Monday, September 21, 2009

Understanding Conservatism

Once again, I quote from Bill Moyers Journal last Friday...

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, one reason is that America very early on in its history reached a kind of pact, in the Jacksonian era, between the government on the one hand and private capital on the other. That the government would actually subsidize capitalism in America. That's what the Right doesn't often acknowledge. A lot of what we think of as the unleashed, unfettered market is, in fact, a government supported market. Some will remember the famous debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman, and Dick Cheney said that his company, Halliburton, had made millions of dollars without any help from the government. It all came from the government! They were defense contracts! So, what's happened is the American ethos, which is a different thing from our political order-- that's the rugged individualism, the cowboy, the frontiersman, the robber baron, the great explorer, the conqueror of the continent. For that aspect of our myth, the market has been the engine of it. So, what brought them together, is what we've seen in the right is what I call a politics of organized cultural enmity. Everybody--

BILL MOYERS: Accusatory protest, you call it.

SAM TANENHAUS: Accusatory protest. With liberals as the enemy. So, if you are a free-marketeer, or you're an evangelical, or a social conservative, or even an authoritarian conservative, you can all agree about one thing: you hate the liberals that are out to destroy us. And that's a very useful form of political organization. I'm not sure it contributes much to our government and society, but it's politically useful, and we're seeing it again today.


Tanenhaus is quite generous with his praise of conservatism. To a degree I can almost agree with some of it too. The sticking point for me is the disconnect with reality that seems to exist at the heart of conservatism: you can't be a rugged individualist if your every move is subsidized by the government. Just as you can't oppose a government health care system and still accept Medicare. Just as you can't possess billions and still try to claim some sort of absurd underdog status. Well, actually conservatives can claim anything they want. And they do tend to claim some truly insane things.

It's just that the rest of us can also immediately identify those many preposterous claims for all of their inherent hypocrisy and rightly reject them.

And that's why conservatism is dying.