What's the Matter with 'X'
Reader Ruthh emails:
I spent more than two decades in the South, as a civil rights attorney and a public defender. What I concluded was the source of developing “conservative” support and the explosion of the Republican party in the South had to do with 1) an historical background of anti-democratic government and economic structures by which of course I mean slavery and the consequent system of share cropping which oppressed non-slave poor folks as well 2) the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s which unlike populism in the 1890’s was literally unsuppressible (is that a word?) and which left moral structures like churches and church schools that supported racism looking like idiots 3) the fury engendered by actually having to share the economic and more importantly the political world with African-Americans 4)the rise of Ronald Reagan and his buddies with their thinly veiled racism and their attacks on institutions supporting poor people, public education, etc, etc. Gay marriage, abortion, all those “wedge” issues perform the same emotional and dramatic function that race did in the political intercourse of the pre-70’s South.
I haven't commented much yet on the social furies that have driven the modern conservative movement, but Ruthh's points are great. What I've been looking at in the Conservative Summit series has had to do with the elite-driven intellectual agenda of conservatism (though, as one conservative writer angrily pointed out to me some time ago, not all of those intellectuals come from elite backgrounds themselves).
But of course that "small-government" elite agenda, serving as it does primarily the interests of a small number of Americans, always struggles to gain much traction in the wider public. Despite what conservative intellectuals like to think, Americans are not much interested in "small government" beyond the level of pure abstraction, as something that sounds like a nice idea. Sure, they want low taxes, but the political tradeoff usually dampens that enthusiasm.
So, as we know, conservatives hitch their wagon to various kinds of populist reaction. Rick Perlstein
has written some great things about these reactions - in fact, he's got a book coming out
about it that I'm very much looking forward to.
I think that populist reaction in of itself is independent of conservatism - except inasmuch as conservatism is defined simply as a reaction against change. The Kansas populists of the last century were of course opposed
to the conservative politicians of their time.
Likewise, elite politics is not always the same as small-government-ism. In the early 19th century it was the conservative elites - the Federalists and Whigs - who favored
a vigorous program of national development, and the democrats (small-d) and radicals who represented the anti-government philosophy. And, of course, there are different kinds of elites - the powerful national economic elites, and the local, what you might call "petit bourgeois" or provincial elites. They're not always on the same side.
The various legacies twist and turn and provide all kinds of paradoxes for modern analogy-making. Who are the true forefathers of today's conservatives? The anti-government Jeffersonians whose words can be used to libertarian effect today, or the centralizing Federalists who were considered conservative then
? It's all fun stuff and we'll try to follow the threads as we work our way through reading conservative history
. You have to follow the interests of the various elites, but you can't forget that so much of what we call conservatism now is a social force having little to do with the sleek opinions promulgated in the National Review
Labels: conservatism, conservatives, Rick Perlstein