John Kasich recently went ballistic at a pre-debate rally in Ohio. “Do you know how crazy this election is?” he asked. “What has happened to our party? What has happened to the conservative movement?” These are questions my parents have been asking for years. As a child in the 1970s, they had told me that we were Republicans (conservative) because the Democrats had gotten us into every war we’d ever been in and didn’t believe in paying the bills.
Something has changed. Conservative insights have been forgotten or betrayed by the party that touts the label. In many respects, today’s Republicans are not really conservatives, but rather CINOs (See-Noes) – conservative in name only.
It’s like the Party has suffered its own version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The masses have risen up and torn down the establishment, along with its wisdom and finer sensibilities. A robust tradition has been hollowed out, robbed of the insights that had made it great, and this has occurred in obvious as well as in subtle and inconspicuous ways.
Often defined as a temperament more than a set of rigid policy prescriptions, conservatism at its best emphasizes the limitations of human nature; fears the abuse of power and thus worries about its concentration; cautions prudence and practicality in public policy; warns of the unforeseen consequences of overly-ambitious and untried blueprints to re-make society; and values intelligence, education, and high culture. It has demonstrated an unapologetic elitism, viewing itself as a bulwark against the passion-driven, irrational behavior of ignorant majorities – easily swayed by charlatans – who would trample the rights of individuals and turn power over to benign dictators. The Founding Fathers designed the Constitution to shield the country’s natural leaders against such pressures, which John Adams thought explained democracy’s tendency to commit suicide.
Today, however, conservatism finds itself in disarray. The movement that once disdained the uneducated has itself become anti-intellectual, denying the findings of science (evolution, global warming), unable to distinguish between theories and “fairy tales” (Ben Carson), equating higher education with snobbery (Rick Santorum), and promoting politicians whose comments constantly offend the educated observer – the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly” to end slavery (Michele Bachmann), a woman’s body prevents pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape” (Todd Akin), poverty may be alleviated by making poor kids janitors in the schools (Newt Gingrich), surrendering to Obamacare is akin to appeasing the Nazis (Ted Cruz), prison behavior proves homosexuality is a choice (Carson). Often, they are unable to speak at all (Herman Cain’s long pauses, Sarah Palin’s general incoherence, Rick Perry’s “oops” moment).
These “know nothings” belong to the party of Lincoln, who used that pejorative epithet to describe the nativist American Party that railed against German and Irish immigrants in the east and Chinese immigrants in the West. What would he make of Donald Trump’s vilification of Mexicans today and his insistence that we make them pay for a fence to keep them out, or of Cain’s willingness to electrify said fence and thus kill any who tried to cross? And what would the president who freed the slaves make of his party’s Voter ID laws? Republicans have traveled the sinister road from Thaddeus Stevens to the Southern Strategy.
They are also John Adams’s worst nightmare, willing to use their social power to deny others’ rights. They demean the First Amendment through their support of bogus religious liberties that suppress actual ones (the Christian florist, for example, does not commit a sin for having had gay clients any more than he has committed adultery for having had adulterous ones; any more than a Jewish waiter breaks kosher laws for having served non-kosher foods). The historically outrageous claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation finds even John McCain succumbing. CINOs embrace the imposition of biblical law as constitutional even while they claim that the First Amendment protects communities against the building of a mosque (Cain); and while simultaneously arguing that Muslims shouldn’t be president (Carson).
CINOs betrayal of conservatism is even more egregious in areas thought to be firmly in their camp – economic efficiency and national security.
If David Hume, Edmund Burke, and Michael Oakeshott could agree on anything, for example, it would be that we cannot remake society according to our rational blueprints drawn up by idealistic academics. Instead, they keep their feet planted firmly on the ground; have an understanding of time and place (history and culture matter); and understand the vagaries of life. They thus challenged the utopians of their respective days for ignoring messy and often irrational concrete reality, instead, assuming that it would follow their rational models.
Yet, CINO’s “merit-based society” is founded on just that kind of fantasy. After more than a generation of supply-side economics that did not deliver, they cannot see concrete reality and are instead blinded by devotion to rational models. Religious conservatives might call this idolatry. We’ve witness two capitalist experiments, for example – the more free-market American one and the social democratic one. The latter has produced better results. It has been piecemeal, pragmatic, and made concessions to reality (no nationalization of the means of production), as a good conservative would advise.
Moreover, CINOs have added a moral overlay onto their economic models that betrays conservative wisdom. Free markets, for example, were originally promoted for their productivity, not as a reward for the virtuous and a punishment for the vice-ridden. Rather than speak of entrepreneurs as “self-made” (whom the resentful want to punish for their success) and as “jobs creators” (the taxation of whom is sometimes considered akin to theft), Adam Smith held them in contempt (well, he held us all in contempt on this score) and spoke of them with disdain. It wasn’t their virtue that free markets tap, but rather their vice – their selfishness and vanity. The “baubles and trinkets” that we pursue don’t make us happy, he surmised. We seek them because we want to be admired.
Whereas conservatives base their view of human nature on Christian notions of the Fall, affecting rich and poor alike, CINO ideas draw from Puritan notions of the elect and the damned (while ignoring Puritan condemnations of usury and the allurements of wealth) and from Ayn Rand’s glorification of powerful elites and their selfish behavior, the very behavior that Smith considered regrettable and mistaken. Thus we get self-righteous references to the “jobs creators” or Donald Trump’s crass comments about “winners,” who are admired simply because they win and “losers,” who are despised because they lose. In other words, might makes right.
Whereas conservatives have a sense of noblesse oblige and are paternalistic, CINOs are punishing. In “Let There be Markets,” Gordon Bigelow traces this divide to 19th-century British Evangelicals who saw capitalism as God’s economy, rewarding the industrious and punishing the lazy. In contrast, Tory conservatives were paternalistic. During the Irish Potato Famine, they responded by importing cheap American corn to feed the starving Irish. Upon defeating the Tories, however, the Whigs (Evangelical) considered it a moral imperative to let the backward Irish starve.
Parallels could be drawn to CINO policies today concerning welfare and the safety net. Despite poverty-level wages, they seek to slash benefits further. And whereas conservatism nurtures a vision of society that is more than the sum of its market transactions, and has a language – going as far back as medieval notions of a just price – that could establish limits on the market designed to reign in our avarice and protect against the Martin Shkrelis of predatory capitalism, CINO discourse has no words to distinguish the Shkrelis from more acceptable business practices.
CINO positions on the economy thus appear as simply the dogged defense of the rich rather than as the weighed wisdom of conservatives. Their tinny defense of the free market similarly lacks all connection to reality. Given the tax breaks, subsidies, bailouts, golden parachutes, legal passes, and other advantages of crony capitalism, it is anything but free except when it comes to homeowners’ investments or the wages and benefits of the middle and working classes, both of which are allowed to sink. Individual responsibility, it would seem, is for the little people.
Yet, conservatives have not been incapable of flexibility and change. G. K. Chesterton, for example, wrestled with the plight of the working poor and attempted to modify capitalism to meet the needs of the many by proposing distributism, based on the social teachings of the Catholic Church. CINOs, however, judge Pope Francis a dangerous radical for heeding the same conservative teachings. Teddy Roosevelt took on the corporations in the name of individual liberty. CINOs defend corporate freedoms that render the individual insignificant.
While both conservatives and CINOs fear the concentration of power, CINOs focus their attention on government. They remain sanguine about its concentration in society (wealth, ownership) and the military.
Conservatives used to chide liberals for their idealistic wars to “end all wars.” These world-weary realists once opposed bright-eyed idealists by cautioning them not to drain our strength in futile crusades but rather to focus on our genuine national interests and match our commitments to our power. They weren’t so naïve as to think that we could remake the world in our image; like pressing a cookie cutter into malleable dough. Moreover, conservatives value order and understand that even an unjust order can sometimes be better than disorder if the latter opens up political vacuums to be filled by the sociopaths that civilization keeps under the rug. And they worried about budget deficits. Eisenhower, for example, favored defense strategies that were easiest on the purse and warned of the looming military-industrial complex.
Moreover, conservatives engage in deep self-reflection, sensitive to the ways in which we hide our flawed human nature from ourselves. They produce thinkers like Saint Augustine and the 20th century theologian he inspired, Reinhold Niebuhr, who developed Christian Realism. CINOs lack this capacity.
Self-reflection tempers our Manichean instincts to project all evil onto others and instead agonizes over the destructive forces within. Conservatives thus create practices (such as confession) and bodies of thought (such as Just War Theory) designed to curb the self-interested and passionate behavior of their own.
CINOs project all evil onto the other (castigating any who “apologize for America”) and then claim a God-given right to uproot it. For a movement wary of the concentration of power, they show no fear of the leviathan that has become our security forces and their allied agencies.
The rise of CINOs within the Republican Party has left conservatives, including my parents, without one. Dismay among Republicans (or former Republicans who have jumped ship) includes early critics, such as Kevin Phillips; as well as those that originally shaped Republican policies, such as David Stockman, Bruce Bartlett, and Richard Clarke; military men such as Colin Powell and Lawrence Wilkerson; financiers, economists and Fed chairs, such as Ben Bernanke, and also judges. Justice John Paul Stevens, originally appointed by Gerald Ford, has penned a scathing book critical of what could be called CINO positions from the bench, especially Citizen’s United. And certainly John McCain knows that money isn’t speech.
It’s time these conservatives took their party back from the CINO impostors, for the benefit of us all.