Time and again, conservative politicos attempt to refute the basic assumptions that undergird our expansive and often complicated governing system while radically undermining the established statutory and constitutional bulwarks which have been built up over a century and a half of sustained political struggle to build this system. Repeating ad nauseam their reverence for “conservative principles,” they proclaim their desire to increase our liberty by reducing government’s role in our lives and restoring what they consider its proper constitutional foundations.
One upon a time, this mode of conservatism might have been called “reactionary”–i.e., an attempt to revert to an original Garden of Eden. Reactionary impulses are certainly present, but the huge ideological constructions that inform these impulses are driven by a deeply embedded alternate reality profoundly at odds with the world we now live in. More than this, it is an ideological construct which is increasingly driven by alternative institutions and norms which not only challenge the very foundations of our modern way of life, but radically re-interpret the historical path which brought us to where we are.
Such a challenge might simply be termed “revolutionary” rather than “conservative,” at least as the latter term has been understood for centuries. Nonetheless, there are conservative ideas present in this alternate reality, and I use the term “revolutionary conservatism” in order to draw attention both to its self-proclaimed conservatism and its radical, transformative nature. I would like to emphasize the extreme threat posed by the inability to think how revolutionary conservatism challenges the very ground upon which we all stand.
Let us be specific. Anti-government rhetoric, building upon decades of cynicism about “politics” and a dramatic loss of legitimacy for many of our most basic institutions, has now coalesced into a presumption that governance itself should be effectively be dismantled in order to free us from regulation and social supports that are presumed to undermine individual initiative or human freedom. Distrust of an overbearing government has, of course, been with us ō j from the beginning and is deeply embedded in our constitutional republic. Nonetheless, expansive governmental efforts to address our well-being are not necessarily threats to liberty. Consider, for example, the efforts to free seniors from poverty through Social Security and Medicare ; insure a degree of safety in our food, pharmaceutical, and other consumer products; clean our air and water; build a vast transportation system to undergird the economy; eradicate racial and sexual bigotry and oppression; build and subsidize our energy systems; establish a taxpayer-supported educational system to insure greater opportunities and a productive economy; and to subsidize research that has freed us from many disastrous diseases, expanded and protected our basic natural resources, and provided us with hundreds of government-sponsored technical innovations like the internet. That policies that provide such benefits can go wrong or be inefficient and unjust is obvious. What is not obvious, and what now sustains revolutionary conservatism is the idea that ANY effort at effective governance with respect to such matters is a threat to our way of life and the liberties that define who we are.
The absurdities resulting from this belief are breathtaking. Time and again, conservatives in Congress have tried to privatize Social Security and Medicare by turning over such programs to private market investments and insurance purchases. They have attacked “common core” educational standards because they distrust government commitments to develop the skills and basic knowledge necessary to an age of rampant globalization, leaving education to private charter schools, or the parents, or local school boards which can be dominated by nongovernmental entities as churches and businesses. They support efforts to place basic health decisions like mandatory vaccinations and prohibitions on raw milk in the hands of parents and consumers, despite the danger to others. They promote the complete dismantling of the election finance laws under the presumption that government has no right to limit or even make transparent how individuals or businesses spend their private money to influence elections because this would be threat to “freedom of speech”–as if governance intended to guarantee the integrity of an election system which undergirds our democracy is in itself a sinister attack on personal liberty.
There are certainly conservative objections concerning how we handle such matters that deserve close attention. What is truly revolutionary and much more troubling is the belief that the attempt to govern at all with respect to secure retirements, health care, education, and even the insurance of even-handedness in election campaigns is an inherent threat to our deepest values.
Perhaps the most absurd rejection of governance concerns gun safety. Somehow, the idea has evolved that freedom comes from our mutual ability to protect ourselves from each other with weapons, as if the very constitution in which the Second Amendment appears wasn’t written to insure a government strong enough to secure public, as opposed to private, justice. The notion that governments exist so that we don’t have to engage in a war of all against all is profoundly embedded in the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, and even the Common Law system inherited from the British. Even the recent Supreme Court case which invented a purely personal right to bear arms, despite long established precedents linking that right to “well-regulated” militias, recognized the need for reasonable gun regulations to guarantee public safety, whatever the NRA and others embedded in our gun culture might say. It is the Declaration of Independence which says “that to secure” the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, “governments are instituted among men.”
How have we so badly lost our common sense that we believe anarchy is our preferred condition, even as the world which becomes more complex and integrated every day suggests a need to consider how we can navigate a sea of radical changes which present dangers as well as new opportunities?
Let me suggest three profound failures which have brought us to this state of affairs. The first problem is a weak, loosely organized educational system which is far more preoccupied with sports teams and threats to conventional ways of life and thinking than it is with meeting the basic demands of modern society. Much attention has been given to overcoming this breakdown in our educational system with respect to STEM standards, while little attention has been given to what we should know about governance in a world where scientific understanding, radical environmental changes, and profound shifts in the global economy reconfigure the world we live in . Understanding what the founders of our republic thought, or how the narrow lineaments of our political system evolved, is utterly inadequate for understanding modern challenges. We no longer live in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however much we can still admire the insights and struggles of those who did. Traditional “civics” and history courses simply do not address the major changes that led to sizable modern states such as ours, nor the political struggles associated with them, throughout the twentieth century up to our own time. Understanding of the role of modern governance should lead to some discussion of such institutions as the federal reserve system and its relationship to fiscal policies and economic growth; the sizable agencies that regulate our natural resources and protect our air, water, and soil; the regulatory apparatus that protects us from dangerous foods, drugs, and thousands of other products in an increasingly globalized economy; and the complex array of agencies and institutions which seek to insure that we are treated as equal citizens. Adherents of revolutionary conservatism challenge all of these components of our sizable governing system as illegitimate, unnecessary, or threatening to liberty. We should have learned in high school why previous generations found these components central to governance, and the struggles associated with each of them before they were established. In other words, we should educate people to live in the modern world.
A second problem comes from our intellectual inheritance. The founders of our republic, as well as the thinkers they read and admired, lived in a world where “absolutist” states threatened human liberty and prevented the emergence of republics devoted to the needs of a larger public rather than the needs of privileged elites. They promoted the notion that an “invisible hand” would insure greater economic prosperity for all when government reduced its heavy regulation in favor of a few dominant interests. They emphasized the importance of governments which recognized that laws should apply equally to all without special favor (even when they failed to follow through on matters such as slavery, the subjection of women, and the less fortunate). In a world run by monarchs. aristocrats, and merchants protected by the state, the notion that government itself can be the enemy achieved a degree of popularity. The ideas deriving from this presumption led ultimately to such intellectual artifacts as Social Darwinism, which held that natural laws free from social inhibitions and legal controls should always remain superior to governmental ones, in order to insure the survival and growth of better races, dynamic entrepeneurs , and the virtues of competitive living. Contemporary variants of this approach can be found in the works of some academically respected economists who eschew the social bigotry of Social Darwinism while retaining the notion that everything we do can be best be understood as the mere pursuit of self-interest, whatever our mistaken ideas might be about a presumed “public interest” guaranteed through governmental activity.
Left out of this mindset is the fact that even the best known historical promoters of open markets and individual rights insisted upon a strong state which must provide for an infrastructure which can undergird a changing economy and define and protect private property. The founders of the American republic wanted strong national governing institutions which could serve as a check upon each other, as well as a check upon local state governments. Subsequent governments, of course, frequently redefined what was meant by a “free market” in the nineteenth century, by protecting slave markets and then abolishing them, promoting emerging manufacturing classes and the cotton industry by removing taxes on exports and imposing high tariffs on imports, and promoting massive subsidies to canals and a private railroad system and an interstate highway system. Our massive government commitment to public education to promote industry through skilled workers and more malleable immigrants actually began during this era. When today’s revolutionary conservatives promote what they see as the historical American commitment to small government, they take the challenges of the revolutionary era of the eighteenth century against domineering and unjust governments as challenges to the idea of governance itself, when the historical record loudly suggests otherwise.
Aside from that portion of our intellectual inheritance which appears to belittle government even as it favors strong and effective republics, there is the deeper problem that governments often serve narrow interests against the legitimate concerns of a wider public, leading many to think it is actually government as such is the problem. However, it is important to remember the multiple political movements that have arisen to challenge dominant interests by demanding that government take action to help those who have been unjustly treated. Consider the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, as well as the three Civil War amendments which provide constitutional backing to challenge diverse denials of equal justice; the programs of the Progressive era in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to challenge the “big trusts” which promoted multiple injustices against workers, consumers, and small farmers; the reform of banks and Wall Street during Great Depression; the promotion of laws to actually enforce the Fourteenth Amendment at the height of the Civil Rights movement; the massive environmental movement to clean up air and water; as well as the multiple laws and agencies set up from the time of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to the present to guarantee a market place which is not a threat to public health and safety.
Many of these efforts remain partially unfulfilled. However, the fact is that virtually all modern states that retain a modicum of popular support through democratic constitutions have grown to meet such needs, whether they are “socialist” or “capitalist” in popular nomenclature. Small government remains an absurdity when new skills and abilities are needed in a today’s world where every one is competitive with people elsewhere in the world; thousands of new chemicals and other technical innovations are sprung upon us which can utterly transform the world we live in for the better or for much worse; and new social and economic conflicts arise as those already advantaged increase their advantages at the expense of almost everyone else.
We live in a very dynamic world, and we need a strong, dynamic, and responsive government to help us navigate it. Let us not assume that such a government must be small enough to meet only the needs of the founders who created our open constitutional arrangements over two hundred years ago. They wanted an effective and powerful government which would respond to needs of future generations that they knew very well they could not predict. The fact that our system has remained flexible and responsive enough to grow and adapt would have pleased them greatly.