The Pathos of Politics (76-4) Conservatism


Conservatism clings to what has been established, fearing that, once we begin to question the beliefs that we have inherited, all the values of life will be destroyed. ~ American political philosopher Morris Cohen

The term conservative dates to 1818, as the title of a French political magazine – Le Conservateur – promoting the ideology.

Conservative support of the status quo is not so much a statement of contentment as resignation: that what is may be the best that can be achieved at present. Conservatives are skeptical that human reason is up to the job of societal engineering. In this, conservatism is a psychological projection of dim-wittedness onto others.

Divergent views of the human condition are a fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives. Both agree that people have complex natures: a mixture of the moral and the corrupt, with rational and emotional motivations.

Where the two split is in which qualities dominate. Liberals believe that humans are basically rational and moral. Conservatives are not so sanguine: they mistrust the fortitude and morality of men, and view people as cunning, exploitative animals. Again, conservatives are projecting their own mental makeup onto humanity at large.

Conservatives tend to view humans as naturally bad, uncooperative, untrustworthy, and in some instances, just plain stupid. As a consequence, conservatives tend to view government and politics (both permeated with those corrupt and dull-minded people) with great skepticism. Because of this belief in a flawed human nature, conservatives in general view human attempts to create a just society through reason as unrealizable. ~ American humanities scholar Brian Farmer

The more fear a youngster has, the more conservative that person will grow up to be. More than anything, fear defines conservatives.

If you hold up images of objects that people consider dangerous or unpleasant, for example of large spiders, and then measure the production of sweat from people’s fingertips (skin conductance response), you get an indication of spontaneous physical reaction. In these cases, conservative voters react more strongly than liberal ones. ~ Danish political scientist Lasse Laustsen

Conservative leaders feed fear to draw support: emphasizing the threat of terrorism and minority groups, including immigrants. For centuries, conservative demagogues have crafted scapegoats by referring to targeted groups as dangerous sub-humans and “germs.” For instance, Donald Trump is an acknowledged germaphobe and has a penchant for describing people he does not like as “disgusting” or “animals.”

The adherence to moral absolutes creates intolerance among conservatives against those who think differently and leads to demonization of their perceived enemies. When the enemy is thus dehumanized, torture and killing are prescribed with little violation of conscience. ~ Brian Farmer

By contrast, liberal leaders typically try to allay fears, and approach public policy in a positive light.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.~ US President Franklin Roosevelt upon taking office (1932) during the Great Depression

Whereas libertarians believe society functions best with minimal government, and often have a “live and let live” attitude, conservatives favor ‘law and order’ authoritarian control.

The negative view of human nature espoused by conservatives also translates into low social trust. As a consequence, conservatives tend to favor rule through coercion, a strong military, a strong police force, and an emphasis on personal self-defense. ~ Brian Farmer

The moral compass is one of the seminal differences between liberals and conservatives. Liberals typically view the world through a secular perspective. Morality is situational. Conversely, American conservatives tend to espouse a strong religious orientation. Morals are absolute.

Adherence to moral absolutes constitutes the oppressiveness which characterizes conservatism. As moral absolutists, conservatives prefer to punish transgressors of their moral norms. Compassion to those in out-groups is anathema to conservatives. Inconsistently, conservatives tend to be less judgmental of compeer miscreants. Morally, conservatism and hypocrisy go hand-in-hand.

Whereas most conservatives concur with reactionaries that human equality is a myth, American conservatives, under sway of the tradition of libertarianism there, accept an abstract principle of equality in opportunity – but they oppose addressing inequities. Social dominance and repression of minorities and other out-groups are acceptable, especially if advertised as instrumental in maintaining order.

Traditional conservatives typically view income inequalities as legitimate and natural and therefore attempts at redistribution to the poor are a violation of the natural order. ~ Brian Farmer

In the socioeconomic sphere, conservatives view life as a contest. Accomplishments are what is important.

In regarding private property as an inalienable right, conservatives and classical liberals agree. The similarity ends there. Whereas classical liberals may see societal corrosion in gross material inequality (as Adam Smith did), conservatives believe the property right trumps all others. Further, to a conservative, wealth is a measure of a person’s value to society.

Conservatism is not all looking through the glass darkly. Conservative caution sometimes stems from respect for tradition: believing in preserving practices and institutions that they think have worked in the past. Obviously, this perspective encourages scant societal change.

In their constructive lack of vision and mistrust of reason, conservatives often rely upon solutions which they view as natural. Conservatives tend to place great reliance on custom, and sources of authority, including religious leaders.

When social solutions are required, conservatives look to the past, doing so nostalgically and not historically (in full historical context). Conservatives wistfully hallow the past and see current society as being in a state of moral decay. The rose-tinted view on the past dirties the present day.

Whereas social liberals might use a government program to solve a societal problem, conservatives are apt to eschew such a rational initiative, preferring to let “market forces” work their magic. Markets are actually a disordered dynamic of atomistic transactions, yet conservatives often talk of markets as though they are guided by some preternatural wisdom. Such irrationality shows a telling parallel between conservatism and fascism in embracing the unreal. Whether markets actually work efficaciously as imagined is beside the point that conservatives prefer to leave societal problems to dynamics that are not rational interventions.

Just as liberalism has branches, so too conservatism. Those who follow Burke tend toward elitism. British Tories make no bones about the ruling class having a civic duty to govern.

Then there are the entrepreneurs, who are much more individualistic, and at times facilely populist in their approach. Believing “the cream rises to the top,” entrepreneurs tend to espouse that leaders can come from any stratum of society. Hence, entrepreneurs favor latitude for individual accomplishment, and oppose government intervention that might interfere with the precious socioeconomic winnowing process. Despite the ostensible espoused liberality of opportunity, this is a form of Darwinian elitism, made by the successful to trumpet their superiority.

In the late 20th century emerged more vividly 2 strains of American conservativism, both with roots in the 1960s: neocons (neoconservatives) and theocons (social conservatives). Neocons are intellectuals that tout the superiority of Anglo-American values and institutions and feel that government should export those virtues to the rest of the world, forcibly if need be. Although neocons are small in number, their influence has been outsized, as they are well-financed and erudite. Neoconservatism was reflected in the foreign policies of American Republicans in the 1980s into the 21st century (the Bush administrations), and that of British Labour prime minister Tony Blair.

Neocons are essentially wannabe colonialists of the political mind. Neoconservatism is a historical continuation of the Americanism versus Communism mind-set that prevailed among conservatives during the Cold War, from the late 1940s to 1989, when the Soviet empire fell apart from chronic mismanagement.

Theocons are religious social conservatives, typically fundamentalist Christians. They brush aside constitutional separation of church and state in wanting public policies to reflect their Christian faith and subsidize their social organizations. Theocons want “in God we trust” to be far more than a mere motto on money.

Social conservatives are less interested than economic conservatives in minimizing government and fiscal rectitude. Indeed, theocon focus is on government support of Christian faith-based institutions, especially parochial schools, and banning abortion, same-sex marriages, teaching evolution, and anything else that contravenes their beliefs. The difference between American theocons and political Islamists is in the god and prophet worshipped.

The righteousness of theocons represents a danger in a multicultural society that is based on tolerance. Theocons pay scant respect to the democratic process. Incivility toward opposition is a norm, and violence, such as murdering doctors who perform abortions, is considered justified.

Despite differences, conservatives share a similar psychology and worldview: fear, especially of social change, psychological projection, tribalism, moral absolutism, ideals of violence, suspicion of human rationalism, and thereby skepticism toward social programs.

Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives. ~ John Stuart Mill

While conservative positions vary, their overarching promise of political order is appealing to many people, as it fosters an illusory sense of stability. The ideas of radicals and liberals often sound attractive, but the very process of change bodes for disruption.

Most people have low thresholds for sociopolitical disorder. Hence, the prospect of change, even though it may produce positive results, is disturbing, and so encounters a natural psychological resistance. People are willing to suffer a system that tends against their interests rather than endure disruption in their patterns of everyday life. This makes “order” a powerful selling-point for conservatism.

Albeit hesitantly, conservatives can agree to change, and the change they will accept is progressive. Only reactionaries entirely reject progress as positive, preferring the old ways as the best. Reactionaries desire regressive change. If not considered an anarchist for disabling American political institutions (that is, for anarchy, not anarchism), President Donald Trump had reactionary impulses in letting market forces overwhelm the government’s ability to grapple with them.

Libertarianism has been identified here as classical liberalism, but its American strain is reactionary. American libertarians want a return to the 19th-century laissez-faire policies that let robber-baron capitalism thrive. This is an alignment with entrepreneurial conservatism. Above all, to an American libertarian, private property rights are inviolate.

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness. ~ John Kenneth Galbraith