Part 4 in my series on rethinking the political spectrum.
We have seen in Part 1 that we can better comprehend political actions by understanding them as actions to either expand or restrict the circulation of power. Actions intended to increase the circulation of social, economic, and political power are left-wing. Actions intended to restrict the circulation of social, economic, and political power are right-wing. From this essential, practical knowledge, we can better interpret political beliefs and actions.
In this article, we will take a deep dive into the right-wing, also known as “conservatism.” The goal is to take the discussion of conservatism out of the realm of polemic partisan discussion and avoid caricature and demagoguery. Conservatism is in no way a monolithic entity, and attempting to define and understand it is by no means easy. Conservatism manifests itself in multiple subject areas—fiscal conservatism, religious conservatism, and social conservatism. However, across the different subjects in which conservative ideologies manifest, we can identify common paradigms. The core of the conservative paradigm is the restriction of social power to a small group—an “Us”—in opposition to a “Them.”
It is helpful to split conservatism into two social groups, differentiated primarily by social status. Because they share the same essential goal of restricting power to a select group, they are both right-wing or conservative. Because they have significantly different self-identities, and therefore engage in different political actions, they are distinct social groups. I will refer to the two groups as the Vested Conservatives and the Resentful Conservatives and discuss them in turn.
The Vested Conservatives (VCs) are people who have a high enough economic and social status that they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. For them, the word “conservative” has its literal meaning. These people attempt to conserve the current socioeconomic situation because it benefits them. Their social identity is grounded in a sense of their upper-class superiority to the masses. Their political identity is heavily vested in a vision of government as the entity that defends the property rights of the wealthy.
Their agenda is straightforward and easy to understand: they seek to conserve their economic and political power and their separation from the hoi polloi. VCs include the über-rich, like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, and those who believe they are or should be in that upper-upper class. They demand that there be little or no regulation on business, low taxes on the wealthy and corporations, and a government that works for the interests of the wealthy and powerful. In the United States, the VCs seek a return to the laissez-faire America that existed before the Great Society and perhaps even before the New Deal. They are the pro-business conservatives, often calling themselves “fiscal conservatives.”
Increasing the concentration of power is what defines the political right. The VCs are right-wing in acting to influence government and the media to promote increased concentration of wealth and economic power. That is their Constitutional right. There is nothing wrong in voting one’s self-interest; that is the heart of democracy. Nor can we blame any VCs for otherwise being politically active to defend and expand their interests. Yes, the rich have the right to express their self-interest politically and have their voices heard, but the rest of us should understand their actions and political positions for what they are: increasing power for themselves.
The Resentful Conservatives (RCs) also desire the restriction of power in society, but they lack the socio-economic status of the VCs. They possess social privilege by dint of being the “right” ethnicity, religion, or other social identity but they nevertheless feel they are oppressed. RCs in the lower economic class are arguably oppressed—deprived of economic opportunities and power. However, rather than adopting a left-wing ethos of increasing the circulation of power to all, RCs engage in oppositional politics to deprive other people of power. Their actions are dominated by their resentment of other social groups.
Their resentment comes from their fervent desire to maintain a particular homogenized purity in society. Their social and political identity lies in a vision of their social group being superior to all others and their group must be defended against all who are different from them. Often incorrectly called “populists” (a misapplication of a general term) the RCs’ political focus is on reversing the long cultural trend of increasing diversity and inclusion.
For example, in the United States, the RCs’ agenda is a return to an America that never really was, a country where everything was “great” because the privileged status of white evangelicals was unchallenged and unhindered. The RCs believe that something has been lost in the United States, and the fault lies with liberals, especially minorities and foreigners. It is a vision of a way things never were: the pre-60s United States of Father Knows Best, John Wayne, and Dragnet—a world where who was good and who was evil were clearly delineated, and minorities and women knew their place—and if they didn’t, they were sharply reminded.
In their political actions, the RCs are driven by their oppositional politics. They believe that they and only people like them are the “true Americans/English/<insert country here>.” They vote against those whom they see as siding with their enemies and supporting the enemies of their enemies (see Part 3). Like the VCs, the RCs have the right to express their self-interest politically and have their voices heard, but as with the VCs, the rest of us should understand their actions and political positions for what they are.
Those of you who have read Part 3 will notice that the anti-left reactionary right that I described there are similar to the RCs described here. There are definite overlaps, and I cannot draw a definitive line as to where they can be separated, and perhaps they shouldn’t be. Perhaps it is easiest to say that the anti-left reactionary right are extremist RCs. However categorized, the RCs are useful tools for the VCs.
The Conservative Alliance
Conservatism as a political force is a union of the VCs and RCs. The VCs have the money, and the RCs have the numbers, and together they exert political influence. Central to the success of the VCs’ agenda is to convince a large enough segment of the population to vote for candidates who will enact it. The enormous amounts of money that go to political campaigns and lobbying and the corporate control of the media are part of a deliberate effort to advance the interests and well-being of the wealthy and powerful VCs. The VCs own the corporate media, and they use it to push pro-VC messaging that the RCs soak in, shaping their beliefs and spurring them to vote for particular pro-VC political parties.
It is obvious why the wealthy want to retain a status quo that benefits them, but it takes a certain subterfuge for the VCs to convince the RCs to defend a status quo that is inherently against the interests of the RCs. Money is the tail that wags the electoral dog. Why this subterfuge works is because the VCs can exploit the fundamental psychology of the right-wing mindset.
The Conservative Dualism
Because it is inherently about the restriction of power, the conservative mindset easily descends into a reductionist Us-versus-Them view of the world and everyone in it. Conservatism is the dread fear that somewhere, somehow, someone you think is your inferior is being treated as your equal. From that fear arises the anger and resentment that defines resentful conservatism. That anger and resentment is easily manipulated and exploited by the vested conservatives. The VCs’ corporate media stokes the fears of RCs with frenzied visions of imaginary threats from immigrants, welfare queens, gay marriage, affirmative action, labor unions, the fictitious liberal media, liberal politicians, and government agents. The VCs’ propagandists know that the xenophobia, racism, sexism, and homophobia permeate right-wing thinking can be easily pushed into knee-jerk reactionism.
Trumpism and Brexit are only the latest manifestations of a tradition of resentful anger in Conservatism that is the natural expression of their Us-versus-Them dualism. In the United States, the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Scare of the 1920s, Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy, Nixon’s southern strategy, the militia movement, the Christian Coalition, Timothy McVeigh, and the Tea Party movement are all manifestations of a constant in American politics. The anger and resentment by the RC toward anyone who isn’t like them is the fuel for all of these movements. Although the concrete manifestations are slightly different, the core remains the same: a fear of and abiding dislike for anyone who does not fit the “Proper American” paradigm of a white evangelical conservative.
In the United Kingdom, the VCs’ Brexit campaign exploited RCs’ fear of immigrants and the spectre of other nations having equal rights with the UK within the EU. The Leave campaign succeeded because the VCs adeptly exploited RC resentment and right-wing nostalgia for Rule Britannia and its lost empire: “make Britain great again” by separating the Us from the Them, and pretending their fellow Europeans are the “Them.”
Because conservatism is the desire to restrict power to a few, it necessarily sees the majority of other people as the enemy. Making and keeping enemies is not only noble but essential. Such a militantly dualistic paradigm eventually becomes paranoia—the conviction that Them hate Us as much as Us hate Them, and Them is coming to get Us. This is conservatism, and this is their world. And yes, I know that the anti-right fake left has the same dualistic mindset—a big part of why it is the fake left.
A conservative is a sociopolitical dualist. The conservative sees the world in simplistic terms—everything is either right or wrong. Conservatives believe their judgments express a transcendent moral and metaphysical reality and that all differing perspectives stem from deep moral and metaphysical wrongness. Acknowledging any nuances or ambiguities or compromising with others is a sign of weakness or perversion in the eyes of the strident right-winger. The more fervent the conservative, the narrower becomes the acceptable sphere of correctness. This coalesces with their foundational dualism making it easy to uncritically dismiss all contrary facts and ideas. What others would call blindness or closed-mindedness, conservatives see as both wise and virtuous.
Thus, within conservatism’s dualism, caring about people or the environment is a sign of weakness. Acceptance of diversity is wrong, acceptance of gays and lesbians is wrong, liberal arts curriculum is wrong, as is academic freedom. Right-wing foreign policy is simple—distrust, if not hatred, for everyone who is different. Any softening of stances against foreign regimes is interpreted as weakness.
The VCs exploit the RCs’ dualistic thinking through fear and hate mongering. By flooding the minds of RCs with fears, the VCs can more easily convince them to be against laws and regulations that would favor the people over corporations. The VCs cloak their agenda in high-sounding ideology and talk of the common good, but their plans are nothing but base self-interest. The myth of American rugged individualism is the centerpiece of the ideological propaganda. It feeds the RCs’ resentment while serving VC interests. Myths are sold under the individualist rubric packaged in talking points that are eagerly parroted by the corporate media.
The self-interested VCs oppose regulation of business and wealth for purely self-interested reasons, but they publicly claim it is for the common good. Work and product safety laws, environmental laws, and so on would “hurt the corporate bottom line” and they pretend that this would hurt common people. The VCs want the people to believe that requiring big banks and corporations to be honest somehow hurts them in small-town America. They push the delusion that raising taxes on rich people to fund essential infrastructure is a threat to a mythical way of life. The VCs claim to be motivated by the common good, but if they were truly interested in the common good, they would willingly participate in programs that protect and empower people besides themselves.
The examples are seemingly endless of conservative attempts to concentrate power in the hands of the VCs, from taxes to regulations to foreign wars. In all of them, the VCs engage in ideological propaganda that exploits RC fears. This propaganda is a constant drumbeat in American society and influences many, while also creating a demagogic buttress for existing resentments and fears. The effective VC propaganda disseminated by the corporate media has created more than a few RC monsters.
This article doesn’t pretend to deal with all aspects of conservatism but instead should be seen as a start on trying to understand the movement, its causes, motivations, and behaviors. Again, the key concept is to understand that conservatism is the desire to restrict the circulation of power to a small group. What emerges through this analysis is that conservatism is an ideological dualism composed of two groups: vested conservatives and resentful conservatives. These two groups combine to create and sustain an atmosphere of political hostility in which enemies are created and demagoguery poisons the political atmosphere, resulting in a fierce headwind against any change to the status quo.
It pays to know your enemy; and even if you don’t consider conservatives your enemy, they probably consider you their enemy.