Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dangerous Simplicity

Lisa McGirr & Kim Philips-Fein are two historians who've studied the new right. McGirr focuses on the grassroots movement (Orange County, CA, specifically) while Philips-Fein explores the big business-led development of the infrastructure enabling the right to gain power. Together, they provide a useful framework for interpreting the ongoing meltdown of the new right.

If one starts from a traditional, often fundamentalist Christian point of view, and accepts the premise that the US is perfect, any problems we face must be due to a sinister external force. The government is an easy target, especially since it embraced in the late 20th century a bureaucratic-technical approach to modernity, rather than emphasizing traditional church-based values.

Add to that the traditional conservative position that government is an inherent threat to individual liberty, and the western mythology of the rugged individual (contra the reality that the prosperity enjoyed by most Orange County conservatives was dependent on massive government spending in the form of defense manufacturing and the infrastructure required to support it) & it was easy for conservatives to feel that government programs aimed at amelioration of poverty represented confiscation of the fruits of their hard work and potentially a threat to their freedom (freedom largely being defined economically; the more fundamentalist among them were less concerned about freedom when moral concerns were involved). This is not to say, by the way, that there were/are no reasonable bases for concern about government threats to individual liberties; rather, the point here is that the threats perceived by modern conservatives have been generally imaginary (fluoridated water,gun rights, the Soviet Union as an imminent threat to the U.S. at the very moment the former was unraveling, etc.).

The inherent contraditions in these positions, as noted above, are pretty easy to see. Conservatives were generally hostile to the civil rights movement and many, including William F. Buckley Jr., infamously argued that efforts to expand rights to African Americans constituted government intrusion into individual rights of free association. Nor have many conservatives, despite their traditional zealotry about government encroachments on liberty, been similarly concerned about the potential for similar threats to individual rights by corporate power. The obviously selective choices of objects for conservative outrage lead many outside the movement to conclude that the stated motives for opposition are but smokescreens for racism, defense of socioeconomic privilege, and various other bigotries and fears.

It's kind of striking that movement conservatives depend on a manufactured sense of grievance and paranoia, and increasingly, a rejection of evidence & logic to maintain group cohesion & a sense of identity. Even after they got Reagan & then Dubya elected, the right continued to peddle conspiracy theories and nurture a sense of grievance. Now, after undeniable political dominance for 6 of the last 8 years (and really, considering the haplessness and complicity of many Democrats, it’s been more like 40 years), virtually every aspect of every policy enacted by conservatives stands revealed (to those willing to look honestly) as a total failure of massive proportions. Yet lacking a more sophisticated intellectual framework for interpreting the results, many on the right continue to resort to a belligerent form of denial. Hence the hysterical screeching, wild accusations and even occasional shootings we observe on cable TV and elsewhere. A simplistic template is inadequate for efforts to understand the complexities of the world we live in.

1 comment:

David said...

"If one starts from a traditional, often fundamentalist Christian point of view, and accepts the premise that the US is perfect..."

No conservative Christian I know, and I know a lot, accepts the premise that the US is perfect, or even close to it. It's a straw man, Ethan, a dangerously oversimplified template.