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Deconstructing Conservatism: Part II

Saturday, November 13, 2004
Okay the link is back up. Here goes....

Skipping to the section in which Agre discusses the historical development of conservatism in the U.S., he makes the useful point that there was a strong elitist streak in the founders. I think this point is well taken. We shouldn't be too hard on them, I think. After, they were all wild-eyed egalitarians in the context of the times. But it is true that they were is some respects aspiring aristocrats. Not in the sense of wanting a titled, landed aristocracy (that they didn't want), but that they expected society would be led by a class of gentlemen with sufficient leisure time and education to devote themselves to public life.

Agre then points to a crucial divide in American history around 1800: that between the North and South. The South had slavery, with all its attendant evils, and the North didn't. The experience of slavery profoundly affected the development of cultural and political life in the southern region of the country. I have talked extensively about this elsewhere, but I think Agre is essentially on target.

Where I think he is mistaken is about the North. As I have said before, there have always been many conservatisms in America, both ideologically and regionally. The Northern Conservatism of Hamilton, Webster, Adams, Blaine, Henry Clay, Roosevelt (Teddy), and finally Nelson Rockefeller was rooted in the northeastern commercial society. It was internationalist and believed in a strong state structure, and was very pro-business. Despite its warts, it contributed greatly to the development of the country and was the leading element of conservative thought until its demise in the 1960's. (Point of information- I find this form of conservatism tremendously attractive and mourn its passing.)

Midwestern Conservatism is somewhat different- it is more morally fundamentalist and isolationist. It also has a more rural feel. Lincoln and Taft are probably the most important exponents of this tradition. There is also the anti-statist conservativism of the West represented by Goldwater, Reagan, and McCain. Finally there is there is the Southern Conservatism of Calhoun and George Bush (boo!!) which is defined by race and class hierarchies, imperialism, and more than a touch of fascism.

I don't intend a history lesson. I just think it is important to distinguish which sort of conservatism we are discussing. The North was NOT rapidly egalitarian. It was certainly trending in that direction, but there was a robust, intellectually respectable, and democratically robust form of conservatism with its roots in the Northern half of the country. It was not the enemy of democracy or liberalism. It was a sometime ally and worthy rival.

Agre next discusses the development of liberalism in the North. The word liberal came out of the dispute between the business and landed aristocratic elites, with liberalism applying to the former. But with the disintegration of the latter the meaning changed. For the left, liberalism became re-defined as the ideology dedicated to regulating corporate power (as the new aristocracy). The right uses it to mean anti-government.

The change in conservatism with respect to government power is critical, and I can't emphasize it strongly enough. Conservatives used to be pro-government because they expected government was pro-business and because they expected to dominate government institutions. As government power became democratized, they lost control of it. Now strong government was going to used against them rather than on their behalf. The corporations had also developed sufficiently that they no longer needed state protection, so they abandoned it the left and became its determined foe.

Liberalism underwent a similar transformation about 1900. Under Jefferson and his descendants it meant hostility to the state as an ally of aristocratic power. It was with the rise of the Progressives that the left learned they could use government against the elite, and they became the pro-government party. This evolution explains the seemingly inexplicable switch between the 2 parties on the issue of government power. The power of government is a fig leaf of an issue. The real question is what you are going to do with it.

Finally, Agre lays out what has become a familiar story: the development of a new institutional basis for conservatism outside of government and funded by corporate America beginning in the 1970's. The right developed a powerful propaganda machine and began assaulting the institutional bases of liberal power, with great success.

I should point out that in the 1960's, the right also buried its long-standing civil war between the regions. In the past the South had been outside the right-wing coalition and an uneasy ally of the left because of the legacy of the civil war. The Northeastern Conservatives lost control of the Republican party, and the Midwestern and Western variants looked to the SouthThe funny thing is that instead finding a useful electoral ally, they found a master. The South has now purged the conservative movement of all of its competitors. Where there were once had 4 regional conservativisms, now we have one national form dominated by the South.

Agre's essay here blends into the tactics of the right, so I will talk about that tomorrow during Part III, Tactics.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:44 AM
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