Conservatism Is Not a Thing in the USA
Many like to think of themselves as "conservatives" in the US. But there really is no such thing. Why not? And what is conservatism, really?
Many like to think of themselves as conservatives, but for the most part, they are not. This will come as a shock to many who think of themselves as “right wing” or “conservative.” It is important for us to understand this, to recognize the degree to which all of us have been influenced by liberalism, to understand that liberalism is the default setting of our culture, and of much or our thinking and habits as so-called conservatives. All of our core civilizational myths are liberal. The main frame with which we look at every problem is through the lens of liberalism. Our whole system of thought is built around and upon liberal ideas. Liberal notions of law. Liberal notions of governance, that is, liberal democracy and the marketplace of ideas. The marketplace of ideas is simply liberal free market economics and the notions of freely entered into contracts applied to models of governance. You manage the country the way you manage the market, through discussion, negotiation, and compromise.
We generally tend to think of those who wish to recover older forms of liberty, or who champion the free market against socialism as “conservatives,” but when you bore down into the root ideas that drive the many streams of thinking in our culture from the free marketers, to those who are constitutional originalists, to those who are among the Marxist progressives, they all share the same set of root beliefs, the same “myths.” Much of the the thinking in the west is built around the big idea of “Human Progress.” In many ways, the debates we have are all centered around how best to achieve this one foundational idea.
There is the desire for scientific progress, to make new discoveries in knowledge. There is the desire to make advances in medicine and health. New surgical techniques. New drug therapies. Advances in diagnostic tools and methodologies. New medical devices. We strive for general technical advances in all things. Cars. Consumer devices like computers, smart phones, robotics and the like. We want economic progress, this idea that through the exercise of the free market expanded everywhere that we can bring ever higher levels of prosperity to ever greater numbers of people. Also, we can make social progress, ending poverty, inequality, and racism. In every aspect of our lives and society we expect to be making progress, to always be growing, always getting better, always achieving more, always moving forward.
One of our favorite authors here, Jacques Ellul, makes this observation about our culture:
“These common presuppositions of bourgeois and proletarian are that man’s aim in life is happiness, that man is basically good, that history develops in endless progress, and that everything is matter.”
Many of our political battles center around how best to achieve progress. Many frame the battle over “wokeness” in this way, accusing the “woke” of essentially corrupting and derailing the American project. What is that project? Essentially, it is the unfolding of endless progress. Those opposed to the woke accuse them of corrupting the essence of American progress and greatness by trying to bring equality for all through the managerial process. They argue that we cannot achieve American greatness without accepting that there are inequalities. If we could just get these administrative mechanisms off our back, free the best and the brightest to do their thing, and allow the market to work its magic without restraint or limits, we could once again achieve the kinds of heights we all dream are possible for our great nation. We have come to call these folks “conservative” because their arguments are generally framed in terms of recovering the original intent of the Founders and Framers for limited government. But we should more correctly think of them as the economic wing of liberalism.
On the other side of the debate are those who have embraced the notion that through education and the application of science to society that we can then engineer the social conditions such that we can achieve a society without social problems. We can overcome poverty, inequality, racism and the like. Many focus on the Marxist analysis of critical theory to argue that this is a corruption of western, specifically American values. But it must be remembered that Marx’s philosophy was centered around the movement of history towards its final end. The dialectical process would result in the fulfillment of human progress, ushered in by capitalism collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Critical theory is merely the pretense to justify technical management of social processes. This is where all the work is done. The critical theory rationales are in some way a distraction from seeing that at their heart, the idea of social management, the social wing of liberalism, is looking to achieve the same goals as those of the of the economic wing of liberalism but by different means.
Both social liberalism and economic liberalism require that we apply technical methods to organize our society. Businesses need to be managed. There is a need for infrastructure like roads, power and communication networks. Then there are the structures of law and adjudication that allow the smooth working of business relationships. There is all the background work managing currency and equities. And peaceful economic relations are backed by military power, creating a relatively stable global economic order. Economic liberalism needs the cooperation of the state as much as social liberalism needs the administrative power of state agencies and law backed by the courts and the police. Both are parts of the outworking of the same general cultural mythology and impulses. Part of why the culture war struggles to gain traction is that on the main, the dominant political parties share the same goals.
“[because of the myth of Progress, propaganda] must be associated with all economic, administrative, political and educational development…thus…the general trend toward socialization can neither be questioned nor overridden. The political left is respectable; the Right has to justify itself before the ideology of the Left (in which the Rightists participate). All propaganda must contain and evoke the principle elements of the ideology of the Left in order to be successful.”
Ask yourself, if business and the free market are “conservative,” why is “woke capital” at thing? The truth is that business and the market economy were never conservative. The push of the market is always to create ever more consumers, to continually atomize us further and further. “Creative destruction” is an essential component of economics. The old must be broken down for the new. Things are not made to be repaired and maintained for generations. They have planned obsolesce dates, after which they break down and need to be replaced for a model that is “new and improved.”