Monday, July 19, 2010

American Conservatives

SANTA MONICA, CA - APRIL 15:  Juan Bedoya, an ...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
I think I just have to face the simple fact that I'm never going to understand American conservatism. It just seems to me that there's an underlying dichotomy - I'm trying hard not to use the word 'hypocrisy' - that just doesn't make any sense.

I'm referring, at the moment, to the Tea Party. It appears to try to present itself as a movement in favour of small government, in favour of lower taxes, and, of course, in favour of freedomfreedomfreedom, that oh-so-powerful word the American Right bandy about at every given opportunity.

If it were just that, the Tea Party wouldn't deserve the derision it often recieves. When elements of the Tea Party made an effort to distance themselves from the Bush years, when they've said that overspending is a bad thing whichever party does it... well, they may not have a policy I agree with, but at least they seem to have one.

But where the American Right mystifies me is where fiscal conservatism meets social conservatism: I'm not so clear on what the two have to do with each other. Social conservatism is a frankly scary concept to me: based, as far as I can tell, on the notion that one's personal morals and values should be the law of the land. You needn't really look for a coherent moral vision from a social conservative: whatever bits of morality they cleave to are hardened into 'principle' and turned into the subject matter of theoretical laws.

Laws. The government using its power. This is where is all falls apart for me. If you're comfortable deriding as 'socialism' the idea that the government could, say, put environmental regulations on free enterprise or limit access to weapons, why are you suddenly comfortable entrusting the government to make laws forbidding, say, gay marriage? I know they'll claim that they're just trying to preserve the existing laws, but surely in one's quest for freedomfreedomfreedom, the current state of laws should be of no significance, right? After all, I don't think they'll stop calling for the repeal of Obamacare based on the notion that it's now the status quo.

This is where their position to me becomes untenable. Giving the police power to demand ID of foreign nationals is a policy that Tea Party supporters as a whole tend to embrace, but the simple fact is it ought to be anathema to everything they claim to stand for. They ought to deride it as the 'Big Brother' government impinging on the rights of ordinary people. Yet they don't. I sometimes get the feeling that Tea Party members practically beg people to label them as racist and/or xenophobic, so I'm trying to avoid doing so. But it's tough not to feel that the Tea Party would feel differently toward the laws in Arizona if they actually thought that they themselves might be stopped by police there. But clearly they don't feel that they have to worry about that.

The freedoms that appear to be important to the American right are, in fact, only a scant few freedoms. It would seem that what really gets them upset is the idea that the government would attempt to interfere with the free market. Freedom is an economic term, it would appear - though obviously the right to bear arms is also a big one with them. I don't know if I'd consider that a social freedom. But the idea that people ought to live the lifestyle of their own choosing has no resonance within the American right. Certainly 'flying the freak flag' is anathema to the American right. These are the people that have no problem closing down a high school prom rather than letting a same-sex couple attend.  If somebody attended a Tea Party demonstration wearing, say, a leather bondage outfit, it's tough to imagine the people there saying, "Now here's someone embracing their God-given freedom!" Freedom would suddenly seem like licentiousness, and would scandalise and anger them. They might even say "there ought to be a law."

Because when it comes right down to it, the American right are not anarchists. They believe in the government and in its ability to make laws that affect society. Ultimately what it means to be an American conservative is to embrace laws, and aspects of the government, that fit with your way of thinking, and to decry as a socialist affront to freedom whichever ones don't.
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