After 2012: The Troubled Values of the American Right

Now that it’s over, I’ve spent two days reading reactions to the election results on conservative media, from self-proclaimed highbrow platforms like National Review and Human Events to populist platforms like Free Republic. What I see everywhere I look are central and fundamental internal contradictions in the values of the American Right.

On the one hand, the Right maintains an originalist attachment to American-style democracy. One of the most common criticisms made by the Right is that there exist in the U.S. a number of groups (the Left, minorities, gays, atheists and secularists) that seek to impose a policy agenda on the public by non-democratic means—a bad thing, they implicitly argue. They further often argue that the American system has become too open to undemocratic forms of manipulation by these groups, and that the result is an undemocratic society far removed from the intentions of its founders.

At the same time, through two presidential election seasons (but particularly in this most recent one), the Right has also maintained that there are other fundamental “American” values that these groups do not share. Anyone that has paid nominal attention to the campaigns is familiar with this list: limited or no government, self-sufficiency, Judeo-Christian morality, a kind of rugged individualism, the right to bear arms, a kind of practical nativism (integration rather than multiculturalism, limits on immigration, and cultural and demographic change), a particular affirmative conception of religious freedom (that the separation of church and state must create a believer’s right to practice his or her faith according to the dictates of conscience even when this practice imposes constraints, within the context of the policy status quo, on the rights of others), and so on.

In the Right’s estimation, a changing American public simply does not embrace these values in the way that it once did—in better times. What is interesting to me is that this is seen not as a problem with which the Right must come to terms, but rather one that inheres in the public at large. Of particular interest is the discussion, amongst those that accept this fundamental premise, about what the Right ought to do in response to this state of affairs.

What I encountered consistently over the course of my post-mortem reading was the strong claim that the Right ought not to compromise, moderate, or modify its platform or positions to appeal more broadly to the public.

Whatever one thinks of the claim that the present Left coalition comprises a vast conspiracy of affinitive groups with anti-democratic tendencies and approaches to policy, the fact is that a majority of U.S. voters have (twice now) democratically endorsed this coalition and indeed belong to it.

The Left coalition’s rejection of many of the value positions endorsed by the Right can thus be argued to be a nominally democratic one. In simpler terms, the Right and their values have been out-numbered and out-voted democratically.

Even so, what I saw again and again in the election’s immediate aftermath was a determination by many on the Right to press ever forward—indeed, to focus on changes in strategy in an attempt to turn back or marginalize the Left and restore the previously discussed constellation of Right values to a central place in American policy, despite the clear opposition of a majority of the public to this.

The left coalition, far from being seen as a democratic quantity, was seen as embodying illegitimate values and voters that cannot be allowed to stand. Dozens of accounts suggested that because the Left values and policy were un-American or incompatible with essentially American mores, the broadness of the base of support for them is irrelevant, or even exemplary of the collapse of American society.

Too many Americans have become takers and activists for the normalization of various forms of deviance or low status, goes the trope; they will continue to vote for undemocratic practices and for policy that runs counter to “real” American values. A Right with integrity ought not to appeal to them. Quite the opposite, if America is to be “saved,” Right values must triumph at the ballot box despite the present majority. These positions, these ways of thinking, are self-contradictory.

Surely there are conservative values, Right values, that have broad appeal, or that can even be said to be nominally “universal” in nature. Ought not the American Right focus on these? I saw no argument (nor do I find any reason to believe) that appeals to universal aspirations and values are unlikely to find support across the electorate at large. Let those values and propositions without broad appeal fall away from the national platform and from centrality to the Right’s political project.

If, on the other hand, it is true that there are no values or policy positions on the Right that are universal, or even that are any longer palatable to the majority of the American public, then surely it is the Right, not the Obama Left coalition, that has embraced an undemocratic ethos so long as it continues to seek a place for these in governance. Surely, in this understanding of things, it is the Right that seeks to undermine the “freedom” (a word that has been constantly used, if not uncritically overused, by the Right) of the American public.

There is a choice to be made: the Right can eschew a universalist appeal of the kind that the Left has made on the grounds that such an appeal is incompatible with conservative values, or they can advocate for and embrace the democratic over the undemocratic, nominal “freedom” over the effectively authoritarian imposition of minority values and policy positions on the majority.But they can’t have it both ways without founding their understanding of democratic freedom on an essentially undemocratic a priori definition of what the “real” America is and who the legitimate public contains.