Hello again, folks. .
Inasmuch as I had any political consciousness when I was growing up, I was a ‘conservative’. I spent my teens in a school that prized ‘liberalism’ and followed ‘secular humanism’; pretty left-wing stuff in the 1980s though it would be considered ‘moderate left’ here in the 2020s. Between what I heard at home and being a social pariah at school (and thus inclined to support the opposite of my instructors and generally wealthier-than-me peers) I bought into the conservatism of the 1980s without much inner debate. I was anti-(Soviet) Communism, pro-State Rights, anti-Welfare State and pro-military, though at the time I hadn’t considered a career in the armed forces.
I had been told that the Civil Rights Movement had worked, that people on Welfare were there only because they were lazy, that trickle-down economics would make us all wealthier, and the greatest enemy to Western Civilization was Communism: just as the greatest danger to human existence was nuclear war. America, ‘that shining city on the hill’ spoken about by President Reagan, was truly the vanguard and guardian of the best values espoused by humankind; freedom, democracy and free trade. Any ugliness in our society was an aberration, surely brought about by malcontents and ne’er-do-wells who worked to ruin things for the rest of us. Certainly there was still work to be done, and life on Earth was a journey towards a future Promised Land just as human civilization was endlessly perfectible.
Then, as is oft told, I grew up.
It took longer than it should have. Although I grew up without a lot of disposable income or the toys and environs of many of my wealthier school-mates, I still existed within the fringes of a ‘bubble’ that kept me insulated from many of the travails suffered by those who didn’t live in that bubble of privilege and soft social power. I was firmly screwed into the paradigm of the Second America while nearly ignorant of the role I passively played as a supporter of the First America’s privilege and power. Life was OK, and the reverses I suffered and the things I felt that I lacked for proved pretty inconsequential. Despite the intense exposure to people from the Third America during my five years in the US Army (an all-volunteer force at this time), my political consciousness never really changed.
Lucky enough after my military service to find well-paid and secure employment in the mid-1990s even lacking a college degree, I continued along in my version of the Second American dream. I was able to utilize my Veteran’s benefits to purchase a home and pursue a lifestyle which while close to the ground was still pretty comfortable for a single guy with no expensive hobbies or tastes. Some chinks began to show in my layer of conservatism, especially as I began to vote more. I hadn’t bothered with local elections until I had real property, in 1999. I had voted in National elections since ’88, naturally, though I found them more and more distasteful as the rhetoric between conservative and liberal got increasingly divisive through the 1990s.
The two political parties in America, I felt as I dug deeper, were essentially the same; focused more and more on winning elections and less on actually accomplishing anything of any real importance for their nominal constituents. The scrabble for votes became their Message and their Mission. Especially in the ‘Perfect’ decade after the end of the Cold War and prior to 9/11 and The War on Terror, American politics- unbeknownst to me at the time, living in my Second American bubble- underwent a sea change so profound that it has shaped the entire world we live here in 2022 in dire fashions.
Let’s rewind a bit. 1991 marked the end of the Cold War with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. America and the West had won the most fraught struggle between socio-economic paradigms since the defeat of Fascism 46 years prior. It also marked the biggest change in American politics since the end of the Civil War, though I’m pretty sure few noticed and fewer still would have put it in those terms at the time.
The Conservative Movement in America, represented by an increasingly more monolithic Republican Party, had relied on the fear of Communism to bolster defense budgets and quash social legislation essentially from the moment Fascism was defeated in 1945 until Christmas Day in 1991, when the Soviet Flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. Nearly everyone in the United States breathed an huge sigh of relief. The Democratic Party, the nominal supporters of social liberalism in America albeit nowhere as unified behind their at times conflicting goals as the Republican party was behind conservatism, dusted off their hands and immediately began gearing up for a whirlwind of social legislation to make America a more liberal and socially friendly nation. President Clinton’s election in 1992 marked the brief period of halcyon days for the long beleaguered liberal movements in America. Both the House and Senate had sizeable Democratic majorities in the 102nd and 103rd Congresses. Lacking any sort of galvanizing external enemy, the conservatives in the United States floundered for any possible grasp at the levers of power, and more importantly a way to regain political control.
As a definition the Conservative Movement in America is just that, and nothing more. All moralistic posturing and propaganda aside, they prove the guardians of the centuries-old status quo of the three Americas, ensuring that it remains the dominant socio-economic structure in this nation. They are the eternal arbiters of this system, and have been since long before the Republic was even established. The system they espouse had remained essentially unchanged, through Revolution and Civil War and even Reconstruction, from the mid-17th century until the Labor Movements of the early 20th century.
Despite some retreats at that time and since, the three-tiered socio-economic structure proved a pretty robust affair, though it required constant vigilance and careful subtle reversals of any major liberal changes. The Conservative Movement gained control of the Republican Party as its political arm in the early 20th century and then dug in its heels hard in the face of liberal movements to break down the three tiered system.
So the world-wide outbreak of ‘peace’ in 1991 presented the Republican Party, as the political face of American Conservatism, with a dire question of survival; a matter of relevancy. Without the external enemy of the ‘Evil Empire’ of Soviet Communism to terrify and motivate the masses into voting for military budgets (enriching the First America almost effortlessly since WWII) and against troublesome social legislation (changes which might lead to a breakdown of the three-tiered system) and the ‘peace dividend’ making things better overall for the Second and Third Americas, American Conservatism faced a severe crisis. It’s hard to limit social legislation, an eternal anathema to the three-tiered system, when there is no fear to motivate the electorate against it. The War on Drugs ramped up rather spectacularly, as did the demonization of petty criminal offenses (usually those blamed upon the citizens of the Third America) and illegal immigration but those perennial hot issues proved a mere stop-gap, a life-support line for a Movement in an existential crisis.
There was a solution at hand, though, for the woes of the Conservative Movement. If there was no really compelling enemy to rope the electorate into supporting the Republican Party, then one would- as ever- get manufactured. The Culture War was born, and its biggest proponent was a Congressman from Georgia and the Minority Whip of the House, Newton (‘Newt’) Leroy Gingrich. The Republican Party would now stop compromising with what they now painted as their sworn enemies and the mortal enemies of America; the other major Party in American politics- the Democrats.
It didn’t happen overnight. Strategists in the Republican Party and its supporters in the Conservative Movement could see the handwriting on the wall even in the late 1980s. More and more of the electorate in the Second America were tired of the endless machinations holding back social legislation, the flat wages paid to workers, and the slowly increasing wealth inequality of the world’s largest economy. The Third America had always been sick of it, naturally, but an increasing number in the Second America were now listening to them. Even the comfortable though not affluent, like me, began to wonder if we couldn’t do more to help out the Third America as well as ourselves, such as more spending on education and social safety net programs now that we didn’t need a military (at the time) three times the size of that of any of our possible foes. It didn’t look like a zero-sum game anymore. We could offer everyone bigger slices of a growing pie, and even most conservatives of the day (like me) agreed.
The Republicans, hungry for votes and relevancy, now came after the Democrats like a man with an axe going after a snake. Unwieldy at first, they laid into the ever-disorganized Democratic Party and its representatives at all levels from county elections to the very Presidency itself. Every tiny advantage and loophole in the laws got exploited to maximum effect possible while the propaganda machines ran nonstop to divide the majority pool of voters within the center-right and center-left, who had never been all that far apart in their political philosophy, into two polarized camps fighting a zero-sum and winner-takes-all campaign for hearts, minds and votes. The wedge and single-issue voter campaigns became the status quo of political strategy, and dog-whistles programmed into conservatives for generations echoed loud. The Democrats, caught on the back foot and remaining essentially a coalition of disorganized liberal political movements with no real ideological cohesion, began to gamely fight back using the same tactics. America became a sea of increasingly radicalized groups forced into ever more extreme camps by political campaigns that used Madison Avenue tactics to squeeze votes out of the electorate.
We can’t forget that American politics is ever driven by its economy and its structure. Whether agrarian slaveholders, labor-hating industrialists or finance-made billionaires, the First America has always moved towards any political philosophy that will improve next quarter’s profits. They award those who profit them with power and privilege, morals and consequences be damned. What the billionaires of the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st found was that the very political shindig itself was immensely profitable, because the Conservative Movement not only supported the three-tiered system but also delivered immense profits to the First America’s industries and investments. A few billion dollars in untraceable political contributions reaped TRILLIONS in profit. The discovery of a new fear campaign- the ‘War On Terror’- did not supplant the political knife fight but instead augmented it, running alongside old favorites like The War On Drugs, the drive to political extremism, the suppression of labor, and the structural oppression of the Third America (and increasingly the lower-hanging elements of the Second America) through new tactics such as the exploitation of college tuition debt.
By nature I’m a conservative (if not anymore a capital-C ‘Conservative’). Whether it’s something genetic or left over from my early upbringing, I’m at best cautious concerning change. I have issues with adjusting to alterations to my comfortable, life-long habits. I’ve lived in the same house for 23 years, and the same city for 30. I worked for one company for 23 years. I once drove the same car for 11 years. I make long term commitments only after a lot of reflection and soul-searching. I’m adverse to debt and try to live within my means. When in Vegas, I play the 1-cent slots. I drink a little good whiskey and beer instead a lot of the cheap stuff. I voted the straight Republican ticket in every election from 1988 to 2012.
I don’t vote Republican these days, and I don’t see myself aligned with what that Party espouses at all anymore. I am adverse to change, and between what I didn’t know (or remained blind to) about the Conservative Movement in America when I was young and what it represents today is far too great a change for me to stomach, morally or ethically. I have always believed in the improvability of humanity, and doing the most good for the greatest number of people. I used to think that a slow and steady approach to it- like what I believed the Conservative Movement represented when I was younger, but in many ways never really did- was the solution.
But then I grew up. I had to realize that what I know now makes all of the difference between what I believed then and what I want today for the world of the future. The change came really late in my life, later than it should have; but it happened. Some of you have always known what I see now, and others have yet to see it. I love you all nonetheless.
Keep striving, friends. Take care out there.No Comments on What ‘Conservatism’ Meant