Conservatism, a Liberal’s Take (Part II)
It is one of the beautiful peculiarities of writing, if you do it often enough, that content often unfolds in ways you had not expected.
As I was writing about conservatism, for example, I would discover the need conservatives have for “order”; that they need a chain of command; that a golden-age past looms very large in conservative thinking; that their obsession with “states rights” is an extension of their belief in “rugged individualism”; and that religious conservatives depend heavily on “sacred texts” for their values.
I am still discovering more about conservatives.
The fixation that many conservatives have for the past has many subtle and not-so-subtle shades to it. Sometimes the past is romanticized, even mythologized by those who want to hold on to a remembered, but somewhat fictionalized time, when life seemed simpler; when the good could clearly be distinguished from the bad; when “commandments” were meant to obeyed; when men were the moral centers of the world; when children actually obeyed their parents.
Conservatives also seem to enjoy formal ceremonies in which legacy authority-figures are granted the power to carry on the duties and responsibilities of those in power before them. Sometimes the rituals are very exotic and ornate. When a new pope is installed, for example, it is eminently clear that the grandeur of that moment is meant to convey the unbroken line between the new pope and all the rituals of succession going back in time, we are told, to the moment Christ chose Saint Peter to be the original “rock” that Christ would, allegedly, build his “church” upon.
Monarchy and emperor rituals have the same conservative and iconic flavor. Kings, queens, and emperors are installed or crowned in highly ritualized ceremonies. Words are spoken. Props appear (miters, bibles, crowns, rings). Oaths are made. Songs are sung. Prayers are said. And, in many cases, a sky-god is affirmed as the eternal “witness” of the sacredness of this regal moment.
These conservative rituals, of course, have the same function as comfort food. They often make us feel good. We are meant to believe we are connected to the past, that we are even in the flow of timelessness and universality, and that humans are a very special lot because we have these symbolic kings, queens, emperors who will make sure that all “order” and “security” will be maintained. (I might add here that the “installation” of any political leader, liberal or conservative, has that same contradictory flavor of history and timelessness).
The legacy rituals parallel the conservative obsession with lineage, the family thoroughbred and title, the passing-down of power, status, and property.
It was during the Arab Spring protests that global audiences began to get a clear picture of rule-by-family–the Assads, the Mubaraks, the Gadaffis, and, of course, the royal family of Saudi Arabia. These ruling families became the classic conservative icons of power, exclusivity, and economic privilege.
And the English monarchy, although symbolic, still has vestiges of the conservative power model of “handing down” prestige and power through the blood line.
Closer to home, one only has to read the marriage or commitment-ceremony announcement requirements for the “New York Times” to realize the Manhattan upper-crust conservative mania for status and lineage—schools, profession, awards received, achievements—all must be included in the information a couple sends into the Times.
In one wedding announcement, between a Jessie Fuller and Buck Rogers, for example, the Times was quick to notice that the bridegroom was descended from James Madison, while the bride from Samuel Fuller, a founder of Plymouth Colony.
It is ironic that conservatives are enamored of lineage, status, and family name, while, at the same time, many conservatives are adamant about supporting a meritocracy.
American political conservatives love to talk about “merit.” They often disparage social services as “entitlements,” with the assumption that those receiving entitlements (like Medicaid and Welfare) do not “earn” them but are living off someone else’s achievements. The wealthy conservatives, however, will never discuss the “insider” connections many of them have to the halls of power, those same halls denied to those who are not in the financial inner-circle.
Of course, conservatives will tell you that all their achievements were “merited,” that they worked for them, that the family connections didn’t matter, that their children didn’t succeed because of their family name, that the Ivy-League school they graduated from didn’t enter into their employment opportunities.
And no conservative will admit that the exponential growth of their incomes and wealth are a result of having an exorbitant amount to start with (this is the tipping point when percentage interest on stocks and other investments annihilates any legitimate conversation about how much a rich man’s wealth is determined by merit).
A little lesson from history here: anyone who has ever studied the examination system in the history of China knows that those who did well on the exams were often awarded plush civil-service jobs. These civil-servants formed the leisure class in China for centuries.
Although the Chinese exam system was rigorous and merit-based and did enable many of the poorer class to become scholars and civil servants, the system produced what one writer calls an “aristocracy by examination,” resulting in a firmly entrenched bourgeois society that wasn’t about to share its wealth, power, and status.
Along with lineage, status, and a belief in merit, conservatives tend to see ownership as one of the more potent signs of success in the United States. Ownership of land and property also reinforces the conservative sense of earned privilege. And the more exotic, remote and/or gated, the better. The masses, of course, have to be kept at a distance while the property lines between the public/common and private properties have to be legally recognized and enforced.
In addition, assets, liquidity, savings, and investments all become part of the conservative vocabulary of ownership and success; they also reinforce the conservative class-driven element of exclusivity.
Of all the characteristics of conservatives, exclusivity is perhaps the most potent.
However, conservativism isn’t always about money, status, blood-line, and property—all the traditional venues of exclusivity.
Ethnic conservatives, for example, don’t like to have their races, languages, or religions blended. They often insist on keeping them in their original and pure form. They don’t approve of intermarriages. They want their own particular language to dominate. They prefer to have their own communities segregated. They are fearful of outsiders.
If you would like to be reminded of some of the key Conservative concepts discussed in this two-part series, here they are:
(1) The need for Order
(2) A Golden-Age Past
(3) States Rights
(4) Inviolability of Sacred Texts
(6) Clear distinction between good and evil
(7) Lineage, Generativity
(8) Installation Rituals
(9) Private Property, Ownership
(11) Belief in Meritocracy