I've highlighted the areas that seem particularly pertinent to Conservativism under Trump.
TBCWhat Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?
Philip E. Agre
Liberals in the United States have been losing political debates to conservatives for a quarter century. In order to start winning again, liberals must answer two simple questions: what is conservatism, and what is wrong with it? As it happens, the answers to these questions are also simple:
Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.
Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.
These ideas are not new. Indeed they were common sense until recently. Nowadays, though, most of the people who call themselves "conservatives" have little notion of what conservatism even is. They have been deceived by one of the great public relations campaigns of human history. Only by analyzing this deception will it become possible to revive democracy in the United States.
//1 The Main Arguments of Conservatism
From the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the self-regarding thugs of ancient Rome to the glorified warlords of medieval and absolutist Europe, in nearly every urbanized society throughout human history, there have been people who have tried to constitute themselves as an aristocracy. These people and their allies are the conservatives.
The tactics of conservatism vary widely by place and time. But the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use "social issues" as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality. Economic inequality and regressive taxation, while certainly welcomed by the aristocracy, are best understood as a means to their actual goal, which is simply to be aristocrats. More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them. Of course this notion sounds bizarre to modern ears, but it is perfectly overt in the writings of leading conservative theorists such as Burke. Democracy, for them, is not about the mechanisms of voting and office-holding. In fact conservatives hold a wide variety of opinions about such secondary formal matters. For conservatives, rather, democracy is a psychological condition. People who believe that the aristocracy rightfully dominates society because of its intrinsic superiority are conservatives; democrats, by contrast, believe that they are of equal social worth. Conservatism is the antithesis of democracy. This has been true for thousands of years.
The defenders of aristocracy represent aristocracy as a natural phenomenon, but in reality it is the most artificial thing on earth. Although one of the goals of every aristocracy is to make its preferred social order seem permanent and timeless, in reality conservatism must be reinvented in every generation. This is true for many reasons, including internal conflicts among the aristocrats; institutional shifts due to climate, markets, or warfare; and ideological gains and losses in the perpetual struggle against democracy. In some societies the aristocracy is rigid, closed, and stratified, while in others it is more of an aspiration among various fluid and factionalized groups. The situation in the United States right now is toward the latter end of the spectrum. A main goal in life of all aristocrats, however, is to pass on their positions of privilege to their children, and many of the aspiring aristocrats of the United States are appointing their children to positions in government and in the archipelago of think tanks that promote conservative theories.
Conservatism in every place and time is founded on deception. The deceptions of conservatism today are especially sophisticated, simply because culture today is sufficiently democratic that the myths of earlier times will no longer suffice.
Before analyzing current-day conservatism's machinery of deception, let us outline the main arguments of conservatism. Although these arguments have changed little through history, they might seem unfamiliar to many people today, indeed even to people who claim to be conservatives. That unfamiliarity is a very recent phenomenon. Yet it is only through the classical arguments and their fallacies that we can begin to analyze how conservatism operates now.
According to the first type of argument, found for example in Burke, social institutions are a kind of capital. A properly ordered society will be blessed with large quantities of this capital. This capital has very particular properties. It is a sprawling tangle of social arrangements and patterns of thought, passed down through generations as part of the culture. It is generally tacit in nature and cannot be rationally analyzed. It is fragile and must be conserved, because a society that lacks it will collapse into anarchy and tyranny. Innovation is bad, therefore, and prejudice is good. Although the institutions can tolerate incremental reforms around the edges, systematic questioning is a threat to social order. In particular, rational thought is evil. Nothing can be worse for the conservative than rational thought, because people who think rationally might decide to try replacing inherited institutions with new ones, something that a conservative regards as impossible. This is where the word "conservative" comes from: the supposed importance of conserving established institutions.
This argument is not wholly false. Institutions are in fact sprawling tangles of social arrangements and patterns of thought, passed down through generations as part of the culture. And people who think they can reengineer the whole of human society overnight are generally mistaken. The people of ancien regime France were oppressed by the conservative order of their time, but indeed their revolution did not work, and would probably not have worked even if conservatives from elsewhere were not militarily attacking them. After all, the conservative order had gone to insane lengths to deprive them of the education, practical experience, and patterns of thought that would be required to operate a democracy. They could not invent those things overnight.
Even so, the argument about conserving institutions is mostly untrue. Most institutions are less fragile and more dynamic than conservatives claim. Large amounts of institutional innovation happen in every generation. If people lack a rational analysis of institutions, that is mostly a product of conservatism rather than an argument for it. And although conservatism has historically claimed to conserve institutions, history makes clear that conservatism is only interested in conserving particular kinds of institutions: the institutions that reinforce conservative power. Conservatism rarely tries to conserve institutions such as Social Security and welfare that decrease the common people's dependency on the aristocracy and the social authorities that serve it. To the contrary, they represent those institutions in various twisted ways as dangerous to to the social order generally or to their beneficiaries in particular.
The opposite of conservatism is democracy, and contempt for democracy is a constant thread in the history of conservative argument. Instead, conservatism has argued that society ought to be organized in a hierarchy of orders and classes and controlled by its uppermost hierarchical stratum, the aristocracy. Many of these arguments against egalitarianism are ancient, and most of them are routinely heard on the radio. One tends to hear the arguments in bits and pieces, for example the emphatic if vague claim that people are different. Of course, most of these arguments, if considered rationally, actually argue for meritocracy rather than for aristocracy. Meritocracy is a democratic principle. George Bush, however, was apparently scarred for life by having been one of the last students admitted to Yale under its old aristocratic admissions system, and having to attend classes with students admitted under the meritocratic system who considered themselves to be smarter than him. Although he has lately claimed to oppose the system of legacy admissions from which he benefitted, that is a tactic, part of a package deal to eliminate affirmative action, thereby allowing conservative social hierarchies to be reaffirmed in other ways.
American culture still being comparatively healthy, overt arguments for aristocracy (for example, that the children of aristocrats learn by osmosis the profound arts of government and thereby acquire a wisdom that mere experts cannot match) are still relatively unusual. Instead, conservatism must proceed through complicated indirection, and the next few sections of this article will explain in some detail how this works. The issue is not that rich people are bad, or that hierarchical types of organization have no place in a democracy. Nor are the descendents of aristocrats necessarily bad people if they do not try to perpetuate conservative types of domination over society. The issue is both narrow and enormous: no aristocracy should be allowed to trick the rest of society into deferring to it.
But isn't conservatism about freedom? Of course everyone wants freedom, and so conservatism has no choice but to promise freedom to its subjects. In reality conservatism has meant complicated things by "freedom", and the reality of conservatism in practice has scarcely corresponded even to the contorted definitions in conservative texts.
To start with, conservatism constantly shifts in its degree of authoritarianism. Conservative rhetors, in the Wall Street Journal for example, have no difficulty claiming to be the party of freedom in one breath and attacking civil liberties in the next.
The real situation with conservatism and freedom is best understood in historical context. Conservatism constantly changes, always adapting itself to provide the minimum amount of freedom that is required to hold together a dominant coalition in the society. In Burke's day, for example, this meant an alliance between traditional social authorities and the rising business class. Although the business class has always defined its agenda in terms of something it calls "freedom", in reality conservatism from the 18th century onward has simply implied a shift from one kind of government intervention in the economy to another, quite different kind, together with a continuation of medieval models of cultural domination.
This is a central conservative argument: freedom is impossible unless the common people internalize aristocratic domination. Indeed, many conservative theorists to the present day have argued that freedom is not possible at all. Without the internalized domination of conservatism, it is argued, social order would require the external domination of state terror. In a sense this argument is correct: historically conservatives have routinely resorted to terror when internalized domination has not worked. What is unthinkable by design here is the possibility that people might organize their lives in a democratic fashion.
This alliance between traditional social authorities and the business class is artificial. The market continually undermines the institutions of cultural domination. It does this partly through its constant revolutionizing of institutions generally and partly by encouraging a culture of entrepreneurial initiative. As a result, the alliance must be continually reinvented, all the while pretending that its reinventions simply reinstate an eternal order.
Conservatism promotes (and so does liberalism, misguidedly) the idea that liberalism is about activist government where conservatism is not. This is absurd. It is unrelated to the history of conservative government. Conservatism promotes activist government that acts in the interests of the aristocracy. This has been true for thousands of years. What is distinctive about liberalism is not that it promotes activist government but that it promotes government that acts in the interests of the majority. Democratic government, however, is not simply majoritarian. It is, rather, one institutional expression of a democratic type of culture that is still very much in the process of being invented.
//2 How Conservatism Works
Conservative social orders have often described themselves as civilized, and so one reads in the Wall Street Journal that "the enemies of civilization hate bow ties". But what conservatism calls civilization is little but the domination of an aristocracy. Every aspect of social life is subordinated to this goal. That is not civilization.
The reality is quite the opposite. To impose its order on society, conservatism must destroy civilization. In particular conservatism must destroy conscience, democracy, reason, and language.
* The Destruction of Conscience
Liberalism is a movement of conscience. Liberals speak endlessly of conscience. Yet conservative rhetors have taken to acting as if they owned the language of conscience. They even routinely assert that liberals disparage conscience. The magnitude of the falsehood here is so great that decent people have been set back on their heels.
Conservatism continually twists the language of conscience into its opposite. It has no choice: conservatism is unjust, and cannot survive except by pretending to be the opposite of what it is.
Conservative arguments are often arbitrary in nature. Consider, for example, the controversy over Elian Gonzalez. Conservatism claims that the universe is ordered by absolutes. This would certainly make life easier if it was true. The difficulty is that the absolutes constantly conflict with one another. When the absolutes do not conflict, there is rarely any controversy. But when absolutes do conflict, conservatism is forced into sophistry. In the case of Elian Gonzalez, two absolutes conflicted: keeping families together and not making people return to tyrannies. In a democratic society, the decision would be made through rational debate. Conservatism, however, required picking one of the two absolutes arbitrarily (based perhaps on tactical politics in Florida) and simply accusing anyone who disagreed of flouting absolutes and thereby nihilistically denying the fundamental order of the universe. This happens every day. Arbitrariness replaces reason with authority. When arbitrariness becomes established in the culture, democracy decays and it becomes possible for aristocracies to dominate people's minds.
Another example of conservative twisting of the language of conscience is the argument, in the context of the attacks of 9/11 and the war in Iraq, that holding our side to things like the Geneva Convention implies an equivalence between ourselves and our enemies. This is a logical fallacy. The fallacy is something like: they kill so they are bad, but we are good so it is okay for us to kill. The argument that everything we do is okay so long as it is not as bad as the most extreme evil in the world is a rejection of nearly all of civilization. It is precisely the destruction of conscience.
Or take the notion of "political correctness". It is true that movements of conscience have piled demands onto people faster than the culture can absorb them. That is an unfortunate side-effect of social progress. Conservatism, however, twists language to make the inconvenience of conscience sound like a kind of oppression. The campaign against political correctness is thus a search-and-destroy campaign against all vestiges of conscience in society. The flamboyant nastiness of rhetors such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter represents the destruction of conscience as a type of liberation. They are like cultists, continually egging on their audiences to destroy their own minds by punching through one layer after another of their consciences.
Once I wrote on the Internet that bears in zoos are miserable and should be let go. In response to this, I received an e-mail viciously mocking me as an animal rights wacko. This is an example of the destruction of conscience. Any human being with a halfways functioning conscience will be capable of rationally debating the notion that unhappy bears in zoos should be let go. Of course, rational people might have other opinions. They might claim that the bears are not actually miserable, or that they would be just as miserable in the forest. Conservatism, though, has stereotyped concern for animals by associating it with its most extreme fringe. This sort of mockery of conscience has become systematic and commonplace.
* The Destruction of Democracy
For thousands of years, conservatism was universally understood as being in opposition to democracy. Having lost much of its ability to attack democracy openly, conservatism has tried in recent years to redefine the word "democracy" while engaging in deception to make the substance of democracy unthinkable.
Conservative rhetors, for example, have been using the word "government" in a way that does not distinguish between legitimate democracy and totalitarianism.
Then there is the notion that politicians who offer health care reforms, for example, are claiming to be better people than the rest of us. This is a particularly toxic distortion. Offering reforms is a basic part of democracy, something that every citizen can do.
Even more toxic is the notion that those who criticize the president are claiming to be better people than he is. This is authoritarianism.
Some conservative rhetors have taken to literally demonizing the very notion of a democratic opposition. Rush Limbaugh has argued at length that Tom Daschle resembles Satan simply because he opposes George Bush's policies. Ever since then, Limbaugh has regularly identified Daschle as "el diablo". This is the emotional heart of conservatism: the notion that the conservative order is ordained by God and that anyone and anything that opposes the conservative order is infinitely evil.
* The Destruction of Reason
Conservatism has opposed rational thought for thousands of years. What most people know nowadays as conservatism is basically a public relations campaign aimed at persuading them to lay down their capacity for rational thought.
Conservatism frequently attempts to destroy rational thought, for example, by using language in ways that stand just out of reach of rational debate or rebuttal.
Conservatism has used a wide variety of methods to destroy reason throughout history. Fortunately, many of these methods, such as the suppression of popular literacy, are incompatible with a modern economy. Once the common people started becoming educated, more sophisticated methods of domination were required. Thus the invention of public relations, which is a kind of rationalized irrationality. The great innovation of conservatism in recent decades has been the systematic reinvention of politics using the technology of public relations.
The main idea of public relations is the distinction between "messages" and "facts". Messages are the things you want people to believe. A message should be vague enough that it is difficult to refute by rational means. (People in politics refer to messages as "strategies" and people who devise strategies as "strategists". The Democrats have strategists too, and it is not at all clear that they should, but they scarcely compare with the vast public relations machinery of the right.) It is useful to think of each message as a kind of pipeline: a steady stream of facts is selected (or twisted, or fabricated) to fit the message. Contrary facts are of course ignored. The goal is what the professionals call "message repetition". This provides activists with something to do: come up with new facts to fit the conservative authorities' chosen messages. Having become established in this way, messages must also be continually intertwined with one another. This is one job of pundits.
To the public relations mind, the public sphere is a game in which the opposition tries to knock you off your message. Take the example of one successful message, "Gore's lies". The purpose of the game was to return any interaction to the message, namely that Gore lies. So if it is noted that the supposed examples of Gore lying (e.g., his perfectly true claim to have done onerous farm chores) were themselves untrue, common responses would include, "that doesn't matter, what matters is Gore's lies", or "the reasons people believe them is because of Gore's lies", or "yes perhaps, but there are so many other examples of Gore's lies", or "you're just trying to change the subject away from Gore's lies", and so on.
Many of these messages have become institutions. Whole organizations exist to provide a pipeline of "facts" that underwrite the message of "liberal media bias". These "facts" fall into numerous categories and exemplify a wide range of fallacies. Some are just factually untrue, e.g., claims that the New York Times has failed to cover an event that it actually covered in detail. Other claimed examples of bias are non sequiturs, e.g., quotations from liberal columns that appear on the opinion pages, or quotations from liberals in news articles that also provided balancing quotes from conservatives. Others are illogical, e.g., media that report news events that represent bad news for the president. The methods of identifying "bias" are thus highly elastic. In practice, everything in the media on political topics that diverges from conservative public relations messages is contended to be an example of "liberal bias". The goal, clearly, is to purge the media of everything except conservatism.
The word "inaccurate" has become something of a technical term in the political use of public relations. It means "differs from our message".
Public relations aims to break down reason and replace it with mental associations. One tries to associate "us" with good things and "them" with bad things. Thus, for example, the famous memo from Newt Gingrich's (then) organization GOPAC entitled "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control". It advised Republican candidates to associate themselves with words like "building", "dream", "freedom", "learn", "light", "preserve", "success", and "truth" while associating opponents with words like "bizarre", "decay", "ideological", "lie", "machine", "pathetic", and "traitors". The issue here is not whether these words are used at all; of course there do exist individual liberals that could be described using any of these words. The issue, rather, is a kind of cognitive surgery: systematically creating and destroying mental associations with little regard for truth. Note, in fact, that "truth" is one of the words that Gingrich advised appropriating in this fashion. Someone who thinks this way cannot even conceptualize truth.
Conservative strategists construct their messages in a variety of more or less stereotyped ways. One of the most important patterns of conservative message-making is projection. Projection is a psychological notion; it roughly means attacking someone by falsely claiming that they are attacking you. Conservative strategists engage in projection constantly. A commonplace example would be taking something from someone by claiming that they are in fact taking it from you. Or, having heard a careful and detailed refutation of something he has said, the projector might snap, "you should not dismiss what I have said so quickly!". It is a false claim -- what he said was not dismissed -- that is an example of itself -- he is dismissing what his opponent has said.
Projection was an important part of the Florida election controversy, for example when Republicans tried to get illegal ballots counted and prevent legal ballots from being counted, while claiming that Democrats were trying to steal the election.
* The Destruction of Language
Reason occurs mostly through the medium of language, and so the destruction of reason requires the destruction of language. An underlying notion of conservative politics is that words and phrases of language are like territory in warfare: owned and controlled by one side or the other. One of the central goals of conservatism, as for example with Newt Gingrich's lists of words, is to take control of every word and phrase in the English language.
George Bush, likewise, owes his election in great measure to a new language that his people engineered for him. His favorite word, for example, is "heart". This type of linguistic engineering is highly evolved in the business milieu from which conservative public relations derives, and it is the day-to-day work of countless conservative think tanks. Bush's people, and the concentric circles of punditry around them, are worlds away from John Kerry deciding on a moment's notice that he is going to start the word "values". They do not use a word unless they have an integrated communications strategy for taking control of that word throughout the whole of society.
Bush's personal vocabulary is only a small part of conservative language warfare as a whole. Since around 1990, conservative rhetors have been systematically turning language into a weapon against liberals. Words are used in twisted and exaggerated ways, or with the opposite of their customary meanings. This affects the whole of the language. The goal of this distorted language is not simply to defeat an enemy but to destroy the minds of the people who believe themselves to be conservatives and who constantly challenge themselves to ever greater extremity in using it.
A simple example of turning language into a weapon might be the word "predictable", which has become a synonym for "liberal". There is no rational argument in this usage. Every such use of "predictable" can be refuted simply by substituting the word "consistent". It is simply invective.
More importantly, conservative rhetors have been systematically mapping the language that has historically been used to describe the aristocracy and the traditional authorities that serve it, and have twisted those words into terms for liberals. This tactic has the dual advantage of both attacking the aristocracies' opponents and depriving them of the words that they have used to attack aristocracy.
A simple example is the term "race-baiting". In the Nexis database, uses of "race-baiting" undergo a sudden switch in the early 1990's. Before then, "race-baiting" referred to racists. Afterward, it referred in twisted way to people who oppose racism. What happened is simple: conservative rhetors, tired of the political advantage that liberals had been getting from their use of that word, took it away from them.
A more complicated example is the word "racist". Conservative rhetors have tried to take this word away as well by constantly coming up with new ways to stick the word onto liberals and their policies. For example they have referred to affirmative action as "racist". This is false; it is an attempt to destroy language. Racism is the notion that one race is intrinsically better than another. Affirmative action is arguably discriminatory, as a means of partially offsetting discrimination in other places and times, but it is not racist. Many conservative rhetors have even stuck the word "racist" on people just because they oppose racism. The notion seems to be that these people addressed themselves to the topic of race, and the word "racist" is sort of an adjective relating somehow to race. In any event this too is an attack on language.
A recent example is the word "hate". The civil rights movement had used the word "hate" to refer to terrorism and stereotyping against black people, and during the 1990's some in the press had identified as "Clinton-haters" people who had made vast numbers of bizarre claims that the Clintons had participated in murder and drug-dealing. Beginning around 2003, conservative rhetors took control of this word as well by labeling a variety of perfectly ordinary types of democratic opposition to George Bush as "hate". In addition, they have constructed a large number of messages of the form "liberals hate X" (e.g., X=America) and established within their media apparatus a sophistical pipeline of "facts" to support each one. This is also an example of the systematic breaking of associations.
The word "partisan" entered into its current political circulation in the early 1990's when some liberals identified people like Newt Gingrich as "partisan" for doing things like the memo on language that I mentioned earlier. To the conservative way of politics, there is nothing either true or false about the liberal claim. It is simply that liberals had taken control of some rhetorical territory: the word "partisan". Conservative rhetors then set about taking control of the word themselves. They did this in a way that has become mechanical. They first claimed, falsely, that liberals were identifying as "partisan" any views other than their own. They thus inflated the word while projecting this inflation onto the liberals and disconnecting the word from the particular facts that the liberals had associated with it. Next, they started using the word "partisan" in the inflated, dishonest way that they had ascribed to their opponents. This is, very importantly, a way of attacking people simply for having a different opinion. In twisting language this way, conservatives tell themselves that they are simply turning liberal unfairness back against the liberals. This too is projection.
Another common theme of conservative strategy is that liberals are themselves an aristocracy. (For those who are really keeping score, the sophisticated version of this is called the "new class strategy", the message being that liberals are the American version of the Soviet nomenklatura.) Thus, for example, the constant pelting of liberals as "elites", sticking this word and a mass of others semantically related to it onto liberals on every possible occasion. A pipeline of "facts" has been established to underwrite this message as well. Thus, for example, constant false conservative claims that the rich vote Democratic. When Al Franken recently referred to his new radio network as "the media elite and proud of it", he demonstrated his oblivion to the workings of the conservative discourse that he claims to contest.
Further examples of this are endless. When a Republican senator referred to "the few liberals", hardly any liberals gave any sign of getting what he meant: as all conservatives got just fine, he was appropriating the phrase "the few", referring to the aristocracy as opposed to "the many", and sticking this phrase in a false and mechanical way onto liberals. Rush Limbaugh asserts that "they [liberals] think they are better than you", this of course being a phrase that had historically been applied (and applied correctly) to the aristocracy. Conservative rhetors constantly make false or exaggerated claims that liberals are engaged in stereotyping -- the criticism of stereotyping having been one of history's most important rhetorical devices of democrats. And so on. The goal here is to make it impossible to criticize aristocracy.
For an especially sorry example of this pattern, consider the word "hierarchy". Conservatism is a hierarchical social system: a system of ranked orders and classes. Yet in recent years conservatives have managed to stick this word onto liberals, the notion being that "government" (which liberals supposedly endorse and conservatives supposedly oppose) is hierarchical (whereas corporations, the military, and the church are somehow vaguely not). Liberals are losing because it does not even occur to them to refute this kind of mechanical antireason.
It is often claimed in the media that snooty elitists on the coasts refer to states in the middle of the country as "flyover country". Yet I, who have lived in liberal areas of the coasts for most of my life, have never once heard this usage. In fact, as far as I can tell, the Nexis database does not contain a single example of anyone using the phrase "flyover country" to disparage the non-coastal areas of the United States. Instead, it contains hundreds of examples of people disparaging residents of the coasts by claiming that they use the phrase to describe the interior. The phrase is a special favorite of newspapers in Minneapolis and Denver. This is projection. Likewise, I have never heard the phrase "political correctness" used except to disparage the people who supposedly use it.
Conservative remapping of the language of aristocracy and democracy has been incredibly thorough. Consider, for example, the terms "entitlement" and "dependency". The term "entitlement" originally referred to aristocrats. Aristocrats had titles, and they thought that they were thereby entitled to various things, particularly the deference of the common people. Everyone else, by contrast, was dependent on the aristocrats. This is conservatism. Yet in the 1990's, conservative rhetors decided that the people who actually claim entitlement are people on welfare. They furthermore created an empirically false association between welfare and dependency. But, as I have mentioned, welfare is precisely a way of eliminating dependency on the aristocracy and the cultural authorities that serve it. I do not recall anyone ever noting this inversion of meaning.
Conservative strategists have also been remapping the language that has historically been applied to conservative religious authorities, sticking words such as "orthodoxy", "pious", "dogma", and "sanctimonious" to liberals at every turn.
//3 Conservatism in American History
Almost all of the early immigrants to America left behind societies that had been oppressed by conservatism. The democratic culture that Americans have built is truly one of the monuments of civilization. And American culture remains vibrant to this day despite centuries of conservative attack. Yet the history of American democracy has generally been taught in confused ways. This history might be sketched in terms of the great turning points that happened to occur around 1800 and 1900, followed by the great reaction that gathered steam in the decades leading up to 2000.
America before the revolution was a conservative society. It lacked an entitled aristocracy, but it was dominated in very much the same way by its gentry. Americans today have little way of knowing what this meant -- the hierarchical ties of personal dependency that organized people's psychology. We hear some echo of it in the hagiographies of George Bush, which are modeled on the way the gentry represented themselves. The Founding Fathers, men like Madison, Adams, and Washington, were, in this sense, products of aristocratic society. They did not make a revolution in order to establish democracy. Quite the contrary, they wanted to be aristocrats. They did not succeed. The revolution that they helped set in motion did not simply sweep away the church and crown of England. As scholars such as Gordon Wood have noted, it also swept away the entire social system of the gentry, and it did so with a suddenness and thoroughness that surprised and amazed everyone who lived through it. So completely did Americans repudiate the conservative social system of the gentry, in fact, that they felt free to mythologize the Founding Fathers, forgetting the Founding Fathers' aristocratic ambitions and pretending that they, too, were revolutionary democrats. This ahistorical practice of projecting all good things onto the Founding Fathers continues to the present day, and it is unfortunate because (as Michael Schudson has argued) it makes us forget all of the work that Americans have subsequently done to build the democratic institutions of today. In reality, Madison, Adams, and Washington were much like Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. Like Gorbachev, they tried to reform an oppressive system without fundamentally changing it. And like Gorbachev, they were swept away by the very forces they helped set into motion.
The revolution, though, proceeded quite differently in the North and South, and led to a kind of controlled experiment. The North repudiated conservatism altogether. Indeed it was the only society in modern history without an aristocracy, and as scholars such as the late Robert Wiebe have noted, its dynamic democratic culture was most extraordinary. It is unfortunate that we discuss this culture largely through the analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville, an aristocrat who wanted to graft medieval notions of social order onto a democratic culture that he found alien. In the South, by contrast, the conservative order of the gentry was modified to something more resembling the oppressive latifundist systems of Latin America, relieved mainly by comparatively democratic religious institutions. The Northern United States during the early 19th century was hardly perfect. Left-over conservative hierarchies and patterns of psychology continued to damage people's minds and lives in numerous ways. But compared to the South, the North was, and has always been, a more dynamic and successful society. Southern conservatism has had to modify its strategies in recent decades, but its grip on the culture is tragically as strong as ever.
Something more complicated happened around 1900. Railroads, the telegraph, and mass production made for massive new economies of scale, whereupon the invention of the corporation gave a new generation of would-be aristocrats new ways to reinvent themselves.
The complicated institutional and ideological events of this era can be understood in microcosm through the subsequent history of the word "liberal", which forked into two quite different meanings. The word "liberal" had originally been part of an intramural dispute within the conservative alliance between the aristocracy and the rising business class. Their compromise, as I have noted, is that the aristocracy would maintain its social control for the benefit of both groups mainly through psychological means rather than through terror, and that economic regulation would henceforth be designed to benefit the business class. And both of these conditions would perversely be called "freedom". The word "liberal" thus took its modern meaning in a struggle against the aristocracy's control of the state. Around 1900, however, the corporation emerged in a society in which democracy was relatively strong and the aristocracy was relatively weak. Antitrust and many other types of state regulation were not part of traditional aristocratic control, but were part of democracy. And this is why the word "liberal" forked. Democrats continued using the word in its original sense, to signify the struggle against aristocracy, in this case the new aristocracy of corporate power. Business interests, however, reinvented the word to signify a struggle against something conceptualized very abstractly as "government". In reality the new business meaning of the word, as worked out in detail by people like Hayek, went in an opposite direction from its original meaning: a struggle against the people, rather than against the aristocracy.
At the same time as the corporation provided the occasion for the founding of a new aristocracy, however, a new middle class founded a large number of professions. The relationship between the professional middle class and the aristocracy has been complicated throughout the 20th century. But whereas the goal of conservatism throughout history has primarily been to suppress the mob of common people, the conservatism of the late 20th century was especially vituperative in its campaigns against the relatively autonomous democratic cultures of the professions.
One of the professions founded around 1900 was public relations. Early public relations texts were quite openly conservative, and public relations practitioners openly affirmed that their profession existed to manipulate the common people psychologically in order to ensure the domination of society by a narrow elite. Squeamishness on this matter is a recent phenomenon indeed.
* the 1970's
The modern history of conservatism begins around 1975, as corporate interests began to react to the democratic culture of the sixties. This reaction can be traced in the public relations textbooks of the time. Elaborate new methods of public relations tried to prevent, coopt, and defeat democratic initiatives throughout the society. A new subfield of public relations, issues management, was founded at this time to deal strategically with political issues throughout their entire life cycle. One of the few political theories that has made note of the large-scale institutionalization of public relations is the early work of Jurgen Habermas.
Even more important was the invention of the think tank, and especially the systematic application of public relations to politics by the most important of the conservative think tanks, the Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation's methods of issues management have had a fantastically corrosive effect on democracy.
* the 1980's
The great innovation of Ronald Reagan and the political strategists who worked with him was to submerge conservatism's historically overt contempt for the common people. The contrast between Reagan's language and that of conservatives even a decade or two earlier is most striking. Jacques Barzun's "The House of Intellect" (1959), for example, fairly bristles with contempt for demotic culture, the notion being that modern history is the inexorable erosion of aristocratic civilization by democracy. On a political level, Reagan's strategy was to place wedges into the many divides in that era's popular democracy, including both the avoidable divides that the counterculture had opened up and the divides that had long been inherent in conservatism's hierarchical order. Reagan created a mythical working class whose values he conflated with those of the conservative order, and he opposed this to an equally mythical professional class of liberal wreckers. Democratic culture in the sixties had something of a workable theory of conservatism -- one that has largely been lost. But it was not enough of a theory to explain to working people why they are on the same side as hippies and gays. Although crude by comparison with conservative discourse only twenty years later, Reagan's strategy identified this difficulty with some precision. People like Ella Baker had explained the psychology of conservatism -- the internalized deference that makes a conservative order possible. But the new psychology of democracy does not happen overnight, and it did not become general in the culture.
* the 1990's
In the 1990's, American conservatism institutionalized public relations methods of politics on a large scale, and it used these methods in a savage campaign of delegitimizing democratic institutions. In particular, a new generation of highly trained conservative strategists evolved, on the foundation of classical public relations methods, a sophisticated practice of real-time politics that integrated ideology and tactics on a year-to-year, news-cycle-to-news-cycle, and often hour-to-hour basis. This practice employs advanced models of the dynamics of political issues so as to launch waves of precisely designed communications in countless well-analyzed loci throughout the society. For contemporary conservatism, a political issue -- a war, for example -- is a consumer product to be researched and rolled out in a planned way with continuous empirical feedback from polling. So far as citizens can tell, such issues seem to materialize everywhere at once, swarming the culture with so many interrelated formulations that it becomes impossible to think, much less launch an effective rebuttal. Such a campaign is successful if it occupies precisely the ideological ground that can be occupied at a given moment, and it includes quite overt plans for holding that ground through the construction of a pipeline of facts and intertwining with other, subsequent issues. Although in one sense this machinery has a profound kinship with the priesthoods of ancient Egypt, in another sense its radicalism -- its inhuman thoroughness -- has no precedent in history. Liberals have nothing remotely comparable.