Diagrams on Conservatism
Visualize the Insanity
I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.
- John Stuart Mill, 1866
Are there any national conservatives who are actually promoting policies that will remotely benefit the country? Currently, about all they’re offering is a) obstructionism, and b) variations on the same old policies that proved highly profitable to a privileged few but catastrophic to the nation as a whole during the Bush administration – and most of the past 30 plus years.
Watch the Sunday news shows and you’ll see, as DistributorcapNY puts it, “callous Neros to the right, evil Neros to the far right.” And it’s not as if national Democrats as a whole, too beholden to corporate interests, are that admirable, either. As Bill Maher observed:
We don’t need a third party. We have a center right party, and a crazy party. Democrats have moved to the right, and the right has moved into a mental hospital… What we need is an actual progressive party to represent the millions of Americans who aren’t being served by the Democrats.
One could argue that the Democrats, unlike the Republicans, can at least boast that their batting average is above naught – and they haven’t burned the stadium down (while blaming poor minorities for arson). And if there had been any uncertainty before, the 2007 crusade against 12-year old accident victim Graeme Frost eliminated all doubt that spite is a point of pride for movement conservatives. ( Also, most corporate journalists won’t call them on it – nor will they be honest about how mainstream eliminationist talk is among conservatives.) Modern conservatism can be summed up many ways, from “You’re on your own” to “Good luck” to “Screw you, I’ve got mine” to “Screw you, I don’t have mine, but you ain’t getting anything either.” It’s a twisted worldview, impractical and even unrealistic, generally self-serving, sometimes self-destructive, but almost always destructive to others. Rather than recognizing and trying to minimize unnecessary suffering, as an ideology it seeks to justify cruelty and callousness. Movement conservatives seldom feel responsible for their own actions or the horrible consequences of their policies. It’s unquestioned dogma for them that they represent the “natural” order, that unearned privilege within their group is proof of merit or God’s favor, and the real problem with America is the uppity heretics who question all that and don’t mind their place. As Digby recently wrote on health care:
…When you drill down to the essence of what the free market conservatives are saying, it’s that people who don’t have the money to pay for good insurance deserve to die. It’s really just an outgrowth of their belief in social Darwinism and Randian exceptionalism — good people have money, bad people are parasites — and those who can’t afford to keep up are lacking in moral fiber and work ethic. It’s how they see the world — until they too are caught in the web, at which point they blame women and minorities.
This attitude really defines conservatism in America. And let’s remember, movement conservatives sought to crush all critics of Bush’s assertions of monarchial power – yet as soon as a democrat became president, suddenly they were screaming about tyranny, that Obama was simultaneously a fascist and a communist, and a weak appeaser of foreign enemies yet a ruthless dictator domestically. It’s all completely irrational (and grossly hypocritical), but makes some tortured emotional sense when one realizes that these people view America as theirs alone, and everyone else is an interloper.
I’ve got a more extensive look at the stubborn failures of conservative ideology in a fairly recent post, “The Persistence of Ideology” (and its many links). However, for a more entertaining, quick portrait, just watch The Daily Show‘s May segment, “Republicans: The Lost Party” and Stephen Colbert’s June segment, “Commonsense Health Care Reform Infomercial.” Yikes.
On to diagrams, to visualize the insanity.
Before we get to the new set, a recap. From September 2008, here’s “A Venn Diagram of the Choice in November”:
From the post:
One could argue that for McCain, “sanity” entails pandering to the crazies in his party’s base as well as the usual select rich and powerful, in which case for “Basic Sanity,” substitute “Not Entirely Evil.”
I’d be less generous to Obama and congressional Democrats now regarding “basic sanity/not entirely evil,” but I think the general dynamics of centrist Dems compared to mainstream Republicans remains roughly accurate.
Many Americans don’t really care about political labels, but about what works. And the current American media view of what is “liberal” and “conservative” is extremely skewed compared to many other countries. For example, universal health care is not a radical commie idea in most industrialized nations, and the conservative party in Canada would not think of trying to dismantle it. “Conservatism” often amounts ‘standing athwart history yelling stop’ or otherwise defending the entrenched existing order. However, that existing order is different in Canada and other countries than it is in the United States. Is Canadian conservatism somehow inauthentic? In some places, the existing order includes health care, other social services, a more progressive tax code, less wealth inequity and more spending on education and the arts. At some point, these labels break down – the Democratic leadership in America is not particularly liberal overall, and like the Republican party is largely establishmentarian and obsequious to oligarchs. As the 2005 book Off-Center showed, Republican leaders were (and are) further to the right than the party as a whole. Democratic leaders are similarly further to right than their party as a whole. However, as the book also showed, the Karl Rove-Bush approach of winning 50+1 of the electorate – and then governing according to far right ideas – is radically different than the Clinton approach of consensus-building and appealing to the middle. (Since Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004, the Republican party has pushed even further right and is shrinking accordingly.) One would think that genuinely conscientious conservatives might be wary of change, but would be less likely to oppose actual progress, and certainly would not do so aggressively. In actual practice, conservatism in America has amounted to defending the entrenched existing order, even when it is corrupt and destructive – but even worse, in policies and governance, it has been regressive, making bad situations even uglier, attacking basic competence, and further bolstering the already rich and powerful.
This brings us to a March 2007 post that featured “The Chart That Explains It All”:
(Click, or go here for a larger view.)
You can read the post for a more in-depth explanation, but the main point was that authoritarian conservatives – the Bush administration, its supporters and the base – operate according to an entirely different paradigm from that which America was founded on. It’s a destructive paradigm rooted in power, control and tribal loyalty, with contempt for democracy, the rule of law and the very idea of objective principles. The Bush administration attacked almost every amendment in the Bill of Rights, as well as several other sections of the Constitution – and were cheered on all the way by the conservative base and many a pundit and journalist. (The Obama administration, with its ideas on state secrecy and indefinite detention without charges, has shown some of the same dangerous tendencies.)
What about conservatism in general, though? When a typical conservative offers a typical conservative talking point, I often find myself wondering about their ignorance-to-evil ratio. For example, when it comes to shared economic prosperity and widening wealth inequity in America over the past 30-some years, I think many rank and file conservatives (and many Americans in general) are simply unaware of the scope and causes of the problem. A second group of conservatives is somewhat aware, but doesn’t see wealth inequity as a problem. A third group of conservatives (including Reagan Democrats) see it as a problem – sorta – but nonsensically blames ACORN, minorities and liberals for the economic woes inflicted on them by their own party. A fourth group, well represented among the conservative punditry, sees the situation, but celebrates it, fights and lies about any attempts to fix it, and actively works to make things even more imbalanced.
So how might we visualize this? Here’s a terribly uncivil, somewhat tongue-in-cheek diagram of the current state of conservatism on the national stage:
Anyone’s free to find this one amusing, insulting or inaccurate. I know a number of thoughtful, decent conservatives personally, some exist in the blogosphere, and a few even make national media appearances. But quite frankly, the vast majority of national conservative figures are a mix of stupid and spiteful assholes, arguing in bad faith and with almost nothing of value to offer. (*cough* Graeme Frost crusade *cough*) Yeah, it’s impolite to say so, but it’s not as if a lack of fucking civility has been the impediment to progress. In addition to the usual stew of corruption and entrenched views (both parties have a piece of that) a key problem in America continues to be the utter denial of reality, the ideological fanaticism and the sheer venom endemic to modern conservatism. (Liberals may like to swear, but don’t routinely engage in violent rhetoric toward their perceived foes.)
Moving to the actual workings of government, consider – for the stimulus package, Obama and the Democrats met with Republicans and amended the bill to accommodate them – and they still voted against it. Not once but twice now, Republicans have offered budgets and plans without numbers. (Meanwhile, under Bush, congressional Republicans voted in lockstep with his desires, no matter how egregious the plan was. ) These simply are not serious or responsible people. The right-wing base is even worse, valuing anything and everything based almost solely on whether or not it pisses off liberals. That’s no way to govern the country, or even to regain political power (which seems to be their only goal, as it has been for far too long).
Reasonable conservatives have broken with the current Republican party in small or large ways (I’d list Alberto Mora, Andrew Bacevich and John Dean, among others, but feel free to come up with your own list). Honest conservatives in the reality-based community have acknowledged that the Bush regime was disastrous, even if they haven’t arrived at a consensus as to where to go next. Meanwhile, the rabid base has largely tried to purge these people as heretics. None of this is good for America in the short or long run. Nor is it good that the corporate media grants unearned respectability to disingenuous scumbags and the batshit crazy. The Overton window has been pushed very far to the right, such that a rational and honest discussion of the probable consequences of various policies is pretty damn rare on the national stage. When such an approach does appear, however briefly, it’s often derided as “liberal” – because in the Beltway mindset, as Stephen Colbert put it, “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
Here’s a more serious diagram of conservatism in America:
This isn’t drawn exactly to scale, and it’s flawed of course, but I think it’s roughly accurate. Most pundits are hacks, but if we broaden out to the general population, we find people of good faith in addition to the professional hacks, their amateur brethren, and the true zealots. The circles represent a kind of compassion-asshole continuum of character and worldview: Cloistered-Indifferent-Callous-Spiteful-Evil. The diamonds represent a continuum of knowledge and wisdom: Thoughtful-Mistaken-Ignorant-Zealous-Devious. This latter continuum loops somewhat, in that both the thoughtful and the devious understand to some degree how the world actually works, but the devious are bent on exploiting that, with little to no concern about who’s hurt in the process.
The different strains of conservatism can be broken down several different ways, but Drew Westen has a pretty good set of five: libertarian conservatism, social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, national security conservatism, and an unnamed strain that’s basically… bigotry. Authoritarianism is also an important dynamic, and the full dishonesty, idiocy and lethality of the neocons can’t be underestimated (see the “Persistence” post for more).
Feel free to come up with other divisions (and a better diagram). But in my experience, thoughtful conservatives often describe themselves as fiscal conservatives. They’re pro-Enlightenment and thus “classic” liberals, and acknowledge at least some of the successes of the New Deal. However, they’re wary of change in general, hesitant about government spending and unnerved by social shifts. They’re fairly socially tolerant and may even support gay marriage. At their best, in the right numbers, they can serve as a check on excesses as a loyal opposition. The affluent in this group often underestimate how much of their prosperity is due to the accident of birth, and can be pretty cloistered, but a percentage in this group even give to charity at Christmas and such. On foreign policy, they trend toward the “realist” school. They’re at least partially based in the reality-based community, tend toward pragmatism and can normally discuss issues in good faith. Alas, on the national political stage, they’re pretty rare – and they sure as hell ain’t running the Republican party.
For “mistaken,” it’s hard for me not to think of libertarians, and all other conservatives who have nice-sounding, self-serving theories that aren’t fully thought out, are divorced from empirical data, and show little understanding of basic human nature. To explain this mindset, it’s hard to beat Belle Waring’s classic post, “If Wishes Were Horses, Beggars Would Ride — A Pony!” (Although this libertarian paradise video is also pretty good.) They epitomize confirmation bias, and tend to ignore data and major events disproving their ideas. Their crackpot theories can be harmless – as long as they’re not in power and acting on them. (I’d say the smartest libertarians realize their approach’s limitations, view libertarianism itself mostly as a cautionary check, and are “thoughtful.” Meanwhile, the full-blown Randians are typically callous, ignorant or worse.)
The remainder of moderate conservatives mostly fall somewhere on the left side of the diagram. It bears mentioning that while the conservative base and right-wing opinion industry have actively wanted the Obama administration to fail ever since November, most moderates showed some class and wished Obama the best. We’ll see how the numbers change over time, but what American in their right mind would want the president to “fail”? Honest criticism is a good thing – many liberals continue to supply it, too – but wanting the country itself to fare poorly (a necessary outcome) takes partisanship to pathological levels. The moderates are not the loudest in the Republican party, though, nor the most powerful – not by a long shot.
What we’re left with on the right of the diagram is mostly movement conservatism, which is in authoritarian in nature and has been a major strain in America since at least Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy. It got a major boost under Reagan, went into overdrive with his many myth-making acolytes, and achieved a perfect storm of belligerent idiocy and ruthless incompetence in the astonishingly arrogant George W. Bush administration. The base exemplifies its unreflective, displaced anger. We’ll get to some more examples shortly, but if anyone truly doubts that the conservative base is a toxic mix of callousness, ignorance, spite and zealotry, just read back through the weekly Village Voice columns of Roy Edroso or the Sadly, No archives. The violent insanity is not a bug, it’s a feature.
I’d put most professional conservative pundits in the “devious” category (some are more honorable), because most of them know they’re bullshitting on some level. They come in many varieties, including the neocons, the supply-siders, the torture apologists and the most cynical of the theocrats, homophobes and other assorted bigots. The most ignorant of the right-wing talk show hosts screaming about “Socialism!” don’t know they’re spouting utter crap, but a percentage have some inkling. The more “devious” are just intent on manufacturing the latest demon Muslim commie gay baby-killing Hitler. It’s a good racket for the paid shills, and they don’t really care if other people die in another unnecessary war, or die due to no health care, or suffer due to unnecessary poverty or a host of other factors. However, it’s possible to be a true believer and corrupt and a liar. Tom DeLay and Rick Santorum are good examples – they are diehard zealots, believing in radically far right ideas and convinced of their own righteousness – but they also set up the corrupt K Street Project and lie and smear easily. Grover Norquist’s ideas on economic policy (specifically taxes) are glaringly counterfactual and absolutely insane – if and only if one wants to run the country well and responsibly, instead of giving away huge amounts of money to those who are already obscenely wealthy. Jonah Goldberg and many other conservative pundits often seem to believe their own bullshit – or at least they give it the ol’ wingnut welfare try at their loss-leader outlets. One can be simultaneously ignorant, zealous, and devious, so the chart makes the most sense if those diamonds represent a conservative’s dominant trait. But feel free to improve on it.
Where do specific conservatives fit? Make your case – and for most of the following, I could provide many, many more samples – but for the most part, we’re favoring more recent insanity. For your consideration:
E Pluribus Unum (Red State’s answer to Chris Crocker).
Conservative Media Figures
Conservative Elected Officials
Other Conservative Figures
Hell, we can keep going. I’ve barely touched on all of the torture apologist crowd, or the anti-abortion fanatics, or the theocrats, or other assorted crazies – but all of them are mainstream in modern conservatism. And this level of idiocy, bad faith and insanity is the norm, every single goddam day. (I kept finding crazy items as I was finishing this.) Oh, for the good ol’ days, when conservatives merely attacked anyone who opposed a war of choice as a traitor, and weren’t publically hoping America suffered another terrorist attack – or agitating for a coup against a lawfully-elected president with popular support.
The key faces in conservatism the past few months have been Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney – two of them are still recycling their crap from the 90s, one of the them is a dishonest lightweight’s lightweight, and one is a lying, authoritarian war criminal. In at least one recent poll, Palin got the highest favorable ratings among prominent conservatives – but she and other conservatives are much more popular among Republicans than Americans as a whole.
How many of the conservatives considered above can be considered insightful – or even honest? How many are working to make the country better and not for the destruction of their perceived political foes? How many have actually offered the “bipartisan” efforts they complain they haven’t received? To return to our first question, how many are actually promoting policies that will remotely benefit the country?
How many have acknowledged that the Bush administration – and central tenets of conservative ideology – have proved disastrous?
How many serious conservatives are out there? How many of them hold sway in the party?
As I’ve said many times before, I’m not happy about this – America really would benefit from a saner, more responsible Republican party. (Godspeed to any and all trying to make it so.) That’s especially true since the corporate media will almost always treat them seriously, no matter how insane or irresponsible they are, and the Overton window will continue to be pushed ever further to the right and the crazy. We would also greatly benefit from an actual liberal party. Or just imagine if the likely consequences of policies were actually discussed on a national level with insight, frequency, and good will. Imagine if our politicians were actually representative and responsible. Imagine – nawh. That’s some seriously crazy talk.