Why the terms 'conservative' and 'liberal' don't mean shit

2 posts

Niccolo and Donkey
The Impermanence of Labels


Paul Gottfried

October 7, 2012

George Will recently complained about the “cognitive dissonance” characteristic of our ideological self-descriptions. According to Will, “Twice as many Americans identify themselves as conservative as opposed to liberal,” but many of them vote differently from the way they describe themselves. They lean theoretically toward Thomas Jefferson, who advocated limited government, but they vote like disciples of Alexander Hamilton, who favored a strong federal state.

Will quotes Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who complained about the difference between how Americans think and how they vote. Moynihan said Americans are mostly “conservative,” but this is merely a “civic religion” that is “avowed but not constraining.” Moynihan voted almost always with the left on social issues. He was a favorite of Will and of Will’s neoconservative colleagues because of his pro-Israeli stands (Moynihan represented New York City) and his activist, ideologically charged foreign policy.

What Will has written about political labels is pure mush. He stretches the term “conservative” so far that it means whatever he (and presumably the “conservative” press) wants it to mean. Judging by polls, the majority of Americans stand well to the left on social issues of where the American left and even the European far left used to stand. By modern standards, European communist parties well into the post-World War II era were strikingly reactionary about gender roles, Third World immigration, and gay rights—and certainly in comparison to how most American voters think about such questions now.

Those who were ranting at the GOP Convention about our duty to spread human rights globally did not sound even vaguely “conservative.” They seemed to be imitating the zealots of the French Revolution who worked to bring their “Rights of Men and Citizens” at bayonet point to the rest of the human race.

It is even more ridiculous to treat American Democrats as “Hamiltonians.” In the late eighteenth century, being in favor of a strong nation state was not a leftist position. It was identified with mercantile power. In Hamilton’s case, it was linked to distrust of mass democracy and the French Revolution’s internationalism. The supposedly prototypical Obamaites who supported Hamilton were often favorable to such ideas as turning the Senate into something like the British House of Lords, establishing a national church, and raising George Washington to the equivalent of the British monarch. There is boundless stupidity in comparing modern-day Democrats to eighteenth-century Hamiltonian conservatives.

Not all advocates of state power should be equated with Obama partisans, any more than Jeffersonians should be seen as “conservatives.” In the late eighteenth century the political struggle in the US was between nationalists and regionalists. That struggle no longer corresponds to what has developed in the US in the last few generations. We now have a highly centralized welfare state that two national parties are trying to get hold of to accommodate their partisans.

We are also living in a political entity that is too multicultural to be compared to the early American nation state, which was relatively homogeneous culturally and religiously. In this context it is foolish to paste dusty political labels from the past onto a drastically different political present. What now exists is a ritualized battle between two party blocs centered on the fruits of an expanding administrative state. The power of state governments was so vastly reduced in the twentieth century that it has become a mere shadow of what the Jeffersonians wished to energize as a bulwark of the people’s freedom. Nor have these changes called forth a torrential protest. Most voters seem delighted with our expanding welfare state and would be furious if we tried to shrink it.

Since the terms “conservative” and “liberal” have become empty rhetorical phrases, it is not surprising that some Obama voters are being classified as inconsistent “conservatives.” Why not call them Martians? The operative terms are truly free-floating. They function to allow journalists and politicians to differentiate their mostly indistinguishable products. To me the consensus is far more obvious than those ideological distinctions the media insists on emphasizing. George Will is right that Americans mostly consider themselves to be C rather than L. But this matters about as much as the fact that some voters have black hair and others brown hair. The real dividing line is between those who seek to dismantle our centralized state and those who support its continuation and inevitable growth. On one side, we have the “conservatives” together with the “liberals,” who are really neither one nor the other; on the other side, we find about one to two percent of the adult population voting for a third party.

I suggest we change our current terminology to something as descriptively useful as “social democrats A” and “social democrats B.” At the very least, it would be nice never again to gaze at anything like Will’s silly column explaining to us his “cognitive dissonance” in relation to our party politics. Unlike him, I’ve no problem understanding why many “conservatives” are voting for Bam. They’re not “conservatives” any more than I’m the Man in the Moon.
Niccolo and Donkey