Farewell thought: Conservatism is still the enemy

by: Daniel De Groot

Fri Feb 04, 2011 at 16:30

Please see the end for my thanks yous and where to find me after today. I have opted to close with an attempt to describe the field of play -D

Shortly after Kerry's loss in 2004, at MyDD, Chris wrote "Conservatism is our enemy" which I think is the first time I ever encountered a direct ideological assault on conservatism itself.  Along with Phil Agre's rightly famous essay on the subject, it began me on a road and mission to better understanding this beast.  Everything I have learned to date from then continues to bolster Chris' original thesis.  Conservativism is still the primary enemy of progress, justice, fairness and widespread happiness for humanity.  It remains a destructive and corrosive force on the institutions of democracy and the single biggest obstacle to world peace.

If I have had a broad meta thesis here at Open Left, it is that the true fight is one of ideas and thus ideology.  We must reject the mushy centrist claim that ideology is necessarily an evil.  Not only is it not necessarily evil, ideology is necessary period.  The fights over parties, the media, particular policies and tactics are important, but my read on the broad sweep of history is that when the dominant ideas are bad, the parties will behave stupidly, the media will fail to correct them and the policies will be destructive.  There is a reason Canada, the UK and the US all elected right wing governments in the 80s.  There is a reason Obama's team could not even consider a new WPA or even ask for a big-enough stimulus.  Bad ideas are still dominant.  I see no refuge in any 3rd party, because I see no reason such a party would not itself be quickly co-opted by the same bad ideas upon attaining power or in order to attain power.  I want to fight bad ideas directly.

Daniel De Groot :: Farewell thought: Conservatism is still the enemy
America (and the world) needs more liberals and less conservatives.   Conservatives are not an immutable force of nature.  The number of them can be reduced, the extremity of their beliefs can be dampened and the sternness of the opposition to them can be bolstered.  I never really could decide if America really is a "center-right" nation (because "center" is bereft of meaning) but I do know one of the few things Villagers get right is the basic point that liberals cannot win many political fights when they are outnumbered by self-identified conservatives 2:1 or 3:2.  I started here writing about unstacking the deck, analyzing how the institutions themselves too often favour conservative outcomes, but the ideology demographic is a deck badly in need of restacking too.

I have taken a few shots at answering some of the questions that surround ideology which are almost completely ignored in the American media outside of a few blogs.  What is conservatism?  What is liberalism?  These are not trivial questions but they are essential to understanding the core of what drives the political debate.  Why do most people who are pro-life usually want lower taxes and less regulation?  Why do people who love capital punishment tend to detest environmentalism?  These issues appear randomly allocated but they're really not.  The left-right divide is not, contra some claims, arbitrary or meaningless.

It's a complicated subject and the debate often loses the thread because of isolated individuals who can break any ideological spectrum or model I've yet seen proposed.  Instead of a line with two end points maybe we need 4 quadrants on 2 dimensions.   Maybe it is 8 octrants on 3 dimensions?  No matter what taxonomy you propose, where do you put people who never think politically and claim no ideology?  They're not necessarily centrists just because they haven't picked a label.  It can quickly lose comprehensibility which makes the analysis meaningless through burdensome complexity.  For most purposes the left-right line actually serves pretty well, imperfect but a good shorthand since the great mass of people tend to fall on it.  There's little point using a model that includes things like 'communitarians' and 'libertarians' when they usually aren't any appreciable impact to the debate.  Sure, they're out there, but they're more or less a rounding error.  Even rare exceptions from these groups that do matter, like Ayn Rand only matter because one of the big groups adopted them.  Rand may fit better to be understood as a libertarian (or one of the 31 flavours thereof) but she's only notable because conservatives swallowed up her economic model.  They don't advocate her bohemian lifestyle or atheism.  Just the whole "eat the poor because we can" thing.

Unfortunately, the liberal consensus has not come along far enough that we have generally agreed "consevativism is the primary problem" in order to move the next step which is "how do we make there be less of them and more of us?"  Putting aside the problem of "too many neoliberals" too (and whether they should be understood as conservatives) there's simply too many people on the left who think the fight is really about the media, or party politics.  Even the simple dictum "more and better Democrats" isn't truly a consensus since every effort to make "better" (which means liberal) Democrats is fraught with controversy and finger pointing if it doesn't go perfectly.  The burden is still very much on liberals to make the case for primarying Joe Liberman or Blanche Lincoln and that case depends not on the moral and ethical analysis of their voting records and behaviour, but on a Democrat winning the general election for those seats.  The onus should really be on the pragmatists as to why we should tolerate the occasional right wing Democrat and the blame owned by them when such people sabotage liberal governing priorities if we had passed on a decent chance of replacing them.

Yet another problem are the so-called pragmatists who have an incoherent ideology of rejecting ideology and think they are somehow above the fray of ideas, that somehow there is some notion of "workable solutions" that is independent of an ideology which tells you what constitutes problems needing solving, and what an acceptable solution looks like.

These fights will have to go on.  Conservatism is a destructive system of hierarchy and zero-sum power seeking that has no place in the running of a modern society.  It is some kind of evolutionary anachronism, the ingrained desire to accumulate power and resources to the exclusion of "the other" against times of need in Hobbes' jungle.  Since about 1850 we (in the West at least) have lived in the world of surplus resources where there really is enough stuff for everyone to go around, but still we live with about half the population intuitively working the politics of a Malthusian state where every hamburger you eat is one of my kids going hungry.  Even today in the shadow of the Great Recession, world GDP per capita (PPP) stands at over $10,000 per year.  About 1 billion live on less than $400 a year.  Another billion live on less than $750 a year.  Clearly there is enough to go around, we just suck at distribution.  Is it really so crazy to imagine we could get those bottom 2 billion up to $1000 or $2000 a year?

In the field of hard science, humanity languished in darkness for most of its history with only the occasional bright flash of discovery in such moments where stability and resources allowed such things as "scholars" to exist, and prevailing norms allowed them to pursue truth without fear of offending some deity.  This all really changed not because of some particular hard factual discovery like calculus, gravity or optics, but because science developed a reliable method for seeking and identifying truth.  Today we have no name for this, it is simply "the scientific method."  It doesn't need a name because there is no competing model.  Certainly there are people who reject the model, but they aren't practicing science and any correct answers they produce are nothing but fluke.

In the field of pursuing the ideal human society, liberalism is the science of pursuing human well being.  It combines the empiricism and rationalism of science with the goal of maximizing human happiness.  The process is iterative and the specific means change as well meaning ideas are found wanting, and as science improves our understanding of humans themselves and what it takes to make them happy.  There is no other school of thought that both seeks to improve the lot of all, and actually can do it.  The ultimate goal of liberalism is that we should not need the word "liberalism" because no one would need a special word to describe the self-evident way people determine solutions to societal problems.  That's what liberalism is, and why it must win or all humanity will fall back into ruin, scarcity, ignorance and fear.  We live in a world with plenty of those things, but also a world where solutions to them are in reach, which was never true any time before.  Après liberalism, le déluge.

Thank you to all the readers here, and to those who take the time to write such thoughful comments.  I have always tried to be the type that engages in comments and I hope that Open Left generally stood out for that.

Thank you to Chris for letting me write here, and to Paul for many great ideas.  I am proud to have been part of this.

I have opened a personal blog to continue work on the subjects that interest me and I hope you'll visit.  You can also follow me on Twitter.

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Amen, My Friend! (3.25 / 4)
Amen! Amen! Amen!

Especially this:

I want to fight bad ideas directly.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

Thanks Paul (4.00 / 3)
And everyone else for the kind words.  

(I've put up an actual post at the new place, not anything substantive, but just to indicate that it is live.  Some blog launch, a URL and no content!)

[ Parent ]
Wonderful post (4.00 / 3)
to go out on. I've already bookmarked your new digs.

I'm also thankful to Chris for letting you write here.

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

Must Keep This Going. (4.00 / 2)
Posts like this are why this place cannot end. Where else are these kinds of direct, unabmbivilant, halcyon calls made, and so consistently? We must make a way to keep this going.  

"You want me to make all the roofs in Harlem white?" Mr. Paterson recalled asking Mr. Clinton inside the former president's office on 125th Street. Mr. Clinton nodded. "Don't you think Harlem has become white enough?" Mr. Paterson asked him.  

Thanks, Daniel. (4.00 / 7)
You leave with a clarion call, because if we do nothing else upon leaving this place we can individually, even if not collectively, offer a fight to bad ideas.  Ideas that insure the gain of some at the expense of the many.  Ideas that claim no ideological foundation at the same time they are examples of the most draconian.  I'm grateful to your efforts to sort through and dissect those ideas here, and your modeling as to how that might be done elsewhere.

Along with Paul Rosenberg, yours was a voice I deeply appreciated at Unclaimed Territory, and was delighted to find you front-paging here.  I have your new blog bookmarked and look forward to seeing you there.  Best wishes for its success.

This is really and truly gut-wrenching.  To you and Paul and the many folk whose comments have left me thinking for days after the prompt rolled off the front page, my fully inadequate thanks.

I leave here a different person than when I arrived.

Clarion, right. (4.00 / 1)
;-) Thanks.

"You want me to make all the roofs in Harlem white?" Mr. Paterson recalled asking Mr. Clinton inside the former president's office on 125th Street. Mr. Clinton nodded. "Don't you think Harlem has become white enough?" Mr. Paterson asked him.  

[ Parent ]
If that's not a rousing sign-off, I don't know what one is. (4.00 / 5)
Very nicely written. Kudos. I've bookmarked your  new digs for future reference.

Kudos to Chris for hiring you, as well.

Be well.....

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates

The frustrating contrast between our best understanding and the current folly (4.00 / 3)
Great post as always. And thanks to all the OpenLeft folks for your many wonderful posts. I will miss you.

Back to this diary: The thing that frustrates me the most about our current situation is that we now know good solutions to most of the problems that have traditionally plagued human beings: ignorance, disease, scarcity of food, conflict. After centuries of philosophical pondering and scientific discovery, we (humanity) now know how to fix most of these problems in pretty good ways -- ways that would let us all live reasonable lives in relative harmony with one another. But what is frustrating is that the people in charge are largely dedicated to ignoring (or trashing) these good solutions.

Why is Glenn Beck, purveyor of fear and ignorance, allowed to scaremonger millions of Americans every day on TV? Why are the financial scammers who almost destroyed the economic system given massive bonuses while those who faithfully did useful work are made homeless and impoverished? Why is President Obama and most of the Democrats afraid to propose anything beyond timid, greed-based solutions? Why do property rights always seem to trump human rights?

We know the answer to this: that some people have too much money and control and most people have way too little -- and this reality is hidden behind the selfish mask of "conservatism". And, of course, underlying much of this is greed, ignorance, and the isms (classism, sexism, racism, etc.).

It is the contrast between what humanity has learned (in this wonderful age of scientific enlightenment) and how the world actually acts these days (as if this knowledge did not exist) that drives me nuts.

Thank you again to all the OpenLeft community that has helped illuminate the problems and suggested solutions both in general and in specifics of the immediate political realm. Your words have been a help.

Best of luck (4.00 / 1)
I've enjoyed reading your posts.

If teaching is so easy, then by all means get your degree, pass your certification test(s), get your license, and see if you can last longer than the five years in the classroom 50% of those who enter the profession never make it to.

All the best, Daniel! (4.00 / 2)
Thx for all your contributions here. And damn, why open a personal blog? How about continuing THIS one? With help from volunteers? There should be a way to do this!

See you later. (0.00 / 0)

i agree. (4.00 / 2)
conservative ideology is what we must fight against.  It may even be counter-effective for us to battle rhetorically against republicans.

But discrediting conservativism is hard- americans today have generally positive feelings towards conservatism- similar to the generally positive feelings that they had towards Liberalism in the new deal and post war eras.

I still don't know how we get there- but I know we have started- and that is better than where we were 10 years ago.

I wish the president would battle conservatism head-on.  But I know this won't happen.  And maybe at this time it really is politically not possible at that level of government.

It is a battle for hearts and minds- and we need to realize how much the heart is involved.

Somehow I missed that post by Chirs on Conservatism is the Enemy (4.00 / 3)
You are right.  It still is. I often ask people to think of what good thing that conservatism has contributed to American life.  One thing they have done to make the lives of lots of individuals better?  What thing that is 1/10th as good as Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid?  

They just look at me, agog, because they realize they can't. What they do is tear down, tear apart and build nothing good.

When they were really conservatives what they did was conserve the institutions that liberals created.  Now they are just destructic anarchists.  

"Incrementalism isn't a different path to the same place, it could be a different path to a different place"

Destructive Anarchists (4.00 / 1)

"Incrementalism isn't a different path to the same place, it could be a different path to a different place"

[ Parent ]
Oh, good, I get to leave a comment (0.00 / 0)
Thank you for this diary. Two things jump out at me.

First is specific --

It is some kind of evolutionary anachronism, the ingrained desire to accumulate power and resources to the exclusion of "the other" against times of need in Hobbes' jungle.

I wanted to highlight the above snippet of your diary because I often think we live in a Hobbesian world of "all against all," but repeatedly find myself questioning this attitude as some kind of paranoia. You seem to be embracing the war of all against all as representation of where we find ourselves politically in this day and age, and I agree with that.

Second, I wish to comment on ideology generally.

I am haunted by Susan Griffin's essay, "The way of all ideology," published in 1982 in the Journal of Women and Culture in Society, an academic sociological journal, available with subscription or via affiliation with an academic institution at http://www.jstor.org/pss/3173859

Here is an excerpt from it via http://dccoulombe.wordpress.co...

"When a theory is transformed into an ideology, it begins to destroy the self and self-knowledge. Originally born of feeling, it pretends to float above and around feeling. Above sensation. It organizes experience according to itself, without touching experience. By virtue of being itself, it is supposed to know. To invoke the name of this ideology is to confer truthfulness. No one can tell it anything new. Experience ceases to surprise it, form it. It is annoyed by any detail which does not fit into its world view. Begun as a cry against the denial of truth, now it denies any truth which does not fit into its scheme. Begun as a way to restore one's sense of reality, now it attempts to discipline real people, to remake natural beings after its own image. All that it fails to explain it records as its enemy. Begun as a theory of liberation, it is threatened by new theories of liberation; it builds a prison for the mind."

I don't have access to the essay, but this is a good quote. Griffin was arguing from a feminist point of view prevalent circa 1982 that experiental analysis, as opposed to theoretical and ideological analyses, is better because an experiental analysis is closer to women's, or any minority's, lived experience.

Times are different now. Conservatism has come full circle and is a full blown ideology, and our opponents exploit it well. They tap into people's belief systems. Ideology is an important tool in changing society. It is ironic that the success of the Conservative movement, since the high tide of liberalism in the 1960-1970's, makes me think this.

It's a case of fight fire with fire.


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