Conservatism and Elephants

(This appeared as a commentary in the January 24 Albany Times-Union)

I used to call myself a conservative. The left/right divide originated in the French Revolution’s parliament — aristocrats sat on the right, revolutionaries on the left. The right sought to “conserve” the status quo, a political orientation valuing tradition and skeptical toward change.

Goldwater

Modern American conservatism began as a reaction to the change represented by FDR’s New Deal. It revved up during the 1960s Goldwater era (when I came aboard), emphasizing opposition to big intrusive government. The philosophy was best articulated by 19th century British thinker John Stuart Mill (Europeans call it classical liberalism).* It says society fares best when individuals are left free to follow their own paths. Adam Smith showed how a free market economy’s “invisible hand” makes individual self-seeking serve the greater good.

But most citizens are not political philosophers. As Jonathan Haidt explained in his book, The Righteous Mind, political orientation is shaped more by personality type and psychology — nature and nurture. American conservatism is thus less philosophical than social and cultural.

Republican politicians long pandered to that, exploiting issues like gays, abortion, and race, to advance their larger political ends. They were riding a tiger — which finally ate them. Today, there’s little left of philosophical conservatism but stripped bones and tiger droppings.

Goldwater, in his eighties, supported gays in the military, before it was accepted policy. That was conservatism honoring every individual’s right to live their own way. But today’s “conservative” opposition to gay marriage, or transgender rights, isn’t philosophical. It’s social/cultural prejudice. They’re all for individual freedom except when they’re not.

Haidt invoked another animal riding metaphor. Our conscious rational minds are like a rider on an elephant, which represents our unconscious. We imagine the rider is in charge. But actually the elephant decides the direction, with our conscious minds along for the ride. And much of our thinking is rationalizing, to ourselves, that path. Even religious rationalization. People pick and choose from the Bible what fits with their gut feelings. Conservatives’ anti-gay stance comes less from the Bible than from their elephants.

Many of us thought racism was disappearing. I myself had long denied that it deeply infects America. But maybe that was over-optimistic. Survey analysis reveals that the one factor most strongly correlated with Trump support is racial/ethnic antagonism. People may think they’re not racists — but their elephants may be. (Not only in America. Brexit was primarily a vote against immigration.)

The elephant is very tribal, which increasingly characterizes our politics. And while race, religion, social class, etc., are traditional tribal dividing lines, political identity itself has now become the salient tribalism, trumping all else.

This helps explain how Republicans and “conservatism” so thoroughly embraced Trump. Once his support in the GOP reached a critical mass, its tribal identity transmogrified, into the Trump tribe. His comprehensive unfitness (obvious long before the book Fire and Fury) didn’t seem to matter. Nor policies rubbishing traditional conservatism. Forget free trade, fiscal responsibility, equal opportunity, American global leadership. Swallow all the lies. And hello, racism. You go with your tribe, regardless.

Of course this was an elephant stampede — revealing that for most Republicans, intellectualizations dressing up their political proclivities are just a veneer hiding, even from themselves, the base instincts really behind them.

So principled conservatism is dead. Unprincipled “conservatives” rule for now — thanks only to gerrymandering and the Electoral College — but they’re doomed. More folks already vote Democrat. The rat’s nest of attitudinal pathologies calling itself “conservative” today is concentrated in a diminishing demographic of older voters. And the presidential horror show should thoroughly toxify the brand.

* David Brooks recently had a nice column about Mill.

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One Response to “Conservatism and Elephants”

  1. Robert Says:

    Nice, thanks! 🤔

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