Conservative Principles vs. Conservative Practices: A Continuing Discussion

There was an interesting exchange on my Facebook page following my last post. I am re-posting it this afternoon because I think it opens some important points and may serve as a guide to understand more deliberately this week’s Republican National Convention. The dialogue reveals alternative positions on conservative politics and the way progressives engage with conservative thought and practice. I think it is an interesting beginning of a discussion beyond partisan intellectual gated communities, as Gary Alan Fine has called for in these pages. I welcome the continuation of the discussion here, hope it illuminates theoretical and pressing practical questions . -Jeff

I opened on Facebook by quoting a central summary of the post. The irony: “Ryan’s nomination, I believe, assures the re-election of President Obama. The basis of my belief is a judgment that Americans generally are guided by a conservative insight, an American suspicion of ideological thought. Conservative insight defeats the conservative ticket.” And then a debate followed.

Harrison Tesoura Schultz: Would you say that the conservatives have become too extreme for most people to believe that they’re still actually ‘conservatives?’

Alvino-Mario Fantini ‎@Harrison: What I always want to know is: “too extreme” in reference to what? Public opinion? (It seems to shift.) In comparison to conventional wisdom? (It, too, seems to change over the centuries.) The problem, I would suggest, is not that conservatives have become too extreme for people but that basic conservative ideas and principles are no longer known or understood, and increasingly considered irrelevant.

Jeffrey Goldfarb: Extremism in defense of liberty is a vice and it is not conservative. So, I think you are both right. People who call themselves conservatives are often not, rather they are right wing ideologues. Too much for the general public, I think, hope. On the other hand, people who are interested in limited government and in the wisdom of custom and tradition, but recognize that things do change, should be able to have a conversation with people who think change is imperative and the government has an important role to play, but know that there are no magical solutions to all our problems in the form of one “ism” or another.

Harrison Tesoura Schultz: Akin’s comments certainly seemed to transgress the conventional wisdom of public opinion. Even Romney’s tax evasions and Ryan’s plan also appear to be striking some of the conservatives I talk to on FB as too extreme as well. It seems to me as if the Republicans themselves are the one’s who are increasingly misunderstanding basic conservative ideas and principles.

Aron Hsiao: My anecdotal and personal impression is rather than defending the abstract ideals of freedom and liberty in many cases, what they are defending (and mistake for these) are a narrow group of substantive individual freedoms that are indeed being lost in recent decades—those that inhered in white, male, and/or U.S. privilege/exceptionalism as individually or as a set of statuses. These statuses did in fact once grant very real social and economic power to those that enjoyed them and/or identified with them, a power that has not been replaced and is not easily replaceable in the case of middle and lower classes. The impulse to preserve these is the nature of the conservatism.

The rejection of enlightenment rationality and epistemology (surely that’s what’s at stake here) is not a critical response for at least some of the current U.S. far right rank-and-file, as was the case for the postmodernists, but an instrumental and reactionary one. The logic, values, and methods of the Enlightenment ultimately demand basic equality between, for example, men and women, or blacks and whites, or Americans and non-Americans, or at least forms of status adjudication that do not rest on skin tone, sex, nationality, or other characteristics that grant privilege by birthright.

To those that have had their status upset and have lost social power as a result (or that see themselves having been cheated of it by previous generations), there is only one answer: since it is clear to them (as a matter of socialization, culture, and values) that there is and (at the practical level of their own interests) *must be* a natural hierarchy of races, genders, nations, populations, etc., in which either they or those that they identify with are in the upper echelons, then any logic or epistemology that threatens these hierarchies (i.e. the Enlightenment and that which proceeds from it, including modern science), or the status and power that they are expected to provide, must by definition and practical exigency be rejected as improper and “radical” in nature.

Instead, a logic and epistemology must be found that appears to unconditionally support (or even provide a “restoration” narrative about) essentialist status and power hierarchies, and selective readings of certain strands of Christianity (which holds strong traditional authority for them, an additional affinity and congruence) fit the bill.

In other words, to my eye the Tea Party isn’t about defending Liberty (capital ‘L’) but rather a set of practical liberties that can no longer be taken with (for example) people of color, women, the colonial and postcolonial “other” places, etc.

The ideological substance in the equation conflates this narrow set of practical freedoms with Freedom (capital ‘F’), asserts that that the hierarchy that once granted them was Natural (capital ‘N’), and thus also asserts that the enlightenment worldview and all that proceeds from it (i.e. science, equality, the democratic impulse) are thus destructive of Freedom (again, capital ‘F’) and Nature (and another capital ‘N’).

Note that this opinion is neither scientific nor expert, but merely personal and with significant qualifications. It is not meant to characterize all of American conservatism today and proceeds primarily from my having many family members (both immediate and extended) that are Tea Partiers. It’s likely therefore to be highly regionally, economically, and culturally idiosyncratic.

But it is one reading of at least one current in the present political milieu.

Jeffrey Goldfarb: Interesting note Aron. I wish this discussion appeared on Deliberately Considered itself [which I am now acting upon]. All points have been interesting, it seems to me, Schultz’s and Fabino’s, as well as yours. As far as your note, in contrast to your primary concerns, I am interested in understanding the form of the commitments of present so called conservatives and try to explain why many “conservatives” are actually not conservative. They are ideological rightists instead. You are doing two things: illuminating the seamy side of conservative thought (its attachment to custom as it enables privilege) and understanding present day “conservative” motivations. I worry about your second move. Following it exclusively leads to the cynical dismissal of those one disagrees with. On the other hand, if one carefully analyzes your first move, this is avoided. Seems to me it is especially important to do so when the “conservatives” who you are thinking about are family. I must admit, that is very far from my experience. I know no Tea Party supporters personally, only rarely overhear them in public places. They exist for me mostly as characters in the media spectacle.

Aron Hsiao: … With regard to dismissal, I understand your concern but feel somewhat differently—I take each point to suggest the need to take the issue very seriously. Apart from its sins, one of the insights of postmodernism is that it is difficult to persuade or even engage others about points using one system of knowledge, lexicality and epistemology when they specifically reject it and employ another. The same holds true in the opposite direction.

Yet there are practical issues—dare I say, lives—at stake in politics. Ultimately, like you in some ways (but probably not in others), I think that common dismissal of the Tea Party and the far right is wrongheaded, not to mention undemocratic in nature (never mind that the Tea Party itself is undemocratic in nature, and that this is precisely one of its biggest values). To dismiss it out of hand and reject it without acknowledging and understanding its worldview is to (a) commit the same sin of which we accuse them, strengthening rather than weakening the prevalence of that worldview and (b) render ourselves powerless to influence or engage with that movement in a way that remains ethical or moral within our own worldview. And of course we ought also to take it seriously because of the outcomes that it seeks (and has had some success already in achieving), many of which are, to say the least, undesirable to the other half of the population.


Here the discussion on my Facebook page ends. I did receive, though, a personal note from Fantini, which takes the discussion one step further and which I am posting here with his permission:

Jeff: Aron’s lengthy post screams for a response to be written in time I don’t have! Let me share with you what I’d like to say:

Point 1: Conservatism is not, as Aron says at the outset, simply an attempt to preserve white, male privilege. That is an old and tired argument. The most recent attempt to revive this trope is The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin. The book conflates the old, throne-and-altar conservatism of Old Europe with the Anglo-American variety rooted in Edmund Burke and elaborated by Russell Kirk—and, thus, Robin cannot avoid but concluding that conservatism is nothing but a defense of hierarchy.

In short, I think what has been provided is a post-modern caricature of conservatives and their world-view.

There have been, of course, many other attempts during the 20th century to dismiss the ‘conservative mind’ as nothing more than a genetic predisposition or a “mental defect”. (Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, famously tried to dismiss conservatism as an extension of a psychologically paranoid personality.) But these are all reductionist arguments and I don’t think one can say that they represent serious efforts to engage with—let alone understand—conservative thought.

2. Conservatism is not an outright ‘rejection’ of Enlightenment rationality but rather a criticism of it. That alone, however, does not a conservative make. Conservatives have such criticism in common with, well, almost any critic of the ‘Modern Project’—and that includes people on the Left.

3. The source of the ‘impulse’ toward natural hierarchies, as Aron argues, is not simply confined to conservatives reflexively trying to maintain a pecking order—any pecking order. May I suggest that order and hierarchy are simply extensions of the nature of man, of human societies and of political communities everywhere (regardless of political orientation, party affiliation or ideological stance)? A pecking order has emerged in all regimes, from early nomadic tribes, to principalities on small islands, to the brutal regimes that emerged [precisely to do away with one pecking order] in Russia, China and Cambodia.

4. Finally, I think Aron mischaracterizes what the Tea Party is about. I don’t know any conservatives—except perhaps a few old-school, unreconstructed reactionaries in the Old World, all of whom are probably in their 90s and are still raging against  the break-up of the Holy Roman Empire—who believe in rigid hierarchies, with little or no social mobility, or limited economic freedom. Nor do I know any conservatives who are against the scientific advances proceeding from the Enlightenment. Furthermore, the democratic impulse that he speaks of began to emerge as part of our ‘worldview’ centuries before, not from the Enlightenment.

In short, I think what has been provided is a post-modern caricature of conservatives and their world-view.

I think this is an important discussion and hope it continues, unsettling the certainties of left and right. Next a post from Hsiao on a political platform that moves further in this direction.

  • Aron Hsiao

    What I presume Fantini and I would agree upon is the need for more empirical information about the Tea Party at the rank-and-file level as a specific and current manifestation of self-described conservatism.

    Point 1: I should have made much more clear that I was specifically referencing the new conservatism that has emerged in recent elections in the U.S., as specifically represented by the Tea Party rank-and-file.

    Point 2: There is indeed a difference between a critique and rejection. I’d argue that there are assorted valid critiques of the practical tendencies of the Enlightenment as a way of knowing, a system of values, and a historical set of individuals, circumstances, and projects. But to suggest that no current self-described conservatives reject it is to ignore much of the thrust of present conservative activity in science, policy, and culture. True, in some cases they don’t reject it in those terms, but many concisely suggest the substitution of religious dogma for or priority of it over empirical observation. This is not in the realm of critique; it is, in any substantive way. To my eye, it qualifies as rejection.

    Point 3: There is a difference between *hierarchy* as a model and structure and *a particular hierarchy* as a historical artifact. I was speaking about the latter, not the former.

    Point 4: As I said, my rumination was not systematic research and did not employ a defendable sample population, so it was (as I said) not adequate to characterize the entirety of the “New Right” movement. However, I do know and regularly have to engage with Tea Partiers as a matter of course, and some of the discussions have been heated; just as my knowledge of these tea partiers does not alone imply generalizable knowledge about the movement, neither does the fact that Fantini knows of no such cases (in fact, it is even less indicative). Minimal engagement with the popular “data” (press, campaigns, local elections and policy issues across the nation as we’ve seen them play out over the last four years) doesn’t support a quick conclusion that an anti-Enlightenment ideological thread can be dismissed *a priori*.

    With regard to democracy as a form (again, Point 4), there is no doubt that there are forms of democratic thought and practice that predate the Enlightenment. There is also no doubt that there are significant differences between democracy as a modern form in the context of large-scale, highly mediated post-Westphalean societies and its previous instantiations. I don’t think it’s useful to pretend that there aren’t, particularly when the empirical objects at issue (and that probably merit a great deal of research) are situated in the latter.

  • Aron Hsiao

    As a sort of addendum, I don’t think useful data about the Tea Party can be gathered using methods that tend toward quantitative analysis (i.e. surveys or various forms of practice coding that exclude private discourse). In this case, I think that highly subculturally-focused participant observation work in the anthropological style, with some measure of conversation analysis or ethnomethodological framing, would be tremendously interesting.

    At the same time, one of the pressing initial problems of such work for anyone that decided to undertake it would be precisely the thing that I suspect marks the differences seen in this discussion: contradicting claims about who is able to claim Tea Party membership and what the purposes and values of the Tea Party and indeed conservatism are.

    Discussions of this kind often happen “off the front page,” as it were (as is typical in most groups), but reading, for example, conservative commenting forums online or attending Tea Party events, one often sees/hears discussions of this sort emerge.