Conservatism: The Politics of Ignorance And Self-Interest

A personal essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup


"Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?"
-- Ronald Reagan, campaign speech, 1980

"There is nothing that can better deserve our patronage than science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness"
--George Washington, address to congress, January 8, 1790





Conservatism Defined

Conservatism is variously defined, but most generally, dictionary definitions come down to the idea that the values and ideas of the past (and to some degree the present) should be "conserved" (hence the name) and not abandoned.

To me, it seems that this definition is inadequate. Conservatism goes beyond merely conserving the past; it also is uneasy with change, even suspicious of it, and is reluctant to embrace it. There is a certain fear among conservatives that change won't necessarily add to the quality of life and should therefore be viewed with suspicion.

Conservatism often expresses nostalgia for a supposed better, simpler time. In the United States, the 1950's are often considered a golden age by many conservatives. It was an era of conservative control of the American presidency, and much, if not most of the state and local governments of the era were controlled by conservative politicians. They point proudly to the economic growth that occurred in the U.S. during that period has few parallels in American history, even though that growth was largely due to the large market for American goods and services on world markets, and the lack of competition from Europe and Japan, who were still rebuilding from the devastation of World War II.

Additionally, conservatism holds a rather cynical view of government and its place in the lives of its citizens. Conservatives generally express the view that government is most generally part of the problem and not the solution. Government is often blamed by conservatives for a wide variety of maladies, even though government may not even have any significant involvement with a particular problem for which it is being blamed.

Conservative economics generally revolve around the idea that the best economic model is a form of capitalism based on principles they call "free enterprise." This economic model supplements the view that government power is normally counterproductive by extending that concept to a cynical view of government involvement in the marketplace. Most conservatives take as their economic model Adam Smith's 18th-century treatise on economics, "The Wealth of Nations," which for the first time expounded a coherent theory of free-enterprise capitalism. It argued that the market works best which is interfered with least, an idea that has a great deal of appeal to someone with an inherent mistrust of the power of government.

The Goals Of Any Legitimate Political Philosophy

Thomas Jefferson declared in the Declaration of Independence that the purpose of government is to secure for all persons subject to it, the rights, among others, of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Just what these words mean have been the source of a great deal of discussion and debate in the centuries since they were written. How government best secures those rights for its citizens was never defined by Jefferson or the other thinkers from whom he drew is ideas, but I believe that most would agree that inasmuch as government affects economic activity as well as popular culture, a reasonable philosophy of government has to consider these influences as well. So in my mind, the government governs best which secures for the greatest number of its subjects the greatest good. In this essay, we will assume that all the people are equal before the law, have certain basic inalienable rights, and the purpose of government is to benefit as many people as possible, to the greatest extent possible, without prejudice on the basis of class.

Having stated that as our goal, I would have to say that it will be our touchstone, if a proposal fails to adequately meet that test, it is not worthy of further consideration without modification.

For example of how this 'touchstone' process works, a few years ago, a bill was passed in Congress and signed by President Reagan which allows the manufacturers of fertilizer to add toxic chemical waste to those fertilizers if that waste contains micronutrients that are useful to the plants to which the fertilizer is to be applied. The wastes are allowed to be added even if they contain other components that are dangerous, bad for the plants, or damaging to the land to which they are applied, or even toxic to humans if absorbed by food plants. Manufacturers of such fertilizer are specifically absolved of legal responsibility for damages, disease or death caused by the use of the product. Additionally, such fertilizers need not be so labeled, and are widely sold in the U.S. today. The majority of fertilizers sold, even in garden centers for use by the general public, have such contaminants.

How does this law meet the touchstone requirement? Here's how it stacks up as I see it:

Those who benefit:

Those who are harmed:

In the example cited above, clearly the number of people damaged by the law is much greater than the number who benefit by it. It therefore clearly fails the 'greatest good for the greatest number' touchstone test.

The way a political philosophy is put together is by the means of resolving apparent contradictions. For a philosophy to be useful, it has to be somewhat predictive; i.e., it must describe what would happen in the general circumstances in which it is applied. About the only way this can be done is to resolve apparent contradictions.

A word of warning here: humans are fallible. Because they are fallible, there will always be contradictions in any philosophy put together by humans. It simply isn't possible to create a system of philosophy which contains no contradictions at all. Having said that, however, it is to be noted that the philosophy is most likely to be predictive that is consistent. So we should try to resolve genuine a basic inconsistency whenever possible.

What Is The Conservative Ideology?

The conservative rallying cry is "freedom." Freedom generally meaning freedom from government intervention in matters they do not want government interfering in (usually their own personal or professional lives). But as we shall see later in this essay, conservatives have an inherent mistrust of personal freedom, and can become quite uncomfortable when serious proposals are made to extend it to someone other than themselves. The problem here is that allowing personal freedom without allowing a similar degree of freedom to others violates to principle of 'greatest good for the greatest number.' It therefore creates a basic inconsistency.

The essence of a free society is "openness," which implies two things: the right to free speech, and the right, even the requirement, to think for oneself, make one's own decisions, and chart one's own destiny. While conservatives loudly proclaim these ideals, they do not mind circumscribing them in the name of their own ideology; restrictions on abortion, based on their own definition of human life, as if no other were possible, and the restriction on the civil rights of gays to marry the informed, consenting adult of their choice, presuming that their own definition of marriage is the only one that is worthy of being allowed by law. Such circumscriptions and many others that could be cited show clearly the distance that exists between conservative ideological rhetoric and actual practice. This is because in the headlong rush towards a laissez-faire economic model, it is easy to forget that the values and institutions of an open society are not neccessarily supported by the market, and need care and nurturing if they are to survive. This is because the conservative has failed to understand that by increasing his comfort level (ensuring that abortions or gay marriages don't occur) he has circumscribed the right of others to make their own decisions. Simply claiming that he is right is not enough; no evidence is ever provided to show that the greatest good for the greatest number is provided for by circumscribing the right of women to direct their own reproductive destinies or the right of gays or lesbians to marry the informed, consenting adults of their choice.

The reason that the conservative doesn't nurture those values and instititutions of freedom for all, is that the concept of freedom to a conservative is a deeply personal one. It generally stems from personal experience or from personal history in which the conservative or someone close to him has had a negative experience with government or the intervention, perceived or real, of government in his life. Therefore, the language used by conservatives in relation to freedom is personal. It is replete with personal examples, such as personal forms of taxation, stories of government regulations or bureaucrats gone bad. In relation to the rest of society, it is always vague generalizations, such as "getting government off the backs of the people." The disparity in the language reflects the personal nature of conservatism.

Economically, conservatives hold only Adam Smith to be a true prophet of economic theory. Other, more modern economists such as Milton Freidman are held in esteem only to the extent that they echo Adam Smith's views. Why this is true is simply that Adam Smith propounded the most purely non-regulated economic model that has ever seen any degree of acceptance. This fits hand in glove with the conservative view that government is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The obvious synergy of the theories seems to verify for the conservative the sensical basis of conservative theory. Yet conservatives fail utterly to acknowledge that the regulations they so angrily denounce were put there originally for a reason. That reason is that free markets, unrestrained by government regulation, do not neccessarily lead to the greatest good for the greatest number -- in fact, they never do. To the extent that they don't, government regulation is often neccessary to prevent abuse. This is a patently obvious fact almost never acknowledged by conservative theorists.

A persistent, dominant feature of conservatism is social Darwinism. In economic terms, it takes the form of declaring intervention in the market to be the ultimate evil, and that non-interventionism informs the social theories that underlie conservative philosophy. By claiming that the free market will solve the ills, social Darwinism becomes an easy extension of that view, by asserting that those who aren't successful in the market are morally inferior; i.e., they are unsuccessful because they are weak or lazy. The anecdotal evidence that others have made it after starting with few if any resources, is used to justify this view.

While this view is a central tenet of conservative social philosophy, it fails to consider differences in individual temperment and talent, and that while some have "made it" after starting from nothing, it presumes that all are equally equipped to do so, which is obviously not the case. The fact that some have, however, presumes to alleviate the conservative of any responsibility towards those who can't. Therefore, any notion of government support of the weak, infirm, or defective becomes anathema.

This social Darwinism stands in stark contrast to the view of religious conservatives that Darwinism is the ultimate expression of the evil of secular science, which declares that humanity arose from the primates from just such a system of survival of the fittest. The irony that on the one hand, the view that Darwinism is an insult to what the religious conservative regards as the divinity of human creation with the disregard of that portion of that creation which is other than self, seems lost on such conservatives.

In social theory, conservatism harks back to what it considers a simpler and somehow better time. More modern problems, such as feminism, gay rights, multiculturalism, urban decay, economic decline and political instability are considered by conservatives to simply be evidence that society has strayed from what it believes to be the non-interventionist wisdom of the past. To cure these ills, conservatives suggest simply returning to what they presume the values of the past to be, neglecting the obvious fact that the problems of today are quite different from those of past generations, and that the egregious moral and political inequities of the past are too unpleasant to be worth returning to, and that the past was nowhere near as non-interventionist as they presume. Nor do they consider that the interventions of the state were made neccessary by very real problems.

These social theories are often lumped together under the banner of "traditional family values." That term is never carefully defined, but usually is taken to mean a rejection of feminism, gay rights and even the right of women to control the destinies of their own reproductive lives in some cases. It also decries the decline of the two-parent family, while totally ignoring the factual reasons that the two-parent family is in decline. Again, government is often blamed, even though the problem is primarily an economic one. And conservative economic policies are largely to blame. The fact that these values have no effect at all on inner city decay, illegal drugs, street crime, collapse of the educational system, etc., are lost on the conservative, because he never stops to actually think about how these values would actually affect these problems. He simply accepts that they will, on face value, because such has been the pronouncement of conservative pundits.

Running through all of this is a common thread of patriarchialism. There is an unspoken objectification of women and sexual minorities, in which they are regarded as less than men in terms of their rights within society. This view takes voice in such statements as "A woman's place is in the home" as if she weren't competent to run her or her family's affairs. Homophobia is considered quite acceptable, even honorable among many conservatives, as homosexuals don't quite seem to be men or even women, so are therefore something less that totally human (or even downright evil and perverted), and therefore don't deserve human rights. Many of the more outspoken and extreme conservatives will even give voice to this Fascist sentiment. There is also an assumption, false as it turns out, that the male was programmed by evolution to be the head of the family and by extension, head of everything else too. Even female conservatives, who from their own experience ought to know better, often buy into this mistaken view.

The nostalgia for an earlier, and presumed better time takes a particularly virulent turn when it links up with a need for an enemy. Conservatives need enemies simply because of the failure of conservative policies to produce the nirvana predicted for them. Finding a scapegoat and blaming the problems of society on that scapegoat are vastly easier and more comfortable than the introspection and self-examination required to determine just where the root of society's problems lie, and whether conservative policies can actually affect the problems. To an extent, government intervention fills the role of scapegoat, but in cases were government obviously can't be blamed, another scapegoat must be found. In the "golden age" of the 1950's, that enemy was communism, the nostalgia was for a pre-world war II innocence, and together the virulence took the form of McCarthyism. Today, communism is dead, but the need for a scapegoat still exists, so in casting around for scapegoats, conservatives seem to have found twin evils in the gay community and providers of services needed by and used exclusively by women, particularly family planning services. Never minding, of course, the bigotry and stereotyping that the use of this particular scapegoat betrays.

A priceless quote from a conservative "intellectual" about the gay community can be found in the November, 1996 issue of Commentary, a conservative intellectual journal. Norman Podhoretz wrote: "Men using one another as women constitutes a perversion. To my unreconstructed mind, this is as true as ever; and so far as I am concerned it would still be true even if gay sex no longer entailed the danger of infection and even if everything about it were legalized by all 50 states and ratified by all nine justices of the Supreme Court." Of course, he might as well have said that to his pre-Enlightenment mind, it didn't matter how effectively he was proven wrong, he'd still believe he was right. As gay men and lesbians come out of the closet and prove such stereotypes wrong, the "unreconstructed" minds of such "intellectuals" start looking like the sorry lot of just-plain bigots they are. Yet such is the neo-conservative mentality of holding prejudices more dearly than the truth, just because it is so very, very comforting to believe yourself right in spite of all evidences to the contrary.

In international relations, the laissez-faire ideology promotes the openness of borders and the internationalization of markets. It is doctrine that everyone benefits by the reduction of trade barriers on the assumption that the doctrine of "comparative advantage" will cause everyone in the world to do what is most economically advantageous.

What this doctrine fails to consider is that, although about the only comparative advantage Bolivia has in international trade is in beef production, not everyone in Bolivia wants to be a cowboy. Nor the fact that while Mexico can build car engines cheaper than the United States, it may not be in America's strategic interests to become dependent on Mexico for all of its car engines. It was no surprise during the North America Free Trade Agreement debate that predictions were made that many American jobs would be lost to Mexico. Indeed, the threat of moving production to Mexico is routinely used by American manufacturers to extract wage and benefit concessions from American workers. Is this really in the workers' interests?

The result of NAFTA as of this writing has been a net loss of about 112,000 American jobs to Mexico. One might think that Mexico has benefitted greatly, but the reality is that most of the profits earned by American business operating in Mexico have been repatriated to the United States. Investment in native business in Mexico has been stifled by competition from American businesses seeking the resources for their own operations. How Mexico has benefitted by this is difficult to see. Indeed, Mexico has seen a net loss of nearly a million jobs, because of stiff competition from American and Canadian businesses, who have deprived the native companies of their markets. So even the gains of the 'maquiladora' employment has been more than offset by the loss of employment in local businesses. That this situation has led to a net loss of opportunity for both Mexican and American workers is easy to see, in spite of the fact that the non-interventionist doctrine would claim that the opposite should have occurred.

The Most Fundamental Fallacy of Conservative Philosophy

The conservative theorist and the right-wing Libertarian theories from whom his ideas are derived, love to rail against the power of the state. The obtrusiveness of government, especially in economic matters, are the basis of the conservative's complaints about government.

Yet the reality of life is that it is the economic power of corporations, which conservative theory ignores, that represents the greatest circumscription of personal freedom to the vast majority of people. As conservative principles are applied to government, the increasing restraint with which corporate activities are regulated means that corporations become increasingly free to tread on the personal freedoms of individuals who are powerless to stop them.

Suppose, for example, a major corporation wishes to buy up property across the street to build a shopping mall. Those who already live across the street from the proposed shopping mall are in a very poor position to prevent the mall from being built and have to watch helplessly while their property values are negatively affected. Why? Because they don't have the political muscle that fighting the large corporation would take. In other words, those with the gold make the rules, and the rights of the individual property owners in reality don't matter. So even though the small property owner has the theoretical right to object, his objection will make little difference. As the zoning regulations become increasingly watered down, individual property owners are finding they have fewer and fewer options for stopping the loss of value of their principal investment, because of the greed of a major corporation.

But the most serious circumscription of personal rights by corporations is in the workplace. The constitution and the bill of rights are essentially left at the workplace door. There is no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, no right of privacy, no right to petition for a redress of grievances, and little if any recourse for an unjust decision by management. And now, at least in Michigan and increasingly in other states, workers injured on the job are no longer entitled to compensation either for injuries or for lost income in any practical way.

The conservative argument is that the worker has the right to bargain for improved conditions; but if the worker has no bargaining power, that right exists in theory only. A father with hungry mouths to feed and a single job offer has far fewer options than does a huge corporation with a massive human resources department. And when the ability to organize a union is stifled by unfavorable labor law, it isn't possible for the worker to aggregate that power.

Dressing Up Intolerance As a Respectable Philosophy

Put yourself in the position of the conservative Republican:

I don't have any problem with conservatives teaching conservative Republicanism to their own kids. But I don't want them to advocate it in the public schools. And if their kids get beat up because they're conservative Republicans, that's their own fault, and they shouldn't expect any help from school officials, because conservative Republicanism is a choice, and if they want to avoid the beatings, they can quit being conservative Republicans any time they want.

And if conservative Republicans want to date each other, that's fine, but if they want to make love to each other, then that ought to be against the law. After all, we do have some moral standards in this country, don't we?

I think that we should allow conservative Republicans to be scout leaders and school teachers, but only of course, if we monitor them closely to make sure they don't recruit innocent young people into their foul brand of politics.

I resent the way Hollywood and the press present conservative Republicanism as a respectable way to live. After all, if a person is sincere and motivated enough, he can convert himself to being a liberal democrat, and he wouldn't have to go around offending everyone and asking for special rights.

And that's another thing. Special rights. I don't see why any conservative Republican should have his religious views protected by law. After all, being a conservative Republican is something I can distinguish only by behavior, and I don't see why simple behavior should qualify anyone for protected minority status. So we ought to do away with the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

Their lifestyle offends my sense of right and wrong, so I cannot be indifferent to their claim to legitimacy. While there's some evidence that being born a conservative might be predisposed by inheritance, there's not any doubt that they could change if they want to enough, and so if they want the same rights as us liberal Democrats have, all they have to do is change.

Well, this is a democracy, so I guess I'm going to have to tolerate the presence of conservative Republicans in this country. But that doesn't mean I have to endorse or accept them. So if they want to live in this country, that's fine, but they should keep it to themselves. I don't want to have to watch.

Now, how does that rhetoric sound? Intolerant? Meanspirited? If you substitute 'gays' for 'conservative Republicans,' you have some common conservative rhetoric. How legitimate as a political philosophy does it sound to you? Of course I don't personally feel that way about conservatives, but aren't there more than just a few conservatives who feel that way about gays?

All too often, conservative theoreticians fail to consider how their philosophies would feel if the shoe were on the other foot. If they did, they would quickly begin to see how their ideas are really designed to benefit themselves, at the expense of others who have just as legitimate a claim to a piece of the American dream as they do.

Why Do Conservatives Believe What They Do?

As has been mentioned, conservatives often come to their views through personal experience and familial socialization. Seldom does a conservative arrive at that point of view through rigorous intellectual discourse. Here's why:

When you're hurt by someone, it is easy and natural to lash out at the person who hurt you. The same obviously holds true of being hurt by government. When you've been audited by the tax authorities, been fined for driving a polluting car or had difficulty getting a building permit, government is easy to blame. With government being a ubiquitous presence, it isn't surprising that large numbers of people end up being hurt by it at one time or another.

Government in your mind then becomes the problem, and if others tell you that you're right in assuming that government is the problem, it isn't hard to accept an economic or social theory that agrees with that point of view. Indeed, it even becomes "common sense" in that the synergy of components of the emerging world view become self evident.

Hence, the social theories that, on the face of it, decry "social engineering" (even though frequently engaging in it, usually in matters relating to sexuality or drug use), sound like a logical extension of this world view. Social problems, therefore, become the fault of a meddling government (hence the favorite conservative saying, "a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged"). Unfortunately, as we shall see, the world isn't quite that simple.

This is especially true of conservative economic theories. Capitalist free enterprise as a model is very appealing to those who entertain this anti-government bias. Adam Smith claimed in his classic, "The Wealth of Nations," that unrestrained accumulation of capital is good for the economy, because it allows the creation of large pools of investment capital. Thus, conservatives are given a reason for restraining government from intervening in the accumulation of wealth. Smith also argued that the most efficient way of arriving at the true value of a good or service is to see what price it will bring in an free and unrestrained market. Again, reason for keeping the meddling hands of government out of the market. But again, the world isn't that simple. No reasonable conservative would argue that the most efficient way to keep the price of paramedic service to a minimum, for example, is to allow the free market to set the price. When you're having a heart attack, you're not going to argue with the ambulance driver over the price of the ride to the hospital. Yet the reality is that this is what many conservatives unthinkingly propose.

Conservatives often ask me, what is the problem with personal experience? Well, nothing, actually. It's perfectly fine as far as it goes. It's useful, even neccessary. The personal experience of the upper-class privileged male is just as valid as is the experience of the poor, the woman, the minority. As far as it goes.


"It is no accident that conservatism has arisen at the same time the public education system in the United States has declined.

It is also no accident that conservatism is strongest in the same parts of America where education is weakest."


The problem is that personal experience is far too limited a basis on which to try to build a philosophy with which to run the world. It is my contention that no one, no matter how diverse his life experiences, is ever going to learn enough about the complexity of the world around him to build a coherent philosophy of politics in the absence of a good education. Indeed, it is the increasing rarity of good education, in my opinion, that is reason that conservatism is not only increasing in popularity, but increasing in influence as well. Liberalism, having been built over the centuries by the more educated, is more inclusive of this different knowledge, not gained by experience. And this is why conservatives have always been generally suspicious of institutions of higher learning.

Who Are The Conservatives?

It's hardly surprising that conservatives are most generally the people who benefit from implementation of conservative policies in society. A look at just who they are is quite revealing.

I like to say that conservatism is the politics of the middle and upper class, adult, white, Anglo-Saxon, male, heterosexual, Protestant Republicans. Of course, the ranks of conservatives include many people who don't fit all of those labels, but a look at the delegates who attended the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego was quite revealing. Fully 94 percent of the delegates were white, more than three-quarters male, and only four out of the thousands attending were openly homosexual. Most were from upper-class backgrounds or from the management of corporations. The presence of large numbers of religious fundamentalists was made clear by the frequent appearances in the media by Ralph Reed, the director of the Christian Coalition, who spent over $1 million coordinating his troops there. The people who were present at that convention said more about the agenda than the rhetoric from the platform did.

The other large group of conservatives are middle class (mostly) men of limited education who feel alienated and victimized by liberal policies which they feel have not been to their benefit. These men often come from poor and working class backgrounds and fail to realize that their upward mobility was often made possible by the very liberal policies, such as the fostering of the labor movement, they now angrily denounce.

Why is it that conservatives come from these two very different groups? Well, just consider for a moment: getting "government off the backs of the people" benefits the upper-class who run corporations which can increase their personal wealth and the companies can externalize their costs by shifting them to the taxpayer through the avoidance of taxes and "burdensome" regulations, such as pollution laws, securities regulations, etc. The middle-class males benefit by discouraging Affirmative Action and similar liberal policies they view, wrongly as it turns out, as a threat to their economic status. Adults of limited parenting skills benefit by the conservative obstruction of government efforts to protect children from child abuse and neglect. Whites like conservative policies because it means they don't have to support and protect racial minorities or suffer from economic competition from them. Males tend to like conservative policies because they would allow the continuation of the presumed right of males to discriminate against women simply because they think they have a natural right to. Heterosexuals who don't like the idea of gay men and lesbians having the same right to marry are drawn to conservative politics because they presume the conservative emphasis on "traditional values" give them the right to deny marriage and other civil rights to homosexuals. Conservatives tend to be Republican because that party has adopted conservative ideology since its earliest days, while the Democratic party, since the founding of the American republic, has always been far more liberal.

Conservatism has a commonality of philosophy amongst its members simply because there is a commonality of experience that has brought these people to their political views. You're far more likely to find yourself agreeing with someone whose life has paralleled your own, because he is much more likely to have arrived at the same conclusions you have. This is why the gatherings of conservatives produce crowds that all tend to look alike.

This leads to an obvious question: If conservative economics is so harmful to the economic interests of the lower and middle classes, why are so many of them conservative?

The answer to that can be only described as a combination of deception and shallow thinking. The deception is on the part of the rich and powerful who see a keen self interest in convincing the lower and middle classes that a simplistic, "free enterprise" model of economics is in their interests. The shallow thinking is on the part of the lower and middle classes who simply accept it without question, because it comes from those who've "made it" and who "obviously" know more than they do, and have limited educational experience with which to understand the rhetoric.

A classic example is Ronald Reagan's so-called "trickle down" theory. In it, he claimed that if the rich were allowed to keep more of what the poor and middle class were producing, more of it would then "trickle down" to those below, and they would end up richer. No one ever thought to ask whether giving someone else more of the wealth you produce really would actually make you richer. Of course it doesn't, but that didn't stop the conservatives from accepting the notion no matter how silly it was. They simply accepted it because it was handed down by their opinion leaders, who had a vested interest in their accepting it.

Another example is the so-called "Laffer Curve." In this half-baked economic theory, the assumption is that the more government takes in taxes, the less the people will produce, and therefore a point is arrived at, where an increase in taxes will actually result in less revenue. True as far as it goes, but no conservative I read during that era ever stopped to ask if we knew whether we had actually arrived at that point in the U.S. Ronald Reagan just assumed we had, and so he cut taxes deeply in the assumption that we'd move back on the "Laffer Curve" and actually generate more tax revenue. Those who really understood economics, the scholars of the university schools of economics, were horrified. Of course the predictable happened, and the result was the largest budget deficit in American history, and a debt was racked up that now costs every American an average of about $500 a year just to service. I love to ask anti-tax conservative supporters of Reagan whether they think their $500 a year is being well spent.

There are other, even more obvious gaps between conservative economic theory and reality. Conservatives love to spout the theory that prices are set by the equilibrium of supply and demand. This simplistic view fails utterly to account for the volatility of stock and commodity markets. This is because the simplistic view of conservative economics fails utterly to account for the fact that both supply and demand curves incorporate expectations about the events that are shaped by those expectations. There is a feedback between what investors are thinking and what they think about. The result is a positive feedback; price volatility causes major investors to seek to insulate themselves from the effects of that volatility. The result is that the volatility is increased. This is why, in spite of all the insulating mechanisms, such as futures and derivatives, that have been invented to allow investors to insulate themselves from the volatility of the markets, those very markets are more volatile than ever before. Conservative economic theory just can't explain this.

The question has been asked of me why, if the persuit of personal advantage of the middle and upper class, white, Anglo-saxon, adult, male, heterosexual protestant Republican isn't morally acceptable, why is it for women and minorities? The answer, again, is whether the adopted philosophy in the persuit of that advantage benefits the greater number or just those like oneself. If liberalism benefited only women and minorities, and disenfrachised the conservatives to the extent that conservatism disenfranchises women and minorities, I'd consider it just as morally unacceptable. But since it seeks to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, I find it to be morally acceptable.

The fact is that liberalism seeks to be an inclusive philosophy. It seeks to embrace the interests of all, including women, minorities and, yes, even conservative adult males to the extent possible. When women and minorities embrace that inclusiveness, there is nothing wrong with their persuit of self interest thereby. That is the test; how many benefit by what you propose?

Rush Limbaugh And The Politics Of The Half-Truth

Much has been written about this political commentator and his influence on American politics. To say that he has become a conservative icon is really to understate his influence; he is actually a political conspiracy hypothecist, constructing a very carefully crafted theory of a liberal conspiracy to further his influence with his audience and the conservative community. His popular radio program reaches millions each day, and its influence on conservative politics has been enormous.

Rush Limbaugh relies primarily on selected bits of folk wisdom, often taken out of context, to build his case. By appealing to "common sense" rather than a rigorous examination of the whole, often complex truth, he can make his theories more plausible. While the truth often runs counter to popular wisdom, relying on selected bits of the latter makes his task easier, because no effort has to be made to educate his audience to truths with which they may not be familiar or willing to readily accept.

By carefully selecting the "facts" that he discusses, he can construct "evidence" to support his hypothesis, and make the whole thing sound plausible, even though other facts or the whole context of the facts he cites clearly contradict his theories.

Unfortunately, even his "facts" aren't always factual. He often plays fast and loose with the truth as a study by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting makes clear. The site linked here includes his response, and FAIR's analysis of his response.

For example, Rush's claim that Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed thousands of times more chlorine into the atmosphere than all the chloroflourocarbons man has produced is absolutely true as far as it goes.

What he doesn't tell his listeners is that Mt. Pinatubo's chlorine emissions were in the form of inorganic, soluble chloride salts that were quickly washed out of the atmosphere by rain, and never had a chance to rise to the ozone layer. Even if they had, their nature as inert salts would not have allowed them to have damaged the ozone layer. Chloroflourocarbon gases, on the other hand, are not washed out out the atmosphere by rain, but readily diffuse to the stratosphere, where they are photodegraded into compounds that have been proven beyond question to very actively participate in the chemistry of the ozone layer destruction. This is the half of the truth that Rush never tells his audience, even when the facts were pointed out to him, time and again.

It is this kind of irresponsibility that makes him truly dangerous. He deliberately and purposefully misleads his audiences, and through very careful, clever use of call screening and on-air editing made possible by the on-air time delay, is able to make it appear that his callers all either agree with him or his opponents don't know what they're talking about.

When the irresponsibility of this behavior is pointed out to him, he ducks for cover behind the "I'm-just-an-entertainer" excuse, claiming that his purpose is to entertain, and he shouldn't be taken too seriously. Yet his audience does take him very seriously, and he knows it and does nothing to set them straight.

Newt Gingrich And The Conservative "Revolution"

Newt Gingrich told us all that he was bringing a "revolution of ideas" to Washington. Use of the word implied that the political ideology that he wanted to implement into government policy was something fundamentally new.

The reality is that it has been tried before, not once, but twice. Neither time did it bring on the "American renewal" that Newt claimed it would for us.

The first time was at the end of the Civil War. Up until that time, there had been a very deep mistrust of the power that corporations could accumulate if not carefully regulated. As a result, corporations were prohibited from accumulating capitalization beyond certain carefully regulated limits, and the flotation of all stock issues was tightly restricted. As a result of money made during the Civil War, some corporations and the powerful people who owned them made a great push to get the regulations lifted. Within a few years, they had succeeded, in no small part due to the corruption of the U.S. Grant administration.

The result was the first great conservative "revolution." It brought on the "Robber Baron Era." The resulting concentration of wealth and power enabled the corporations to mainatain a strangling grip on state legislatures. The essentially unregulated banking system caused a series of crippling depressions alternating with wild inflations. Capital formation had become synonymous with wealth accumulation in the true Adam Smithian sense; but it also brought with it abuse of political power that Adam Smith never foresaw and the American people were unwilling to tolerate. The situation became so grave that the American people demanded action, and Congress responded with the Anti-Trust Acts and the establishment of the Federal Reserve System. The Interstate Commerce Act curbed the power of the railroads, and court decisions broke up the chokehold that the Standard Oil Trust had on the manufacture and distribution of petroleum distillates, and the grip that Andrew Carnagie had on steel manufacturing and distribution. J.P. Morgan was forced to relinquish control of banking and securities trading (though he retained enough wealth to single-handedly bail out the New York Stock Exchange). The increasing regulation of business continued through the end of the 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th.

By the 1920's the increasing regulation of business activity spawned a reaction among the wealthy and powerful that led to the election of Herbert Hoover. Hoover's version of Newt's "revolution" declared that the "business of America is business" and set about dismantling many of the regulations that governed the banking and securities industries and the accumulation of capital. The result was the great speculation boom of the the late 20's. As in all speculative booms, the inevitable happened and the bubble burst. In October, 1929, the stock market collapsed, and a massive transfer of wealth occurred from large numbers of ordinary Americans, to a small band of bankers, investors and capitalists quite literally overnight. The result was that purchasing power in the larger economy evaporated, and those greedy capitalists came up against a very hard truth: You can't sell something to someone who has no money. A depression developed that was so deep and became so ingrained by the extreme concentration of wealth that only emergency re-regulation of the economy for the war effort of World War II, along with war taxation and governmental borrowing from that enormous capital pool was able to put purchasing power back into the economy and set it right.

So we're brought to the "golden age" of the 1950's. The era that conservatives so fondly remember was actually an era of increasing, not decreasing, government regulation as a reaction to the horrors of deregulation that brought on the Great Depression just two decades before.

Many conservatives are too young, for example, to remember the 1950's when there was essentially one national telephone company, and it didn't call you at dinner, time after time, with unwanted sales pitches.

Airlines were strictly regulated as to what routes they could fly, when they could fly them, how much they could charge for passengers and freight and what types of aircraft they were to use. As a result, overbooking of flights and routine flight delays were virtually unknown, even though fares, adjusted for inflation, weren't all that much higher than now.

There was also heavy regulation of the freight forwarding industry. Every trucker had to file a tarrif with the Interstate Commerce Commission declaring his rates for hauling every single type of commodity he intended to haul. A tank trucker, for example, was not allowed to haul toxic industrial solvents or even sewage in his tanker in one direction and then load that same, unwashed tanker with food ingredients for the return trip as he may quite legally do now. And fertilizer manufacturers didn't deliberately contaminate their product with toxic waste. They didn't dare. Back then, there were laws against it.

Much of what is broadcast on American radio today wouldn't have been legally permissible then (including Rush Limbaugh's own program, which is the real reason he so adamantly opposes reestablishment of the fairness doctrine regulation).

So Newt's "revolution" was really a rebellion against much of the regulation that made the "golden era" of the 1950's so neat, tidy and orderly and, well, "golden." The fondness with which that period is remembered owes no small debt to the "heavy hand of government" that conservatives so thoroughly revile today!

Conservatism and Public Education

It is not an accident that the rise of conservatism in American culture and the cultures around the world that it informs, has coincided with a decline in the effectiveness of American educational institutions.

As we have seen, conservatism, relies on folk wisdom and personal experience. As nearly all conservatives come to their views through this route, it is not difficult to see that the diminishing influence of education would result in the diminishment of the political philosophies traditionally associated with educational attainment.

Why this is true is simply because individual human experience is necessarily incomplete and limited. It is not possible for one person to experience in his life the broad range of human experience that is associated with the array of different philosophies of government and culture; when one experiences the effects of government in a negative way early on, it often prejudices how one experiences governmental interactions later in life. One may tend to discount or ignore the positive effects of government if one has experienced it earlier as a significantly negative experience.

Education historically served as an antidote to this limited experience. By learning of the lives of others and how government affects them, and by building a sense of empathy for others whose lives are quite different, and often less pleasant than one's own, education has served to bridge the gap between the limitations of personal experience and the broad range of human experience that is possible.

In so doing, education makes clear that government is not only a necessary institution in everyone's lives, but it has a positive role to play in the development of society and the mitigation of serious social problems the student may have never experienced. Limited personal experience cannot often demonstrate how vital the influence of government is in the shaping of culture in positive ways; but when the overall, the broad range of culture and its problems are experienced through education, the need for governmental intervention becomes much more evident.

This is why conservative parents complain endlessly about the "liberal" educational institutions. While they often believe that the liberality of education is a result of a liberal conspiracy; it is much more often true that it is simply the result of a broadening of perspectives.

This is especially true of colleges and universities. Conservative religions, for example, often have a real problem with higher education. Many conservative religions operate universities that often operate, to a large degree, at cross-purposes to what the religion itself is trying to do. For example, as a student at Brigham Young University, a university operated by the Mormon church, I recall going to a geology class and being taught about the fact that the Grand Canyon in Arizona is several million years old and was the result of the Colorado River cutting its way through sediments that are gradually rising, and was shown evidence of why it couldn't have been the result of a single flood. I then went to religion class to learn that the Grand Canyon was possible evidence of a great flood. Or a few semesters later, learning in sociology class that belief that ethnocentrism is a social evil, leading to much turmoil and suffering, then going to religion class the very next hour to learn that "We (the Mormons) are God's chosen people." When pressed, the religion professor would justify the claim by saying that being "chosen" imposes a burden, but what that burden was, was seldom discussed. All too often, being "chosen" simply implied being less subject to the "errors and falsehoods" of Satan than members of other religions. Certainly a perversion of the Jewish concept of being one of God's chosen.

Naturally, when institutions of higher learning often break down the prejudices and stereotypes associated with conservatism, conservatives lash out and accuse them of being liberally biased. This is seldom accurate; the purpose of education is to teach the student to think critically and present the alternatives. It is then up to the student to form his own conclusions, which, as a result of education, often oppose the stereotypes of his conservative parents.

The Assumption of Perfect Knowledge

When conservative theorists seek to implement their theories into law, they have an unfortunate tendency do so under the assumption that their theories are tried and true, absolutely correct and beyond question.

Such a notion is inimicable to the idea of an open society, because of the investment it creates in being right. It's hard to back down when proven wrong after you've loudly proclaimed the truth of your ideas. And an open society is fundamentally based on the assumption that there is no perfect knowledge, that all of human understanding and theorizing is inherently imperfect. Hence, even though "trickle-down" economics have been adequately disproven and widely discredited, conservative theorists continue to cling to the notion, even though they've been proven wrong by experience, both historical and recent.

This is why, even when the policies they implement are proven wrongheaded, a conservative theorist will usually insist that it somehow wasn't done right. When things go right, they take the credit. When things go wrong, they'll find reasons to claim it wasn't done the way they think it should have been, no matter how trivial and insignificant the defects in implementation really were.

Such a view doesn't allow for the trial of other ideas. It discounts the necessary, often vital cross-fertilization of ideas that lead to genuinely successful policies. When theory becomes ideology to be implemented at all costs, such as was attempted in the 1994 congressional session, compromise becomes impossible, attempts at reconciliation meaningless, and hostility between opposing factions inflamed. No one wins in such a situation. In fact, the concept of an open society loses to the man with an investment in thinking his theories perfect.

No one has perfect knowledge. Not conservatives, not liberals, not anyone. What is needed is a realization that all are fallible, and that knowledge is gained by experience with testing ideas, and that if the ideas fail, they should be modified or abandoned. Scapegoating others is not a useful way of arriving at an optimum policy implementation. Yet in the infamous congressional session of 1994, that is about all the American people were witness to.

The assumption of perfect knowledge can, of course, can often lead to thoroughly laughable results. One classic case is the rush to outlaw gamma hydroxybutyrate, or GHB, the so-called "date-rape" drug that was the subject of a lot of very sloppy, sensationalist journalism in the mid-1990's. Based solely on these very badly researched and often totally erroneous reports in the press, the conservatives in the U.S. congress rushed through legislation to outlaw GHB (and later it's analogs and precursors) and make it a Schedule I drug, meaning any possession of it, in "any detectable amount or in any form" is a class I felony.

The problem with this legislation is that GHB is a natural subtance that is both biologically ubiquitous and a naturally forming contaminant in a wide range of industrial products, particularly polymeric fibers such as Spandex and Kevlar. Every person alive has GHB in their body in detectable amounts. Those run from about 10 to 50 mg. per liter of blood. The Texas beef that George W. loves to eat, contains, on average, about 3.7 mg. per pound. More than one coroner has found this naturally occurring level in the blood of a corpse and has pronounced the victim to be dead from a "GHB overdose" when the victim had never taken GHB at all! Even more laughable is that the Kevlar often used in the bullet-proof vests of the DEA agents enforcing this law contains easily detectable amounts of GHB, making the agents themselves unconvicted felons from violating the very law they're enforcing! Someone ought to require anti-GHB congressmen to submit to a blood test - and then promptly have them arrested for possession of GHB!

One of the analogs of GHB, gamma butyrolactone, or GBL, is a widely used industrial solvent that is transported by the tankerload on American highways every day. It's possession is now technically illegal in some states - even in the floor stripper formulations in which it is widely sold.

What's really tragic about this is that GHB and several of its analogs, including GBL, are very useful drugs that, taken properly under proper medical supervision, could benefit millions of Americans. It's one of the very few hypnogogic (sleep inducing) drugs that induces stage 3 and stage 4 sleep in people with sleep disorders. Not just narcoleptics, but many other sleep disorder patients, including the millions of Americans with "Restless Leg" Syndrome could benefit as well. Proper use of these drugs could greatly benefit business itself by improving the productivity of much of it's workforce. But the assumption of perfect knowledge by conservatives prevent these benefits from being realized.

Another technique for avoiding responsibility for error is to scapegoat. Conservative theorists have become past masters at this: during the cold war, all of America's problems could be somehow traced back to communists (or at least left-wing "pinkos"), and were somehow never the result of a failed conservative policy. Today, with the threat of Communism largely gone, and many conservative policies being rapidly implemented, the failures of the American society get blamed on a truly odd collection of scapegoats: homosexuals, abortion-performing medical professionals, secular humanists and "leftist liberals."

Could it be that the real problems are the policies themselves that are failing? Could it be that increased homelessness isn't due to family breakdowns caused by homosexuality, but it is really caused by decreased economic opportunities for the least competitive? Could it be that crime problems aren't caused by the policies of "liberal do-gooders" but are caused by the desperation of poverty? Could it be that when crime falls in New York City, it isn't due to the harsh repressiveness of the police there, but because the crack epidemic in that city is waning, and crime is falling as a result?

If we wish to avoid the mistakes of the past, the only way to do so is to answer these and many other questions honestly and with the courage to admit to being wrong when we have been. But if face saving and political power and influence are more important, then we have little hope for progress.

Conservatism And Personal Freedom

Conservatives are wholly and completely in support of personal freedom.

Their own.

Unfortunately, they often are unwilling to extend the favor, particularly if it infringes on what they regard as their own personal space.

If one's value system holds that only one's own rights matter, and that extending equality before the law to others is unimportant, then such a matter as civil rights law become unimportant, even detrimental to one's own values. If, on the other hand, one genuinely believes in the principle of equality before the law as a practical as well as theoretical matter, then it is obvious that sometimes it is neccessary to yield personal space to ensure that equality before the law is achieved as a practical matter for others.

A classic example is civil rights law. Most conservatives of the early 1960's were opposed to the passage of civil rights laws, and many remain opposed to them today, in spite of their obvious effectiveness. Conservatives are fond of saying that they believe in the equality of opportunity, that anyone can make it in America if they are sufficiently willing to apply themselves. Yet historically, women and many minorities were obviously disadvantaged by a system that allowed those with the gold to make the rules to suit themselves, to the obvious detriment of women and minorities. It is almost as if conservatives view civil rights as a conserved quanta; if others win, they seem to think they lose. They also seem to view economic freedom to be synonymous with personal freedom. The obvious example is the complaint that gays are unreasonable about complaining about persecution when they have a higher than average income level (which is incorrect, as it turns out). The fact is that personal freedom isn't the same as economic freedom. Just ask any student in Korea, or democracy advocate in Hong Kong.

The reality is that equality of opportunity, both political and economic was (and remains, arguably even increasingly) purely theoretical for large segments of the American population. In spite of the obvious success of civil rights laws in helping blacks to a achieve a measure of opportunity, there is no real opportunity, for example, for an inner-city black youth with no role models, no opportunity for an education worthy of the name, and facing serious obstacles of racial discrimination. The conservative derides any attempt by government to fix this inequity as "bleeding heart liberalism." The conservative value underlying this attitude is the notion that the poor are not his moral responsibility, and therefore government has no business taxing him to provide for the poor. The conservative proposes no fix for this problem because it isn't a problem in his value system. Hence, the inequality of the rich and poor grows, and tensions between haves and have nots increase.

Civil rights laws were intended to rectify at least some of these inequities. To a remarkable extent, they have succeeded, and women and minorities have greatly expanded opportunities compared to what was available to them just a few years ago. Even Barry Goldwater, originally an opponent of civil rights laws, admits they have been a great success.

Yet conservatives still often oppose these highly successful laws. Why?

There are a multiplicity of reasons, running the gamut from political theories of personal freedom, all the way to outright bigotry.

The principle reason they'll give publicly is that civil rights laws infringe on personal freedom of association. In the strictest sense, they are right, as far as they are concerned. What they do not accept, however, is that society has deemed the right of the minority to equality of opportunity is just as important as the conservative's right to freedom of association. If the conservative is not willing to voluntarily grant the minority the right of equality of opportunity, then that right must be secured by legal means if the ideals of the founding fathers are to be realized.

And here we have the basic problem that conservatives normally fail to consider: the rights of others are as important as their own. If the rights of a large number can only be secured by circumscribing the rights of a few, then that is a good, sometimes even neccessary tradeoff.

Of course, the conservative values regard this as yet another unwarranted intrusion by uncaring and unfeeling bureaucracy. Yet it is necessary because of the very actions of some of the conservatives themselves in unfairly restricting the opportunities available to women or minorities in their personal lives. If all persons would treat each other as they would expect to be treated themselves, civil rights laws would obviously not be necessary. The conservative response, however, is that such an intrusion is a form of "social engineering." Yet the reality is that it is a basic part of the social contract, in which every civilized person recognizes the neccessity to give up some personal space to enable society to function smoothly.

No Small Element of Selfishness

It was a very telling spectacle.

Augusto Pinochete, the former dictator of Chile, accused of the deaths of thousands of opponents, many of them non-Chileans, was standing before a magistrate in London, fighting extradition to Spain to stand trial for the death of Spanish nationals during his administration.

The magistrate asked the defendant for his name. He replied, " I am Augusto Pinochete Ugarte, past President of Chile, past commander of the Army..." and on and on he went, listing his titles and detailing his breeding and education, his wealth and property, all in reply to a simple question as to his identity.

Why did he rattle on like that?

He did so because in his own mind, and in the minds of right-wing conservatives like him, the privileged, the educated, and the economically advantaged have rights that do not extend to the unpropertied and those of a lower class.

This mindset extends even to his supporters. Outside the courtroom, there were two sets of demonstrators, one group supporting Pinchete and the other supporting his extradition. Pinochete's supporters were throwing pence coins at the supporters of extradition. The supporters of extradition responded by waving 20-pound notes.

Why? What was the cause of this bizarre behavior?


"Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they've stolen.
-- Mort Sahl

It was because in Chilean culture, as in the cultures of several other Latin American nations, throwing coins of low value at the poor is a way of showing contempt for them and indicating that you're better than they are. And that because they are beneath contempt, they have no right to complain.

This is a cultural outgrowth of one of the most evil of all the doctrines of conservative ideology, the notion that all human rights spring from property rights.

The injustice of that notion is obvious to anyone who places any value at all on egalitarianism. This is because the obverse of that coin is that the man without property is a man without rights. He has no property, therefore he has no rights.

Of course the other pernicious element of that notion, as demonstrated by Pinochet that cold London morning, is that the more property you have, the more rights you have. So it follows that if you have power as a result of your money, you're entitled to that power because you deserve it.

It is this pernicious doctrine that feeds the conservative impulse towards social darwinism as explained above, because it assumes the wealthy are weathy because they are more socially fit, and are more worthy.

Nothing could be more destructive of the principles of egalitarian democracy than this. It is inimicable to the very notion, as set forth in the American Declaration of Independence, that all men are equal before the law. If some are better than others, simply by virtue of their wealth, how can they be?

This is a question that conservative theoreticians have never answered for me. They pay a great deal of lip service to the principle of egalitarianism as expressed in the declaration of independence, but as shown by the Pinchete incident, have contempt for it in actual practice.

Why Do Conservatives Ally Themselves With Christian Fundamentalists?

To understand the alliance, you have to understand the history. The conservative-fundamentalist alliance has had a very short but very curious history. It began with the election, in 1976 of Jimmy Carter, an outspoken Christian fundamentalist from Plains, Georgia, the heart of Southern Baptist country. His election was in no small part due to the efforts of fundamentalist Christians who saw him as one of their own and allied themselves with him and his supporters within the Democratic party. Fundamentalist Christians, who had always seen politics as being unworthy pursuits of men of God, had finally begun to realize that politics was the key to freeing themselves from what they perceived as being considered on the fringes of American society.

Jimmy Carter, throughout his administration, tried his best to practice the principles of his humble, honest religious convictions, and steer the course of government in that direction. Unfortunately for him, such governmental organizations as the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and many others were of a totally different mindset and were not much inclined to cooperate. Additionally, Carter was a particularly inept micromanaging administrator, who never did master the fundamentals of managing a vast bureaucracy, nor did he have an adequate grasp on the technical fundamentals of economics and political science that the presidency requires.

Inevitably, the perceived failure of the Carter administration led to a discrediting of the fundamentalist-Democratic alliance. That alliance had been based on the Christian and liberal common ground on such issues as human rights, respect for human dignity and a strong desire for spreading the values of civility and justice around the world.

When that alliance collapsed, the Christians began to cast about for a new ally. They found it in the ultraconservative fringe of the Republican Party.

Long a part of the Republican party, the ultraconservatives had always been kept at bay by a party apparatus that feared their extremist views on race relations and Communism, a certain stripe of moral Puritanism, and an exceedingly narrow interpretation of the U.S. constitution. The Republican kingmakers feared that if such views gained currency, they would alienate large numbers of the more moderate party faithful and would lead to destruction of the party. Even Barry Goldwater, who was considered extreme when he ran for the presidency in 1964, could see this and warned, in his book, "Conscience of a Conservative" (1968) of the consequences if these people ever gained control of the party.

But by 1979, the fundamentalists needing allies found willing partners in the ultraconservatives within the Republican party, and found a commonality of doctrine in their moral Puritanism. An alliance was forged, and it found expression in the very persona of a B-movie cowboy actor and ex-governor from California, a man who had only managed to get elected to his state's governorship with the secret, illegal help of right-wingers in the FBI. Ronald Reagan was elected president by a modest majority in 1980. With him, he brought to Washington an entirely new set of values which that town hadn't seen in a president since the early part of the preceding century. Gone was the view that government could solve problems; government was seen as the problem.

The best way to solve the problem of government, Reagan held, was to get people from industries regulated by government into positions of power in the bureaucracies that regulate them, so those industries would be regulated in a more "rational" manner. He did so with abandon.

The result was predictable. Of the approximately 3,500 people appointed to positions in government by Reagan, fully 700, or 20 percent were indicted or convicted of crimes of corruption committed while in office. This included three cabinet officials, one of which was the attorney general, the very man charged with the responsibility of enforcing the law. Historians now agree that the Reagan administration was the second most corrupt in American history, exceeded only by that of Ulysses S. Grant, another conservative Republican.

Yet in spite of the obvious moral failure of the Reagan administration, the fundamentalists loved him. Why? Because he played their tune.

The fundamentalists had always hated communism passionately, and here was a president who, if he was anything, was fiercely anti-Communist, using language like "evil empire" to describe it. Reagan talked endlessly about "family values," a subject near and dear to the hearts of fundamentalists. Never mind the fact that he rejected his own son when he discovered his homosexuality, and he was very publicly estranged from his stepdaughter. This hypocrisy was lost on millions of fundamentalists, who were willing to overlook a lot of hypocrisy to gain the power and prestige an ally in the White House afforded them.

But in spite of his personal example, what truly endeared him in the hearts of most Christian fundamentalists was the fact that he did his best to implement fundamentalist ideals into the machinery of government. For example, Reagan blocked AIDS research at the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control, and made sure that anyone in that agency that publicly advocated AIDS research would be demoted or fired. Reagan didn't even publicly utter the word, "AIDS" until after more than 30,000 Americans had died of the disease. The result was that the most serious epidemic of the last half of the 20th century in America rapidly gained a foothold that could have easily been been prevented, had the president's bigotry not prevented the Center for Disease Control from doing its job.

Of course the more bigoted elements of the conservative-fundamentalist alliance were delighted. Here was a president who was doing all he very privately could to see that a disease that was killing thousands of members of a despised minority, would be allowed to spread. Here was a president who was opposed to extending civil rights protections to as-yet unprotected minorities they disliked, who was dismantling regulations they found inconvenient or burdensome, and who clearly did not mind seeing their interests furthered as he furthered his own.

Yet the most remarkable aspect of the Reagan -- fundamentalist -- conservative alliance is that the warm affability of the president made his private attitudes of meanspiritedness and intolerance not only acceptable, but even fashionable. At long last, the bigots within the conservative movement could come out of the closet.

And come out of the closet they did, and in large numbers. In a short period of time, they gained control of much of the apparatus of the Republican party, and, allied with the Christian fundamentalists, ensured that no one could be elected to national office on the Republican slate without their blessing. This trend became obvious to the American public in 1992 when at the Republican national convention in Dallas, Texas, in a speech by Pat Buchanan whose Fascist tone sent chills down the collective spines of millions of Americans. The Republican candidate for president, an incumbent, no less, lost the election, in no small part because of that speech. Americans were not used to hearing such intolerant, meanspirited rhetoric from serious politicians from a national platform. The Republican party had been sleeping with the devil, and a truly ugly baby was the result. It became evident to many political scientists that Barry Goldwater's prophesy was about to come true.

Two weeks, as the late Tip O'Neil once observed, is an eternity in politics, and two years is an eternity. By 1994, the Buchanan speech was largely forgotten and conservative politicians had learned to adroitly push the right buttons on the American body politic using the selected folk wisdom technique long practiced by their favorite talk-show pundit, Rush Limbaugh. Saying just the right things and capitalizing heavily on the weakness of the first two years of the Bill Clinton administration, they managed to gain control of the House of Representatives and Senate concurrently, and thereby control of the legislative branch of government for the first time in nearly a century. The result was the Republican "revolution" of dogmatic stalemate, intransigence and gridlock that cost the Republicans much of the hard-won support by the election of 1996. The dogmatic extremism of the hard-core, right-wing conservatives was largely responsible for the re-election of Bill Clinton. Of course, that re-election didn't go down well, and a concerted campaign began to remove Bill Clinton from office. Financed by a wealthy fundamentalist wing-nut, Richard Mellon Scaife, and led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a man who was having an affair with his secretary at the time and was lying about it, the campaign siezed upon the fact that Bill Clinton had had an affair with an intern, and lied about it. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Dangers Of The Conservative - Fundamentalist Alliance

Beyond the obvious fact that the conservative-fundamentalist alliance threatens the stability of the Republican party by driving out its moderates, there are serious dangers for the institutions of government as well.

One of them is the fact that the implementation of a narrow agenda suited to a narrowly defined plurality of voters threatens the political stability of the nation as a whole. If conservatives are allowed to impose their doctrines on the rest of society, there will be a rebellion the strength of which the conservatives will be totally unprepared for.

The fact is that women and many minorities in the United States have tasted a measure of freedom and equality for the first time, and are going to be quite unwilling to go back to the "bad old days" without a fight. The unbridled faith of the neo-conservative newcomers to congress in the correctness of their position means that they will be quite surprised to learn that what's good for them isn't necessarily good for all, and that the rest of the country won't take the conservative agenda lying down.

Of particular concern is the drive by the fundamentalist wing of the alliance to make the U.S. a "Christian" nation, with "Biblical principles" underlying its legal structure. To do so would be to mean effectively to abrogate the first amendment to the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and speech. Freedom of religion and speech would not truly be possible in an atmosphere where a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible informed all of public policy. How, for example, is a Jewish or Muslim child supposed to feel in a public school being forced to listen to a Christian prayer each morning? The replacement of the American republican democracy with a thoroughly right-wing theocracy will not be easily accepted by the American people. The fundamentalist conservatives recognize this, and are willing to advocate repeal of the First Amendment to make a theocracy possible!

Additionally, there are concerns about the proscriptions of personal freedom that would inevitably be imposed upon non-Christians and unpopular minorities. It is almost inevitable, for example, that laws penalizing sodomy, adultery, restricting divorce, abortion, and family planning services, etc. would be enacted. It is quite unlikely that evolution would be taught in the public schools as the dominant paradigm in biological science. Astronomical and space research would probably be ended to prevent the embarrassment that discoveries in those sciences continually cause fundamentalists.

In short, only values that support the fundamentalist Christian world view would be tolerated in government and education. What would clearly result has often been described as a return to the dark ages, when such a paradigm operated for a thousand years.

The Family Values Debate

There is little doubt that one of the hottest issues pushed by conservatives and fundamentalists alike is the so-called "family values" issue.

What conservatives generally mean by this is the idea that society should return to the values of an earlier time that presumably would enable the "traditional" family to thrive.

Though few would argue that a renaissance of the American family wouldn't benefit society, the values, trends, conditions and traditions that presumably made the family stronger in an earlier era are not necessarily those that conservatives preach.

First of all, the principle reason that wives aren't at home raising children is that they are working. And they are working because the typical salary brought home by the husband by itself isn't sufficient to provide for the needs of the family anymore. Real incomes, adjusted for inflation, have been declining for a quarter century, and the result is that wives must work to keep the family afloat. This is actually the result of the concentration of wealth from those producing it to those controlling it, a trend conservatives welcome.

But do conservatives worry about the economic condition of the family? Not much. The fact is that conservative doctrine holds that the increasing concentration of wealth isn't bad, and that it may even be necessary for a healthy economy. But the reality is that while the gross national product of the American economy is increasing, and productivity rising at the fastest rate in American history, yet contrary to conservative doctrine, average individual wealth is now barely remaining stagnant after a quarter century of decline. That's not the way to foster a healthy family, because parents that worry or argue over money aren't always able to concentrate on the needs of their children.

In spite of Rush Limbaugh's claims to the contrary, any social scientist will tell you that there is a close association between poverty and crime. Indeed, the unemployment rate is often the best indicator of the current crime level; as unemployment rises, crime rises right along with it. Why then, doesn't conservative theory worry more about unemployment as a correlate of crime? A husband and father who is able to adequately provide for his children is far less likely to resort to crime or simply abandon his family than a desperate man driven to crime or abandonment. It would seem so obvious, but it is remarkable how the correlation, proven over and over again by social scientists, is ignored or denied by conservative theorists.

With rapidly declining standards in the quality of the public education, it is not surprising that the teaching of ethics, civics, critical thinking skills, citizenship standards, and respect for the law are seldom being taught in the public schools. Indeed, these things are often derided as "social engineering" by conservative theorists who do not seem to understand how vital they are to a civil society. Since the values these subjects inculcate aren't being learned at home, they simply aren't being learned at all by the young. No wonder there is an obvious increase in incivility in young people in recent years.

Instead of these things that really matter, conservative talk show hosts and opinion leaders seem almost obsessed with the preoccupations that they have been goaded into by the religious right. Foremost among these are abortion rights and gay rights.

Abortion rights are opposed on the simple assumption that human life begins at conception. The fact is that this view is not universally shared is a fact that conservatives simply ignore. They just presume to have the right to tell the rest of society how public policy should be based. This issue is presumed to be relevant to the support of the family on the vague notion that forcing women to bear and raise children they don't want and are quite often unprepared to support is somehow going to foster the "family."

Obviously, the conservatives who propose such a "value" totally neglect the fact that if they are going to impose their decision on someone else, they bear the moral responsibility for the consequences of their imposition. But do they ever offer to help that mother raise that child? Almost never. Do they even propose a humane method by which those unwanted children could be raised? The answer, if it is given at all, is usually a return to the orphanage system. Never mind the fact that institutions are usually horrible places to grow up.

It is obvious that simply forcing an increase in the quantity of families (usually single parent) doesn't do anything to improve their quality. In an era when it is increasingly difficult for an unmarried mother to support herself and a child economically, it doesn't at all make sense to force an increase in the number of women who find themselves in that situation. What do conservatives propose to help that woman raise that child? Certainly not welfare. They're trying all the time to get that cut back. A minimum wage job? That won't even pay the rent, much less buy groceries and pay the utilities too. Yet conservatives stubbornly oppose a significant increase in the minimum wage. The result is that if the measures proposed by conservatives were widely adopted, there would doubtless be large numbers of women forced to live on the streets with their children. This is already a very common problem, and becoming more so all the time. Already, one child in five in America grows up in poverty. As more and more conservative proposals for welfare reform are adopted, that number is rapidly rising. It will soon be one in four. That's a higher percentage than in any country in western Europe, including such traditionally poor countries as Portugal and Greece.

Another nonsensical conservative idea about families is their opposition to gay rights. Except those conservatives who have a gay family member, or a close acquaintance who is gay or has died of AIDS, most conservatives continue to hold to the thoroughly outdated notion that gays are perverted, promiscuous, unproductive people who live miserable lives and die early of venereal disease.

The most nonsensical part of this view is that they stubbornly believe gays choose to live like that! Of course only someone who is insane or bent on suicide or self-destruction would make that kind of a choice.

The fact is that careful scientific research has revealed (and any honest psychologist who deals with gays will confirm) that homosexuality isn't a choice. Of course, conservatives have heard this but discount it because that fact would undermine the moral basis for prejudices that they harbor.

Indeed, the view that conservatives hold of gays as promiscuous, unproductive and perverted are stereotypes borne of cultural socialization, and not on acquaintance with the realities of gay life. The most effective organization for dispelling homophobia, Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, bases its success on simply showing gay life as it really is, using family members and acquaintances as models. Education to the facts is a powerful antidote to prejudice, as PFLAG has discovered.

Because of the prejudices that conservatives harbor about gays, conservatives are stubbornly and steadfastly opposed to allowing them the full measure of civil rights accorded others. And the last right they would allow gays is the right to marry (the page linked here explains the reasons they give) .

The reality is that gays, to the surprise of many conservatives, often, even usually, form long-term, stable relationships, very often raising children to a level of success that would make any heterosexual parent proud.

Scientists who have studied the outcome of children raised in these homes have found that they are statistically indistinguishable from the children raised in the homes of straight parents. They are as well-adjusted emotionally, successful academically, and happy and well grounded (and are heterosexual just as often) as their peers raised in the homes of straight parents. There is therefore no known reason to deny gay parents the right to raise children. Yet conservatives remain opposed for reasons they often find difficult to reasonably explain.

Of course, if gays can be successful marriage partners as well as successful parents and productive, law abiding members of society, what justification can there be to denying them the same legal protections members of religious or other minorities are entitled to? It's hard to justify in any way granting civil rights protections based on religion or for many other reasons while denying them to gays and lesbians, when the reality of gay and lesbian life is understood as it really is. The rights are not "special" any more than affording civil rights protections to religious minorities, who join religions voluntarily and are not distinguishable by anything other than their behavior, are also entitled to civil rights protections.

The "Founded On Christian Principles" Myth And Its Consequences

One of the great rallying cries of the conservative-fundamentalist alliance is the idea that America was founded on Christian principles by devout Christians. The theory runs that America is faltering because it has strayed from those principles.

"Novus Ordo Seclorum" declares the motto on the obverse of the Great Seal of the United States. As can be seen on the back of the U.S. One Dollar note, that seal depicts the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, with its capstone replaced by the Eye of Horus. Translated from Latin, the motto means, "To Secure a New Order."

Both the imagery and the motto reflect the true ideals of the American founding fathers: the notion that a better order than the largely Christian order which governed the Old World is one governed by reason and logic, not mysticism and superstition, based not on faith in the infallibility of the church and the Divine Right of Kings, but based on fairness, equality, and egalitarianism, and the administration of justice blind to the inevitable differences in race, class and economic and political power, and the recognition of human fallibility in government. Central to this ideal is the notion of "higher mindedness," as symbolized by the Eye of Horus, that there are higher ideals than simple blind faith in the correctness of any particular religion, Christian or otherwise, or the notion that any class has any sort of divine right to rule.

This concept of a higher mindedness is based on the recognition of human fallibility. It is the awareness that no one does or can have the right answer all the time. Because this is not possible, the New Order being declared must take account of human fallibility, and order a political system that allows for it. It is the notion that no class has an inherent right to rule, simply because it has or because it can. The establishment of any kind of theocracy, Christian or otherwise, is anathema, because the assumption of a superiority of moral virtue by any religious system, Christian or otherwise, is a denial of the fallibility of the authors of that system.

The founding fathers had lived under a system guided by Christian principles. They had lived very painfully under the effects of European style theocracies. The Pilgrims were driven from their homes in the Old World by religious persecution. Though they were Christian, they weren't apparently Christian enough for some. The Virginia House of Burgesses had established Christianity as the state religion, and had created special rights and privileges available to the Christians of that colony, that were not available to others. Similar situations occurred in other colonies. These facts so deeply grieved Thomas Jefferson, that he made it his life's work to rid the emerging American democracy of church influence. And he considered the First Amendment to be his magnum opus. He was so proud of the "wall of separation" (his phrase) which he built, that he had the First Amendment listed as his most proud achievement on his tombstone, even despite other great achievements, such as authorship of the Declaration of Independence.

What does the current conservative-fundamentalist drive towards theocracy mean for the average American?

Well, suppose it were to actually happen. Imagine, for example, a situation in which religious doctrine, not scientific principles, were to become the basis of teaching science in the public schools. This is already happening in many school districts across America: "creationism," which has no factual basis in science, but shares the favor of a spectrum of religious believers, has replaced evolution as the basis of teaching in biological sciences in districts controlled by board majorities of fundamentalist Christians. Such doctrines being taught as facts carry with them a grave danger. That danger is an end to scientific advancement.

During the Stalin years in the Soviet Union, a similar set of notions gained the favor of Stalin, with the result that Soviet agriculture was set back by decades. Soviet biology became the object of ridicule by the scientific establishment all over the world. Do we want that to happen here?

Another serious side effect of the emerging theocracy in America is intolerance. If you're right, why do you have to tolerate error? Should you tolerate error? So goes the thinking of the fundamentalist, and as a result, the Catholic Inquisition (for which that church has never apologized) killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Jews, Gypsies, Muslims, homosexuals and others it did not like. Do we want to see a return of that kind of intolerance?

Political malignancy is another problem with theocracy. Once established, its view that the theocracy is the best possible government allows the government to adopt the notion that it has the right to impose itself on others to save them from their error. The result will be predictable: weak and essentially helpless nations, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, will be forced quite openly under American political domination. With the view that America knows best, the doctrine of "manifest destiny" will re-emerge, in a more virulent form than before. And America will become a moral pariah among other nations of the world. Do we really want to be seen once again as the "ugly Americans?"

Egalitarianism of economic opportunity will disappear. As in the old order of Europe, opportunities will go to the members of the ruling class, i.e., the controlling members of the theocracy. Others will be denied opportunity because they will simply be seen as less worthy; Jews, Muslims, even those who consider themselves Christian, but who are not "Christian enough," such as Mormons or Unitarians, will find themselves limited in opportunity, because they do not have access to the chambers of government. Is this the kind of equality on which we seek to build a society?

Conservatism And America's Future

As we have seen, the outcome of the implementation of conservative policies is usually counterproductive to the objectives that the conservatives pursue. Why do they then pursue them? Because they don't see or perhaps don't understand the consequences. When things don't turn out as they assume they should, they either claim that the program wasn't implemented properly or was abandoned before its results could be seen. This is often given as the reason that a recession occurred in the second term of Ronald Reagan's administration, in spite of the fact that it was clearly the result of a reduction in government spending brought on by a reaction to the debt previous years' budgets had created.

The implementation of unwise or unethical programs pursued by conservatives and allied interests are doing serious damage to the political process and to society itself. As we have seen, some of the disastrous results of conservative social engineering are becoming obvious -- rising unemployment, decreasing purchasing power, increasing poverty and homelessness, the increasingly crippled public education system, decaying infrastructure and declining family life can all be seen to be exacerbated by programs pushed once again by conservatives as they were in previous eras. Of course they deny it, and have lots of reasons why their programs aren't to blame, but careful, scholarly investigation always reveals the truth.

So it should be obvious that a rejection of the conservative agenda is clearly what America needs. But will it happen?

Not as long as the liberal community fails to coherently come to grips with the rise of conservative power. America currently has but one agenda, it is one that will increasingly cause America to resemble the third-world nations it used to deride as examples not to be emulated.

Conclusion

As American education fails, conservatism rises. And as conservatism rises, a whole host of problems associated with the implementation of its policies appear in American culture.. America is in for a long hard time of it, until the lessons of other nations, particularly Europe, which has had experience with right-wing governments, and the third world, which is mired in its effects, begin to sink in to the American public. Obviously, the value of education cannot be overstated. While it is something that even conservatives play lip service to, and it is something without which a culture cannot progress, the value of education is too often not understood and cannot be overstated.

Let us hope that a revival of the understanding of the importance of egalitarianism with an increase of emphasis on quality education for all, not just an elite few, we will see a reversal of the rise of conservatism and a decline in the quality of life for most Americans that it is causing.

I get a lot of email in response to this essay, mostly from conservatives who do nothing more than throw back at me the same tired conservative rhetoric that I've taken such pains in this essay to disprove. If you're a conservative who is ready to angrily write me, be aware that I don't have a lot of time to write reiterations of what I've already written here, and so just regurgitating the usual conservative nonsense won't elicit a response from me. If, on the other hand, you have a novel argument I haven't touched on here, and have substantial evidence to back it up, I'd love to hear from you. But don't bother if all you have to say is that "America was founded on Christian principles," or "free markets lead to the greatest good for the greatest number" or "civilization as we know it will end if we allow gay marriage." I've heard all that. In fact, I grew up with it. And yes, I've looked into it. In fact, I've given years of thought and study to it. And I've abandoned it because my studies proved it wanting.


Recommended Books:

Books listed here can be obtained from Amazon.com, if you wish, by following the links:

Global Capitalism in Crisis: Open Society Endangered by George Soros is probably the most insightful analysis and most cogent warning on unregulated capitialism from one of the most provably knowlegable men around. Indeed, he puts his money where his mouth is, and has made billions in the process. This book is his analysis of why free markets don't behave the way conservatives (he calls them "market fundamentalists") think they do. And because markets don't behave in convenient ways, conservatives are trying to do all the wrong things about it. He explains why this is endangering the very democratic institutions we cherish. Very sobering reading. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Peddling Prosperity by Paul Krugman is probably the best analysis of the failure of conservative economic theory I've yet seen.

The Politics Of Rich And Poor by Kevin Phillips is an excellent analysis of why Reaganomics has failed and the cost to America, both economically and philosophically, written by a man who worked for years for Republican presidential campaigns.


Internet Resources:

This organization was specifically organized to oppose the rise of the fundamentalist -- conservative alliance and document its activities. This web site has an enormous amount of information and resources dealing with this alliance.

People For The American Way


The conservative -- fundamentalist alliance stubbornly promotes the view that the founding fathers of the American republic were Christian, and that America was founded on Christian ideals. Here's a site that will quickly disabuse anyone of that notion.

The Founding Fathers Were NOT Christian!


Here's a page that gives a good overview of the fundamentalist wing of the conservative -- fundamentalist alliance.

The Radical Religious Right


Here's an essay that discusses the rise of conservatism in relation to the collapse of liberal intellectualism.

Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Intellectuals



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