Archive for July, 2018

(Part II) Conservative or Republican?

July 4, 2018

Mill

The political philosophy called “liberal” originated in 19th century Britain, with thinkers like John Stuart Mill; it stood for individual human flourishing free from undue constraints — especially imposed by the state. Then the word “liberal” got hijacked, in America, to mean virtually the opposite — social engineering by big government.

Conservatives opposed this; that’s what the Republican party basically represented. (Indeed, its philosophy was classical liberalism.) But now, just like the word “liberal” got perverted, so too “conservative.” David Brooks says that “Today, you can be a conservative or a Republican, but not both.”

Brooks

In a recent column, he approaches the matter from first principles. Thomas Hobbes posited the idea of the social contract. Free people get together and agree to exchange some of their liberty — basically, the liberty to prey upon others — for freedom from predation. It’s not a literal contract, but an implicit one; it’s why we have governments and obey their laws.

But, says Brooks, individuals do not come to this self-formed. Instead we are shaped by family, religion, local community, local culture, arts, schools, literature, manners, etc. All of which he calls collectively a “sacred space,”  which traditional conservatism venerated (to promote the kind of human flourishing Mill sought). In contrast, ideologies like communism, fascism, socialism, and (American) liberalism all, to a greater or lesser degree, sought to supplant those “sacred space” societal structures with the state.

But today, says Brooks, “the primary threat to the sacred order is no longer the state. It is a radical individualism that leads to vicious tribalism.” It’s the “evil twin” of community feeling. Grounded not in the positive, cooperative, humanistic vibe that community feeling should ideally propagate but, rather, in “hatred, us/them thinking, conspiracy-mongering and distrust.”

This ain’t your daddy’s conservatism (that I identified with for 50+ years). Brooks calls it “an assault on the sacred order that conservatives hold dear — the habits and institutions that cultivate sympathy, honesty, faithfulness and friendship.”

A previous Brooks column spotlighted just what this means in practice. Conservatives always used to argue that statism tended “to become brutalist and inhumane . . . caus[ing] horrific suffering because in the mind of the statists, the abstract rule is more important than the human in front of them. The person must be crushed for the sake of the abstraction.”

That’s a good description of a communist system. Likewise Trump administration immigration policies. This so-called “conservative” regime has “become exactly the kind of monster that conservatism has always warned against,” writes Brooks.

Separating children from asylum-seeking parents is an inhuman moral obscenity.* Mocking the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty and in the Declaration of Independence. These latter-day “conservatives” have lost the thread of what America means; of what conservatism means; what it’s all about; what it is for.

It goes beyond even what Brooks talked about. It’s across the board — from fiscal irresponsibility to trade war to undermining our institutions of rule of law, cozying up to dictators, excusing personal vileness, and abetting racism. And all of it shot through with pervasive lying. Trumpism is a grotesque perversion of what conservatism used to be.

But in truth philosophy or principles have nothing to do with this. It’s tribal behavior run amok. These Republican so-called “conservatives” back their tribe; nothing else matters. Not truth, not principle, not basic human decency. It’s Lord of the Flies time. “Conservative” is just a word, a label, a tribal signifier like a team name emblazoned on their jerseys.

Or their red hats, displaying just as big a lie.

* Ordered by a court to reunite those families, the administration is charging them for the airfare to do so.

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The Grotesque Odious Party (Part I)

July 1, 2018

Recently on the NewsHour it was noted that Trump’s approval percentage among Republicans has reached record highs. “Yeah,” I said to myself, “because people like me have left the party.” Then pollster Stuart Rothenberg came on, making the same point. And when an arch-conservative pundit like George Will declares we must now vote for Democrats — any and all Democrats — you know how out-of-kilter politics has become.

Not just in America. Britain voted for national suicide with Brexit; its Conservative party embraces it totally while being flummoxed over how to limit the damage; and the opposition Labour Party, having failed with a very leftist platform, has gone extreme left/Marxist. Italian voters deserted the center and put in power two parties of crazies at odds with each other. Large votes for German fringe parties made it hell for Angela Merkel to assemble a governing coalition, and now it’s cracking apart over immigration. Mexico is about to elect as president a populist rabble-rouser contemptuous of rule of law. A retrograde populist creep leads the polls in Brazil. I could go on.

Only Canada and France seem redoubts of sanity.

During the 2016 campaign I kept telling my wife, “He’s got the asshole vote but that’s not enough to elect him.” I was wrong. Enough others threw civic responsibility to the winds.

Of course some voters have always been pretty clueless, motivated by base instincts, simultaneously both cynical and credulous, thus manipulable by demagogues. But demagoguery doesn’t begin to describe this; America has plunged into a moral cesspool, of cruel policies saturated in hate and lies.

I have been struggling to understand this tragedy. I’ve written much about tribalism. The “us versus them” factor looms very large and has long been building. But what caused it to become so extreme (mainly on the GOP side)?

Tribalism is part of human nature. This actually helped our early ancestors’ survival. It also provides a sense of belonging, of security, and identity. But in the big sweep of history, casting other tribes as enemies has been diminishing, reducing conflict and violence, as Pinker documented with facts and figures in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

However, is something about modern life making such tribalism recrudesce? The word “alienation” has long been a staple of sociology discourse. Robert Putnam wrote of Bowling Alone. Many aspects of technology fray social ties. Surveys report people saying they have fewer friends nowadays. Many have hundreds of Facebook “friends” but that’s not the same thing, maybe actually undermining genuine friendship.

I have written too about Tom Friedman’s latest book, arguing that technological and societal change is now so fast that people have a hard time keeping up with it, and making sense of the world.

Maybe all these factors drive people to cling more tightly to tribal identity. And that it’s happening more on the right is understandable. Those with traditionalist mindsets see themselves and their social verities under assault — from ethnic minorities, women’s empowerment, irreligion, and what they see as sexual sin. In this whirlwind, tribal identity is a kind of anchor and security blanket.

What’s particularly startling is how this political tribalism even trumps religion. You might have thought religious faith would be the stronger. Yet most fundamentalist Christians back Trump, a man steeped in sin, with policies the very antithesis of “love thy neighbor.” Their political loyalties seem impervious to their supposed religious scruples.

Well, I suppose if you can believe fairy tales like God, Heaven, and Hell, it’s not so hard to believe the liar in the White House. And that you’re somehow still, despite all the hateful cruelty, on the side of the angels.

(To be continued)