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It has been said throughout the media that the Republicans are no longer the "party of ideas." This, of course, presupposes that they ever were. Even so, the activists within the Republican Party have seized on this meme as a call to action, bidding the Republicans to adopt whatever brand of conservativism the activist making the call chooses to support: Huckabites calling for a populist brand of a sort of theocratic "New Deal", Romneyites carrying the torch for Big Business and moderate social issues, Kristolites claiming that if we just bomb a few more people everything will get better, or Palinites trying not to think too hard and just asking Jesus to make it better. Of course none of these are new ideas, but simply all of the old American Conservative factions staking out ground in the coming civil war within the party.

The concept of conservatism as an ideology began in Europe as a reaction toward democratic liberalism and socialism. It supported a strong central monarchy and a society organized around the twin pillars of Christianity and Nationalism. These ideas crystallized into a coherent set of ideals during the 19th Century after the defeat of Napoleon and found their greatest proponent in the great Austrian minister Metternich, who during the Congress of Vienna attempted to enforce peace and order on Europe by establishing an equal balance of power between the states and state suppression of liberalism and socialism within them. European Conservatives generally supported censorship, state supported religion, a strong military, colonialism, traditional social structures, and monarchy. They typically opposed the free market economic system, public schools, secularism or pluralism, legal protection for workers, immigration, and multi-party democracy.

In America, meanwhile, conservatism never really took root as a force in American politics. There was broad agreement on general political values, and with some notable exceptions such as slavery, the United States was a decidedly liberal place. In the 19th Century this meant democracy, free-markets, pluralism, and civil rights, although with the onset of socialism in the middle of the century, it began to take on a more modern character. Truly, America was so dominated by liberalism that the concept of ideology would have been alien to most Americans. This was a pragmatic country where politics hinged on issues rather than ideals, for the ideals were already accepted. While the 1800s were a century of brutal rebellions and fervent ideological battles between liberals, socialists, communists, conservatives, monarchists, democrats, Christians, and secularists, America was never rocked by these ideological struggles. In fact the one great conflict in America during this period hinged on a single issue, slavery, and was a battle fought by two sides each purporting to support the same basic ideology.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th Century that the term Conservatism became a powerful intellectual force in American politics. Even now it bears far more in similarity to liberalism than it does to Metternich and the other influential European conservatives of yore. Of course, Conservatism in America is attempting to "conserve" something very different here in the United States than they were in Europe. The primary architect of American Conservatism is William F Buckley, whom we know all too well.  In contrast to the statist and monarchial European Conservatism, Buckley was almost an anarchist. He vouched for a minarchist rather than monarchist government, one which subscribed to a mythical ideal that conservatives have since claimed the Constitution really stood for. Rather than hearken to the Church and State as the source for moral and social authority, Buckley consistently referred to personal religion, or our "Judeo-Christian Values", and the free-market as the pillars of society. Buckley took European Conservatism and put a decidedly American spin on it, making it an individualist ideology. This forms the core of American Conservatism.

These conservative ideals never really took hold amongst most Americans. Most people saw their lives improve when the government spread electricity through the TVA or banned child labor. While everyone could agree they didn’t like paying taxes and that people should generally be able to spend their money how they like, the majority of Americans saw nothing wrong with public schools and new public roads. This was a conundrum for Conservatives; they would never get elected on a libertarian platform.

Republicans presented the most obvious candidates as the vehicle of Conservatism. Though they were the old home of big government, with candidates like Abe Lincoln and trust-buster Teddy Roosevelt, Republicans had become lassaiz-faire on the economy in opposition to FDR’s policies. Still, proponents of government investment in infrastructure and education known then as "Rockefeller Republicans" remained due to the steadfast support of many professionals in New England. Buckley and other Conservative intellectuals thus began a steady effort to "Conservatize" the Republican Party, the ultimate expression of which was the candidacy of Barry Goldwater. As we all know, he suffered one of the worst defeats of the 20th Century. Conservatives within the party were able to see that Buckley’s libertarian-esque Conservatism would never be enough to win the party. Sure enough the Republicans nominated a Keynesian in 1968, Nixon, and won due to Nixon’s masterful use of race and fear. Other factors were involved in Nixon’s victory, of course, but Nixon was not particularly different from his Democratic opponent economically. He won as a "culture warrior", blaming liberals and elitists for the nation’s problems, playing on fears stoked by racial, cultural, and societal tensions rampant during the 60s. Conservatives learned this lesson well.

To a true Buckley or Reagan Conservative, social issues are a distant second to economic issues. This has two intimately-related consequences. First, they do not particularly care about the issues that offend the Religious Right. They are neither emboldened nor offended by their ideas. Second, because of this, they don’t really mind adopting some of their positions so long as the Religious Right supports free-market Conservatism. The campaign of Ronald Reagan was the first to truly capitalize on this development, and it worked to perfection. It worked so well, in fact, that almost every Conservative we see today is an intellectual descendant of Ronald Reagan. Like an organism particularly well-adapted to an environment, the Reagan Coalition spread throughout the Republican Party and became the dominant force and by the year 2000 there were hardly any Rockefeller Republicans left.

What we see today fracturing of this coalition. Like society as a whole, the generally well-educated and well-informed Buckley Conservatives are beginning to realize what kind of monster they unleashed in the Religious Right. Palin and Huckabee scare the shit out of them as much as they do us. However, today just as 40 years ago, Buckley’s ideas cannot win an election by themselves, and Conservatives know this. They’re stuck in a Catch-22; if they keep things the same, they face theocracy, if they push Palin away, they face liberalism. We saw many choose the latter while many more chose the former. Still, THIS is what conservatives mean when they say they need "new ideas."

Each faction of the Republican Party sees the coming battle as an opportunity to reintroduce itself to the American people. They want to repackage their ideology, free from the taint of the other side of Modern Conservatism, as something NEW and DIFFERENT. The religious right will fail because they represent an ideal so opposite of historical trends as to be almost completely irrelevant. However, the Buckley-ites represent a more intractable view as they appeal to the fundamental greed in all of us.

Still, within the view of free-market conservatism itself is the fundamental disability for new ideas. The most basic and fundamental tenet of this ideology is an aversion to government, the belief that "government is the problem, not the solution." How, then, can any of their ideas be new? There is no way to discover a new way NOT to do something. It’s a contradiction, and we should address it as such.

UPDATE: To fix my Nixon reference.

Originally posted to AgnosticTheocrat on Tue Nov 25, 2008 at 08:06 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  New conservatism is... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    PeteZerria, palantir

    ...sort of like a revolutionary republican - more moron than oxymoron.

    Reality is that which refuses to go away when I stop believing in it." -- Philip K. Dick ....... {-8.25 / -5.64}

    by carver on Tue Nov 25, 2008 at 08:15:42 PM PST

  •  Excellent (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    PeteZerria, vcmvo2, palantir

    It's important to separate the movement and the rhetoric that it uses to advance it's causes.  As well as the other groups that are coopted to provide what we lazily call the base.

    A William F. Buckley would tolerate a Palin or a Randall Terry only in a pinch as a polticial tool.

    The problem being as you so well articulated, the true believers of conservatism are a small and inconsistently energetic force and once the lid is open, like Pandora, they have found it more difficult to control than they had imagined.

    "you have the right to your own opinion. You do not have the right to your own facts" -Daniel Patrick Moynihan

    by SteveP on Tue Nov 25, 2008 at 08:19:35 PM PST

  •  Nicely done! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    vcmvo2, palantir, Indieman

    I just wish I was as optimistic as you are that the religious right will fail. Just about a month ago one of its worst - Sarah Palin - came pretty close to being elected VP to a 72 year old POTUS. I think we dodged a bullet on that one. If the Obama campaign had been a wee bit less organized... I don't like to think what would've happened.

    This ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no foolin' around!

    by Snud on Tue Nov 25, 2008 at 08:21:13 PM PST

  •  Or... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    high uintas, palantir, voracious

    ...An oxyMORAN!!

    This ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no foolin' around!

    by Snud on Tue Nov 25, 2008 at 08:24:48 PM PST

  •  All the way back to theories of aristocracy (7+ / 0-)

    The consistent belief among aristocrats is that the common people are content to live an animal existence - eat, sleep, reproduce, etc. - and without the leadership of men of vision and the absolute power they ought to wield, humanity - in spite of all its potential - would never have accomplished all the things we've accomplished.

    Cultured aristocrats look at art, music, architecture, etc., business aristocrats look at the great corporations and the profusion of consumer goods, military aristocrats look at the great armies and empires of history, but all say the same thing to us: "You would never have done that had we not made you do it."

    This is the core of all aristocratic thought, including modern American conservatism: that humanity can advance only under the leadership of supermen who almost metaphysically embody cultures and zeitgeists. Aristocracy holds that society's only legitimate function can be to nurture and empower those supermen to do what they are called to do, and that people like you and me are valuable only to the degree that we can be used by the supermen.

    •  There is a difference between (0+ / 0-)

      aristocracy and leadership - aristocracy inevitably serves itself - leadership, true leadership, serves those who are led.

      •  Aristocracy denies selfish leadership is possible (0+ / 0-)

        The theories hold that aristocrats by definition cannot be selfish; whatever the people suffer under the aristocrats' leadership, it cannot help but be for the best.

        Aristocracy presents itself as serving those who are led in a less material sense, emphasizing things like 'national greatness' over comfort and happiness. Hermann Goering's infamous 'guns and butter' declaration - "Guns will make us powerful; butter will only make us fat." - is a classic example of warped aristocratic thought about what's best for the people.

        •  As far as I know (0+ / 0-)

          Aristocracy has never been put forward as a unified and coherent ideology. Plato's Republic was Aristocratic and he defended the rights and privileges of the ruling class. Many other philosophers had similar defenses. I don't know that "Aristocracy" implies an ideal or system so much as a group.

          It is true, though, that the majority of cultural, scientific, and philosophical contributions in history came from the aristocracy. This is something we need to acknowledge. However, as you said, this neither justifies the subjugation of the weak nor the privileges of the strong. Instead, I think this is symptomatic of their additional leisure time and freedom, something many don't enjoy due to legal or economic barriers.

          Luckily we live in a society in which a large number of people enjoy enough freedom from want and coercion and are able to pursue more intellectual and academic pursuits than ever before. My hope, and my progressivism from this hope, is that we can reach a point where everyone is afforded the opportunity to contribute to what makes Humanity special, our capacity for Art, Knowledge, Literature, Architecture, Engineering, and other pursuits which shall live beyond our own too short lives.

          Very interesting discussion!

          •  I make it sound more unified than it is (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            It's more a set of memes that have enjoyed unparalled longevity in Western civilization, employed over and over again even as everything else changes around them.

            Even as titled aristocracy disappeared in Europe and never formed in the United States, you have so-called philosophers like Nietzsche and Ayn Rand and their followers who employ the same arguments, only with updated imagery.

            At best, 'aristocracy' is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you categorically deny that the common people are capable of anything but mediocrity and atavism if left to their own devices, you justify keeping them in ignorance (why teach someone who cannot learn?) and at your disposal (they need your leadership to amount to anything), while arrogating to yourself all power to decide what will happen  since you manifestly deserve it.

            Imagine a reified circular argument in that the society that the philosophy of aristocracy creates is its own fallacious proof.

            The aristocrats and their intellectual defenders, like conservatives today, were very clever with language, twisting it to reinforce the broader thoughts: the nobility called themselves such as they believed themselves to be the most noble, in the sense of elevated sentiment and superior ability. They named the common people because they were average, mediocre, mean (originally insulting just like calling someone 'average' would be), etc. The word "villain" is descended from the Old French word for 'peasant', implying one's dishonorable (in the old macho sense of 'honor') behavior was worthy of a peasant, and first used as an insult by aristocrats against other aristocrats.

            Unfortunately, a society that had once been aristocratic will struggle to rise above its formerly wretched state as the masses will have so completely internalized their passive position and what has been called the 'culture of poverty' - a controversial theory because it is itself a corollary to conservative and aristocratic thought - that serves to trap people in poverty as the poor create values that actually elevate their own condition to a position of morality.

            Philip E. Agre talks some about this internalization and the lengths that conservatives go to create it in his brilliant essay: "What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong With It?"

          •  Well said (0+ / 0-)

            I understand your point on Aristocracy, I simply meant to point out that the term is never really used in that particular sense. Conservatism itself is one philosophy which advocates a sort of plutocratic Aristocracy, especially in it's opposition to the inheritance tax.

            It truly is amazing the extent to which out language is informed by out biases, isn't it? Still, I'm not entirely sure that every advocate of inherited privilege defended the institution with the intent of subjugation, but rather is as much a victim of their circumstances and biases as anyone else. Obviously this doesn't absolve them of their intellectual responsibility to examine their ideas in full, nor do I mean to imply that every Aristocrat, Plutocrat, Monarch, Emperor, or Nobleman had a kind-but-misguided heart.

            Your point about the "self-fulfilling prophecy" is a great one, I think, and it relates to my previous claim that not all of the defenders of Aristocracy were bad people. In a society in which the wealthy and powerful are such due to heredity, there is enormous pressure on those who have them to justify their rights while rationalizing the plight of those who don't have any. These excuses become almost habitual, and it must be terribly difficult to escape the mindset a childhood and education spent inculcating them must create. Hell, we even see this among Southerners defending slavery (though Southern plantation owners were Aristocrats in all but name, anyway)

    •  "At the center of (0+ / 0-)

      every revolution is one man with a vision." CAPT James T. Kirk (per a sign on the desk of CPT Bill Innocente, 1st CAV G-2 Ops, 1993).

      Some truth to it, but the aristocracy is fungible.

  •  One point of correction (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    vcmvo2, Wufacta, Scientician, palantir

    1968 was anything but a landslide; Nixon's landslide came in '72.

    This sig line is in foreclosure. For details on acquiring a credit default swap on this sig line, contact H. Paulson, Dept of the Treasury, c/o Goldman, Sachs

    by ActivistGuy on Tue Nov 25, 2008 at 08:30:39 PM PST

  •  Excellent diary (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tmo, NewDealer, palantir

    For the definitive guide to late 20th century American conservatism, "The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945" by George H. Nash. It is somewhat sympathetic, but it also basically stops at 1976.

  •  the vehicle they ran over us in was talk radio (0+ / 0-)

    whatever their brand of 'conservatism', the talk radio megaphone binds them in their opposition to liberalism (social, economic), an infection of America defined and reviled daily by limbaugh and hannity and their wannabes, and represented most dominantly by the 'big government' bogeyman, as you say.

    the talk radio monopoly must be fixed- it continues to enable the denial that enables the hypocrisy that enables the free market and social flat earthers to continue to get seats at every two person debate.

    ignoring the talk radio monopoly continues to be the biggest political blunder in decades

    by certainot on Tue Nov 25, 2008 at 09:08:59 PM PST

    •  Which is why they are raising the bogey man (0+ / 0-)

      of the Fairness Doctrine. The FD does not dictate equal time just an airing of an opposite viewpoint since the airwaves are part of the commons, the public airwaves. Yes, high power AM stations are monopolized by the Clear Channels. I don't have an answer. Maybe the push against "too big to fail" will make all agencies look at consolidation again. Congress can fix this.

      Limbaugh started on 5NOV08 with"the Obama Recession" nonsense. I was glad to see Obama's third economic presser. Good antidote.

      Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living~~Mother Jones

      by CA Berkeley WV on Wed Nov 26, 2008 at 08:43:13 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  maybe they should be required to take real calls (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Calamity Jean

        in exchange for using the public airwaves. what could be their excuse? too many liberals complaining? few of the national blowhards can be reached except by sycophants and rigged calls.

        ignoring the talk radio monopoly continues to be the biggest political blunder in decades

        by certainot on Wed Nov 26, 2008 at 09:57:45 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  You have to lie to the screener to get on (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          certainot, Calamity Jean

          And there is not a discussion, just echo chamber. That is why I can enjoy Thom Hartmann. He starts each program with a civil discussion with someone on the other side. Randi Rhodes will take callers that call to disagree with her.

          There was an idea of the commons in the beginning. Nature was for all of us, hence the pursuit of happiness. Knowledge was for all of us, hence the finite period of copyrights.

          The renewal of a broadcast licenses is now a formality. They have to prove nothing anymore. It would take community organizers to show up at those hearing and lodge protests. The still do have to hold the public comment period for their licenses, right?

          Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living~~Mother Jones

          by CA Berkeley WV on Wed Nov 26, 2008 at 10:40:06 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  thom is great but he'll get better. (0+ / 0-)

            i think legislation is needed if people are going to turn the dial instead of protest their airwaves being dominated by a pack of liars and propagandists.

            ignoring the talk radio monopoly continues to be the biggest political blunder in decades

            by certainot on Thu Nov 27, 2008 at 09:17:03 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

    •  At the cost of (0+ / 0-)

      freedom of speech?

  •  Excellent analysis! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    A coherent and plausible interpretation of recent history. I enjoyed reading this!

    ~ Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase ~ Martin Luther King, Jr ~

    by vcmvo2 on Tue Nov 25, 2008 at 09:12:48 PM PST

  •  I will quote the French guard (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "Ah yes, it's a very nice."  Your diary was superb and very well written.  Recommended.

  •  historically speaking (0+ / 0-)

    For the roots of modern conservative thinking one must look to Edmund Burke, who was actually a very interesting thinker, influenced very heavily by the observation of the degeneration of the French Revolution. He made a very intersting point, actually, regarding the fact that if rational analysis is applied to government, and archaic institutions, pomp and tradition are stripped away, then nothing will remain except guesswork, short term thinking and opportunism. This point was born out by all subsequent revolutions, which suffer from the haphazard nature and illegitimacy of the new institutions which are set up, and eventually only force remains as a means for compelling obedience. So to him it was either traditional obfuscation, the Royal Court, etc., or simply a naked strggle for power through force.

    As for America, the US has consistently lagged Europe in liberal reform, from the abolition of slavery to the separation of religion from the public sphere (still ongoing), meaning that the conservatives continued to win the battles here long after they were defeated in more advanced countries on the same issues. So I would not say that this is a liberal country, rather the opposite. The brutal crushing of the socialist labor movements in the US is still celebrated around the world as May Day, but not in the US, because that sort of radicalism is unacceptable here.

    Law is a light which in different countries attracts to it different species of blind insects. Nietzsche

    by Marcion on Wed Nov 26, 2008 at 01:01:56 AM PST

    •  I suppose that depends on definitions. (0+ / 0-)

      Serfdom, which I think most would consider slavery by a different name, was well established in parts of Europe during much of the 19th Century. The right of even small numbers of the population to vote was unknown in most of Europe outside of Britain and the US was one of the first nations to allow universal women's suffrage.

      Most European nations STILL have a state church, and freedom of worship (or not to worship) wasn't guaranteed in most European nations until after World War II. The idea that religion is separate from the public sphere in Europe is absurd, and many European nations directly subsidize their state churches, and throughout the 19th century actively subverted, destroyed, and opposed banned religions.

      Back to slavery, many states abolished slavery before the 19th Century, before any European country. The slave trade was ended in 1808, prior to Great Britain ending it's own trade in slaves, though ownership and internal sales remained legal. So while as a rule Europe was ahead of America on slavery, it was by no means black and white (pardon the pun).

      Furthermore, many European nations still lack the extensive protections for Free Speech that we have in the United States, and vast censorship and state-controlled media was rule throughout Europe until the middle of this century. The US also has some of the most extensive protections of women's right to choose.

      The reason that socialism never took hold in America is largely a result of the moderate reforms enacted in the 19th century, reforms that most European nations enacted only after violent revolutions.

      Lastly, I never claimed that modern America is more liberal than Europe. This clearly is not the case. However, the United States of the 19th Century was most certainly more liberal than the Europe of the 19th Century. The point of my diary is to examine why that changed.

    •  Actually, (0+ / 0-)

      most EU nations have established churches, which is perhaps why they are more and more secular.

  •  Nice diary. (0+ / 0-)

    I can still keep my sig line though, right?  Even though you answered it?

    They say they're conservatives. What are they conserving?

    by Anjana on Wed Nov 26, 2008 at 08:53:33 PM PST

  •  What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong With It? (0+ / 0-)

    A great article by Phil Agre at

    I miss the Red Rock Eaters News.

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

    by gmoke on Wed Nov 26, 2008 at 08:55:24 PM PST

  •  The advantage they (0+ / 0-)

    have is that a Keynesian approach can't work due to over-leverage at all levels.  The one economic approach that might work is a regimen of low taxes and low spending.

    This would give them credibility in 2010 and 2012, as being more effective Conservatives than the Democrats.  

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