Contested Conservatism

As the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives and try to flex new muscle in the Senate–and in politics more generally–the conflicts within modern conservatism will become more visible.

The label “conservative” has always included contradictory positions, and pragmatic politicians have to work hard to paper over differences. Contemporary conservatives divide over their optimism about radical change and their reverence for markets.   Edmund Burke (to the right, of course), defined conservatism as a kind of pragmatism: suspicion of grand schemes of any kind–and ideology more generally, tempered respect for tradition, and caution about change.  Burkean conservatives bargain, stall, and compromise. Some of them remain in American politics.

More visible these days are more ambitious conservatives, like Rush Limbaugh (on the left).  Unlike Burke, Limbaugh is not an elected official or a philosopher, but a prolific and engaging talker who makes a living as an entertainer.  Contemporary activist conservatives vigorously reject the compromises inherent in normal politics, and press for bold action in line with what they see as moral imperatives: enhancing human freedom by limiting government at home, and revolutionary activism to promote democracy and capitalism abroad.   Massive tax and service cuts, abolition of longstanding programs, and global wars for ideological goals are violent departures from classic conservative positions.

And conservatives differ about whose authority to put in the driver’s seat.  Although Tea Partiers like to point to the Constitution, they also extol the will of the people.  (The founders, however, as any veteran of American government 101 knows, were deeply distrustful of the people.)  Libertarians trust the market; populist conservatives often trust a church, somewhat shared values, or the race much more.

The rump end of the last year’s lame duck Congress pointed out these conflicts pretty clearly.  Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a classic market-conservative move.  We want our armed forces to be able to recruit soldiers and sailors from the broadest possible population, and think primarily about how well they do their jobs (shoot guns, translate conversations, drive trucks, etc.  As conservative icon, Sen. Barry Goldwater put it: shoot straight rather than be straight.).  Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation limits the talent pool by an arbitrary criterion not associated with the job.  Newly elected Pennsylvania Republican, Sen. Pat Toomey, a market-oriented conservative by any measure, expressed this view pretty clearly:

As I’ve said previously, my highest priority is to have the policy that best enables our armed services to do their job…Our civilian and professional military leadership have now spoken and said we should repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I would support a free-standing measure to do so.

A classic conservative would also easily support the Dream Act, which would (rather pragmatically) normalize and regulate the legal status of hundreds of thousands of young people in college and military service.  Again, employers should have access to the widest talent pool possible.  (Freedom Works, one of the most powerful Tea Party organizations, urged activists to avoid the immigration issue, and supports a guest worker program).   And there’s little economic sense in denying legal, visible, and taxed employment to a group of people who, for the most part, have no options outside the United States.

But the Republican caucus in Congress couldn’t embrace these conservative positions, because it was constrained by other conservatives who saw open acknowledgment of homosexuals in the military as a moral slight and establishing a path toward citizenship for people who broke the law (albeit, unwillingly and as children) as dangerous and immoral pandering.  (For some, race and ethnic diversity are also threatening.)

It’s relatively easy for conservatives of all sorts to unify in opposition to Obama initiatives.  For many different reasons, they can agree to try to stop change.  Taking initiative, however, is another matter, and Republicans now have to discover what sorts of conservatives they are:

Abroad, they can be ambitious democratic ideologues who use the military aggressively to promote their morality–at great cost, or tempered practitioners of realpolitik, who make deals with unfamiliar or unpleasant people to promote American “interests.”

At home, they can be sharp-eyed deficit hawks who scrutinize spending and promote spending cuts and tax hikes as necessary–or ideologically oriented tax cutters who trust the ensuing chaos will promote some sort of desirable outcome.

Whichever vision of conservatism triumphs, we can count on conservative discontents to mobilize in opposition.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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