Understanding Conservatism in 2017

In the current historical moment, in which far right movements are on the rise throughout the post-industrial world, from Trump to UKIP and the looming threat of a Marine Le Pen presidency in France, it behooves us to attempt to understand conservatism as an ideology and political philosophy. While these far right movements bear little resemblance to the typical orientation and comportment of mainstream conservative parties, they are related and are in competition with one another for ascendency on the “right” side of the political spectrum. In what follows I want to make the argument that there is no single unified conservative ideology, but rather that conservatism is best understood when it is broken up into two dominant strands. The first I refer to as dispositional conservatism and the other is ideological conservatism. Modern conservative parties are typically an amalgam of these two strands. Furthermore, I will argue that the relative disappearance of the dispositional strand from mainstream conservative politics is very dangerous for the health of post-industrial democracies.

Dispositional Conservatism

First, we should distinguish between the dispositional and ideological strands of conservatism. The dispositional strand of conservatism can be identified with the intellectual tradition of Burke, Oakeshott and Scruton, among others and the politics of Disraeli and Diefenbaker. This strand of conservatism is very suspicious of radically altering society based on abstract notions of freedom and justice, and wants to preserve what is valuable in existing social and economic institutions. It is an avowedly anti-revolutionary creed which sees the existing society as imperfect, but believes that significantly changing the society is likely to lead to more bad than good. This tradition was formed in reaction to the horrific things done in the name of equality, freedom and brotherhood during the French Revolution and is deeply sceptical of the power of reason to allow us to create a perfect or near perfect society. As a result it favours maintaining the status quo and minor gradual changes to deep restructuring.

This form of conservatism is peculiar because it has no inherent policy prescriptions. This is part of the reason why Anglo-American conservatism differs so fundamentally from conservatism in countries with a stronger Catholic heritage. In the former what needs to be preserved is a welfare statist liberal market society founded upon individual right and the rule of law as this constitutes the existing status quo. Whereas in countries where Catholicism is a stronger force, like France, Germany and Italy what is preserved includes support for individual rights and the rule of law, but also a corporatist order founded on the obligations of classes to one another and noblesse oblige.

As a result, from a dispositional conservative perspective, the demand for privatization and the assault on the welfare state is not conservative. Its aim is to radically alter society to bring it in line with free markets. Conservatives whose primary allegiance is to free markets as opposed to preserving the existing order are not part of the dispositional strand of conservatism. This partially explains the irony that the first modern welfare states did not come to fruition under the rule of liberals or socialists, but under the corporatist-conservative state of Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck saw welfare policy as a way of ensuring the loyalty of citizens to the German community in the face of the individualizing and deracinating forces of capitalism that erase the bonds of local community.

Consequently, at its core, dispositional conservatism is about preserving valuable aspects of a society and its related practises and governing institutions. I call it dispositional conservatism because it reflects an attitude towards change and the public good rather than a formal set of propositions.

Ideological Conservatism

Ideological conservatism on the other hand is support for policies that are typically associated with the right side of the political spectrum. These policies include support for free enterprise, a relatively non-intrusive state, non-governmental communal associations as the locus of social assistance (churches, families and other voluntary/philanthropic associations), encouragement of the dominance of the existing morality and religion within the society, as well as an overarching concern for maintaining security and order. These policies prescriptions are not held by all conservatives as ideological conservatism is a broad church. Neoconservatives, Paleoconservatives, Red Tories and Liberal Conservatives tend to disagree on policy specifics. But the policy prescriptions outlined above do suggest a variety of policy issues that are central to conservative politics in post-industrial societies.

In this light, ideological conservatism is defined more by support for a specific set of policy prescriptions than a fundamental attitude towards social change.

As a result ideological conservatives are not necessarily dispositional conservatives and vice versa. For example, some ideological conservatives wage war on government as a mere nuisance that should be made as small as possible in societies in which the modern bureaucratic state has been fundamental to the way of life of the society since the early 20th century. Their concern here is not preserving what is of value within existing societal practises and institutions but fidelity to the principal that government is a necessary evil and should be as minimal as possible. Where agencies are acting for conservative causes but doing so not preserve, but to remake, they are not reflecting a dispositional conservative, but an ideological conservative ethos.

Where are we now and why does this matter?

While, the policy prescriptions of recent far right movements that we have seen come to prominence are not identical with typical ideological conservatives, they certainly share a family resemblance with a couple of qualifications. For the sake of simplicity I refer to these emergent far right movements as right wing neopopulists. These qualifications are that right wing neopopulists are far more overtly xenophobic and relatedly are uncomfortable with a globalized economy.   They certainly support free enterprise and markets, but within the borders of the national state, not across the globe. In this sense, the recent emergence of right wing neopopulism has pushed the ideological right in a more xenophobic and nationalistic direction, but outside of this significant shift, there have not been huge qualitative shifts within other areas of policy. Donald Trump is very different from Ronald Reagan on immigration and the role of trade, but the two share general support for capitalism, the primacy of order and security, the dominance of existing form of Christianity and morality and the deregulation of the economy. Thus, there is a significant degree of continuity from an ideological perspective between of mainstream conservatism and right wing neopopulism.

However, right wing neopopulism in all of its guises is radically opposed to dispositional conservatism. A fundamental aspect of the right wing neopopulist point of view is not to preserve what we have, but to get back the jobs and greatness that we have lost. Right wing neopopulism necessarily sees the existing society as something of a wasteland that needs to be redeemed; it is not just that the existing social institutions in danger, but that they work against the people and must be radically restructured. In this regard, right wing neopopulists do not reflect the dispositional conservative attitude.

At this point someone might object that right wing neopopulists are concerned with preservation as they want to preserve their countries against the influx of the problematic customs of particular types of foreigners. There is a certain sense in which it is true that right wing neopopulists do oppose the change of the customs of their society, but it is important that they do not want to preserve the existing customs, but return to an imagined period of glory and excellence. For example, a period when America was great. In this regard they are not preservationists but restorationists. They want to restore the nation to the way of life that made it great rather than preserving valuable social institutions. This is why in a very basic sense right wing neopopulists are reactionaries as opposed conservatives. Their aim is constructed in reaction and opposition to the status quo, rather than in preservation of the valuable elements of the status quo.

In light of the preceding, the distinction between ideological and dispositional conservatism helps us to understand right wing neopopulism as a phenomena that shares certain features with typical conservatism, but radically departs from the dispositional aspect of conservatism. This understanding is helpful because it provides us with an understanding of what is lost when the political right moves towards right wing neopopulism beyond the obvious fact that we are seeing a more crass political discourse, which is more thoroughly invaded by misogyny, and racism.

What is lost is the attitude of the dispositionally conservative citizen; instead it is replaced with the attitude of the right wing zealot. The right wing zealot merely wants to remake society in their desired image; they do not operate with a thought of what is best for this specific political order given its history, mores and demography. Instead they want to create a pure society that matches their intuitions and desires.

We need dispositionally conservative citizens as an integral part of the political order as they provide the caution that tempers the hubris that suggests to us that is easy to correct social ills, and we just have to think and act rationally to do so. The pull to make our society more just, equal or free, needs to be tempered by the ability to preserve the social order as a whole. If it is not we are not caring for our society and the concrete beings that live in it, but showing adherence to abstract principles whether such adherence causes more harm than good.

Dispositional conservatives may overstate what is required to preserve social order, but by pointing us to the question of care for an existing set of social institutions they point us to a very important issue. The dispositional conservative attitude is an important safeguard against the sway of adherence to doctrinal purity and abstract ideology. As a result the fact that right wing neopopulism erodes the dispositional aspect of conservatism makes it extraordinarily dangerous for post-industrial democracies.

As most readers of this blog know I am far from a conservative, but I have genuine sympathies with dispositional conservatism, because I too see the social order as a fragile thing to be preserved even when it is imperfect. It is in this light that I am horrified by the rise of right wing neopopulism. Post-industrial societies are socially unjust and problematic in many respects, but their support for individual freedom, equality and material well being make them something that must be preserved against the vilification of right wing neopopulism.

Trump and American Mythology

As a Canadian, I am at once horrified and bewildered by the prospect of Donald Trump becoming the presidential nominee for the Republican Party. While, I find the Republican Party’s policy problematic, and in some cases deplorable, I find the prospect of Donald Trump leading the USA to be disturbing, frightening and unfathomable.

This leads me to ask the question of how to understand Donald Trump against the background of American mythology. In particular I want to highlight the fact that Donald Trump embodies the mere negation of the humanistic elements of the mythology of American Exceptionalism and the American Dream. By humanistic in this entry I mean the attitude that all humans have dignity and are entitled to respect. Trump, consequently represents the negation of the elements of American mythology that are compatible with equal freedom for all human beings.

While Trump’s politics, as far as they can be rationally understood, are more broadly aligned with the American right than the left, in that they focus on America’s greatness in the world and defending jobs for real Americans, rather than those of a darker hue, his politics are radically distinct from the jingoistic neoliberal imperialism of the Republican Party since Reagan. While George W. Bush is hated for his ill thought out and highly interventionist foreign policy and was often associated with authoritarian nationalism, George W. Bush was continuing a tradition in American foreign policy of beneficent imperialism. For Bush, American power served American interests, but his rhetoric also focused on the fact that American power was something that served to free people from backwards authoritarian tyranny. Consequently, American power for Bush was a strategic instrument for the defense of American interest, but also a means of spreading good. Reagan’s stance towards the Soviet Union was quite similar to Bush’s towards Iraq and Afghanistan. Now one can argue that Bush and Reagan were simply masking the pursuit of American interests behind moralistic rhetoric about America as a force for good, but as a political phenomena the rhetoric that politicians use is important to understanding them, even if that rhetoric is inauthentic or deceptive. Trump on the other hand has no pretensions that America is a force for good in the world, American foreign policy instead is a force for regaining American greatness and supremacy. On the world stage America should be acting like a business. It should maximize its interest and focus on winning, rather than worrying about improving the state of the world as a whole.

It is important to note Trump’s focus on greatness as opposed to goodness. Greatness in contrast to goodness is something that in the history of the Occidental world is associated with the pre-Christian martial and political virtue of Rome, Athens and Sparta. The great are manly, courageous warriors and politicians who defend their homeland and its interests, rather than generous spirits helping the vulnerable and marginalized. Arendt has noted how greatness is related to immortality, in being remembered and immortalized and thereby overcoming the fate of death that all biological creatures face, whereas goodness by its very nature cannot be concerned with remembrance. Christ, the supreme emblem of goodness, is only Christ because his actions were motivated by love, or more specifically agape, rather than to excel before his peers and be immortalized. Christ like Socrates is concerned with being, rather than appearance. Whereas for Trump appearance, rather than being is what is fundamental. Appearance is what determines the course of events in the world, as people act on perceived interest, goods and risk, rather than actual interests, goods and risks. In this kind of world, for Trump, and his supporters, we need a “clever man” who will annihilate the existing traditions that are leading to atrophy in USA and build its strength anew based on his effective business acumen.

This is all the more ironic because Trump’s supporters and Trump himself praise the fact that Trump calls it how he sees it, rather than worrying about appearances. But his entire claim to effectiveness as a businessman depends on the ability to effectively make use of appearances. The Trump brand of off colour, xenophobic authenticity is one of the most effective appearances to make alienated voters feel like he is unlike other politicians. Nothing is sacred to Trump, not even his deplorable authenticity. The only thing that matters is coming out on top. This deeply colours his foreign policy, as far as he has one.

In this sense Trump has negated the humanistic element of the myth of American Exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism has often been used to argue that ethical requirements that apply to other countries do not apply to America, because America is a country founded on reason, rather tradition, and is a unique force for good that cannot be chained to the requirements of international law. Trump still sees America as exceptional, but it is exceptional because it has the capability of dominating the rest of the world, and staying on top rather than because it is a force for good premised on dictates of reason that are self-evident to all human beings. America is not the Socratic shepherd who has authority over his flock because he has knowledge and will take care of their well-being, but rather the Thrasymachean shepherd who has authority because he is stronger and will take advantage of his flock where it profits him to do so. Trump therefore negates the element of American Exceptionalism which is bound up with respect for the dignity of all. Expediency in Trump’s world determines where respecting human dignity is called for.

In regard to the American Dream, Trump has famously said that this dream is dead, but his campaign “to make America great again,” is an attempt to restore that dream by restoring America’s economic status and providing jobs to real Americans. But the circumscription of the American Dream to real Americans, as opposed to Muslims and Mexicans, is an inherent contradiction of the fundamental egalitarianism of the myth of the American Dream. The dignity of the American Dream is that it sees all people who come to America to build a better life as equally capable and entitled to do so. The dream never was actual, but it is part of the horizon of what America means. America is constantly working towards the end of the actualization of the myth of the American Dream. Therefore, the transformation of the American Dream as the pursuit of a better life to anyone who seeks it, to the pursuit of a better life to a specific subgroup therefore constitutes the negation of notion of human dignity encapsulated in the American Dream. It means that this dream can be systematically excluded to people without any pretense or masking of this tactic as a legitimate exclusion. The exclusion is justified based on the mere otherness of a particular group of people.

Similarly, while the myth of the American Dream is typically related to economic well-being it is also related to spiritual, moral and intellectual health. The better life that America holds is not just that there are good jobs and more money, but that people are able to pursue their own good in their own way without being oppressed for being different. Similarly, due to the fact that America represents the coming together of diverse peoples and cultures, America has developed a uniquely rich cultural landscape that is a significant good to Americans at large. Again, modern America fails to live up to this myth, but this myth is present as a distinct ideal of the culture.

Trump on the other hand ultimately associates the failure of the American Dream with the decline in the American economy, rather than the emergence of poverty, misery, social hatred, ennui and anomie among the populace. This reveals another facet of the negation of the humanistic element of the myth of the American Dream in that the American Dream is reduced to a matter of returning America to the top of the economic ladder and ensuring “real” Americans are able to get a steady paycheck, rather than building an inclusive society where all can build a fulfilling life.

As a result, Trump’s place in American politics is to remove any pretense for a concern with human freedom, dignity and equality, with a concern for worldly success and domination. In this sense, his politics have more in common with authoritarian nationalism than they do with the traditional American conservatism which is deeply related to notions of freedom, equality, and human dignity, no matter how flawed.