Not Conservative At All
The conservative liberal Tea Party. Or is it the liberal conservative? It really is long past time we stopped dignifying the Tea Party by calling its denizens “conservatives.” They are nothing of the sort.
I had an avowedly conservative colleague in graduate school who was fond of asserting that the most prominent figures whom most Americans denominated “conservatives” were nothing of the sort. As a trained intellectual historian, he knew whereof he spoke. (He wrote his dissertation about the American conservative Eric Voegelin. It took much too long for me to figure out that this was a proper name. For the longest time, I thought it was a gerund, as in, “We’re going voegelin’ tonight, wanna come?”) The likes of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter were not conservatives, he asserted, but right-wing liberals. People in the United States at least since the New Deal have lacked any solid understanding of conservatism. Would-be conservatives contributed to the current confusion.
One easy way to tell that the likes of Rush Limbaugh are not conservatives is that, if they were, it would mean that conservatism amounts to little more than the willingness to say whatever mean, nasty thing pops into one’s head about another person, especially a putative “enemy.” Before 1980 or so, conservatism was a respectable political philosophy. Indeed, it was THE philosophy of respectability.
No self-respecting conservative would ever think of calling a woman a slut in public. They likely would oppose even using the word. Similarly, no self-respecting conservative would think of appearing in the imperial capital with signs denigrating the head of state. Indeed, true conservatives are not much given to protest at all. And this is the delicious irony that, as usual, is completely lost on the Tea Partiers: it is actually nearly impossible to be both a good conservative and a good American at the same time.
True conservatives revere history because they believe that the past is the only reliable guide to the future. Yet we have such avatars of the Tea Party as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann routinely uttering the most egregious historical solecisms. The very name of the movement reflects historical ignorance. Insofar as Tea Partiers apparently wanted to be “conservative” in the modern, American sense from the outset, they completely failed to grasp the basic point that the original Boston Tea Party was the most unconservative act of its day. Modern Tea Partiers like to invoke the notion of revolution, but nothing is less conservative than revolution.
Our modern dichotomy, liberal-conservative, is obviously grossly inadequate to capture the range of political possibilities, dates, in the Anglo-American tradition, to the seventeenth century in England. That, as all good students of history immediately recognize, was the tumultuous decade in which the English had both a Civil War and a Glorious Revolution, all over the question of whether the notionally Protestant nation of England could have an avowedly Catholic king.
To us, this may seem like a silly issue, but much of Europe had spent much of the previous two centuries fighting wars over whether to be Protestant or Catholic. In England, having or lacking the favor of the King could mean the difference between life and death. In addition to two wars over the religion of the King, England in the seventeenth century also produced the man some say is the leading philosopher of the modern era, John Locke, who made major contributions to both epistemology and political philosophy. Although he later became famous as an advocate of religious toleration, as they put it then, in his early writings, he argued in favor of excluding Catholics from public office. If one sees the church and the state as intimately intertwined, as they were in England since Henry VIII made himself the head of the Church of England as well as the head of state, one who is religiously suspect is also politically suspect. Locke’s political patron, Lord Shaftesbury, spent time in prison and died shortly after going into exile because he defied the King of England on the issue of the King’s Catholic son taking the throne at the current King’s death.
Although they did not use the term at the time, Locke wrote what has since become the Ur-text of Anglo-American liberalism, The Second Treatise of Government. There he articulated the belief that all political power emanates from the governed and that the people have the right, indeed, the duty, to throw off any government that consistently fails to protect their natural rights to life, liberty, and property. This philosophy had a profound impact on the Founders of the United States. Thomas Jefferson plagiarized, um, liberally, from Locke in writing the Declaration of Independence. He did change the classic trio of rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Lockean philosophy and practices that the Americans had grown to detest under English rule explain much of the U.S. Constitution.
The problem for modern “conservatives” is that, at the outbreak of the American Revolution, all the true conservatives were utterly horrified at the very idea of defying the King of England (all good conservatives are monarchists – you see the problem), so they decamped, either returning to England if they could, or escaping to Canada. Thus, at the founding of the United States, there were few, if any, true conservatives about in the New Republic. The closest one could find to a true conservative in the newly united States were the slave owners, who were willing to assert their right to private property at the expense of other persons’ individual liberty. Some things never change. Thus was American conservatism, such as it is, intimately tied from its birth to the enduring American problem of racism, a legacy it has yet to reconcile itself to or redeem itself from.
And racist American conservatives managed to dominate the politics of the United States more or less consistently, at least on the issue that mattered most to them, white supremacy, until the 1960s, when the Republic finally made the decidedly liberal choice to prohibit racial segregation as a matter of law. That a Democratic President led the charge for major civil rights legislation cemented the Republican Party as the home of Americans who thought of themselves as “conservative.”
This phenomenon, “conservatives” feeling right at home in the Republican Party, and that most peculiar of American confusions, between libertarians and conservatives, finds its origins, like much of our current politics and policy, in the New Deal. The New Deal, as we all should know, was the political and policy product of the most famous Democratic President of the twentieth century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Coinciding as the early parts of the New Deal did with the rise of fascism and the solidification of Josef Stalin’s autocratic rule over the Soviet Union, it, and FDR, sparked some fears of creeping authoritarianism in the United States. With his ill-considered plan to pack the Supreme Court, and his decision to abandon the practice, dating to George Washington, of quitting the Presidency after two terms, FDR fed this fear himself to some extent.
So it was that true conservatives and libertarians made common cause in the Republican Party out of their shared concern for the growing power and expense of the federal government under the New Deal. But their reasons for opposing the new behemoth federal government were very different. Libertarians, prizing personal liberty above all, saw a threat to that personal liberty in the new powers of the federal government. Conservatives, who have no concern at all for personal liberty (popular misconceptions to the contrary notwithstanding), do not oppose tyranny per se, but the tyranny must be decided local, and even in northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., is culturally very, very distant. The problem with the new behemoth was that it threatened to impose foreign values on local communities.
Ultimately, of course, conservatism is relative to the culture it exists in, so thoughtful Tea Partiers (if you will excuse the oxymoron) could claim to wish to conserve the decidedly liberal beginnings of the United States, which I think is what they think they are doing. So, the paradox of conservative liberals, or liberal conservatives, as you wish.
But, to appreciate the absurdity of the likes of Andrew Sullivan calling himself a “libertarian conservative,” just consider some major issues in modern American politics, such as same-sex marriage and abortion rights. No consistent libertarian could occupy the same side of those issues as any consistent conservative. One hears supposedly informed pundits referring to the overtly libertarian Cato Institute as “conservative.” Go find out which side they took in Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court case that resulted in striking down all sodomy statutes in the Republic, and reconcile their libertarian position with that of the arch-conservative Justice, Antonin Scalia.
So, in short, stop dignifying the Tea Party by calling it “conservative.” It is nothing of the sort, and you can demonstrate your historical chops by saying so.