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R.I.P., American conservatism: What's really behind the Tea Party’s barren individualism

Conservatives who dominate today’s GOP actually scorn traditional conservatism's most cherished ideals. Here's why


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Kim Messick
February 28, 2015 4:30PM (UTC)

In two recent articles for Salon, Elias Isquith wrote very perceptively about the right’s misadventures with the measles vaccine. In “America’s Vaccination Nightmare,” he described the tortured efforts of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to placate their party’s vaccine skeptics without coming across as benighted loons to everyone else. But he also shrewdly -- and rightly -- insisted that something more was at stake than just another example of Tea Party-induced insanity:

“While many lefties are likely to assume that the anti-vaccination movement is simply another manifestation of conservative ambivalence about science, the truth is that the vaccination truther impulse appears to be cross-ideological. Run into an anti-vaxxer… and you’re just as likely to find yourself face-to-face with an archetypal San Francisco liberal as an archetypal Dallas Tea Partyer.”

“[A]s of now,” Isquith continued, “the anti-vaxxers’ prominence speaks to something deeper in American society.” After quoting an Arizona man who blithely waved off any concern for the children who might die if infected by his unvaccinated spawn -- “It’s not my responsibility to be protecting [someone else’s] child” -- Isquith diagnosed this “something deeper” as a “simplistic, romantic understanding of individualism that permeates American society”:

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“[T]he basic premise of [this] worldview… holds that American society isn’t a single community so much as a massive collection of individual families, and that these millions of families owe nothing to one another beyond the bare minimum, expressed in the pseudo-legal language of ‘responsibility.’”

This worldview, Isquith concludes, “[has] been one of the key tenets of Americans’ self-perception for a while now.”

I'm not sure this part is entirely right -- the “San Francisco liberal” and the “Dallas Tea-Partyer” would have to be very unusual examples of their respective creeds to embrace “individualism” in exactly this sense -- but Isquith is clearly on to something. That individualism is embedded in the American experience is indeed central to our “self-perception” -- one of the things we routinely invoke to explain our difference from the more communal- (not to say, collectivist-) minded European societies from which we sprang. Around the middle of the last century, a number of historians -- somewhat spuriously herded together as advocates of “consensus history” -- argued that democratic capitalism, in one form or another, is the only kind of politics America has ever known. The most eminent expressions of this view are probably Richard Hofstadter’s "The American Political Tradition" and Louis Hartz’s "The Liberal Tradition in America," but its most famous (or infamous) formulation was provided by the literary critic Lionel Trilling. In 1950, in the introduction to his celebrated collection "The Liberal Imagination," Trilling wrote that liberalism “is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in the United States. Years earlier, the novelist D. H. Lawrence offered an arguably similar thought when he said, with more pith but less tact, that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”

Isquith’s claim, then, has a venerable pedigree. But I think the insight it contains has to be unfolded very carefully. If wielded casually (as it often is, though not by Isquith) it can obscure more than it reveals. We have to remain alert to some surprising possibilities -- among them, that not all individualists are liberals, and that not all anti-liberals are “conservatives.”

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Politics is not a deductive science, so the mere fact of contradiction is neither surprising nor particularly interesting. Political life, like life generally, is full of paradox. But the aporias of American politics are more striking than most. European conservatism, at least in its classic phase -- think Burke or de Maistre -- was nationalist and corporatist, and concerned to press the claims of society as a whole. Its central value was authority, because only a properly constituted authority could secure and sustain social unity. European liberalism, on the other hand -- think Locke and Mill -- wanted to widen the space within which citizens might pursue their own ends without interference from society or the state. Its chief value, accordingly, was individual liberty.

This neat division of ideological labor, in which conservatives worry about society and liberals about freedom, did not transfer seamlessly to American shores. (In this rough form, or course, it is more ideal than actual.) While a strain of European-style conservatism was an important part of our politics into at least the first quarter of the 19th century, it was largely swamped afterwards by the tides of Jacksonian democracy and industrialization. Soon all parties, left and right, liberal and conservative, tried to justify their claims -- and to garner support -- on the basis of appeals to “liberty.” Republicans championed the liberty of the entrepreneur; Democrats extolled the liberties of agrarian workers and urban artisans. Today the “San Francisco liberal” defends marriage equality because everyone should be free to marry the person he or she loves, while the “Dallas Tea-Partyer” rejects marriage equality as an attack on the religious liberty of magistrates. Individual freedom, it seems, is everyone’s main concern; what roils politics is the always prickly question of exactly whose freedom to do precisely what should be protected by policy. This situation, in which American “conservatives” routinely defend what is essentially a liberal order, has long been flagged as one of the central paradoxes of our political history. We’re all individualists now. (We should note, in passing, an exception to these remarks: the American South, which always had a more ambiguous relation to democratic capitalism than the rest of the country. We will return to this point later.)

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This is the picture out of which something like “consensus history” emerges as a plausible account of our politics. But it takes just a moment’s reflection to see that the picture leaves out important parts of the landscape. Most obviously, we often appeal to values other than liberty in political argument -- sometimes equality, sometimes justice, sometimes efficiency or utility or security. Nor do we always couch these appeals in individualist terms; quite often we invoke an idea of the common good. The liberal thinks the welfare state is justified, at least in part, because it affirms community and mutuality; the conservative believes the same about traditional mores and local autonomy.

So our politics is more complex than the consensus picture would have us believe. Still, it obviously captures something important. Conservatives want to regulate sexuality and to deregulate capitalism, and argue for both as requirements of “small government.” Liberals are less enamored of a small state, but mainly because they see an activist government as necessary to promote and extend individual freedom. Again we seem driven to the belief that American politics is mostly about liberty, and that the real question, in any particular dispute, is whose liberty will be protected. Maybe we grant the complexities noted above but assign them an ancillary role at best -- they are like vestiges of an ancient vocabulary that show up in a vital, vibrant tongue. Maybe, if we’re so inclined, we simply dismiss them as inconsistency. So liberals cluck at the illogic of conservatives, fervently exalting the free market in one breath while piously excoriating “free love” in the next, and conservatives wonder if liberals will ever ascribe to economic liberty the same cachet they lavish on cultural and political dissent.

We shouldn’t just dismiss this view. As noted above, paradox is part of political life, whether because of bad logic or bad faith. But we don’t have to stop here. We can ask whether the paradoxes are more apparent than ultimate -- whether, when we press them, they resolve into a deeper kind of unity, or at least into a more instructive complexity. I believe something like this to be true of the American consensus on “individualism.”

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Words derive their meanings from the linguistic networks within which they function. If these networks change, meanings may as well -- but this doesn’t always provoke a change in nomenclature. We may continue to use a word when its meaning has altered dramatically. We may do this even in cases where the same word is used by different speakers to mean fundamentally different things. Perhaps the classic example of this in political discourse is the British thinker Isaiah Berlin’s argument that the word “liberty” is used in two very distinct ways, one of which (“negative liberty”) signifies mere non-interference while the other (“positive liberty”) indicates the fulfillment of some preferred state or ideal.

“Individualism” is a similarly complex term. In the early days of liberalism, it was sometimes used (usually polemically) for the idea that human beings are not essentially social -- that it makes sense to talk about them as solitary figures moving in isolation through a “state of nature.” Nowadays it is more commonly used for two other purposes: sometimes to refer to ideas about the kinds of things we should value and pursue -- that is, the kinds of things that are “good”; sometimes to refer to ideas about the nature of “agency” -- that is, the capacity (or set of capacities) by virtue of which human beings decide what to do and how to think.

For present purposes, I think the first meaning -- let’s call it normative individualism -- is less relevant than the second. Liberals and conservatives certainly disagree over details, but most of them, I’d wager, believe that a decent human life balances purely personal ends with those of a broader, other-regarding nature. The most ardent advocate of laissez-faire will grant the force of non-egoistic motivations, and liberals, no matter how compassionate, will not insist that only altruistic ends have value. Even Gandhi chilled out now and then, and needed to.

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It is the second meaning -- call it agent-centered individualism -- that makes most of the mischief here. Why? I think there is a double conflict. In some cases there are differences over the mechanics of agency -- over which abilities and faculties are relevant to our capacity for choice. (I will argue later that this is particularly the case in America.) But the most obvious conflict is over the limits and extent of our agency. To be more precise, it is rooted in two radically opposed pictures of how agency is related to nature and society.

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The 19th-century historian Henry Sumner Maine famously described the evolution of the modern world as the movement “from status to contract.” Maine’s notion of status was largely focused on kinship, but if we extend it just a bit we end up with a pretty familiar picture. In the classical and medieval worlds, personal identity was mostly shaped by social roles: to be male or female, lord or peasant, was to be a certain kind of thing, a thing of a relatively fixed type. Sometimes the fixity was attributed to “nature,” sometimes to “God,” but the upshot was the same: What we fundamentally are is not subject to our capacity for choice.

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As the modern world began to emerge, a different, opposed picture of identity arose with it. Spurred by the greater fluidity of the commercial, industrialized, democratic society that replaced the medieval West, this picture insisted on the contingent nature of personal identity. One might inherit a given social role at birth, but this didn’t have to be dispositive for one’s life as a whole; human beings could transform themselves through imagination, will and persistence. What mattered wasn’t inheritance but invention.

The effect was greatly to extend the range of cases over which our agency operates. One’s choices weren’t restricted to whether one would be, say, a loyal or a disloyal peasant; one could choose not to be a peasant at all. Similarly, a single woman no longer had to choose between being a chaste maiden or, alternatively, a whore. Other possibilities existed. (It goes without saying that some identities, especially those involved with gender and race, were more resistant to this logic than others. Exactly why is a longer -- and equally vital -- story.)

Over time, these two languages of identity aligned themselves with the dominant political responses to modernity. European liberals generally embraced the new picture of identity as something responsive to choice. European conservatives generally did not. In their minds, such a view of human beings was both implausible and pernicious. Implausible, because it was simply daft to think most people should substitute their judgment for that of time-honored traditions and authorities. The average person was neither smart enough nor virtuous enough to do so. Pernicious, because a society composed of such creatures would swiftly collapse into moral anarchy and political disarray. It would be much better for the world to go on as it always had -- with the great mass of humankind accepting the identities to which nature, and nature’s God, had appointed them.

European political and cultural debate was largely shaped by these oppositions for many decades. (And still is, to some extent.) Liberals championed individualism and the dynamic, creative society it produces; conservatives celebrated the stability of well-ordered communities. But a funny thing happened on the way to the North American continent. Many of the institutions that anchored the dense societies of early modern Europe established themselves here in attenuated form only, if at all. The novelist Henry James wrote famously about the relative thinness of American life in his 1879 study of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Here there was

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“[n]o sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, castles, nor manors, nor old country houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools… no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class…”

Some withered offshoots of European conservatism clung to the bare branches of this society, but they were mostly plucked by the headwinds of 19th-century democratic capitalism. But of course this doesn’t mean that there were no “conservative” forces in American life. It means that these forces, through genuine conviction or tactical calculation -- or some combination of both -- had to master the idiom of democratic capitalism, especially its individualist inflection. If an institution had to be defended -- the corporation, say -- it must be defended as an expression of democratic competition and the pursuit of property. If an institution had to be attacked -- the federal government, say -- it must be attacked as an enemy of these same values. “Liberals” might oppose these claims, but did so using the same individualist language. Our politics at this time really was an argument about whose liberty should be preferred and in what contexts.

And it is still among liberals and “mainstream” or business-class Republicans. Both these groups largely accept the modern language of identity and the individualist assumptions behind it. They believe in human agency as a genuinely creative power that reshapes lives and societies. They have many differences, of course, but converge on the moral and political centrality of individual choice.

(It may seem that the recent interest of both parties in income inequality is a counterexample to this statement. But if one inspects the rhetoric closely, one sees that it rarely appeals to equality as a value in its own right. Rather, liberals and conservatives appear to be bothered by income inequality mostly because it is associated with a decline in middle- and working-class standards of living. People can no longer afford to educate their children, to go on vacation, to buy a new car or house. In other words, they aren’t “free” to do these things. If they were, it would no longer matter that 20% of the country owns 89% of its wealth. For mainstream Democrats and Republicans, the nerve of the problem has more to do with liberty than with equality per se. There is still no socialism in America.)

But if this is the case, why is our politics -- by general agreement -- so sclerotic and impacted? And why is it suffused with such venom and spite? The answer takes us back to a point mentioned earlier: to the American South, and its role in today’s Republican Party.

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***

I have written elsewhere about the process by which the white South became the political redoubt of the Republican Party. (Fun fact: In the 2012 presidential election, the South supplied 72% of Mitt Romney’s electoral votes.) This is a familiar story and I will not repeat it here. What is more salient for our present purposes is the South’s peculiar relations with modernity.

The South has long been an outlier in American life. The depth and duration of its dependence on black chattel slavery was, of course, the most distinctive (and poisonous) of its many peculiarities, but slavery begat other anomalies as well. The South’s martial ethos and culture of violence have their origins here, as does its celebration of rural agrarian life and its antipathy to the more urban, industrial world of the Northeast. Even more crucially, slavery inspired the South’s romance with an aristocratic, hierarchical vision of society in which race and class were the twin pillars of an extremely rigid social order. Race defined the boundaries of community -- all white persons were potential members, all non-whites were permanent strangers -- just as class defined prospects and prerogatives within the community. But this is just to say, of course, that the South largely rejected the modern view of identity as something fluid, provisional, uncertain -- as something responsive to choice. Instead, it affirmed the pre-modern claim that our identities are mostly fixed by factors outside our control: by race, most critically, but within racial types by ethnicity, class and gender. And it hallowed these factors as ordained by God and His divine plan. Society was not imagined as a cooperative scheme for the dynamic construction of individual destinies, but as a field of force whose stability depended on the imposition of divinely decreed identities.

All of these things stamped the South as a region with a decidedly jaundiced view of modernity. (I discuss these issues in more detail here.) Given this, it’s easy to conclude that Southern history is a genuine exception to America’s liberal consensus. Like old-world conservatives, many white Southerners argue that identity is more fixed than fluid, and that therefore stability and authority are more important than individual liberty. And this is true, as far as it goes. The South is outside our liberal consensus -- but, by a quirk of cultural fate, it nonetheless shares one of the crucial elements of that consensus: its commitment to individualism.

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European conservatism was greatly influenced by Catholic thought -- unsurprisingly, as the Catholic Church dominated the traditional society conservatives sought to preserve. But there was another, deeper relation between Catholicism and conservatism: the former’s espousal of a communitarian image of human life. In part, of course, this simply reflects the broader culture within which the Church was formed. But it is also importantly connected with the Catholic vision of faith as something that involves the whole person -- thought as well as feeling, intellect as well as volition. This complexity has to be carefully tutored and shaped if it is to produce faith of the right kind and quality. For this reason, Catholicism has always ascribed a crucial role to pedagogical, sacramental and interpretive communities.

Religion is a famously powerful force in the South, but the virulent Protestantism dominant there has a radically different view of faith. It is, for one thing, much simpler. It conceives faith as essentially volitional -- as a moment of decision in which the self, alone with its experience of the divine, elects to shrug off its pride and accept the wholly unearned grace of God. Community has no necessary role here; faith emerges from the naked encounter of the solitary soul, sinful and suffering, with God’s terrible otherness and compassion.

The South’s allegiance to a pre-modern concept of identity has rendered it deeply antagonistic to modern liberalism. But its religiously inspired model of human personality debars it from any vivid imagination of community. Each person, this model implies, is sealed forever within an identity she did not, and could not, choose. But the highest interest any person has -- the interest in salvation -- is one she must necessarily satisfy alone, without human company. This South is a land of anti-liberal individualists and anti-social conservatives, where individuality isn't anchored in creativity or invention but in a conviction of spiritual and personal nullity.

If we see the South in this light, we can appreciate what its capture of the Republican Party has meant to our politics. We can understand, for example, the GOP’s obsession with a particularly toxic version of identity politics in which what counts isn’t what people say or do but simply who they are. In “The Right’s Measles Canard,” posted on Salon on Feb. 5, Elias Isquith captures exactly this trope in the context, again, of the controversy over vaccination:

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“For many members of the GOP base, it’s the very nature of undocumented immigrants that makes them a threat. It’s who they are. Any threat in particular, whether it’s disease or crime or flatlining wages, can be attributed to them. Identity, not action, is what matters; the charges precede the crime.”

Also relevant here is the right’s compulsive reiteration of doubts about Barack Obama’s citizenship, place of birth and patriotism -- its constant insinuations that Obama is simply too different to “understand” the American experience. Rudy Giuliani’s recent claim that Obama “doesn’t love America,” while outrageous, is only an especially blatant version of this attack.

These anxieties about identity also explain the Republican insistence that Obama refer to jihadists as Islamic terrorists. That members of ISIS are (a) terrorists and (b) Islamic is, of course, true. That anyone nowadays has any real unclarity about this is highly doubtful. But Republicans are not motivated here by a fastidious regard for factual accuracy -- a quality for which they otherwise evince little affection. Their actual concern is quite different. Liberals might object that we are not at war with terrorism because it is Islamic, but because it is, well, terrorism -- that our problem isn’t what terrorists believe, but what they do. To the obvious reply that what they believe makes them do what they do, liberals answer, equally obviously, that if it were simply a matter of belief we wouldn’t care. In their view, only action, not belief, can make someone into an enemy.                                                                                                                           

But the Southern partisans who control today’s GOP see things differently. For them, belief is exactly the heart of the matter. The terrorists’ Islamic faith itself separates them from the American community; as non-Christians, they were always permanent strangers and potential enemies. No action on their part was necessary; their social status follows inexorably from their religious identity. Obama’s failure to embody this fact in his rhetoric merely confirms his own otherness as well.

In exactly the same fashion, the right’s nihilistic individualism controls its approach to domestic issues, most notably to questions of economic policy. Because the Tea Party uses the same language as business-class Republicans -- because it talks about “economic liberty” and “opportunity” and “small government” -- many commentators take it to have similar interests and concerns. This is a fundamental mistake, arising, again, from a failure to understand the context of the Tea Party’s language. When business-class conservatives use these terms, they do so against a certain background -- one that largely accepts the modern economy as a highly complex network of public and private institutions. For the economy to succeed, these must interact with each other in a constructive and cooperative way. These Republicans are generally practical and pragmatic; their favored economic value is efficiency.

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But Tea Party conservatives proceed from a radically different set of assumptions. Their view of the economy is not pragmatic but deeply moralistic. They do not see it as primarily a system within which actors pursue their personal ends; they see it as a stage on which selves confront the worldly consequences of their fallen nature. Work is not a matter of self-expression or self-fulfillment; it is an ordeal, a trial. It tests our ability to accept the burdens of struggle and privation imposed on us by original sin. For the Tea Party, economic life is merely another instance of spiritual judgment. Attempts to ameliorate hardship are not simply inefficient or ineffective: they are attempts to evade the divine will, to make easy what God has made hard. And as we all arrive at the moment of judgment alone, they also tempt us into another error -- that of believing that others will take our part and intercede on our behalf. They will not, because they cannot. God comes to each of us singly, in isolation. Human efforts to pretend otherwise -- the safety net, the welfare state -- are always destructive of character and doomed to failure. They may fill our stomachs and lighten our labors, but in doing so they endanger and pervert our souls. (Neglect of the deeply moralistic nature of right-wing economic thought lurks behind many of Thomas Frank’s perplexities about the (allegedly) paradoxical behavior of voters out in the Heartland. Frank thinks they vote against their own self-interest, and is puzzled. But they take a very different view of the selves whose interests Frank wants them to promote. The short answer to “What’s the matter with Kansas?” is: Kansans.)

***

Between 1932 and 1968, our politics was largely transacted between liberal Democrats and business-class Republicans. This period produced its share of horrors -- the Vietnam War, most notably -- but it was also an incredibly constructive episode in American political life. The New Deal, Bretton Woods, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Civil Rights and Votings Rights Acts -- these were great achievements that certified America as a fully modern state with an avowed interest in a stable, secure international order.

The contrast with today’s politics could not be more striking -- or depressing. The Republican Party’s domination by its largely Southern base has paralyzed our government. Two of the three least productive Congresses since 1947 occurred after the 2010 Tea Party midterms. Issues are not addressed, problems are not resolved, because Southern Republicans are more horrified by cooperation with Democrats than by political dysfunction. They don’t want to govern the modern American state: they want to blow it up.

The collapse of the political consensus celebrated by Hofstadter and Hartz -- Daniel Bell, another academic worthy, labeled it “the end of ideology” -- hasn’t simply brought our politics to a standstill. It has also exposed the paradoxes beneath the surface of that consensus. Yesterday’s conservatives wanted to “conserve” the earlier version of a liberal order. They shared with progressives an essentially modern concept of identity. The conservatives who dominate today’s Republican Party reject this concept, but not in the name of any alternative to the individualism of Jefferson and Hamilton. All they have to offer is an even more impoverished image of human life, in which isolated selves, trapped inside immutable identities, struggle with the burdens of sin and pride those identities impose. The Tea Party has nothing but contempt for the liberal notion of identity and nothing but scorn for the conservative idea of community.

The signal paradox of today’s conservatism is that it claims to be in love with “liberty” but is terrified of diversity -- even though history assures us that liberty always leads to diversity and that orthodoxy is always the product of coercion. The Tea Party’s barren individualism, and its dogmatic notion of identity, lie behind this paradox. It cannot offer any plausible vision of a workable society, nor does it represent an alternative to our individualist politics. A conservatism that is both authentically American and genuinely conservative has yet to be discovered.


Kim Messick

Kim Messick lives in North Carolina. His blog, "Primarily Politics," is at kimmessick.wordpress.com.

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