Ive been trying to figure out why many conservatives are so entrenched and embittered. One of the causes of the deep and rancorous partisanship in Washington is that some conservatives totally distrust Democrats and refuse to work with them on anything, while many others are deeply hostile to Democrats and highly skeptical of everything they say and do. (Some Democrats certainly respond in kind, but one issue at a time.) This distrust and disdain for Democrats is a manifestation of their political and philosophical views (as I will discuss), but that only gets us part way. So the question remains: why are they so bitter? What is the cause of this conservative rage?
I think there are a number of causes, and Ill try to briefly describe them.
I: The History of Loss
In order to understand why conservatives are so bitter I think it helps to set out a very brief thumbnail history of liberalism and conservatism. Conservatism, as some conservatives know, began with Edmund Burkes reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution. The French Revolution was the culmination of over two hundred years of political liberalism, though before the French Revolution it wasnt called liberalism. The first liberals sought to free individuals from the overbearing control of external forces. The first liberals were religious reformers, like Martin Luther, who said the church should not dictate matters of conscience. Once Luther broke the hegemony of the Church, other thinkers began to challenge the church in other areas, and the power of one of the dominant historic institutions began to erode. Eventually political philosophers started to question the power of the state (the other dominant historic institution). They sought to liberate the individual from the states overweening control over all matters of human affairs. These philosophers and politicians eventually became known as liberals, because they sought to liberate. The French Revolution began as a push for liberal reform, but devolved into a blood bath as some revolutionaries said that the only way to fully liberate French citizens was to (quite literally) decapitate the old order.
Watching from England, Burke was horrified, and said that there is much in traditional society and social norms worth preserving (or conserving, hence conservatism). He said that tradition is collected wisdom, and cultural norms and social institutions are the source of social stability. Burke was not opposed to liberty or the goals of political liberalismhe had supported the American Revolution as a member of the British Parliamentbut he did oppose dramatic or radical change. Better the devil you know, he suggested, than the devil you dont, particularly when history shows that many devils are released in the chaos of radical change.
Over the last two hundred plus years since the French Revolution the world has changed dramatically. At each stage, political liberals have been at the fore-front of this change. In many cases these changes improved societythe abolition of slavery, the broadening of the political franchise, the expansion of civil rightsbut in other cases the changes were disastrous, most noticeably with communism and socialism. And at each stage, political conservatives have been yelling STOP. (The conservative writer William F. Buckley said that the role of the conservative is to stand athwart history and yell STOP.)
The history of the last five hundred years has been the history of conservative loss. From Luther on, liberalism has advanced and conservatism retreated. This is particularly notable if you focus solely on the United States. Conservatives lost the fight over slavery, the fight over laissez-faire economics, the fight over womens suffrage, the fight over unions (though they are making a come-back in that one), the fight over civil rights and segregation, the fight over equality for women, and now it appears that they are losing the fight over marriage equality.
Its hard to imagine that hundreds of years of losses dont grind you down, dont wear on you. I suspect that it has, and I believe that this record is one of the causes of conservative rage. They have been pushed far enough, and they dont want to be pushed any further.
II: The Culture Wars
Conservatives seek to preserve what they view as traditional society. As noted, historic conservatism suggests that there is great value and collected wisdom in cultural traditions and social norms. (A point that I agree with in general, while noting that some traditions are quite odious.) Conservative politicians seek to preserveto conserve if you willtraditional norms and social institutions. And so their political battles are not just about advancing conservative political goalslimited government, deference to the constitution, strong national defense, etc.but also about achieving conservative social and cultural goals.
Yet despite their best efforts the culture has changed, and changed dramatically. But it hasnt changed because of the efforts of liberal politicians. Despite what conservatives believe, there really is no collusion between liberal institutions (like TV, movies, and music) and liberal politicians. They may share a similar world view, and liberal politicians may support the ideas of cultural openness that allow a wide variety of entertainment to flourish, but thats not the same thing as saying that liberal politicians are causing cultural change. Put another way, just because the liberal idea of openness creates the cultural environment that allows pornography to exist, doesnt mean that liberal politicians created, caused, or even endorse pornography.
Society has changed for innumerable reasons. Some are certainly political, but politics is not the main driver of social change. I personally believe that the major contributor to social change is science (and its offish step-brother technology). One example is progestogenthe birth control pill. The pill allowed women to control their bodies, and this had a dramatic impact on society. It spurred the sexual revolution (which eventuallythough perhaps tenuouslyled to the rise of pornography) and it allowed women to participate in the economy. This opened a floodgate which still has not closed. It changed gender roles and traditional families. It threw over our traditional male dominated society, and fundamentally altered our economy. And while liberal politicians were generally supportive of these goals, they did not create them. The effect was political, but the cause was not.
And therein lies the problem. Despite the political gains that conservatives have made since 1980, the culture continues unabated on the same trajectory. Liberals might say that the culture has gotten more open and tolerant (and a majority of the public seems to agree) but conservatives say it has gotten more licentious and depraved.
Conservatives have won a great deal politically in the last thirty years or so, but they have clearly lost the culture wars. And since culture is, in their view, intimately tied to politics, this means that many of their political gains are for naught. This produces a sense of futility and growing frustration.
III: The Manichean Worldview
Conservatives tend to see themselves as trying to preserve and protect society against those seeking change, and as a result they tend to see the world in an us versus them paradigm. This is true even though there isnt really a single them trying to change society. There are many thems, and they are not necessarily related. For example, technological advances, as noted above, are one of the main drivers of social change. It is typically profit making businesses that exploit technology (and not liberal institutions like academia or non-profits). And here is the irony: conservatives proclaim themselves as the champion of profit making businesses, and so they are the champion of one of the main forces that erodes traditional society. In any event, and despite this glaring paradox, conservatives tend to feel embattled, and feel like the whole world is aligned against them.
This us versus them mindset fits nicely into the American political structure. We have two dominant political parties in the United States, and these two parties compete head to head in every election and over every political and social issue. The two party system is partly the result of historic happenstance, but its also partly the result of our winner take all electoral system. Other countries have systems that allow voters to vote for more than one candidate for an office, which helps third parties to get candidates elected. But our system doesnt support this, and so we have two dominant parties.
Having two parties make it seem like every issue breaks down into a choice between the liberal or conservative policy, and the Democratic versus Republican solution. This is silly and simplistic, but it has become the standard view. Unfortunately our news media seems to have embraced this simplistic worldview. It is, after all, much easier for a reporter to simply present the liberal argument versus the conservative argument than to actually analyze the problem and actually take time describing all of the possible solutions to the problem. (This isnt really fair to reporters. Some might actually want to do that work, but have limited budgets and tight deadlines.) We also have a culture that likes simple head to head conflict, and the two party system seems to fit this perfectly.
So, many impulses in American society present issues in a simplistic duality. And some conservatives have a tendency to see the world as aligned against them. Some of those conservatives believe that they are fighting against the forces of evil, and since they are, in their minds at least, on the side of the angels, every battle becomes a fight between good (conservatives) and bad. And who is it that they are always fighting against? Who have conservatives been fighting against for five hundred years? Why liberals of course. Because of this Manichean us versus them world view, some conservatives have come to believe that liberals are constantly pushing policies that harm the nation. And some conservatives take this one step further and ask this question: what kind of person promotes, advocates, or endorses policies that are bad? Why, a bad person, of course. And so some conservatives come to believe that liberals are bad. If you dont believe me, I commend you to at least two books: Deliver us From Evil, by Sean Hannity and Treason, by Ann Coulter. What do you think the Evil is that Mr. Hannity wants us to be delivered from? Liberalism. And the subtitle of Ms. Coulters book pretty much says it all: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism.
So some conservatives believe they are actually fighting against the forces of evil, and have come to believe that liberals are evil. Given that, is it surprising that some conservatives refuse to work with Democrats on anything? Is it surprising then that they act as if every political battle is existential? Is it surprising that conservative politicians say that elections are about saving society?
IV: So Close They Could Taste It
Starting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 conservative principles, ideals, and political arguments have been in the ascendance. In 2000 George W. Bush won the presidency, and the Republicans held on to narrow majorities in the House and Senate (with Vice President Dick Cheney as the tie breaking vote.). In 2002 Republicans picked up two seats in the Senate, and eight in the House, thus broadening their governing majority. In 2004 Bush won reelection and the Republicans picked up four seats in the Senate, giving them a commanding 55 seat majority, and five in the House, giving them a comfortable 232 to 201 majority. After a twenty year climb they had solid majorities in the House and Senate, and for six years (2000 to 2006) they controlled the executive and the legislative branches.
And? And did they turn the economy around? Nope. They got sidetracked by a war of choice in Iraq, and nearly totally discredited themselves. And rather than fight for their economic goals, they got sidetracked by divisive social issues. (But recall how the two are intertwined.) They did force through a massive tax cut, on a nearly party line vote, claiming that it would spur the economy and shrink the deficit. And how did that work? Well, were now fighting over massive budget deficits, so one could argue that it didnt work very well. They also continued to push for deregulation, and it was an unregulated financial industry that nearly destroyed the worlds economy. Oops. And finally, did they save the culture? Nope again. Drug use and crime rates might have gone down, but have you turned on your TV lately? Most conservatives see out society as an open cesspit.
In 2006, the Democrats won six seats in the Senate, giving them a 51 to 49 majority (with two independents), and 31 seats in the House, putting them in the majority. Then, in 2008, Barack Obama won the Presidency, in a near landslide over John McCain, and Democrats expanded their majorities in both houses, and when Sen. Jeffords switched parties they had a 60 seat super majority in the Senate. The Democrats picked up twenty one seats in the house to take a 257 to 178 majority. And with those majorities, Democrats pushed through a number of bills Conservatives despise, chief among them Obamacare and a modest economic stimulus.
Republicans were that close. And then the country rejected them. They are now fighting a rear guard action, trying desperately to dig in, get a toe-hold, to stop every liberal advance.
And not only are they fighting a rear guard action politically, but also culturally. (See II. above.) They believe that if they lose here, they will simply have to fight again, but this time further in their own territory. And so each fight is important. Each fight is, in some regards, existential.
The fight over Obamacare was existential because they knew that if they lost, they were losing the fight over government control of health care. After losing the main battle, every other fight would be a skirmish over the degree of government control of health care, not over the philosophical question of whether or not the government should be involved in health care. The 2012 election was existential because conservatives knew that if Democrats won, they would likely push for expanded rights for gays, possibly including marriage. And in their view, one more pillar of traditional society would fall.
And so every fight in Congress, no matter how minor or silly, becomes an existential fight for the soul of America. The result is that every fight is existential, and every issue a crisis.
Part V: The Echo Chamber
You cant talk about conservative rage without talking about the rise of conservative mediaparticularly talk radio and FoxNews and its impact on enraging conservatives. In fact it seem like the whole point of talk radio and FoxNews is to enrage conservatives. They feed their listeners a steady diet of outrage. Their descriptions of liberals and the policies of the Democratic Party are nearly always negative, and descriptions of conservatives and the Republican Party nearly always laudatory. Both distil and refine the conservative message of the depravity of liberals and the nobility of conservatives. They almost always present every idea, every policy, every vote, as a fight between the forces of goodness and light (that is conservatives) against the forces of darkness and evil (that is liberals). This creates a reinforcing feedback loop, and the message gets purer and meaner, and the audience more outraged.
The topic is the subject of many books and magazine articles, and I dont think I need to belabor the point. You need only turn on the television and watch a few minutes of Sean Hannity, or turn on the radio and listen to Rush Limbaugh, to understand what I am talking about.
Conservative media supports the trivial message of partisan duality. It provides a constant reminder to its followers of what they have lost at the hands of liberals, and what they stand to lose should Democrats win again. It is rage, pure and simple.
Part VI: The Results of Conservative Rage
In many cases (I am loath to say in all) some conservatives actually have come to believe that liberals are an evil force in the nation. We see this in the title of books by provocateurs like Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity, and hear it from talk radio and on Fox News. But this view permeates a great deal of conservative views towards liberals. Not long ago, here in Kentucky, a teacher got in trouble for writing on the board of her classroom that you cant be a Democrat and go to heaven. I have heard from more than one person that they have heard ministers actually say that in church.
Adding to conservative rage is the fact that many liberals fail to understand how angry conservatives are, and how betrayed they feel by their society, their culture and their nation. And so many liberals mock their pain, ridicule their arguments, and laugh at their tears of frustration, which only makes matters worse.
Most liberals do not understand the depth of conservative rage. They do not understand that many conservatives believereally and truly believethat liberalism is the main cause of most, if not all, of the problems facing the nation. Liberals fail to understand that many conservatives see liberalism as a destructive force and liberals as the hand-maiden of national decline.
The result of conservative rage is that some conservatives view liberals as evil, and say so, which ads an ugly dimension to our politics. And some conservatives believe that liberals are evil, and refuse to work with them on anything.
There can be little doubt that this view is one of the contributing causes to the poisonous level of partisanship in Washington, and much of the country. Many conservatives now approach many issues as if they are an existential struggle for the soul of the nation. They say that if Democrats win it will result in the destruction of the nation.
How can you be bipartisan when you consider your political opponent evil? How can a true conservative work with a liberal when they believe that liberals have been responsible for the destruction of the traditions they once held so dear? They cant, and they dont.
A conservative media (talk radio and Fox News) feeds this beast. And the Tea Party seems to have internalized this view, and now campaign against any Republican politician for merely working with Democrats (see, for example, former Republican Senator from Indiana, Richard Lugar.)
In their need to fight everything liberal, and every Democratic proposal, Republicans end up doing silly things, like abandoning long held policy positionsCap and Trade & The Individual Insurance Mandate are two recent prominent examples. They savage former allies for simply questioning conservative orthodoxy. Witness the opposition to former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.
And so we have on party that opposes, in a reflexive, knee-jerk manner, everything the other side does. I saw a political cartoon that said that if Obama said he liked to breath the Republicans in Congress would announce that they oppose oxygen. It is almost that bad.
The consequences of conservative rage are political gridlock and a politics of constant crisis.