Updated: Oct 28, 2021
In the word salad that passes for political discourse today, we often hear about the doings of the conservative Republicans and the liberal Democrats. As those descriptive terms have been morphed and spun around and our newspeak media has raised massive confusion over them, they have departed from their original meanings.
Conservatism then and now
The Trumpies like to call themselves conservatives, and one of their favorite complaints is that conservative voices are being suppressed by the demonic liberal media. Of course, that infamous liberal media turns out to be corporate media that is very much committed to the center. If media appears to have a liberal slant, it is because, as Stephen Colbert has remarked, reality often has a liberal bias.
Trumpies act as if conservative means privileged and protected from criticism. They deflect any attack, regardless of the topic, as being against the larger issue of conservatism. When a candidate fails, he is no longer a true conservative.
My point is that as the word was previously used, Trumpies are not conservatives at all.
In a social sense, conservative is an attractive label that implies prudence and respect for tradition. Think of conservative clothes and conservative estimates. Now, however, it is also a way of making racism, misogyny and xenophobia sound more respectable.
Conservatism used to be an established and valuable component in American politics, a brake on the progressive impulses of liberalism. In the political arena, the bedrock principles of 20th century conservatism were militarism, corporatism and anti-federalism. The signature policy was a balanced budget. Recall that the Tea Party’s original crusade was against deficit spending, used by Obama to pull the economy out of recession – a strategy the Tea Party swore would cripple the nation forever. Strange, isn’t it, that when Trump took office and bumped up the debt by $7.6 trillion, those voices suddenly became silent – and stayed silent about the tax cut for the super-rich? The only comparable deficit rise was under another Republican, George W. Bush, who had to pay for two new wars in addition to his own giant tax cut.
Of course, now that a Democrat is in office, conservatives have rediscovered their love of a balanced budget, as Republicans oppose every legislative initiative supposedly because of their budgetary impact. It’s almost as if they are searching for justifications to oppose something they don’t like, and from the bottom of the bag of excuses they bring out the old demon, the deficit. Trumpies use the term conservatism to claim legitimacy for their cries of unfairness and victimization.
Liberalism, the other side of the coin
Liberalism has traditionally meant the progressive side of politics. 20th century liberalism revolved around civil rights, worker rights and environmentalism. Back in the 1960s, the Republican party even had a liberal wing to balance the Southern racists and leave the party in the hands of centrists like Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. Conservatives were in the vein of William F. Buckley and George Will.
But when Newt Gingrich reshaped the party into the intractable bloc we have today, the radical right took control and conservative principles were abandoned for the culture war needed to woo evangelicals. (There’s another term that’s been gruesomely twisted, but we’ll leave that for another post.) Today, conservatives’ favorite pitch to the Trumpies is that they are victims of a vast liberal conspiracy out to destroy the country and their way of life. They can’t really say how all this is organized, other than to point out favorite targets like George Soros, Barak Obama and eventually Hollywood, where Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey get in on the plot. (If you’re famous and say something bad about them, you get to be part of the conspiracy.) Then, QAnon takes this to its warped (or as they see it, logical) conclusion: eating babies in the basement of a pizza parlor, so naturally liberals are demonic and deserve to be stamped out.
Traditional conservatives have been shut out or sidelined, leaving only screaming idiots like Ted Cruz to speak for the party.
The Republicans are no longer a political party. They have no coherent policy agenda, only mindless opposition to Democrats and a grab bag of cultural grievances. They are now a protest movement. When they say liberals hate America, they are using their own definition of America, which means the white, suburban, sexist culture of a 1950s sitcom. Any regrets about our history are taken as heresy. “My country, right or wrong” was a popular right-wing slogan during the Vietnam War, and Republicans still rail against anyone who admits to past wrongs. Their America must be like God, an object of worship that’s perfect in every way.
A recent AlterNet article by Daily Kos’ Dartagnan reflects on the way right-wing media have supported this narrow view by becoming engrossed in trivial matters like Potato Head and Dr. Seuss:
“All of these tactics have something in common: they're performative exaggerations of social and cultural shifts that in reality have little or no tangible impact upon the daily lives of Republican constituents. Show me a Republican whose lives have actually been affected by an undocumented immigrant (few Republicans know any, and fewer still aspire to the ‘jobs’ they fill), by a children’s book few if any Republicans have ever read, or by a transgender child playing sports (few Republicans have ever encountered one). These are all red herrings — shiny objects for the right to hold up and point to with one hand, while the other hand is busy with more substantive goals, such as impeding people from voting.
“But they're also symptomatic of a party that has completely abandoned ‘policy’ as a governing principle. Instead, what we see is a Republican Party that has committed itself to one goal only — maintaining its grip on power by totally committing itself to inflammatory cultural issues such as immigration.
The late Rush Limbaugh built his brand on liberal bashing. Every day, he had the liberal elites committing some new atrocity. Despite being what he liked to call “snowflakes,” they were somehow in control of everything, able to manipulate vast forces to the detriment of true Americans listening to the radio. Instead of comprehending the real forces of social change (globalization, social media, sexual freedom, etc.), he and his listeners found more satisfaction in searching for culprits among the hated liberals. Regardless of their politics or any evidence, it was enough for Limbaugh’s audience to believe liberals were the enemy causing all the problems.
Meanwhile, leaderless and voiceless Democrats let them get away with it.
Instead of speaking up in favor of liberalism and defending popular programs like Social Security and Medicare, they sat on their hands and let Limbaugh and the right smear them for a whole generation. No wonder the Trumpies think liberals are weak. Now we have a political landscape where liberal is the right’s counter slur to the left’s use of Nazi.
The irony here is that the left’s inability to mobilize around traditional liberal values in response to the lockstep opposition of conservatives has rendered it ineffective. There is little support for unionism. The peace movement has vanished. Civil rights and voting rights have been rolled back. Free speech is becoming something else. Groups concerned with minority rights, women’s rights and environmental rights are left to act on their own. (If there really was an organized liberal conspiracy, we’d be a lot further along.)
Then there’s socialism
Before concluding, I want to touch on another greatly misunderstood term the right loves to use: Socialism. Part of this, I think, is fondness for the 1950s and ’60s, when anti-communism was the Republican party’s animating force. The Red Scare turned out to be hugely overblown, but the Cold War allowed the profitable continuation of militarism after the conclusion of World War 2. The worst thing a person could be was a commie – but being a socialist was just about as bad. Swap commie for Nazi and all the old propaganda was good to go again. So we have a generation programmed to respond to the word socialist as if it’s the epitome of evil. Older Trumpies are happy as they wax nostalgic.
In a Marxian sense, socialism is where private property doesn’t exist and the government controls the means of production and the distribution of goods. Does that sound like anything being advocated by the Democrats? Of course not. But in Europe, the term social democrat has been used by centrist parties advocating expanded social programs such as free healthcare and maternity leave. And in America, when Bernie Sanders adopted that label, the right seized on it to paint the Democrats as commies who were out to destroy the country and put everyone to work on communes.
The fact is that many socialist programs are extremely popular among liberals and conservatives – minimum wage, Social Security and Medicare, as well as our highway system, water supply, postal service and EMS – all of these are socialized. Socialist has just become another bad word that the right can use to get back into that old Cold War victim mindset.
So here we are. Liberalism has been thoroughly disparaged. Conservatism has been perverted. Socialism has lost all meaning.
No wonder political talk doesn’t make sense.