The Flaws of Modern American Conservatism
An ideal as old as America, conservatism has always held an important place in the American political psyche. Conservatism has evolved from the Dixiecrats of the 19th and early 20th century to the Southern Strategy of the mid to late 20th century. Through these time periods, conservative policies have changed, but the group’s general disdain for progress has stayed the same. At its root, conservatism has always been against change because it emphasizes tradition. The end result in modern-day America? A conservative movement in a bizarre place. Today, conservatives are fighting a perpetual culture war built off of nostalgia for an America that never really existed in the first place. In this article, I will look at the origins of conservatism, and why the modern right is where it is today.
Edmund Burke, regarded as the father of modern conservatism, was an Irish statesman known for criticizing the excessive violence in the French revolution. However, a more interesting historical figure for the conservative movement is Prince Klemens Von Metternich. Von Metternich was an Austrian diplomat who organized the Congress of Vienna following the fall of Napoleon. He was instrumental to the decades of relative peace that Europe experienced following the end of Napoleon’s reign. Von Metternich was able to achieve this peace by prioritizing the needs of the traditional monarchs of Europe. The ideals he employed in his rebuilding of Europe were all very reactionary, as the goal was to prevent the recurrence of the environment during which the French Revolution blossomed. For example, he reinstalled prior monarchs that had been deposed in the Napoleonic wars, and sought to return social structure to the status quo that had existed prior to the aforementioned wars. There were many flaws in Von Metternich’s ideals and how they were enacted (for example, the suppression of rising liberal movements), but his work did lead to increased stability in Europe. The point of talking about Von Metternich is to show that sometimes, reactionary movements that a literal attempt to harken back to a time period can be successful (in the sense of creating relative stability). By demonstrating a place in the past where conservatism has been relatively successful, I am able to provide contextualization as to why conservatism today is failing.
Like Von Metternich’s movement, the modern American conservative movement also attempts to return to a time in the past. The problem, however, is that there isn’t a specific “time” to return to. Unlike Von Metternich, who set about reinstalling deposed monarchs, the modern conservative movement in America has no such clear-cut goal. When a conservative says something along the lines of, “Make America Great Again”, nobody really knows what “again” means. The slogan assumes that there was a time when America was truly great, but to be frank, there truly hasn’t been a time when America has been a great nation in promoting the prosperity and humanity of all of its populace, let alone those abroad. For about 100 years, America engaged in chattel slavery. In the100 years following, the country continued to persecute the same race that had been so inhumanely treated. America engaged in a genocide of its native people, interned and displaced loyal Americans solely due to their ethnicity, and prevented a good portion of Americans from voting until 1965. In recent decades, America has engaged in global imperialism. It can even be argued that every post-WWII president is a war criminal (the speech I linked is obviously an opinion, but a fascinating read.)
American history can be sorted into three different categories: the slavery/genocide period, the racial segregation period, and the imperialism period. During all of these periods, racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia have been prevalent. This begs the question of which time period conservatives are referring to when they say that they want to Make America Great Again. In truth, there isn’t any consensus time period that conservatives want to return to, nor is there a set of abandoned policies that most conservatives today advance as requiring resurrection. Thus, to recall my previous point, conservatism in the U.S. today is driven solely by nostalgia for a time that has never existed.
This nostalgia-based conservatism manifests in today’s conservative voices obsessing over culture war. The modern American conservative movement moves from outrage to outrage, creating issues out of miniscule topics that, very frankly, hold little importance in the day-to-day lives of most Americans. Last week, the outrage included Dr. Seuss and the annual Grammy award ceremony. Who knows what it might be next week; the one thing that is known for certain is that the conservative outrage machine never stops. From the so-called war on Christmas to transgender people using bathrooms, there is always something.
Prominent conservatives rarely put forth policy ideas. They tend not to propose thoughtful criticisms to modern progressive and liberal policies. Instead, conservative voices are telling the average American that the “left is taking away (insert something that many people feel nostalgia for).” The pundits at Fox News are more willing to hyperbolically attack American progressives instead of criticising the policies that they put forth. Prominent voices of the modern conservative movement aren’t advocating for smaller government, or lower taxes. These voices aren’t grounded by any defining political ideals. The conservative ideology is always shifting solely to oppose progress. This is because, at heart conservatism, is a reactionary ideology. These reactionary ideals have taken over the modern American Right, and leave American conservatives in a place grounded not by policy, but outrage.
American conservatism does not need to be this way. There are many conservatives out there who do support the ideals of smaller government and lower taxes. While, as a progressive, I might disagree with these conservatives ideologically, I know that they advocate for what they view as improvements to the lives of Americans. The issue is that these conservatives are either outnumbered or silenced by the misguided prominent conservative voices today. If the conservatives that I described were able to gain a larger audience to share their views, or more elected power, it would greatly improve the modern American conservative movement, and likely improve the country as a whole. But alas, one can only hope.