What Happened to American Conservatism? Progress.

The old traditions of American conservatism are disappearing. What happened? Contributor Brian Mangan says, “progress.”
Brian Mangan

The times, they are a’ changing. But how is conservatism changing with the times? The answer depends on who you ask. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, David Brooks, a prominent conservative pundit on PBS argued that “traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse.”1 He believes that the old traditions of conservatism are being subverted by an upsurge within the party. David Brooks isn’t alone. There are a growing number of “traditional conservatives” who feel as though they are being left behind by the modern conservative movement. But what if it isn’t the conservatives who have been moving? What if, in true relativistic fashion, it’s society that has drifted away from conservatism, leaving segments of American society behind?

The modern conservative political party can be most efficiently broken down as an alliance between social conservatives and market conservatives. Market conservatives often make an economic appeal based upon conservative market ideology, or self-interest.

Social conservatism is far more interesting. At its core, it’s an emotional entity that praises “Traditional American values.” Broken down, these values generally espouse a normative ideal: white, heterosexual, married America. This appeal to normative America as a moral good, and the inevitable juxtaposition of non-normative America (non-white, homosexual, alternative gender roles) as a moral “bad”, creates an “us vs. them” dichotomy which encourages the xenophobia so often associated with the movement.

To many, the rise of the Christian Coalition in 1989 under the direction of TV evangelist Pat Robertson raising millions for political action, candidates like Michelle Bachmann (who claimed the Lion King was gay propaganda due to Elton John’s involvement)8 the rise of Fox News, and personalities like Glenn Beck, all seem to indicate an increasingly radical social conservatism and extremism from the far right. But this simply isn’t the case.9 In truth, the problem with the “social conservatives” is that American norms and values have entered a period of rapid change while conservative America has done its best to “conserve” its values of decades past.

The result is that the conservatives have been increasingly left behind. The “good old days” of the nuclear white suburban family, of the obedient housewife (with rates of spousal abuse far higher than today), or the imagined racial unity of Jim Crowe’s southern vision are not only gone, but they weren’t that good to begin with. In truth, this “Golden age” harkened back by social conservatives had established norms which were a nightmare for many groups of people, built upon American economic hegemony which was doomed to run dry. It was a gilded age, with a sheen of golden paint covering up the rotting, decaying iron substructure of real problems that lay beneath.

It is clear- with the rise of the information age- that society is changing faster than ever. Female empowerment (including Roe v. Wade), gay rights, and black empowerment have all made strides towards mainstream acceptance. In the face of rapid change, backlash from conservatives has also been harsher than ever, and predictably so. The runaway social change in our time has, through this phenomenon, created a disassociated and angry counterrevolutionary segment of the population, which has become a vocal segment of the Republican party. The election of Barrack Obama has intensified this dissatisfied segment (as his election pokes their buttons in all the worst ways).

Claims of “racism” directed against the Tea Party are somewhat valid (there are countless anecdotal examples), but much of what is labeled as racism by liberal critics is something far deeper and more pervasive than skin color. It is, instead, an idea of “otherness” which offers a basic and primal insult to the “values” of social conservatism. Far from growing up in the normative nuclear family with apple pie and a stay-at-home mom, Obama had an absent father and parents of mixed race, and he was raised in “strange” places like Indonesia and Hawaii rather than the good old American heartland. This combined with his Ivy League education (professors and universities often being centers of social instability and dangerous ideas) to further distance him from “true America”. As President, Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world, secularism, support of science, and other measures labeled him firmly in the minds of American conservatives with a simple, terrifying message: “He is not one of us.” Romney’s campaign did their best to fan the flames of Obama’s “otherness” when it publicized that Obama, in his travels, had eaten dog meat. Only when taken with the idea of Obama’s as an ‘other’ can the social power of these claims be understood.10

But hasn’t market conservatism also undergone a recent radicalization? Famously, the Obama Health Care Bill (so thunderously spoken against), is similar to previous Republican legislation, including the Massachusetts health care bill upon which Romney said “That’s something that I think we should do for the whole country.”11

The growing fear of liberals and progressiveness as a malevolent force contributes greatly to this radicalization. As the gap between the two camps widens, Obama and his “minions” have become more and more alien and threatening to the norms and ideals of conservative America. As this fear grows, we also see the rise of conspiracy theory (such as Trumps ‘birther’ controversy, and conspiracy theories regarding the Benghazi attacks, among many others) in which Obama is an evil entity plotting the overthrow of traditional America. These conspiracy theories are so effective because they are an over-dramatification of a very real social tension and fear among conservatives. It is from this fear and tension that comes rhetoric of “death panels” and “FEMA camps”, somehow attached to President Obama’s Affordable Care act. In this way, stopping any of the “evil” economic plans and initiatives encourages contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism on all measures- social and economic- as a form of resistance against this feared entity. Amazingly enough, it was found in a Reuters-Ipsos poll, that if taken through each major provision of Obamacare, a majority of Republicans agreed with every proposition except for one, the expansion of Medicare to families making less than $30,000 a year.11

There has also been a longstanding “bleedover” between social and market conservatism. In a wide, moral critique of the Soviet Union, social conservatives decried their strange, non-normative organization of family, religion (or lack thereof), and tossed in, atop other character defamations such as “lying” and “smelly” the idea of “communist”. Communism became the ultimate “other”, an economic organization which defined the “goodness” of Capitalism in much the same way as the Devil defines the glory of God. Socialism was tacked on in much the same way. And as a residual effect of America’s definition of Communism as a social evil of “the enemy”, Socialism has also suffered through association. As a result, sixty percent of Americans respond negatively to the idea of socialism, despite supporting socialist programs such as Social Security.7 This discrepancy exists because the critique of socialism is not a rational one just as the critique of homosexuality isn’t rational; it is an emotional reaction to social traditionalists drilling the message into the heads of Americans: “This is bad. This is evil. This is non-normative.”

Another liberal economic practice to come under heavy attack from social conservatives has been the idea of entitlements, but this attack, despite having a veneer of being purely economic, has social undertones. Lee Atwater, a key Republican operative of the time, was famously quoted detailing Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”:

“Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N#####, n#####.”

The strategy Atwater detailed was earning the votes of racists by cutting programs that “hurt blacks” more than whites.2 This has combined with the mistaken yet pervasive idea that ethnic minorities receive a lion’s share of entitlements. In truth, numerically (though not proportionally), the most recipients of food stamps and welfare are white, and the poverty and unemployment rates among the white citizens of the red states of Mississippi and Alabama are among the worst.3 Despite this, Gingrich proclaimed that black Americans should demand “jobs, not food stamps.” Other racially-driven messages emerged during the election, including the false claim that Obama had eased welfare work requirements, outraging social conservatives.4,5,6 The trick, much in keeping to Atwater’s theory, has been insinuating racial tension behind the veneer of an economic issue, marking an unholy alliance of market and social conservatism. The rallying of social conservatives into market conservative policies (be it by race baiting, or communist fear-mongering) has not gone in only one direction. As market conservatives have influenced social conservatives, social conservatives have also influenced market conservatives, drawing economic theory into an “us vs. them” mindset.

It is from these examples that we begin to see how economic theory has assumed its own normative identity within the conservative mindset, with a supporter of Socialism or Communism on par as a social evil comparable to (other threats to normative society) a homosexual or child molester. This has led to a radicalization of conservative economic theory.

While society has progressed onward, conservatives have lagged behind. And as the rate of progress intensifies, so stretches open the rift between the two ideologies, a gaping wound, ripped wider and wider through liberal progress. If society has continued to progress, why have conservatives been left behind? The rural and “country” conservative towns scattered throughout the world have been disconnected from the cosmopolitan liberalization of the rest of the country. The towns, in their political and social structures, have not liberalized at the same rate, and have clung to the “old” normative ideals of the post-World War II age and they have looked on with increasing disgust as the cosmopolitan areas have changed.

This disconnect has given rise to the idea of the “liberal media”, as an institution that has represented the progress in American norms and values (unshared at the local level in conservative areas). Active maintenance of the conservative entrenchment has come in the form of alternative media, such as Fox News, which gives voice to conservative norms which resist the pull of liberalization, and between Fox News and other networks, a proverbial “culture war” has broken out, with camps who have different values, different cultures, different languages, and different modes of thought. Conservative society-watching the norms outside their insular bubble changing with an accelerating rapidity- has become fearful of this progress. Fear of this progress has led to the idea that this progress is the result of an evil force that threatens to destroy their way of life and the values they hold. Insular media and other “spaces” that live within conservative norms have been established on internet, TV, radio, and increasingly regional separations, which help maintain the “traditional” norms. In combating their liberal enemies, social conservatives have drawn in radical market conservatives into this “alternate culture” in order to employ their old allies against the evil economic practices of the liberals, becoming more different, and less “American” with each year. As long as these systems continue to provide a bulwark to the world’s rapid social and cultural changes, the gaping wound between the two camps will only stretch wider, and bleed more heavily.

1. David Brooks. The Conservative Mind.


2. The Nation. Lee Atwater. Southern Strategy. http://www.thenation.com/article/170841/exclusive-lee-atwaters-infamous-1981-interview-southern-strategy

3. Huffington Post. Most People on Welfare and food stamps are white. Alabama/Mississippi worst poverty/unemployment rates


4. CNN Money. Food Stamp President. http://money.cnn.com/2012/01/17/news/economy/obama_food_stamps/index.htm

5. Huffington Post. Claims that Obama guts Welfare Work requirements.


6. US News. Gingrich. “Jobs, not food stamps”


7. Forbes. 60% of Americans disapprove of “Socialist” label


8. Lion King as “Gay Propaganda”. Michelle Bachmann.


9. Christian Coalition Website. Founded by TV evangelist Pat Robinson.


10. ABC News. Romney Campaign announces that Obama ate dog meat.


11. Daily Kos. Why Republicans hate Obamacare.


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