Editor’s Note: Since Ronald Reagan stepped onto the national political stage in the 1970s, American “conservatism” has operated in an increasingly radical, anti-empirical and paranoid style, putting the social and economic stability of the United States at greater and greater risk.
Instead of the traditional conservative approach of relying on time-tested solutions, Reagan espoused the so-called Laffer Curve, which gambled on the unrealistic notion that massive tax cuts for the rich would generate more tax revenue for the Treasury, just one example of the Right’s anti-conservative -- and even crazy -- “conservatism,” as Lawrence Davidson notes in this guest essay:
If you have the stomach to listen to the likes of Glenn Beck or track the antics of people like Sarah Palin, you might get the idea that today’s American political conservatives are a bunch of radicals and extremists. And, as we will see, you would be correct.
But this is not how it always was. There was a time when conservatism was a more low-key affair with a certain sense of pragmatism and even fair play.
There is not much of this traditional conservatism left here in the U.S., except in certain intellectual circles. And, even there, one has the sense that it is hanging on by its fingernails.
If you want to learn more about this remnant you might take a look atthe writings of Jim Kalb, a leading thinker in the traditional conservative movement, a believing Catholic and, in his role as a wordsmith, an aficionado of palindromes (a word or phrase that reads the same forwards and backwards). Here is how Kalb spells out the meaning of his brand of conservatism:
"A network of commonly accepted attitudes, beliefs and practices that evolves through strengthening of things that work and rejection of things that lead to conflict and failure. It therefore comprises a collection of habits that have proved useful in a huge variety of practical affairs, and a comprehensive and generally coherent point of view that reflects very extensive experience and thought."
In other words, this sort of vintage conservatism emphasizes what it regards as useful traditions over rapid innovations. It also values workable stability over precipitous change. There will always be change, of course, but in the world of traditional conservatives it should be slow and incremental, not "radical" or "revolutionary."
Whatever one might think of this traditional conservatism, it is pretty clear that modern American political conservatism has abandoned it for a multitude of extremist positions that play themselves out as publicly expressed obsessions.
Let us take a look at some examples of this "fall from grace."
--The alleged right to possess unlimited numbers of deadly weapons.
For modern political conservatives obsessed with the issue of gun laws, this "right" to be over-armed supersedes the public’s need for a safe environment.
Thus, compared to the age-old tradition of public safety, the gun mania of today’s conservatives is absolutely revolutionary.
It certainly has nothing to do with the Constitution’s "well ordered militia" and does not reflect "habits that have proved useful in a huge variety of practical affairs." In fact, the only "habits" this obsession references are those displayed in fantasies that romanticize cowboys and military combat.
--The battle against legal abortion.
This modern political/social conservative cause also references fantasy rather than "a comprehensive and generally coherent point of view that reflects very extensive experience and thought." This is because the outlawing of abortion does not eliminate abortion. It simply drives it into the back alleys creating an ever greater risk to desperate and mostly poor pregnant women.
Thus, obsessed as they are with the rights of the unborn, these so-called conservatives care little for the much more traditional right of well-being for those who are "post womb." In addition, unwanted births put stress on the traditional family structure, increase rates of delinquency and deepen poverty.
Many of today’s political/social conservatives who seek to outlaw abortion with such religious zeal also sadly stand out as hypocrites. Anti-abortionists, supporting an allegedly "pro-life" cause, often act or support or turn a blind eye to their own violence that can and has reached the level of murder.
Perhaps most frustrating of all, these same "right to lifers" often stand in opposition to a pragmatic answer to the abortion problem – that is the age-old and honored tradition of contraception.
--An obsessive fixation with taxes.
Those modern-day political conservatives who have this particular mania seem to be incapable of understanding that it is a radical act to advocate the reduction of taxation to the point of social ruination.
In order to spare their wallets and allegedly promote "individual freedom" they advocate, among other things, privatizing the public school systems, denial of services to indigent people, and elimination of state involvement in such issues as public health and environmental safety.
Yet these state activities are real "commonly accepted attitudes, beliefs and practices." To stand against them is not to be truly conservative, but rather to play the role of the stereotypical wild-eyed revolutionary.
That is because, refusing to be taxed for these purposes means the recreation of conditions experienced in a place like Manchester, England, circa 1830. That was a time when, as a matter of policy, no money was made available for government regulation of the "private sector."
Things got so bad in Manchester (and other industrial towns in England) at this time that there was mass illiteracy, pervasive malnutrition among the poor and, due to workplace pollution, the average laborer was dying at about the age of 16.
--Paranoid concern with illegal immigration.
Immigration, legal or illegal, constitutes a process that is one of the defining pillars of the American national character. Unless you are an American Indian, you are an immigrant or the descendent of immigrants, a healthy percentage of whom were not "legal."
Therefore, to overreact to immigration is to undermine a traditional practice as old as the nation itself. In addition, today’s political conservative approach to immigration is obviously not a "strengthening of things that work and rejection of things that lead to conflict and failure."
Immigration of whatever nature has always worked to strengthen the nation’s economy. Hysterical reactions to it reflect an attitude that only "leads to conflict and failure."
There is yet one more obsession of today’s political conservatives that stalks the American public landscape in a radically malignant way. It is the phenomenon of Islamophobia.
For instance, consider the recent 38th annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), attended by a number of Republican presidential hopefuls.
Journalists’ reports on the conference show that it was successfully used as a venue by such extremists as David Horowitz ("political Islam is a totalitarian movement that seeks to impose Islamic law on the entire world"), Pam Geller (the CPAC has been"corrupted and compromised by the Muslim Brotherhood"), and Robert Spencer ("Muslims are not able to be moderate–or they would be speaking against what is written in the Koran").
Through their foothold in the conference, these radicals were able to influence the already paranoia-prone modern American conservative mind.
These Islamophobes are joined by some more recognizable, but no less radical, names such as Lt. General William G. Boykin (ret.) who at one time served as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. Boykin is a Christian fundamentalist obsessed with the fantasy of Muslim infiltration of the United States, particularly through the spread of Sharia Law.
He has co-authored a book with former CIA Director R. James Woolsey Jr. entitled Shariah: The Threat to America. He has also urged withdrawing the protection of the First Amendment for Muslim Americans. Boykin enjoys much influence among the religious elements of today’s American conservative movement.
The growing number of conservative elected officials who preach Islamophobia is a clear indicator that this fantasy has entered the minds of Republican voters. A good example of the consequences is the present activities of Peter King, a Republican congressman from Long Island, New York.
King is now Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, a position from which he spreads the same problematic message as Horowitz, Geller, Spencer and Boykin. King is planning hearings on the "radicalization of the American Muslim community."
As presently planned, the hearings promise to be low on accurate knowledgeable and objective witnesses and high on those who have a clear record of Islamophobia.
This then has been the fate of conservatism in America. What started out as a worldview valuing the wisdom supposedly to be had from tradition has become a clearly paranoid mentality constantly imagining outside conspiracies and inside saboteurs aiming to destroy national values and the citizen’s personal rights.
In addition, the range of remedies that today’s conservatives offer to fight against these "threats" are almost entirely extremist in nature.
They range from the financial destruction of the U.S. federal government through severe reduction of taxes, to carte blanche accessibility to deadly force for gun fanatics, to the passing of draconian laws on abortion and immigration, to the McCarthyite persecutions of entire minority groups such as American Muslims.
These proposed policies do not reflect any definition of traditional conservatism. They are certainly not examples of a "comprehensive and generally coherent point of view that reflects very extensive experience and thought."
Instead they are destructive of the nation’s traditions and values and can only lead to disaster. Thus, out of respect for Jim Kalb’s comparatively sane definition of conservatism, I end with a palindromic warning to all those American pseudo-conservatives out there, "Live Not On Evil."
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest; America's Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.