After taking over Congress in 1994 and the presidency in 2000 through strategic alliances, Machiavellian campaign tactics, Supreme Court imbalances, certainly a lot of hard work by grassroots activists, playing on Americans' fears, and other avenues, today's conservative movement - I don't have to tell any Kossacks - is showing many signs of being in jeopardy, a condition even Bob Novak would accept.
The signs are many: the right's bleak outlook for November, GOP-Joe paying the price for becoming the new Cheney, Bush's disapproval ratings over the last couple years, and many more of which we are all well aware. Credit is also due to the resurgence of progressives through the netroots movement, which has given us the tools to hold conservatives accountable when the mainstream media shamefully won't do it. But let me pose another hypothesis: today's conservatism is in danger because, in addition to the reasons mentioned above, it is, to a significant extent, based on the availability of cheap oil, and cheap oil is fast becoming a thing of the past.
I do not mean this diary to be a critique of the suburbs, though I tend to agree with James Howard Kunstler that the suburbs "represent the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." However, the suburbs instilled in America's collective mindset the individualism that defines our society vis-a-vis the rest of the world. Nor is this diary a critique of individualism; it is a healthy personal trait to a certain extent, in that we should never discount our individual abilities to accomplish great things in life. But individualism to the extreme - hyperindividualism - increasingly found a place in American society - to its own detriment - as the modern conservative movement gained strength.
It goes without saying that suburbs - and especially the exurbs - are the strongholds for conservatives in electoral politics. Suburbanites tend to be conservatives. Conservatives, in my view, tend to make fundamental attribution errors. That is, in the formation of their political and social ideology, they tend to
over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior...a default assumption that what a person does is based more on what "kind" of person he or she is, rather than the social and environmental forces at work on that person.I am not saying every conservative does this, just that there is a tendency to do so, and this tendency is manifest in the conservative's relative abhorrence of government. It makes one feel that one has done almost everything oneself, and that the government just gets in the way, and that taxation is little more than "forced labor," as noted libertarian Robert Nozick put it.
The suburbs are ideal breeding grounds for this kind of individualism. Their living arrangements lead hyperindividualists to believe that their ideology is sustainable and viable. But the suburbs, as I have said, are based on cheap oil, either directly, because it allows residents to motor to and from them on a regular basis, or indirectly, because the construction of the massive interstate highway system that connects them required large amounts of oil-based inputs. In an excellent article about the prevalence of anti-social behavior in England due to automobile-heavy infrastructure, George Monbiot wrote that
the new libertarians fail to recognise the extent to which their freedoms depend on an enabling state. They hate the institution which allows them to believe that they can live without institutions.As the cheap oil's sun sets, we will be forced to build a more sustainable built environment: compact development, walkable communities with more common characteristics (such as community energy generation, community gardens, and so forth). Our mode of living will be more communal, which is to say more like the interdependent communities that inhabited the earth from the dawn of humankind to the Industrial Revolution. The social ideology of hyperindividualism will be improbable, and so will its political ideological counterpart of libertarianism. It will behoove those who now detest government to accept its value, since community is the precursor to government.
The end of cheap fossil fuels requires a transformation to another kind of conservatism, that is to say, conservation. "Conservatism" here is ironic, because progressives actually display this quality more abundantly than political conservatives. While progressives are calling for renewable energy and energy conservation, many conservatives are calling for extraction of all of our nation's fossil fuels. Some conservatives (like Manhattan Institute fellow Peter Huber and former Reagan administration staffer Mark Mills) even assign virtue to waste in peddling the dubious concept that we will never run out of energy.
Such a concept is not surprising since energy shortages (not to mention social injustices) belie the viability of global, unrestrained capitalism, which defines many conservatives' economic views. All the conservatism that Wal-Mart spawns will disappear once the Wal-Mart retail model, requiring long, fossil-fuel-subsidized shipping routes, becomes completely unsustainable.
So, too, could be the fate of militaristic conservatism, which could be having its grand finale in the Bush administration years. The neoconservative strategy of militarily invading and controlling countries in order to extract their resources will seem even more farcical than it seems now once those countries have run low on economically extractable resources. Here I urge you to consider Wendell Berry's thoughts:
The first thing we must begin to teach our children (and learn ourselves) is that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve. We do need a "new economy", but one that is founded on thrift and care, on saving and conserving, not on excess and waste. An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy.Even now, it is apparent (even self-evident) that we cannot drill or shock-and-awe our way to energy independence.
To summarize my hypothesis, then, conservatism is, at least to a significant extent, based on cheap oil (and other cheap fossil fuels). I have highlighted some of its major ideological tenets - hyperindividualism, unrestrained global capitalism, and neoconservative militarism - in order to show that these tenets are only combatible with - and predicated on - available cheap oil and other fossil fuel inputs. The Richard Pombos of this country may find that soon their ideologies will be as endangered as the endangered species whose protections Rep. Pombo has fought to remove. Conservatives will find that they will have to change their views or cling to an unsustainable credo that is bound to run out of gas before long.