There have always been different kinds of conservatives, from Rotary Club business Republicans to nativist demagogues, from old school balanced budget sticklers to anti-tax zealots, from the intellectual strain represented by William F. Buckley Jr. to the John Birch paranoids and Ayn Rand crackpots. Until now. At present, conservatism has almost wholly been consumed by the nativists, the Know-Nothings, the ideological crackpots and the out there zealots.
It’s consequential because the political home of American conservatism is one of the two major political parties in our republic, and not only does it wield political power, but with its enormous media apparatus wields influence beyond its representation in the current government or the number of its supporters.
And it is a morally, intellectually and spiritually bankrupt enterprise. Or perhaps, simply, an empty well, absent anything to provide sustenance, nothing but dirt.
Today’s Republicans only scoff at the old school banker’s party, cautious as it was about progress, and stodgy about keeping the checkbook balanced; as opposed to the contemporary version: virulently loathing government, harboring not only contempt for progress but reverence for a mythical past. Today’s conservatives chuckle at Reagan, or at least, while deifying the political figure, scorn what he actually did, which was to raise taxes, save Social Security and grant an amnesty to America’s undocumented immigrants.
Conservatism has gone from a movement cozy with capitalists and generally and modestly in the corner of capital, to one which represents a total and profound inversion of morality. It has taken to heart the Gordon Gekko line, “greed is good,” in the real, rather than fictional realm. Greed and self-interest, according to this movement can be rationalized as the highest moral and civic virtues.
And in this process of inversion today’s conservatism has, through practiced rhetoric, transformed altruism expressed by Americans through their own government into a dirty word; the impulse to soften the harsher blows of capitalism for those permanently or temporarily down, into a promiscuous immorality.
Equality, a word and a concept dear to the Founding Fathers now is mocked by modern conservatism and dimwittedly excoriated, as foreign or exclusively Marxist.
Conservatives have imbibed deeply of the bitter, jumbled and juvenile Ayn Rand, twisted Adam Smith into pretzels of incomprehension and falsity and invented history out of whole cloth in order to justify this parsimonious, petty and pitiless new creed of theirs. They won’t blink an eye, or feel a wisp of doubt, or give an ounce of thought when it is suggested to them that this transformation they envision is in actuality merely another restoration of the previously feudal, a pre-enlightenment, pre-American way of life, to the great regret of the Founders, a newly worshipful embrace, and even coddling of concentrated wealth.
Corollary to this moral elevation of wealth is the diminishment of those without it, a division into classes again, the deserving class and all the rest. It is not infrequent that a conservative will offer the profoundly stupid assertion that those who work for wages have no cause for complaint, expressing a vivid “moral” detestation of those in the middle and lower ranges of the wage continuum for presumably lacking the character and wherewithal to become rich. How easy to dismiss benevolent government or basic fairness or human concern in acts of government when the need can be rationalized away by designating the beneficiaries as morally unfit. In another debased inversion, the new conservative who recognizes and rejects this impulse toward benevolent government is actually virtuous, and rises to the highest moral plane. It is the truly magically Orwellian transformation of indifference, hubris and inhumanity into moralism.
It has now reached the point of open attacks targeting Social Security and Medicare, the two most valuable, necessary and successful government institutions in American life. Again, it hardly matters anymore whether it is callousness or ignorance that prevents conservatives from knowing or caring that the time to which they seek to return, was a time when thirty percent of seniors lived the rest of their lives in poverty (as opposed to 12% now, the same as for Americans generally), and being too old to earn, commonly went without medical care and sometimes food and shelter. With most families now two-earner families there is little doubt the burden that would fall to the families of the elderly would be particularly brutal. Ideological zeal numbs any consideration that Social Security and Medicare were enacted for a reason, to meet a desperate need.
The non-economic element of this new bankruptcy is the new nativism, the bottomless hatred for our undocumented immigrants, nativism and ugly nationalism rearing their heads high again with the new conservative breed. And I won’t buy the explanation that these conservatives have been so offended by the “criminality” of what is nothing worse than a traffic ticket, the breaching of a civil ordinance, which indeed is what being in the country without documentation of citizenship entails.
The previous three Republican presidents left the nation with large deficits, the most recent after inheriting an actual surplus, this in very dramatic contrast to their rhetorical hosannas to fiscal responsibility, and their excuses and deflections of blame, insisting it just wasn’t their fault. The conscious immorality was the willful expansion of debt as a means to advance their unendorsed agenda, to strip the government bare under the guise of an emergency, to essentially further lift the spectacularly lucky at the expense of the terribly weak.
The country is not bankrupt it is simply in the process of being depleted by a movement with a moral vacuum.