A Phoenix Rising: Common-Good Conservatism
Written by Michael Stafford and D R Tucker for Truthout
A tea bag burning. (Photo: coconinoco / Flickr)Editors’ Note: After Mike Lofgren’s seminal “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult” comes a cry for a reinvented conservatism from two Republicans disillusioned with what their party has become and convinced that the conservative political tradition is salvageable. Truthout is posting this piece to stimulate a healthy dialogue about whether there is a conservative political tradition that can actually work with progressives. Or is that just naïve? We hope that you read and comment with your reaction.
In mythology, the phoenix is a beautiful bird that bursts into flames at the end of its life as it dies. From the ashes of the old, a new phoenix emerges. This cycle of birth, fiery death and rebirth, makes the phoenix a symbol of hope and renewal.
Today, American conservatism has degenerated into an intellectually and morally bankrupt ideology. It offers nothing more than bumper-sticker slogans that pander to the prejudices and ignorance of the lowest common denominator in order to enrich and empower an oligarchic elite. Angry, cruel and sneering, it is exemplified by the carnival barkers on talk radio and Fox News. High in volume, but devoid of substance, it has no long-term future because it lacks credible solutions to the range of very real problems American society is facing.
Indeed, what passes for “conservatism” today is actually nothing of the sort. Modern American conservatism has forgotten its rich legacy and betrayed its best traditions. It has become infected with a virulent strain of extreme libertarianism heavily influenced by the thinking of Ayn Rand.
Rand’s disciples claim to champion liberty and freedom, but really care only about license – the notion that actions have no consequences and individuals have no broader responsibilities to anything or anyone but themselves. As George Monbiot has correctly noted, this brand of libertarianism, although often “dressed up as freedom,” is in reality:
“a formula for oppression and bondage. It does nothing to address inequality, hardship or social exclusion. A transparently self-serving vision, it seeks to justify the greedy and selfish behaviour of those with wealth and power.”
The problems posed by the libertarian ascendancy are aggravated by a second tectonic shift in the political landscape that has been occurring over the last several decades – the movement of the modern heirs of the old Dixiecrats into the Republican Party. Today, thanks to the GOP’s southern strategy, they are now an extremely influential force within the modern conservative movement.
In their own way, the Dixiecrats represent just as significant a break with traditional conservatism as do the libertarians. They also contribute to the reality-denying know-nothingism characteristic of contemporary conservatism with respect to climate change and evolution. Libertarians are climate-change deniers because the science threatens their greed and their ability to do as they please without governmental interference; Dixiecrats are climate (and evolution) deniers because they believe God has ordained that these things cannot be so. Of course, a cynic might say that here God is simply being used to bless what the believers were inclined to do anyway – continue the Bacchanalian feast without further concern for its costs – the tab, after all, is going to be picked up by future generations anyway. The Dixiecrats have also discovered that libertarian ideology provides a useful intellectual cover for lingering racism and the preservation of structural inequality, as in, for example, Sen. Rand Paul’s squirreliness regarding the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This point is also illustrated by their opposition to social welfare programs – a view exemplified by Newt Gingrich’s recent comments about African-Americans and food stamps on the campaign trail.
Together, the libertarians and the Dixiecrats have produced a new, inherently unstable, hybrid: libertarian-conservatism. Politically and morally, this is an alliance of the damned. The Dixiecrats’ racial and religious prejudices and the libertarians’ worship of unconstrained selfishness and the acquisition of wealth, have combined to produce an unappealing philosophy of political exclusion, environmental degradation and economic hopelessness.
Libertarian-conservatism has been, at least since the rise of the Tea Party, the dominant philosophy within the conservative movement and the Republican Party. The list of GOP-elected officials and candidates who have heaped praise upon Rand and her philosophy is too long to enumerate. Even worse, Rand’s influence can also be seen in major Republican policy initiatives – such as, for example, Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget proposals. More broadly, the libertarian view of government has poisoned conservative thought on the subject – we have gone from favoring a limited, but vigorous and efficient, government, to demanding an eviscerated one. Libertarian-conservatism also sets the direction of Republican environmental policy – both with respect to climate change and issues such as mercury pollution, toxins and even light bulbs.
Taken as a whole, the rise of libertarian-conservatism has dragged the Republican Party far to the right. So far, in fact, that it now regularly loses winnable races by nominating extreme candidates or sabotages the prospects of more mainstream figures by forcing them to parrot its fringe positions in order to survive primaries. This can be seen in the current Republican presidential primary with Mitt Romney. Romney, in order to secure the nomination, has had to move away from his prior positions on climate change and health care reform while, simultaneously, declaring his support for Ryan’s budget and his opposition to the DREAM Act. He toes the standard libertarian-conservative line and it’s doubtful he’ll be able to repudiate this later in the campaign, no matter how furiously he shakes his famous Etch A Sketch.
Libertarian-conservatism is headed toward a fiery cataclysm. Defeat in the 2012 elections seems increasingly assured.
Russell Kirk once observed that some catastrophes are so complete, they compel reflection and reform. With an electoral disaster looming, it’s appropriate for American conservatism to begin its own critical self-examination. Where does American conservatism go after it has hit rock bottom?
To be politically viable, conservatism musty deal openly and honestly with the great problems of our age – increasing inequality, declining opportunity and the pervasive sense of economic insecurity and anxiety that is gripping our nation’s middle and working classes. It must also confront the very real costs and dangers associated with climate change – a can we can no longer afford to kick down the road. At the same time, it must be able to build broad coalitions by appealing to large segments of an increasingly diverse American electorate.
Doing these things requires a complete repudiation of libertarian-conservatism; of both Rand and Jim Crow.
American conservatism must return to its real roots: a concern for the common good.
What is common-good conservatism? It is a political philosophy rooted in the stewardship ethic of traditional conservatism. It begins with three simple premises: that recognition of the shared dignity of all human beings is the essential predicate of a just society, that rights always correspond to duties and that we bear a collective responsibility toward one another. Forward-looking, solutions-oriented and committed to social, economic and environmental justice, common good conservatism champions the interests of average Americans and promotes civic virtue while laying the foundations for broadly shared prosperity and human flourishing in the 21st century. It is both transformative and restorative – a political and intellectual rebirth.
Common-good conservatism is a natural outgrowth of the conservative intellectual and political heritage. It is heavily influenced by the thinking of the man many identify as the father of modern American conservatism, Russell Kirk, as well as more contemporary figures such as Rod Dreher, with his emphasis on environmental concerns, traditional values and the primacy of the family, and England’s Phillip Blond, who has produced sophisticated and nuanced critiques of modern neoliberalism’s worship of the so-called “free market,” and argued persuasively in favor of a more diffuse ownership of productive property and localism.
Politically, common good conservatism looks back to Theodore Roosevelt and the progressive movement that addressed the social ills and injustices of their time as well as to more recent examples such as Jack Kemp’s “bleeding heart conservatism” with its concern for the poor and the most marginalized members of our society.
Common-good conservatism is the coherent, credible, conservative message America yearns for today.
In terms of substantive public policy, common-good conservatism breaks with modern libertarian-conservatism in multiple ways. Two key areas – addressing economic inequality and environmental policy – can serve as examples illustrating the essential differences in outlook and approach.
Libertarian-conservatism has no answer to the twin banes of modernity – growing inequality and declining opportunity. Indeed, it does not, and cannot, even admit that these problems exist. Moreover, any attempt to address them is instantly (and reflexively) denounced as government overreach, or worse, a cover for creeping totalitarianism – socialism! For this reason, libertarian-conservatism is, correctly, perceived as being indefatigable in, to quote John Gehring, its “tireless defense of struggling millionaires.”
Congressman Paul Ryan is a darling of the libertarian-conservative movement. His budget proposal – a document endorsed by most major Republican political figures, including Romney, provides a useful example for differentiating common-good conservatism’s concern for economic justice from the “let them eat cake” approach characteristic of libertarian-conservatism.
Simply put, Ryan’s budget is a thoroughly libertarian-conservative document. The wealthy win; the rest of us lose. It’s as simple as that.
Like Ryan’s earlier budgetary proposals, the current version combines a slash-and-burn approach to social programs that benefit the poor and the middle class with additional tax breaks for the wealthiest members of our society. As Jonathan Chait previously noted, the “overwhelming thrust” of Ryan’s proposals is a desire “to liberate the lucky and the successful to enjoy their good fortune without burdening them with any responsibility for the welfare of their fellow citizens.” This is inexplicable from a policy standpoint and indefensible from an ethical one. But it makes perfect sense if you see the world from a libertarian-conservative perspective. For the libertarian, the wealthiest deserve the right to accumulate vast hordes of wealth without being troubled by the responsibilities of the social contract – their success is a mark of their virtue.
The libertarian-conservative penchant for preferring the interest of the wealthy over the needs of the rest of society was also on full display during the debt-ceiling limit negotiations. Congressional Republicans were willing to drive the nation to the very brink of a potential financial catastrophe rather than consider even slight tax increases for the wealthiest Americans.
In the “Book of Genesis,” God famously asked, “Cain, where is your brother Abel?” This question still resonates today – it reminds us of our duty to care for the poor, the elderly, the disabled and the most marginalized members of our society. Libertarian-conservatives, however, apparently no longer see any role for government in providing for these groups.
Every American understands that sacrifices are necessary. But sacrifices demand a balancing of benefits and burdens. Is it right and just that those Americans who have benefited the most from the economic growth over the past 30 years and from the recovery should see their burdens lightened, while those who have benefited the least – average Americans who have seen their jobs outsourced overseas, their wages stagnate or decline, their benefits reduced or eliminated and their children burdened by huge amounts of student loan debt – are told to carry an additional share? For common-good conservatives, the answer is obvious – it is not.
We must ensure that our economy and our government equitably distribute the benefits and burdens generated by both booms and busts. Taxation is also a mechanism for putting reasonable moral boundaries on greed. We must abandon libertarian-conservatism’s reflexive opposition to any proposals to increase revenue – a millionaires’ tax, ending the Bush-era tax cuts, or returning the top personal income tax rates to their levels during the Clinton administration, are all measures that we should discuss and consider. At the same time, we must identify and eliminate subsidies, loopholes and exemptions that benefit giant corporations, like the famous corporate jet tax break, in order to ensure that they also contribute their fair share.
Growing inequality, declining opportunity and a widely shared perception of systemic unfairness (that the game is rigged in favor of the super rich), ultimately undermine the stability of the social order and delegitimize our political and economic institutions. They must be addressed, so that our society can be maintained and extended forward in time.
The undisputed threat of climate change must also be addressed, and it is a profound shame that the modern libertarian-conservative movement has decided to abandon reason in order to appeal to readers of Reason magazine. The decision by the conservative media industry to promote the idea that 98 percent of the world’s climate scientists – as well as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation – are all involved in some nefarious Marxist conspiracy cooked up by George Soros, Al Gore, Carol Browner, Lisa Jackson and Van Jones would be funny if it weren’t so manifestly pathetic – and dangerous.
Responsible Republicans such as former Secretary of State George Schultz; former Sens. John Warner and Edward Brooke; former Congressmen Bob Inglis, Wayne Gilchrest, Sherwood Boehlert and Michael Castle; and former Environmental Protection Agency heads William D. Ruckelshaus, Russell Train and William K. Reilly recognize the risk climate change poses to economic stability and national security. But the ascendant libertarian-conservatives have rejected their wisdom in favor of the ignorance of those who blithely assert that global warming is a hoax, or that human activities cannot possibly damage the environment (as if God can somehow be blamed for mankind’s pollution).
Conservatives of an earlier generation understood the importance of taking care of the only planet we have. Kirk declared in 1970, “Nothing is more conservative than conservation.” Barry Goldwater made the point even more forcefully in his 1971 book “The Conscience of a Majority“:
“While I am a great believer in the free competitive enterprise system and all that it entails, I am an even stronger believer in the right of our people to live in a clean and pollution-free environment. To this end, it is my belief that when pollution is found, it should be halted at the source, even if this requires stringent government action against important segments of our national economy.”
If Goldwater were still alive, the clownish commentators in today’s conservative circus would label him a Communist.
In his 1970 State of the Union Address, President Nixon declared that the protection of our environment is a cause “beyond party and beyond factions.” Further, he asserted:
“The automobile is our worst polluter of the air. Adequate control requires further advances in engine design and fuel composition. We shall intensify our research, set increasingly strict standards and strengthen enforcement procedures – and we shall do it now.”
One wonders what Nixon would make of the modern right’s demonization of the Chevy Volt, an emissions-free vehicle that has drawn the irrational ire of those with an ideological and/or financial allegiance to fossil fuel interests. The assault on the Volt has become so vehement that former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz – himself a denier of anthropogenic global warming – recently called out the conservative press for its lies about the car.
Now, just for a moment, set aside the dangers of climate change. The right’s attack on the Volt is intellectually bankrupt from a national security perspective. After 9/11, weren’t we told that there was a connection between “Islamofascism” and oil-producing nations? Wasn’t it obvious that America needed to consume less oil, so as to avoid providing financial aid and comfort to anti-American regimes?
A logical right, a rational right, a cognitively coherent right would stand up and yell, “Viva La Volt!”
We don’t have a logical right today. We have a libertarian-conservative “movement” that launches crude email attacks on climate scientists and crackpot televised assaults on American ingenuity. We have an infotainment industry that filters out facts and favors fiction – the fiction of “skeptic” think tanks, the fiction of Michael Crichton’s nonsensical “State of Fear.”
Why? The nature of libertarian-conservatism holds the key to answering this question. Its hatred of government, its sanctification of greed and unconstrained selfishness and its commodification and objectification of everything, including the natural world itself, make it incapable of admitting that climate change is occurring. To admit that human activity is altering the climate in dangerous ways that threaten our future is tantamount to conceding that libertarian-conservative ideology is wrong.
America needs a conservatism that can deal with reality, a conservatism that places the needs of our children and grandchildren above the needs of ExxonMobil, Chevron and Koch Industries. America needs a conservatism that prioritizes conservation. America needs a conservatism that shares the view Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressed in her November 8, 1989, address to the United Nations on the risks posed by global warming:
“We are not the lords, we are the Lord’s creatures, the trustees of this planet, charged today with preserving life itself – preserving life with all its mystery and all its wonder.”
Above all else, America needs a conservatism that does not put its hatred of government regulation above its concern for the future well-being of the world.
Common-good conservatism, with its emphasis on stewardship and its recognition of the traditional conservative concern for preserving communities and institutions over time, is the solution.
Intellectually bankrupt and morally craven, libertarian-conservatism is hurtling toward its Gotterdammerung, a political version of Ragnarok where the sky falls and the world burns.
But there is still hope. From the smoldering ashes of libertarian-conservatism’s funeral pyre, something fresh and wondrous might emerge, a conservative phoenix, singing a beautiful new song. That song is conservatism, for the common good. And with its first notes, we will great the coming of the dawn.