January 10, 2021
by Steve Stofka
In response to the storming of the Capitol building on Wednesday, a Republican Congressman attacked the actions of the rioters as the opposite of conservative values. In his mind, those values were respect for law and order, a strong military, personal responsibility and freedom, fiscal responsibility, limited government, free markets, and respect for traditional institutions. As I will show, these principles form a wish list of unattainable ideals because one principle subverts another. Without a cohesive supporting structure, conservatism suffers from the same ills as utopian philosophies.
I’ll cover two of these principles: responsibility and freedom. Responsibility can’t incorporate freedom without limiting it in some way. Responsibility is a social covenant – the limiting principle of freedom. All too often, we protect our own freedom and restrict the freedom of others. Some conservatives who believe in personal freedom reject a responsibility for others. The wearing of masks has highlighted this issue. Freedom without responsibility is anarchy.
Too often we reach for solutions that restrict the freedoms of those who are not “us.” Conservatives who advocate for individual freedom reject liberty for those who believe differently than they do. They define human life as the joining of two microscopic cells at conception, then admit no freedom to those who define human life differently. In their support of a progressive income tax, liberals favor the institutional freedom of government over the individual freedom to reap the rewards of one’s labor. Each of us points to the mote in our neighbor’s eye, oblivious to the faults of our own arguments, principles, and perceptions.
At its heart democracy is a contest to control the rule making process. It is prone to mob rule, the changing of the rules to advantage a particular group of people. The conservative Pennsylvania state legislature changed the rules shortly before the election so that mail-in ballots could not be counted until after the polling station ballots were counted. They encouraged Republican voters in the state, most of them rural and with shorter lines at polling stations, to vote in person. On election night, they presented results that excluded most Democratic mail in ballots and later claimed that only ballots cast in person were legitimate. Was this motived by some conservative principle? No, it was prompted by political survival.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Leader, is a political strategist above all else. He has pointed out that Republicans have not held a filibuster proof majority in the Senate for more than a hundred years. The shift of the population from rural to urban areas has led Republicans to adopt street fighting legal and political tactics to command a voice in state and federal politics. For decades, some states resisted redrawing their voting districts so that rural communities would have far more power than their dwindling population. Freedom is power. The first principle of a political party is to survive, and to do that conservatives have had to curtail the freedom of others so that they can maintain their own freedom and power.
Both the conservative and liberal projects exclude inconvenient aspects of current events because reality is complex and inconvenient for partisan purposes. Like a scientist who makes simplifying assumptions to model a process, political factions distort events to justify their perceptions and beliefs – if facts don’t fit their political narrative, change the facts.
The master fact-shaper is Rupert Murdoch. Over the first five years of building the news bubble called Fox News, he lost almost a half-billion dollars. The network’s audience is less than a fifth of just one major network, but its controversial hosts leverage their impact by taking controversial positions.
Seeing the success of the Fox model, One America Network has presented an even more polarized version of events, hoping to pull viewers away from Fox. Politicians are wary of a challenge from a small cadre on the extreme wing of each side, so they embrace the extreme to avoid “getting primaried.” In the fractured media landscape, some are imitating that polarizing process, rushing to the extremes to gain an audience.
The Republican Party was the champion of anti-slavery during the Civil War. Members of that party now want to preserve the statues of Confederate generals who fought to protect slavery. Why? After the Civil War, the cause of the Confederacy was repackaged by Southern elites as a cultural and historical institution; conservatives defend some cultural institutions while rejecting others as invalid. They champion the family and the institution of marriage but get divorced as much as the rest of the population. They support the Constitution’s protection of religious institutions if they are Christian, but barely tolerate its protection of other religions.
Unlike the liberal philosophy, the conservative project must ever be a reactionary ideology, a cadre of self-proclaimed elitists who resist the normal and healthy change of human institutions. Like utopian philosophies, its goal is stasis.
Although conservatism espouses freedom, it cannot incorporate the liberty of the human will into its philosophy. Without that freedom, personal responsibility is but a set of behavioral rules, conventions imposed on the majority by a minority. It is a strategy, not a philosophy. Because it cannot absorb change, it is a lifeless shell that other ideologies inhabit for a time, then discard, like the hermit crab.
In the 19th century, Republicans first found and inhabited the shell. In the past forty years Libertarian groups, Christian groups, the Tea Party, and conspiracy theorists have donned the empty shells of conservatism, only to be frustrated by the very rigidity of the ideology. Those who are comfortable in the shell are the political strategists like Mitch McConnell who use it quite ably as a shield from political attack.