THE OLD SCHOOL LIBERAL: The Devil and the Democrats
by William Pastille
Occasionally, a crack appears in the seemingly impregnable wall of Republican hypocrisy, allowing everyone to see what is really inside, even if just for a moment. These peepholes are usually provided by certain tactless, blockheaded, arrogant, and self-satisfied leaders of the party who happen to get recorded during a moment of Â?being themselves.Â?
The current champion at peephole formation is George W. Bush himself, who is barely able to make it through any public event without revealing his empty core, and who therefore has to be kept away from cameras and tape recorders unless he is under the control of a tight script. Even then he will screw up unless either he or the press is whisked away immediately after the script ends. A case in point: his recent stern speech on the bloodshed in the Middle East delivered from a golf course, in which the script required him to make noises of concern for the victims of violence in Israel and Palestine. He painfully recited the words of the script in his characteristically mock-serious, blustering Â?presidentialÂ? tone, and then, without even skipping a beat to take a breath, turned away from the reporters, brandished his golf club, and said, Â?Now watch this drive.Â?
Oh, itÂ?s soooo annoying to be forced to interrupt your golf game for speeches about life and death, donÂ?t you find?
Anyway, another leading Republican peephole creator, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, made a remark the other day that provides insight not only into his own amoral character, but also into the very heart of conservatism itself. When asked about an Associated Press analysis of federal spending showing that the Republican-controlled Congress of the 1990s did not reduce spending at all, but rather simply shifted the loot to their own constituencyÂ?the businesses and suburban dwellers who already have the biggest piece of the American pieÂ?Armey made a snappy reply, which he no doubt took to be both pithy and comical: Â?There is an old adage,Â? he said. Â?To the victor goes the spoils.Â?
There it is in a nutshell. The essence of conservatism summed up in eleven words. ItÂ?s not about good governance, not about principles, not about equality, not about compassion, morality, or fairness. ItÂ?s all about power. If you have the power, then you can do whatever you want. You donÂ?t even need to think about whether you deserve the power, or whether you are using it properly, or whether others have a right to some of your power. You just use it as you wish. ThereÂ?s an even briefer formula for it: Might makes Right.
Am I reading too much into this offhand remark by one especially notorious, arrogant, ultra-conservative blowhard? I donÂ?t think so. Apart from the fact that arrogant blowhards tend to reveal their real beliefs in offhand remarksÂ?especially when they think theyÂ?re being cleverÂ?it is also the case that modern conservatism, from its very origin, is rooted in amoral power politics. Most conservatives are blissfully unaware of this fact, and this ignorance allows them to adopt the posture of highly principled and moral people. But the posture is an act, whether they know it or not, and it makes for the sort of rank hypocrisy that is so characteristic of conservatives.
Modern political conservatism was created by Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) represents a reaction to the Enlightenment politics of authors such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Montesquieu, who tried to show that political life should be based on the inherent and necessary rights of man, not on the external and accidental privileges of wealth, rank, or heritage.
Burke's fundamental idea was that political institutions can only function beneficially if they are based on preexisting societal structures that already work well. To his way of thinking, the attempt of the French to construct a wholly new social order based on human rights was simply doomed to failure, because it would trample on the values and practices that had held French society together for centuries. The result would be ruinous social disorder. Change, for him, could only happen effectively when the prevailing beliefs and customs of the preexisting tradition were adhered to as the primary values; only the stability of tradition could guarantee the smooth functioning of the body politic.
What Burke doesnÂ?t say, and what none of the conservatives that follow in his wake can admit even if they know it, is that all stable traditions up to his day based their politics ultimately on power, not on rights. Whether the power was held by aristocrats, or prelates, or military men, the final determination of authority was the principle of Might Makes Right. And it was this principle that the Enlightenment authors condemned. Although all of history had been a long and sad tale of Might Makes Right, Locke and the others insisted that the opposite principleÂ?Right Makes MightÂ?ought to be the ruling principle of politics, and that justice rather than power ought to be the main concern of government. If a government refuses to give up Might Makes Right, the Enlightenment thinkers said, then the people have the right and the duty to dissolve it, even violently if necessary.
This divergence of opinion between Burke, on the one hand, and Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, on the other hand, is the real historical origin of the battle between conservatism and liberalism. Conservatives, whether they know it or not, follow Burke in basing their politics on power; liberals follow the Enlightenment authors in basing their politics on justice. (Notice, by the way, that our own founders worked the revolutionary Enlightenment ideals, and not their conservative opposites, into our Declaration of Independence.)
Burke set the pattern for all future conservatism by preferring a stable but unjust tradition to a just but unstable innovation. To this day, strict conservatives hew to Â?traditional values,Â? pride themselves on Â?traditional morality,Â? and insist that everyone bow to the legitimacy of Â?traditional institutions,Â?Â?all without ever questioning the justness of their tradition.
Beneath all the cant that is designed to hide their amoral central beliefs both from others and from themselves, conservatives really do hold to the principle of Might Makes Right. The ones who donÂ?t know this about themselves live lives of unconscious hypocrisy; they cannot even see that their rhetoric doesnÂ?t match their core beliefs. The ones who do know this about themselves cannot admit it in public, because they would be shunned by all decent people, so they live lives of conscious hypocrisy. But conscious or unconscious, itÂ?s all hypocrisy. ThatÂ?s why the Republicans are so thoroughly and consistently hypocritical.
So ArmeyÂ?s offhand remark is not merely an indicator of his own amorality, but an unusually unhypocritical statement of what all conservatives really believe, whether they know it or not. When they talk about rights, they mean their rights to keep their unjust privileges. When they talk about justice, they mean the justice that forgives them and punishes everyone else.
It is the duty of real liberals, as the heirs to the Enlightenment ideal of rational government based on justice and human rights, to stand up and fight the self-serving efforts of conservatives to perpetuate irrational government based on power and tradition. It is the duty of real liberals to help the average man and woman shatter the thick wall of hypocrisy and shameless sophistry that conservatives prop up to conceal their self-interested and power-hungry motives.
That is why the move to the Â?middleÂ? made by many Democrats in the 1990s is so disappointing. In trying to learn lessons from the sweeping success of conservatism since the 1980s, the New Democrats abandoned liberalismÂ?s focus on justice, and accepted conservatismÂ?s focus on winning. But when liberals leave justice behind they stop being liberal. They are forced to do battle on the conservative ground of power politics with the conservative weapons of rhetorical flattery and cheap advertising, instead of on the ground of universal justice with the weapons of truth and reason. Conservatives will always have the upper hand on those terms, because their thoroughly hypocritical existence makes them masters of manipulation. So it is no wonder that conservatives are dragging the center of American politics farther and farther toward the right. When the New Democrats positioned themselves in the Â?middle,Â? they stopped being real liberals and became closet conservatives. And they make very poor conservatives, since their memories of having a conscience prevent them from being as unscrupulous as is necessary to fare well on the ferocious battlefield of unprincipled power politics.
Liberals simply must stop believing that they have anything to learn from the way conservatives play politics. We have nothing whatsoever to learn from them, unless we want to learn to be unjustÂ?and if we do, we stop being liberals.
Al Gore is perfectly right to issue a new battle cry to Democrats. Stop playing the game on Republican turf. Stop letting them set the ground rules. Stop focussing on winning at all costs. Expound ceaselessly the ideal of justice for all; rally the average man and woman around that ideal; keep speaking the truth about the fundamental injustice of conservatism; keep reminding everyone that the only force that has ever wrested political control away from the privileged few is the power of the many demanding their unalienable rights. Then let the chips fall where they may. You may lose the election, but you have spoken the truth; and when the selfish motives of the winner become apparentÂ?as they always do, even if it takes a lot of suffering over a long timeÂ?perhaps the people will remember you, and seek you out to help them undo the damage they did to themselves.
After all, what does it profit a liberal if he gains an election, and lose his immortal soul?