean in which they swim.
So if by “America” we mean a real place, then we must be talking about that hideous culture. To hate America’s culture is to hate the only America in which anyone actually lives. For conservatives, that real America is Satan’s playground: a fallen, deeply sinful nation that deserves – and on September 11, may have felt – the kind of wrath that God would visit upon his rebellious people in the Old Testament. Conservatives save their love for a fictitious America, America in the abstract, the America of patriotic piety and rhetoric. If this loveable America really exists anywhere besides candidates’ speeches or Fourth of July pageants, it’s in the culture of the past, the lost blissfulness from which we’ve supposedly fallen. Conservatives hope this lost culture may still be retrievable, and in any case it’s easy to imagine: It’s basically a spruced-up version of the America of a generation or so ago, the ordered and contented land in which the disaffected conservative believes he or his parents grew up. Psychologically as well as politically, that lost America is a much more appealing place – psychologically because it evokes nostalgia (which typically includes both affection for the past and despair over the trashy and chaotic present), and politically because it predates the cultural revolts of the 1960s, when the pagans and perverts, not to mention blacks, women and gays, suddenly started getting their way.
The conservative project includes restoring, or at least recalling, the lost innocence of that time, those golden years before America became a disgrace to “America.” Innocence is the absence of any gap between reality and ideal; it’s the condition that prevailed in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall and “the knowledge of good and evil” not only revealed the gap but stuck us all on the wrong side of it. Conservatives think there may still be a path back into the Garden. It’s ironic that they so often claim to be sticking up for “the real America,” especially against those loony leftists like the ones the televangelists wag their fingers at. In fact the real America fills them with horror. The loonies may dream of an abstraction of their own, a utopian America, another alternative which has never existed but which, conservatives warn, the left will stop at nothing to impose on the rest of us. Compared to that utopia, the real America is reason to weep. But so it is when compared against conservative idealizations as well.
What should we do about them?
Conservatism’s continuing failure
Even aside from whether they’re guilty of it themselves, conservatives’ tarring of liberals as America-haters who “want the terrorists to win” and the like is an example of a certain mode of bogus argument, an exercise in phony logic that we might call “the Game of Extrapolation.” Understanding this game is crucial to understanding, and anticipating, today’s arguments from the right. The rules of Extrapolation are simple:
1. Select one of your opponent’s positions or proposals.
2. Imagine some possible result this proposal might have if enacted. Bonus points if – here’s the extrapolating – this result lies at several removes from the proposal’s actual, stated goal.
3. Now imagine some cost, trade-off or downside which that result might theoretically entail.
4. Take this distant, hypothetical cost you’ve imagined, present it as a certainty, and declare it to be your opponent’s “plan” or real, though secret, intent.
Further bonus points can be earned by making either or both of these moves:
ü Extrapolate from two, preferably unrelated, positions of your opponent’s, and multiply their hypothetical costs to get an even more hypothetical cost.
ü Clear the board of every last token of your opponent’s actual motive – the problem that originally prompted his proposal, the benefits it might have, or anything else that might make your opponent’s position seem even remotely reasonable.
In recent years conservatives have become absolute masters of this game. If a Democratic presidential candidate floats a proposal for modest changes in the health-care system, we don’t hear what’s wrong with the proposal – let alone how many millions of people it could benefit – but rather that the candidate “plans to raise taxes by $900 billion,” as if he not only said that himself but offered it up out of thin air. But he didn’t, so where is it coming from? Well, it’s possible that his proposal might cost X, and in theory some of his other proposals could cost Y, and if you add X + Y and throw in some other assumptions, the result could be a tax increase of $900 billion. So that’s his “plan,” not anything having to do with health care.
Or, creating a Department of Homeland Security might improve the federal government’s response to terrorists threats, so any U.S. Senator, say, who opposes even a single element of the President’s proposal for one is arguably helping the terrorists. While the two legs and an arm he lost in Vietnam might look like more straightforward evidence of his loyalties, it’s fair to suggest that this Senator is probably a secret bin Laden sympathizer. And by a similar but even longer series of (il)logical leaps, anyone who questions absolutely any feature of the war in Iraq must want the terrorists to win, or at least must “hate the military” and “not support our troops.” By this laundered logic, criticism of virtually any aspect of U.S. foreign policy can be turned into the next best thing to treason. Extrapolating to “they hate America” isn’t just easy, it’s the game’s next logical move.
Politics in general is a tough game, and we can’t expect those who play it to be scrupulously fair. It can be a public service to analyze an opponent’s position for its possible consequences, even if this is done with something less than academic rigor. No one looks to politicians anyway to enlighten the public, raise people’s esteem for the other party or tell the whole truth even when it’s politically inconvenient.
The problem arises when one side shies away from the game while the other is busy raising it to an art form. While conservatives have learned to bank on public ignorance and to redefine “truth” as whatever serves their political goals, Democrats have continued playing a different, older and milder game in which certain kinds of demagogic arguments are off-limits. They’ve been astonishingly slow, not just to see the conservative attacks coming but to mount such attacks of their own. And today’s conservatism is a target-rich environment. It really does include a vitriolic hatred for America, as we’ve seen, if by America we mean the actual, smut-infested, soft-on-crime, evolution-teaching, terrorist-coddling, heterosexual-hostile den of iniquity in which, somehow, despite not holding political power, the left has been forcing everyone else to live. If Democrats choose to play Extrapolation themselves, they have so many fine moves available that it’s hard to know which one to pick first:
Ø Why do conservatives prefer a poorer, more primitive America to the prosperous, modern nation we’ve got? (This is implied in their attacks on public investment, and their misunderstanding of its historic importance in creating wealth.)
Ø Why do conservatives want to give China control of the U.S. economy, and force your children and grandchildren to work longer hours? (These are logical consequences of tax cuts and the need they create for massive government borrowing.)
Ø Why do conservatives favor the spread of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease, and apparently feel that we need more rather than fewer paralyzed children? (These are not-implausible results of putting limits on stem-cell research.)
And so on. Under the rules of Extrapolation, the conservatives’ own game, these are all fair questions. Artfully framed – and that’s what political strategists are paid to do – they could force answers (or defensive non-answers) from conservatives, at the very least changing the dynamics of the debate.
Some say Democrats shouldn’t go this route because it will further “lower the level of political discourse.” But that objection overlooks both the logic of deterrence and the psychology of bullying. Deterrence keeps the peace by neutralizing either side’s advantage. If Republicans knew that the same weapons were aimed at them, shameless demagoguery might not look like such a good bet. And bullies are famous for panicking when they come up against someone willing to fight back. Before he became House Speaker, and at times after, Newt Gingrich cut a fine figure as a political bully. Once, he advised fellow Republicans to make frequent use of words like “sick” and “traitor” in characterizing their opponents. But when President Clinton accused them of proposing to cut Medicare, those Republicans suddenly didn’t know what to do. Gingrich got nowhere with his spluttering protests that the word “cut” was an underhanded Clintonian extrapolation. From then on the advantage was all Clinton’s, and Gingrich – once touted as the obvious next president – was gone even before Clinton left office.
In the end, though, even if the Democratic Party produces no more Bill Clintons, even if none of the politicians we rely on to advance liberal goals ever learns to play the conservatives’ game, the cause won’t be lost. Progressive reform will continue to make its way, steadily and, at times, spectacularly. I suppose it’s understandable that so many progressives, surveying the dismal politics that have prevailed in the U.S. through most or all of their adult lives, are given to thinking that things have never been worse. But on even a moderately longer view, that’s nonsense. Sometimes when I’ve heard fellow progressives make this complaint, I’ve asked them, “compared to what?” At that, they’re invariably stumped. The years preceding the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s were obviously no golden age: Racism, sexism and general cultural conformism were certainly more overt and stifling back then than they’ve been since. True, since 1980 we’ve mostly been living the politics of backlash. But what brought on the backlash? It was conservatives’ terror at the rapid progress against racism, sexism and cultural conformism that they’d seen in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s precisely because things were progressing, and fast, that reaction set in.
And those progressive changes have continued even in these long years of backlash. Conservatives have been losing some struggles so badly that you almost have to feel sorry for them. (Almost.) Creationism, for instance, had a brief revival in the 1980s, but compared to where it had once been it had already lost a lot of ground. Since then it’s retreated still further; its supporters can’t even call themselves “creationists” anymore and have had to drain their arguments of anything explicitly Christian or biblical. The new banner they’ve rallied under, “intelligent design,” is the next best thing to a white flag: a pale substitute for their former claims, with all the doctrines they really care about left out. Yet even having made those enormous concessions, they’re still losing.
Or consider the even more dramatic strides toward gay rights. In the 1970s, according to opinion polls, most Americans believed that gay teachers shouldn’t be allowed in public schools. Today, despite years of conservative-dominated government, not only are there gay teachers, but support for that kind of discrimination has largely collapsed. Today it wouldn’t be surprising to see a prime-time TV series whose hero was a gay teacher. The arguments now are over gay marriage and adoption, issues which a few years ago couldn’t even have been discussed. These are astonishing advances in such a short period. Notwithstanding continuing signs of backlash here and there, it’s now clear that the U.S. is riding the same tide as other Western nations toward full legal equality for gays.
In foreign affairs, the Bush administration rashly decided to use Iraq to test the proposition that America could unilaterally work its will in the world as it saw fit. For a short while, by exploiting fears of terrorism, it appeared to have progressives thoroughly outmaneuvered. A few of them even endorsed the invasion. Here, at one blow, limits on the government’s secret-police powers would be undone, international law would be vacated and a glorious precedent would be set for treating war as a far-from-last resort. That the experiment has failed is no progressive victory; America’s impending defeat is a huge disaster on a number of levels. But the reasons it failed are instructive. Conservatives around Bush had convinced themselves that they were “history’s actors,” that as rulers of an empire “we create our own reality” (as one official was quoted saying). This boast was more than just arrogantly false: It was the opposite of what really happens, which is that history overrules conservatives with almost gleeful abandon. It’s the very fact that their ideas don’t fit reality, let alone create it, that causes them to lose on issue after issue. The Iraq war is further proof of that principle, albeit the kind of costly proof it would have been really good to do without.
Moreover, the war was sold to Americans on the basis of misunderstanding, if not flagrant deception. A majority came to imagine that Iraq had perpetrated the September 11 attacks, something even Bush himself admitted wasn’t the case. Still, he took advantage of the public’s ignorance and plainly in some ways encouraged it. This was extremely risky. Over time, knowledge tends to spread; people don’t generally move from knowing concrete facts to vague belief in some convenient myth. They go the other way, and so they have here (if not as competely as we might hope). A policy based on falsehoods is a lost argument waiting to happen.
If, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” these are among the reasons why. Some ideas are truer than others, and which ones are truer isn’t something we get to decide: It’s something we have to discover. Discovery takes time, but it leaves reality “dis-covered,” more open to view, and therefore gives us better information as time goes on, firmer grounds on which to base decisions about how things might best be arranged. As the generations pass, each knows more than the previous one did, and each also knows what went right and wrong in those earlier eras. Wrong approaches lose advocates, and arguments in their favor stop resonating; the debate moves away from them and on toward new and more promising proposals.
Though it doesn’t happen with scientific precision, this process of discovery is similar to the one we find in science – old issues giving way to new and the discussion continually moving forward. There’s a reason that conservative attacks have been directed against both social and scientific progress: The two are related and support each other. Advancing science tends to discredit the old authorities that once dictated approaches to society as well as nature. Revealing how nature really works, moreover, undermines conservatives’ defense of unjust social arrangements as “natural.” In these respects science contributes to social change. But it also depends on certain political and social conditions: freedom of thought, intellectual confidence, supportive educational systems, faith that increasing knowledge brings practical benefits, and a sense of the importance of ordinary people – not just a select few – which makes the search for those benefits broadly worth doing (and funding). Those conditions haven’t existed in all times and places, and they owe much to progressive reform.
Of course, the lessons to be drawn from our accumulating knowledge aren’t always obvious; historical experience can’t be reduced to equations (though that’s been tried), and political debates don’t take place in a laboratory. As long as people want different things, those debates will never end. But, like science, they do tend to move ahead, to build on their own results in a way that isn’t just random. History isn’t just a big churning, with humankind continually ending up back where it started. Just as we didn’t start with the recognition that the earth is round, or that germs cause disease, and move from there toward flat-earth theories and superstitions about witches and spirits, our social understandings have clearly gone in certain directions and not others. We didn’t start, thousands of years ago, with liberal democracies, and gradually move in the direction of monarchies, feudal aristocracies, Roman military emperors and eventually the rule of priests, pharaohs and tribal chieftains. We went the other way around. We didn’t go from a worldwide rejection of slavery to broad acceptance of it, or from universal suffrage to a voting franchise limited to the propertied elite. We went the other way around. In society as in science, the overall trend is obvious – and it has a name: “progress.”
To be a progressive is to welcome that trend and want to help it along. Progressive outcomes are not inevitable; it’s more correct to say they’re “historically favored,” for the reasons I’ve just given. That means they need to be fought for, but also that the chances of success are good. Progressive proposals should therefore be put forward with confidence, but peaceably and with patience too – not just because they’re worth the wait, but because if there’s one thing recent history shows it’s that violence and absolutism are just as destructive, and just as regressive, no matter what vision of the future they’re enlisted to serve. Real progress takes time: The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but it’s long.
For that, as always, we have conservatives to thank. Reforms are delayed by inertia and false starts, but most importantly by conservative resistance, even – or especially – when they seem to promise real improvement. The resistance never wins, in the end, but it also never stops, and in any given period it can gain a temporary advantage. There can be lot of “local” backsliding, many pauses and loop-de-loops in the overall trend line that can, for the moment, make it seem like things will never improve or are even getting worse. History being a lot longer than individuals’ lives, such a “moment” can seem like forever. Combine this with our natural tendency to overrate the importance and permanence of local conditions (because they’re the most present to us), plus the fact that people who are politically active tend to be less focused on what’s already been achieved than on the problems that still remain, and it’s not surprising that a certain pessimism has become the default position of American progressives since the 1970s. A period of conservative reaction like the current one can make progressive efforts seem worse than Sisyphean – as if the rock we’d been rolling up the hill didn’t just keep rolling back down, but was getting pushed.
But really there are many hills, and if the rock rolls down it’s not backward but on toward the next. And each new “valley” we come down into is more attractive than the one before. Directly ahead of us right now are some smaller hills and a few big ones. The curtailed rights and other damage that the Bush administration will leave behind can mostly be repaired. Problems like growing inequality are harder; the search for “practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men,” as FDR put it, wasn’t finished even before the current period of reaction set in. It will have to be resumed, when it eventually is, from a further distance back.
And then there’s the truly frightening possibility of some kind of global disaster that could undo the good work of generations. Nuclear war would be such a disaster, although it’s a threat we have some known ways of containing: Nuclear weapons don’t build and launch themselves. A greater threat may be global warming, since it appears to be happening already and will now require positive, politically difficult action in order to stop. Conservatives, of course, deny or downplay this threat, some even saying it’s a cynical hoax concocted to advance leftist political causes. If they were ever going to be right about something, it would be nice if they were right about this. Sadly, the accumulating evidence suggests that conservatives are no better at politically kibitzing the atmospheric sciences than they were, in earlier times, at second-guessing astronomers and chemists.
But if the problems are worrisome, that obviously is all the more reason for progressives to stay on task. In the address of Franklin Roosevelt’s I’ve been quoting, his second inaugural, the most effective American progressive of all time provided one of the best short manifestos of progressivism. The speech is best known for the line “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” but most of it was devoted to underscoring what FDR saw as the lessons of the New Deal’s unfolding success. “Democratic government has innate capacity,” he said, “to solve problems once considered unsolvable.” Democracy progresses in much the same way as science, and the two together “offer an ever-richer life and ever-larger satisfaction to the individual.” It’s been proven possible, he said, to “find a way to master economic epidemics just as, after centuries of fatalistic suffering, we had found a way to master epidemics of disease.”
However, “To maintain a democracy of effort requires a vast amount of patience.” Even as things begin to improve, “Dulled conscience, irresponsibility, and ruthless self-interest already reappear.” As in every era, there were “voices” insisting that progressive change couldn’t or shouldn’t go any further. But what the Depression and New Deal were proving was that those who held to old assumptions about the limits on progress were wrong: “Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their ‘practicality’ has come the conviction that, in the long run, economic morality pays.” The old fallacies were promoted by “private autocratic powers,” but “we have made the exercise of all power more democratic,” and thus “The legend that they were invincible – above and beyond the processes of a democracy – has been shattered. They have been challenged and beaten.”
And yet, today, the legend lives on. Conservatism is the ideological arm of those private autocratic powers, and as long as there are such powers, as long as there are those with deep investments in received doctrines and existing arrangements – and there always will be – it will keep coming back. Heedless of past errors, it may very well rise to some future defense of the same ideas it currently seeks to defeat. But it will rest that defense, as always, on the same faulty premises, the same abuses of reason and evidence that it’s been relying on all along. It must be challenged and beaten in every era, its myth of invincibility shattered again and again. But in the end that’s what always happens, and it will happen again to the conservatism of today. As FDR said, “we have set our feet upon the road of enduring progress. Shall we pause now and turn our back upon the road that lies ahead? Shall we call this the promised land? Or, shall we continue on our way?”