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Are “Conservatives” Conservative?
Are They Even American?

Sipa Press [1]“. . . although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, [pseudo-conservatives] show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions, and institutions. . . . Their political reactions express rather a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways. . . . The pseudo-conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

Richard Hofstadter, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt [2]” (1954)

We’ve been looking for a more accurate word to describe those on the political right. Philosophically, self-proclaimed “conservatives” are far from the root meaning of conserve, as in conservation, preservation (see Inhofe below). “Traditionalist” would not do, either, exactly. “Pseudo-conservative,” the term used above by Hofstadter? Radicals? Revolutionaries? The question of identity here is not so much about ordinary citizens who are understandably ill at ease with high government spending, economically insecure, suspicious of the mainstream news media, and so on. We’re thinking more of the elites, the elected officials who until recently held the White House and majorities in Congress, certain corporate executives and right-wing think tankers and pundits who identify themselves as conservatives.

Now, of course, those who call themselves conservatives will insist that they are the true Americans, and that those they oppose are not worthy of the name (think, for example, of HUAC [3], the House Un-American Activities Committee [1938–75]). And the more fiercely “conservative,” the more vehemently they insist. But we think they do protest too much.

Here are two recent examples that make us wonder whether “conservatives” should be called by that name—and, however they’re labeled, whether they can rightly be called Americans. Do they really love this country and what (at its best) it stands for? Or do they, as Jon Stewart suggested, “hate Obama more than they love America”?

This past weekend, so-called conservatives (the staff of the Weekly Standard, Rush Limbaugh, the audience of an Americans for Prosperity “Defending the American Dream” summit, etc.) cheered when it was announced [4] that Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics was rejected by the IOC. (Limbaugh called it a rejection by the world of “Barack Hussein Obama”; his bombast appalled MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. Voters in Middle America, said Scarborough, would see the celebrations and say, “My God, the Republicans have gone off the deep-end [5].”)

Second, as Rachel Maddow [6] has reported [6] in some detail, the Republican party is “going rogue” in foreign policy, in contradiction to U.S. positions, and no senior GOP leader appears concerned or willing to rein in the rogue members. Illinois congressman Mark Kirk boasted to the Center for Strategic and International Studies that on a trip to China this summer he told Chinese officials that “the budget numbers that the U.S. government have put forward should not be believed.” South Carolina senator Jim DeMint—the one who declared, “If we’re able to stop Obama on [health care reform], it will be his Waterloo. It will break him [7]”—has led several other Republican congressmen on a “fact-finding” mission to Honduras and met with Roberto Micheletti, in power after a coup in June ousted that country’s democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya [8]. The U.S. does not recognize the legitimacy of Micheletti’s regime. The GOP does. (DeMint’s web site [9] reports, “we saw a government working hard to follow the rule of law, uphold its constitution, and to protect democracy for the people of Honduras.”) Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, who has called global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” and who this summer called the president’s speech in Cairo “un-American [10],” has announced that he will go to the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen in December as “a one-man truth squad” to tell other nations not to trust the U.S. in its climate change policy negotiations. In each of these instances, are the congressmen’s actions anything other than treason?

Some of this behavior can be attributed to mere opposition to Barack Obama—the politics of spite, says Paul Krugman [11]—but how can it not also be against America? (Imagine the right’s reaction if a Republican were president and a Democratic senator, even one as moderate as Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, cheered the U.S.’s loss of the Olympics bid, or went abroad and brazenly undermined official U.S. policy.)

Is this the same party whose national nominating convention last August spread the banner COUNTRY FIRST across the wall, whose crowds waved COUNTRY FIRST banners and placards at the McCain-Palin rallies? The hot-tempered town hall meetings this summer and the “9/12” rally in Washington were a disturbing theater-and-circus of an outraged, stressed-out citizenry demanding that they want their country back. But . . . whose “country first”? Is this a shared country? Or a place where some are not welcome? Is this a country still represented by the Statue of Liberty? Her pedestal is inscribed, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / . . . I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

20090912_mms_mv2_564.jpg [1]In The Great Unraveling [12] (2003), Paul Krugman said quite plainly that the Republicans in charge at the time were radicals. He recalled being chilled by reading a description in an early book by Henry Kissinger of Napoleon and Robespierre after the French Revolution.

“It seems clear to me that one should regard America’s right-wing movement—which now in effect controls the administration, both houses of Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media—as a revolutionary power in Kissinger’s sense. That is, it is a movement whose leaders do not accept the legitimacy of our current political system. . . . There’s even some question about whether the people running the country accept the idea that legitimacy flows from the democratic process.” (The Great Unraveling, pp. 5–7 [emphasis added])

This brings us back around to the question whether the so-called conservatives of our time can truly be said to be American. Of course they are. But what America? Whose America? As far back as 1954, Hofstadter described the “pseudo-conservatives” as characterized by a “dynamic dissent.” He said that in the early 1950s the Democrats were the true conservatives, and quoted Adlai Stevenson as having said at the 1952 convention, “The strange alchemy of time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party of this country—the party dedicated to conserving all that is best, and building solidly and safely on these foundations.” Hofstadter wrote, “Unlike most of the liberal dissent of the past, the new dissent not only has no respect for nonconformism, but is based upon a relentless demand for conformity. It can most accurately be called pseudo-conservative—I borrow the term from The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950 by Theodore W. Adorno and his associates—because its exponents, although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions, and institutions. They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word . . . Their political reactions express rather a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways . . .” Hofstadter quotes Adorno: “The pseudo-conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

Again, the questions raised here—what would be a more accurate label, and of whether conservatives are indeed American—are posed not so much about the people who came from near and far to the 9/12 rally on Washington’s National Mall. The ones we’re wondering about—and are most troubled by—are the rich and powerful organizers, the funders and founders of FreedomWorks Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, Fox News and Newsmax and World Net Daily, the puppet masters who should know better, but are cynically manipulating the fears of people who are afraid, insecure, and who are susceptible to fear-mongering.

“. . . always there is corporate money behind [astroturfing], donated by rich conservatives who have the sense to see that an image of broad populist anger will be more convincing to the unpersuaded (and to the press) than an image of a corporate titan pursuing a narrow and naked interest.” —Michael Tomasky, “Something New on the Mall [13]” | New York Review of Books, October 22, 2009

photo by Jeff Malet [1]The worried populace has very legitimate reasons to be anxious, but their anxiety is being directed precisely at the president, the party, and the policies that are trying to repair the social safety net, to reweave the bonds of the social contract. These angry shouters at town hall meetings are not so different from those of us who find them disturbing, who wonder, “Who are these people?” They’re being manipulated by the same forces that have cut their jobs, raised their rents, increased their premiums, kicked them off their health insurance plan. “. . . And the executioner’s face is always well hidden . . .” We’re trying to find words to describe who and what these executioners are, and who and what they are executing.

“. . . in a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active, and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.” —Hofstadter, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt [2]” (1954)

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[This is part one of what will be an ongoing series on conservatism. For further reading, see Michael Tomasky, “Something New on the Mall [13]”; Kim Phillips-Fein, “Right On: Tracing the History of Movement Conservatism [14]” | The Nation 9/28/09.]

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