The Trump Card (2016 Edition)
Something I just wrote.
It is taken by many as self-evident that one of the dominant modern American political ideologies is “conservatism.” Furthermore, it is often stated by certain media and political personalities and repeated elsewhere that the United States is a “conservative nation.” But a closer analysis of American political realities reveals the figurative waters to be far murkier. Modern American conservatism is in fact, a relatively recent development as far as ideologies go: and its core tenets are fundamentally rooted in upholding the social, economic, and cultural hierarchies that are so ingrained in American society.
Conservatism in the modern sense traces its roots to 1917, when the Russian Revolution shocked American leaders in all sectors of society. Not coincidentally, this was the era of the rise of fundamentalism in Protestant America, a movement that appealed to divine authority to uphold the authority of business, government, and other social institution and norms, and defend them from the onslaught of socialism and ideas in general that were perceived as being seditious. The economic aspects of conservatism were developed further in opposition to the New Deal and the “welfare state’ more broadly in the 1930s. These ideas then were synthesized into the nationalism and extreme anti-Communism of the Cold War in the 1940s.
None of these views existed in isolation; rather, they fed on each other and were complementary in nature. Anti-Communism was the glue that held conservatives of all stripes-social, economic, and cultural-together. Thus, the Cold War decades could be seen in one way as a triumph of conservatism in practice.
But of course, it would be an oversimplification to leave it at that. For, even as their ideas dominated society, there was a perception from many conservative activists and organizers that their views were not acceptable to the dominant intellectual, media, and political powers. This was not without merit: America was becoming progressively more dependent on the “welfare state” in the 1950s and 1960s, in large part because, even as many Americans were conservative in attitude, they were even more willing to accept change that benefited them directly in their everyday lives. It was the fracturing of the country over broad issues of culture, economics, race, gender, and foreign policy in the 1960s and 1970s that gave a new kind of conservatism-“movement conservatism” an opening to assert itself as the dominant and most influential political movement in modern America, culminating in the Reagan-Bush era and the modern era.
Movement conservatism, unlike traditional versions of conservatism, is based not in upholding the status quo by inertia, but in attacking the social liberalism of post-Depression America. It does so by what can be called relentless counter-assaults on the 1960s attacks on the traditional social, economic, and cultural hierarchies in America. It preys on divisions of Americans, bitter personal squabbles, and the fear and resentment of people who live in an increasingly overwhelming and seemingly unjust world. Movement conservatism wins elections by poisoning the well of political discourse.
What can be said, then, about the current scene in American politics? The Tea Party is more than just an angry reaction to Barack Obama’s Presidency; it is the expression of the latest and furthest bitter discontent of movement conservatism. Increasingly angry and paranoid, it may be close to the last hurrah of movement conservatism, and American conservatism in general. That would be fitting; reactionary demagoguery is a sign of a truly troubled ideology, to say the least.