The current American conservative agenda sounds so ridiculous because it’s on the defensive.
Disclaimer: This article is not a condemnation of “traditional values.” It is indeed a condemnation of the contemporary conservative agenda, but that is accomplished by exposing the contradictions within the current American political ideological spectrum which negatively affect the conservative and liberal labels alike.
With the circus that is the early bird Republican presidential race becoming more and more farcical everyday, those on the American left and right alike are wondering together: what has happened to American conservatism?
On one hand we have a massive pool of candidates — so many that basic public name recognition is still a problem for most of them — all battling over non-issue, small semantics. On the other hand we have a party that can’t decide whether or not it is supposed to be combating social liberalization with a push back toward the far right or embracing it with a gentle movement toward center. And at the forefront of everything we have a front-runner candidate who is blowing the whole picture to pieces with wild non-ideas and rampant muckraking.
So what happened, and what is the future of the American right?
How We Got Here
If we start by looking at everything that a true conservative is supposed to be — everything that these (how many?) presidential candidates are supposed to embody — we find that the conservative narrative in America is a large mess of contradictions.
When John and Jane Liberal like to complain about the American right wing, they usually start with its dreadful social agenda. And who can blame them? The right’s consistent marginalization of racial minorities, women, the LGBT community, the poor, religious minorities, etc., all in the name of “family values” or fighting against “the war on Christianity,” is truly horrible. But what may not be obvious to the everyday observer is that the evolution of the conservative social agenda in the United States is actually a result of the right’s economic policy. This, in part, is why it is so common to find Americans who are “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” In the realm of the social, it is easy to see the conservative agenda as discriminatory or hateful; but when it comes to economics, right and wrong are easily muddled in the rhetoric of growth.
The basic premise of conservative economic theory in the present day is simple: keep the government out as much as possible, a statement that is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the premise appeals to the patriotic, traditional aspect of conservatism in that it calls upon the constitutional spirit of the Founding Fathers. Checks and balances, representative democracy, “we the people” — the main economic themes of the basis of the founding of American government as we learned about as children are centered around keeping the government functionally small and responsive to the will of the people. On the other hand, the premise appeals to a dissatisfaction with the status quo that has accompanied what Chris Hayes refers to as the American “fail decade,” i.e. the last ten years of demonstrated governmental ineptitude and apathy toward the masses. In interpreting this fail decade, conservative spheres have correctly put the blame on the actions of the current generation of government leaders, but they have also incorrectly identified active government as the villain which must be vanquished in order to restore the principles of the American way.
From this double-edged sword comes two premises of contemporary American conservatism: laissez-faire and trickle-down.
In this writer’s opinion, the argument for laissez-faire, or free-market principles is still alive, and it is the Elmer’s glue that is holding together popular fiscal conservatism. The basis of capitalism is the free, healthy ebb and flow of market forces, and what disrupts that flow is unnecessary taxation. As the theory goes, if the government sticks its hand into the free market too much, it causes unnatural market behavior, which then in turn necessitates more government action to fix the problem, which then creates a slippery slope leading to a stagnant market, governmental tyranny, or both. (The leftist response to the strict laissez-faire argument is that free markets themselves eventually create irreversible inequality, and it is more or less outlined in a past Ruskinia article entitled Elitocracy.)
What argument is not still alive is that of trickle-down economics, and whether or not Joe Conservative wants to believe it or not, it is a staple of conservative economic policy. It is often disguised as supply-side economics or any of a number of laissez-faire-based theories and policies, but ever since the dawn of Reagan’s economic experiments, the practice has been the same, and it has been prevalent. In essence, fiscal conservatives make a habit of cutting tax rates for the biggest money-makers in society because these companies have become so big that the status of the world socioeconomy depends on them. The original trickle-down idea was that, if one provides aid to those at the top, the benefits would trickle down to the rest of the economy, but unsurprisingly, the fat cats have historically used government help in a way that minimizes trickling and keeps the wealth at the top with them.
Enter massive economic inequality, and the new tyrant: the corporation, sucking back up all of the new income that it creates. All the while the rhetoric of minimal taxation remains popular because those in the middle and at the bottom of the dysfunctional economic ladder need as much of their paycheck as they can hold onto in order to keep food on the table. So in order to cover lost tax revenue from aiding the rich, the government is compelled to add to the deficit and cut aid to the poor, thus worsening the condition of the average American, compounding economic inequality.
Where We Are Now
This is largely how we get to the aforementioned consistent social marginalization as committed by the right wing. Just like any other version of class warfare, the economic model as just described relies on the marginalization of bottom economic groups in order to remain popularly acceptable, and fiscal “conservatism” has found in traditional American values a vehicle from which to push that marginalization. By conflating a rhetoric of traditional “values” with a subtle yet systematic suppression of minority groups who might empathize with those who lose the most in the conservative economic system, right-wing economic movers create a culture war that distracts from its own root causes.
“To my mind it is a very sad state of affairs that we have too many working class Republicans who continue to vote against their own best interests.”
Luckily, however, through the emergence of long suppressed social questions, this facade is becoming less and less believable to the masses. Bernie Sanders said in a recent campaign video, “To my mind it is a very sad state of affairs that we have too many working class Republicans who continue to vote against their own best interests.” That perfectly sums up what many working class people — conservative, liberal, left, right, and nonpolitical — are coming to realize: the powers who claim that they are protecting the people from overreaching government are actually the powers who are removing the people’s safety nets.
This collective realization is a large reason why the current Republican presidential race is such a mess. American conservatism is in the midst of a crisis, and the Republican party is in need a grand re-branding job in order to keep its agenda intact. The question now is, of the countless candidates, will one emerge as the savior of fiscal conservatism? Or will the large pool implode on itself, thus revealing the truth of right-wing economic oppression?