Supersonic Man

September 16, 2019

The right wing is not driven by ideology

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving,Uncategorized — Supersonic Man @ 8:41 am

If you go by what you see in the media, American conservatism appears very ideological. Its spokespeople and pundits do a solid job of stating principles, avowing beliefs, reasoning from claimed axioms, and otherwise behaving as if they are believers in ideologies. While leftists generally present their ideas as being based on human values rather than dogmas — values such as compassion, fairness, decency, or just simple pragmatism — spokespeople of the right proudly wave various banners of dogma in which they assert we must have faith.

And this confuses their opponents, because the ideology being avowed keeps shifting whenever it’s convenient for a given debate. Also, among the multiple belief systems that conservatives commonly argue from are some which are completely incompatible with each other. For instance, one popular belief system among conservatives is a form of free-market capitalism which teaches that greed is beneficial. But another popular one is the belief that the sole path to salvation is through Jesus Christ, whose teachings harshly denounce greed and the pursuit of wealth.

Small wonder that those who argue with conservatives on ideological grounds usually arrive at a point where they are driven to start accusing lots of conservatives of massive hypocrisy, or of irrational doublethink. The reasons given for their political choices never add up over the long term. There are always double standards, moving goalposts, highly selective outrage and denial…. If a principle they avow benefits them in one case but not another — states’ rights, for instance — they will cheerfully take both sides, and come up with whatever contrived excuse they can to cover the gap. Conservative pundits are always coming up with tricky and unexpected rhetorical maneuvers, making it clear that ideological dogma is being used as a tool rather than as a raw material. And in my experience, everyday conservative citizens — at least the ones who think they’re smart — are not that different from the professionals in this.

I have had many arguments with conservatives in my life, and to this day I never cease to be surprised by the arguments they come up with. The principles and rationales undergo a constant revision and reinvention, and sometimes you will see some admirable creativity and originality in the ways they keep it fresh.

So if the principles and rationales keep shifting, what remains constant? What is it that keeps conservative agendas on a consistent heading? How is it that adherents of all these superficially incompatible and contradictory belief systems form a solid alliance, and reliably take the same side on issue after issue, as they have done very successfully all my life? What is the true common agenda that underlies American conservatism?

It took the horrors of the Trump administration to make it clear… particularly, the horror of a resurgent American fascist movement, where neonazis and neoconfederates felt like their time had finally arrived. And though many thoughtful individuals on the right have reacted to this with horror and reconsidered their allegiances, the number of such defectors has not, so far, been all that large in proportion to the conservative base. In these extremists, something was laid bare which all that ideology had served to obfuscate. Something for which all the avowed principles and beliefs of mainstream conservatism were only a rationalization, not a reason.

The core of American conservatism is simple and robust. And on some level you must already understand what it is, because although you never know what argument a conservative might come up with to justify his position, you almost always know in advance whose side he’s going to take in any given argument. The essence of it is that he’s going to side with people who share his way of life, and against people with different ways of life. It isn’t about ideology or dogma. It’s the right kind of living vs the wrong kind of living, or the right kind of people vs the wrong kind of people — us against them.

Phrasing it that way begs a question: which people count as “us”? Where exactly is the boundary drawn between who’s in and who’s out? It certainly isn’t American citizenship, nor is it any geographic region. Their in-group spans all states, but excludes many people in each one. Nor is it just being a fellow conservative activist: apolitical people are easily included too.

I conclude that the boundary of “us” is drawn based on culture. America’s conservative base has a shared culture which is rooted in the pioneer spirit. It is rural, it is Christian, it’s of European origin, it’s hard-working, it’s individualistic, it venerates private property, and it sees no problem with gaining wealth through extraction rather than production. Those who share this background and these values are described as “real Americans”. Those who are excluded are those who don’t share this culture, either because they weren’t born into it or because they stepped away from it. If you move to the city and start doing zen meditation and stop eating meat, you don’t have to profess any liberal policy ideas to be categorized with “them”.

It’s puzzling to many why those who publicly identify as Christians get such a complete pass on un-Christian behavior. It is in politics especially that this occurs. I believe it’s because in politics, Christianity (especially when it’s evangelical) is functioning not as dogma or as a moral code, but as a cultural identifier. It marks people as being on the same team as other Christians, and in politics that’s all that matters.

I think a lot of people are likewise treating gun ownership as a matter of cultural identity. In pioneer culture, people were routinely armed. Modern country culture still makes a lot more room for guns than could be tolerated in any urban setting. Speaking up for gun owners is another way to mark yourself as being on the side of traditional conservative culture.

Sometimes it seems like country music nowadays is nothing but a stream of reassuring cultural identity signifiers. The music itself sounds like it has envy of rock and hiphop, but the lyrics seem to be just endless reminders of the things that distinguish North American country living from other ways of life — ways that you can recognize a fellow member of the country&western demographic. An awful lot of the songs seem to put all their emotional impetus into reinforcing a sense of cultural identity, and how good and right it is to be country, rather than putting it into love or heartbreak or (s)he-done-me-wrong or any of the other topics that used to be staples of the genre. In classic country, the rural identity of the listeners was simply taken for granted; there was no need to constantly make a point of it. Nowadays, country audiences will listen to trap music if it has their cultural signifiers in it, as Lil Nas X has proven.

The comedy of Larry the Cable Guy does the same thing. It seems that as long as he’s constantly reinforcing his audience’s sense of country identity, they don’t care that he’s faking the accent any more than they care about Trump faking Christianity. And the jokes don’t need to be all that funny.

Today’s conservatism, though it once stood for much better things, has now essentially been reduced to an identity movement rather than an ideological one. So naturally it’s the left that gets accused of “identity politics”, even though what the left does every day is to try to embrace all identities rather than putting one over another.

Some conservatives also like to accuse liberals of “virtue signalling”. The idea suggested by this term is that we must be pretending to care about people because that makes us look good socially. I accuse conservatives of something else: loyalty signalling. When you ask an American conservative for their position on a question, whether it be moral, political, scientific, or simply something neutrally factual, they will often give not the answer they think is most true, but the answer that marks them as on the same side as their fellow conservatives, even if they know their fellow conservatives are stretching the facts. They would rather go along with a lie than fail to defend their allies. For instance, many conservatives, if shown a picture of the crowd sizes at Obama’s and Trump’s inaugurations, will state their firm belief that there are more people in the Trump picture, despite the evidence of their eyes.

Some non-conservatives think this must be delusional or insane or evidence of brainwashing, but it’s not — it’s a choice to always back up their friends and undermine their enemies, even when the friend is lying. Loyalty and teamwork take precedence over honesty. The goal is to stand firm and united against nonconservatives even on matters where conservatism might be looking foolish, because to give up any ground would strengthen “them” and weaken “us”.

I was talking recently to a churchgoing Midwesterner in my extended family, who says that many of these folks consider it immoral to show disloyalty to their fellows or their leaders.

Of course, actual doublethink and self-deception can also easily become part of the mix too, especially if there is an incentive to want to believe the falsehoods. This especially happens if the other side is trying to get you to accept something frightening or unpleasant, such as the fragile state of the environment, or the amount of racial injustice that society still burdens people with. It’s much more pleasant and attractive to choose to believe in a world where these things are not actually problems and no responsibility need be taken.

And denial about such matters allows the conservative movement to also attract people who don’t share traditional pioneer culture at all, but who do despise minorities or women, or loathe the idea of helping the disadvantaged. The philosophy of American conservatism makes room for bigots, bullies, crooks, and even outright sociopaths, as long as they demonstrate basic loyalty by supporting other conservatives.

Loyalty, when it’s dependable and mutual, can create a powerful degree of teamwork. It allows everyone to pull together very effectively toward a common goal, even if most of them had no input into choosing the goal. A strong code of loyalty can make the old adage of “united we stand, divided we fall” really work, so people who individually might be powerless become immovable.

The phrase comes from one of Aesop’s fables, in which a father ties together a bundle of sticks and asks his seven sons which of them can break the bundle. It’s too strong for any of them. But the father shows that it’s easy if you untie the bundle and snap the sticks one by one. He makes it explicit that the sticks represent members of the family, who are forthwith to cease squabbling among themselves and stand together.

In ancient Rome, this concept came to be represented by a visual symbol: an axe with a bundle of rods wrapped around the handle. The symbol was used for centuries afterward to represent authority and unity; it is seen, for instance, in statues of George Washington. In his time the symbol has special resonance because of the unification of the thirteen colonies. The symbol of the House of Representatives to this day is a bundle of thirteen sticks with an eagle on top.

The Latin word for bundle was fascis (to which our word fasten is related), but the symbol was referred to by the plural, fasces. It’s from this term that we get the word “fascism”. In ancient Rome, fascism was already a political idea — that the nation needs to be more unified and try to avoid internal conflict, because such conflict causes weakness and indecisiveness when a threat occurs.

Modern fascism still contains that core idea — that the people can be strong through unity. This idea justifies authoritarian central government and intolerance of dissent, in the name of enforcing unity.

But nobody backs fascist movements because they want to be ruled by violent authoritarian thugs, despite a lot of condescending babble I’ve heard which claims that the world is full of people who fear freedom and want to be told what to do. Especially in America, people on all sides agree that they would rather not have anyone ordering them around. Authoritarian oppression may be a consequence of fascism, but it’s not its purpose. It’s not the goal that is sought by those who back a fascist movement. They do want the strength and the unity, but they assume that any brutality will affect someone else, not them.

How does this work? How do you sell a program of dictatorship and brutality so that people think they’ll benefit from it rather than suffering under it? Again, the key to it is culture.

The message you’ll find in any modern fascist movement is consistent, and it doesn’t really have anything to do with how the nation would actually be governed. Indeed, governance as such is a topic on which fascism has little to say, leaving it to the ruling party to manage things however they see fit. Fascism isn’t really a theory of how to run society, like capitalism or communism or theocracy — it’s just a theory of how to win the struggle of “us” against “them”. That’s what the message is about. The sales pitch essentially goes like this:

Your traditional culture (or religion, or race) is both great and good — exceptionally so. And where you live is its natural homeland, where it belongs. But now it is under threat. Other cultures are rising up to challenge it within the homeland, and though they are inferior, they will erode or dilute away its distinctive greatness unless we take action. It is time to stand strong with fellow members of your culture, and to support leadership which will aggressively defend it, and make your way of life secure against these threats, restoring it to pre-eminence in its native land… and perhaps later, everywhere else.

What they’re selling is the idea of raising your culture to a position of privilege or supremacy, rather than settling for it being merely one among equals. If you embrace the traditional culture and support the movement, you will be part of a group which is granted dominance over other groups. (And if you do not, no one will protect you.) And the program they ask you to support is not one of governance, but of supporting the battle against the influence of other cultural groups.

Those who respond to this appeal probably envision an outcome somewhat like South African apartheid, or like zionism, in which the favored citizens still have rights and freedoms and a vote, though other people lack these things. Fascist movements rarely produce such outcomes, since oppressive regimes create almost ideal circumstances for corrupting those who run them, but it’s not impossible. Support for authoritarianism is distinct from fascism: in any fascist movement there are those who will come out in favor of giving the ruler more and more unchecked dictatorial power (as Attorney General Barr recently did), but that is not what fascism is about, it’s only something that fascism has a strong tendency to encourage. There are many in America who do respond to an authoritarian appeal — people who have been raised to believe what they’re told by a patriarch rather than what they see, and also people who are fans of thugs and bullies and would love to become one — but these are not the only people to find the fascist message appealing, and many who have no desire for authoritarianism are moved by the cultural message and end up contributing to the strength of the fascist movement.

Similarly, fascism may strongly tend toward corruption and kleptocracy, since the movement discourages accountability because it promises rewards only for your culture and not for you personally, so it’s especially easy for it to slip into practices which benefit only the ruling party… but this is not mandatory and is not necessarily part of what defines fascism.

I used to define fascism as a system which combines authoritarian rule with crony capitalism, but that definition fails to identify fascist movements before they take power. I think the term has to be defined by what draws people to believe in it.

So the core idea being sold is that as a qualified member of the dominant group, you and your friends will get the benefits, while people you don’t like will be the ones to suffer the consequences. So not only will you have an opportunity to prosper, you’ll also get to see all those people who annoy you get their comeuppance.

Many people who identify with gun-toting redneck culture are annoyed and offended by kale-eating hipster culture. Likewise, many Christians are annoyed and offended by Muslims, stay-at-home types can be annoyed and offended by foreign languages and accents, and people who put hard work into the land are (for good reason) annoyed and offended by financier types who get rich producing nothing. Most conservative Americans — hell, most people everywhere — have at least one such group which they harbor a degree of hostility and resentment toward, and the idea that they’d all get taken down a peg or two (or ten), while people like them return to a more central place in society, certainly has some appeal.

In America this is especially magnified in recent decades because the economic trends have been that urban people are getting richer while rural people are getting poorer. Most of the economic growth is going to places inhabited by people who follow odd spiritual fads, have feminist leanings, think goofy little electric cars are cool, hang out with people of many different races, and have jobs that produce nothing tangible. Those people may not be actually getting the money themselves, but they are at least in proximity to it. And as rural America shrinks economically, it also shrinks in population; the kind of “real American” that used to constitute like eighty percent of the populace has now become a minority, as their children move away and embrace more rewarding lifestyles.

Ever since the days when Reagan swept to power, the right wing political movement in America has, at the grassroots, been centered more around culture than around policy. Many of its leaders, especially the religious ones, gladly adopt the label “culture warrior”. If you wondered why such figures often seemed eager to impose repressive cruelty while at the same time mouthing platitudes of liberty, it’s because they saw liberty as being for “real” Americans and the punishments as being for the other people. They sought to be the ones who could define what being American meant, and by so doing, to separate those entitled to full rights from those who did not deserve them. Though most of the rights in the Constitution are written to apply to all persons, even noncitizens, they maintain an almost instinctive certainty that such rights, being part of what defines America, don’t apply to those they consider un-American.

Washington and Wall Street had many activists who crusaded for low taxes or deregulation, but on Main Street those policies were mostly popular only to the extent that they could be framed as expressing the self-reliance of traditional rural culture. The conservative base has never cared all that much about the details of policy and governance… and as a result, any policy idea that could be framed as part of their cultural identity could be sold, even if it ended up mostly benefiting Wall Street.

This approach was already old news before Reagan’s time. Even Herbert Hoover framed a lot of his ideas around a claim of exceptionalism for individualistic American culture, and tried to blame immigrants when things went wrong. But in the past, conservatism was as much about policy issues as about cultural issues. This is no longer true.

Conservative propaganda has steadily reinforced this cultural message. Especially since the days of the civil rights movement, when conservative southerners felt existentially threatened by the prospect of African Americans gaining equal rights, conservative campaigning and opinion-making and fear-mongering has always returned to the idea that traditional culture is threatened by other cultures (or races) gaining ground. They found many different ways to say that if you don’t fight back to assert Americanism, America won’t be America anymore. Though it was not yet at the forefront of conservative thought, this was a very successful message — it got southern segregationist types to change parties on a massive scale in the sixties and seventies. The message had ongoing credibility because many disadvantaged cultural groups did gain ground, and (as inevitably happens everywhere) traditional ways were always being eroded by the march of modernity. And as the “real American” population shrinks to minority status, the message of fear takes on a new urgency.

This fear of de-Americanization is why they nowadays make such a big deal out of seemingly trivial things like saying “merry Christmas” instead of “happy holidays”, and see the latter as an attack rather than as a courtesy. It’s why incidents of aggression and vandalism can be provoked by something as harmless as seeing someone drive by in a Tesla. It’s why fantasies like the idea that Sharia law is being imposed in America get taken seriously — because everyday cultural shifts are seen as a threat of similar magnitude.

A lot of the time, even the anti-abortion movement seems to be less about saving lives than about re-asserting Christianity in an increasingly secular world. And the effort is not to preserve a place for Christian faith in a multicultural society, but explicitly to restore Christian morality to a dominant role in shaping the rules of society, privileging it above other religions and above secularism.

So yes, though there are many individual conservatives who don’t fit this, the kind of conservative movement that’s embraced by America’s Republican base, and by the campaigning and propaganda of the Republican party, is driven by essentially the same desire for cultural primacy that drives fascist movements. Both are based on privileging one cultural tradition over others as the one that is right and true and proper for its homeland, and unifying to defend that culture against any competing one. Both prize loyalty above truth because that’s what protects the culture.

At its core, movement conservatism in America is not based in any such ideology as Christianity or capitalism or libertarianism, but instead is basically fascist. Racism is part of it, but only a part —  this is bigger than racism. That which includes and subsumes American racism and sexism and homophobia and xenophobia can only be called fascism, because being dark-skinned or gay or foreign or feminist are, in the end, just different ways of failing to qualify as a “real American”. There are many values and ideologies on the right, but fascism is now where they are finding their common ground.

I would not have made such a provocative assertion in the days of Reagan, or even of George W Bush, but Trump has made it clear that this is the essence of what modern conservatism has become. The reason he became the face of the Republican party, pushing aside all the better qualified politicians who thought he was a joke, is quite simply because he offered more fascism than they did. That, it turned out, is exactly what an awful lot of Republican voters wanted (and I know some progressives who fell for it too). And it’s why they don’t care in the slightest that a lot of their leaders, especially Trump, can’t pretend to be Christian or moral or down-to-Earth… what matters is just that he promises favoritism for the traditional conservative American — that he does his best to reward “us” and punish “them”, whether “them” means powerful Chinese tycoons or desperate Central American refugees… or for that matter, Californians.

That fascist streak has always been present in American conservatism, though I don’t think it was nearly so predominant in the past. But now the GOP has become such a bankrupt failure at everything else, that the appeal of fascism is all they’ve got left.

But even if you don’t call it fascism, and even if in the future there is no longer any overt fascist movement rallying them, we will still forget at our peril that the agenda of the conservative movement is based more in identity than in ideology, and that internal loyalty, not principle, is its essential driving force.

1 Comment »

  1. If you think it’s excessively inflammatory for me to tar America’s right wing with the label of fascist, well, it could be worse: here’s a guy who uses an even worse label for the Christian right (of which he is a former member): sadists.

    Comment by Supersonic Man — December 16, 2019 @ 11:57 am | Reply

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