“Some men have everything/And some have none/So rise and shine
In the U.S.A/You can work your wayTo the head of the line!"
The falsest dichotomy in American politics is that liberalism and conservatism are two sides of the same coin. Conservatives have dined out on the benefits of that dichotomy for half-a-century, and as a result, conservatives stand a nearly 50% chance before long of rolling back all the reforms of the Roosevelt era and taking us back to the age when there was a depression nearly as large as the Great Depression every twenty years.
I suppose that in a properly functioning democracy, conservatism and liberalism are the two properly competing philosophies. But does anybody reading this think that the US is a properly functioning democracy (and for that matter, is anybody reading this?)?
Back in 1956, Arthur Schlesinger, that same history dude from Part II, wrote this passage in the New York Times:
“The liberal believes that society can and should be improved and that the way to improve it is to apply the human intelligence to social and economic problems.
The conservative, on balance, opposes efforts at purposeful change because he believes that things are about as good as they can be reasonably expected to be, and that any change is more likely than not to be for the worse.
The liberal's belief in working for change does not mean that he regards human reason as an infallible or incorruptible instrument, or that he thinks the Perfect State is attainable. But it does mean that he feels that history never stands still, that social change can better the quality of people's lives and happiness, and that the margin of gain, however limited, is worth the effort.
Nor will the conservative in all cases and occasions resist change. But he inclines to accept it only when the intellectual case for it is overwhelming and the social pressure for it irresistible. Up to that point he clings stubbornly to that which he knows and to which he knows and to which he is habituated. The castle which he is habituated. "The castle which conservatism is set to defend," said Emerson, "is the actual state of things, good and bad.”
The actual state of things… how good it would be to have an American conservative movement set to preserve the actual state of things after the 1950’s, rather than a reactionary stance that would take us back to the 1920’s or before. Sadly, we do have precisely that conservative movement. It’s called the Democratic Party Establishment, and after Obama leaves, it will take ascendence again in the form of Hillary Clinton.
A conservative sentiment is not automatically a bad one, and there are few conservatives more effective than the Clintons - who have been the only thing standing between America and a complete reversion to 19th century economics for an entire quarter-century.
Thirty years ago, the current Democratic establishment was the insurgents. The Democratic Party Establishment was lead by uncharismatic liberals like George McGovern and Walter Mondale, both of whom grew up in the heyday of FDR optimism and experienced adolescence where they flirted with the socialism of Henry Wallace, the Bernie Sanders-like Vice-President Roosevelt ditched so he could nominate Harry Truman. Both McGovern and Mondale lost national elections to Conservative Republican incumbents in catastrophic fashion.
These “New Democrats” did not believe in what they termed the ‘economic populism’ of the New Deal. Their most important belief was in tax cuts for the Middle Class juxtaposed with tax increases for the Upper Class. They didn’t, as Republicans did, automatically believe that the economy would improve so long as the government cut taxes and spending, but they did believe that the social welfare programs instituted Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation enabled many poor people to live their lives without seeking work. They didn’t believe in massive military spending, but they did believe in National Service. They didn’t believe in government-funded universal healthcare, but they did believe in lowering tax burdens for the uninsured so that they could buy insurance. They didn’t believe in putting as much money into public education as possible, but they did believe in giving as much money as the government could to poor families so that they had the option of sending their children somewhere other than their districted public school. They believed in free trade that allowed employers to shift jobs overseas, but they also believed in a mixture of incentives and penalties for employers to keep American manufacturing intact. They believed in a woman’s right to choose, but not in partial-birth abortion. They believed guns should proliferate freely, but not assault-weapons.
Were these politicians operating in 1955 rather than 1985, the “New Democrats,” - politicians like Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Dick Gephardt and Sam Nunn - would be considered slightly to the right of the Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower. In a properly functioning democracy, they would have been the base of a properly functioning conservative anchor that curbs the excesses of more interventionist statesmen to their left. However, in 1985, there was nothing about them considered conservative; they were called ‘Moderate Democrats.’ Occasionally, as in the case of Senator Sam Nunn from Georgia, they were considered ‘Conservative Democrats.’ Theirs was a true, rational, conservatism - a flawed view of human nature, but nevertheless a principled one that cared about people less powerful than they.
I suppose that so long as the circulation of this ‘magazine’ is confined to Smalltimore, this won’t come as news to anybody, but there is very little that’s conservative about Modern Conservatism. Except perhaps for the permanent relegation of everyone but white males to second-class citizenry, there is no existing order which they wish to preserve. At this point, it’s arguable whether they even wish to turn the clock back to a better time. In so many ways, the Modern Conservative is the most revolutionary person in America. What the Modern American Conservative wants is to transform the existing world order into a Nietzschean imperium where the wishes of America wishes are unquestioningly obeyed around the globe.
Everyone but the delusional is aware that there is no way that the Bush Administration planned 9/11. As I believe Clive James put it: “if the Bush Administration wanted to hit The World Trade Center, they’d have accidentally hit the Sears Tower.” Nevertheless, 9/11 was a godsend for them - the perfect excuse for all the poisonous insects of reaction that lurk in the mud to hatch out.
This is where I have to pause for a moment. It’s almost too easy to hit the Right. There’s no risk in it. Nearly anybody who picks this magazine up will spend their lifetime complaining about how conservatism has ruined this country, and they’re absolutely right to do so. What new insights can I possibly give?
All I can say in response is that the world of conservatism is precisely that: a world. It is by no means monolithic, and the moral character of its adherents is no more or less evil than the rest of us - and, in many ways, it’s precisely that diversity of people who care so fanatically about building the world into a better place which makes them so very, very dangerous.
So many left wingers begin their lives in right wing families, and so many right-wingers are ex-left wing students, that it’s almost tempting to say that politically extreme beliefs are more an issue of temperament than of conviction. Maybe American conservatives are revolutionaries that, but for a few accidents of birth and circumstance, would be attending lectures every night at Red Emma’s. Though perhaps it’s more to the point to say that the revolutionaries at Red Emma’s, but for a few accidents of birth and circumstance, would be attending services at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden. The most important difference between the revolutionaries at Red Emma’s and a revolutionaries at Maryland’s largest Megachurch is that there are roughly ten to twelve-thousand more who walk through the Megachurch on any given week.
For lack of a better place to put them, we have to put these pseudo-Conservatives on the far-right of the ideological spectrum. They don’t like government programs, even if they’re often more dependent upon them than liberals are. They certainly don’t think that government can be an instrument to institute greater freedom… but maybe it’s more to the point to say that in spite of their protestations to the contrary, they want less freedom, not more.
In case it isn’t obvious to you, just mull it over a bit. They want a President and Congress who will suspend civil liberties in the face of all threats to national security, they want law enforcement that suspends civil liberties in the face of all threats to their personal security, and they want all of the above to suspend civil liberties in the face of all threats to ‘traditional’ morality. They want the government to stop taxing the rich, and stop taxing the companies owned by the rich. Perhaps they just don’t understand how finance works, but it’s possible that they want to make corporate boards have as much control over their finances as the government has over all the other aspects of their persons.
In essence, this conservatism, if it’s conservatism, is (fortunately) a diet, decaf version the authoritarian conservatism of Mussolini and Franco - the politics of fear used as a way of manipulating the masses to joyfully give up their freedoms. Nevertheless, even on its worst day, America is not a fascist country, and I would (and no doubt will) argue with anyone who says otherwise. Nevertheless, there is an enormous fascist presence in America, a presence that threatened to become the dominant mode of governance during the Bush years, and may yet reassert itself to exponentially greater levels than ever before.
In the history of conservatism, there are two basic threads. Once again, perhaps the best guide through this maze is Arthur Schlesinger. Both threads originate from the rather authoritarian idea that there is a central source from which power and privilege emanate that must at all costs be preserved, lest chaos reign over the realm. But these two types of conservatism diverge on their attitudes toward those less fortunate. The first type regards it as a moral obligation to look after the less fortunate. A nobleman sees the serfs under him as his property, and a good owner takes care of his property. Obviously, these possessions can never be treated as equals, but they must always be provided for. Schlesinger called this kind of conservatism ‘Aristocratic Conservatism,’ which was the conservatism of Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. One might see this strain represented in contemporary America by John McCain, or even by the Clintons.
The second type sees no moral obligation to look after the less fortunate. ‘We provide for ourselves,’ they reason, ‘so let them provide for themselves, and if they can’t, it’s not our obligation to help them.’ Schlesinger called this conservatism ‘Plutocratic Conservatism’, which was the conservatism of William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge. One might easily perceive this strain of conservatism personified, almost to perfection, by the second Bush Administration.
But the dichotomy goes still deeper. I apologize for massively oversimplifying what follows, but this bifurcation goes back at very least to late 17th century England, when the English upper classes finally ended 400 years of almost unbroken Civil War with the Glorious Revolution of 1688. After 1688, the English upper class was merely divided between two factions: the Tories and the Whigs. Before 1688, Tories were almost unambiguously among the villains of English history. They believed in the Divine Right of Kings, they resented religious tolerance of Catholicism, and they lived for generations off the spoil of their lands and the labor of their serfs. Contrary to popular belief, the Tories were not necessarily titled nobility, but they had so much land and inherited wealth that they didn’t need titles.
By the standards of 1700, Whigs were the acme of progressive thought. Whigs were the first class of people since the guildsmen of the Dark Ages to consolidate enough power to challenge the noble classes. They were, by the standards of their day, the Middle Class. They had as much wealth as the landed gentry, but nowhere near the gentry’s security. The landed gentry lived off their holdings, which slowly accumulated over the centuries into world domination; but the middle class made and lost fortunes as great in the same year as the landed gentry could ever accumulate in a lifetime. The Whigs represented industry, they represented initiative, they represented personal responsibility, they were the dynamism and risk that builds an Empire.
But liberalism is a very fickle thing, and what is truly liberal can change virtually overnight. In 1833, the Whig Prime Minister Charles The 2nd Earl Grey (yes,... the tea was named for him, and notice how new the title was to his family...), instituted the Great Reform Act which allowed urban lower-middle-class males to vote (aka, businessmen who could only rent property in the cities rather than owning it). By enabling these men to vote, the business class would have a much greater share of the electorate.
This progress, of course, begged another question: if the business class could have the vote, why couldn’t the working class? The key man who realized the necessity of addressing their concerns was England’s dominant political figure during the mid-19th century, Benjamin Disraeli.
150 years ago, the world of economic progressivism was precisely the opposite of what it is today. The concepts of individual initiative, free trade, the natural economic cycle of boom and bust, were what defined the ideas of progress. Any attempt to interfere with the economy was seen as an infringement not only on economic freedom, but on personal freedom.
So it was left to Conservatives (as Tories were by then called), seeing that the Industrial Revolution had left the working classes in an even worse state than under feudal rule, to alleviate the burdens of the Working Class. In 1866, Disraeli masterminded the Second Reform Act, which allowed the vote to working class males in the cities who practiced any trade. In the blink of an eye, the vote was extended to 1 in every 3 British men.
To counterbalance the Conservative gains, the Liberal Party (which was basically the Whigs in a different generation) had to extend the vote to working class men still living in the country - lower-class men who still lived on the lands of gentry and noblemen - servants, agrarians, hunters, who owed their livelihoods to the noblemen who allowed them to live on their lands. After 1884, 2 in 3 men in Britain could vote, and thus began the slow march toward financial and economic justice and welfare for all that is Modern Liberalism.
By the standards of the 21st century, the English Conservative Party was in fact more liberal than their Liberal Party. So ‘liberal’ did Conservatives of that age become that Disraeli’s great ally in Central Europe - Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of a newly united Germany - instituted the first welfare state during the 1880s: a social insurance plan guaranteeing a source of income to any family struggling to make ends meet. Liberals of their age were stuck until Franklin Roosevelt in an outdated 18th century model of liberalism that praised individual initiative to the skies and left the poor to rot (and libertarians still are…). It was the Conservatives of their day that thought poverty a crucial enough issue to address.
We in America have no such conservative tradition. The very idea of aristocrats is anathema to the American lexicon. This country was, fundamentally, founded by 18th century mercantile liberals. When the Tea Party wraps itself in the language of the American Revolution, they are fundamentally correct to do so, even if they get just about every particular wrong. 1776 was also the year when the first modern economic text: The Wealth of Nations, was published. The height of liberalism was individual initiative and free trade.
Actually, we do have an ‘Aristocratic Conservative’ tradition, but compared to Western Europe, it’s very weak indeed. Sure, we had Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, both of whom could at times make even the Clintons look unfeeling toward the poor. Nevertheless, both TR and Ike were powerless to stomp out the Plutocratic Conservative tradition - which took control of the Republican party almost immediately after their terms in office expired. Purely in living memory, France had Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, while Germany had Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel. If any of these candidates ran in America on the same platforms, their economic views would be little different than candidates slightly to the left of moderate Democrats. It should come as no surprise that in these American Centuries, it is this Plutocratic Conservative tradition that proves America’s undoing.
Before World War One, the “One Percent” in England and America received roughly one-fifth of the income within these two countries. By 1950, the share of the one percent was less than one-tenth. Beginning with the Reagan administration, that share began rising, and in the era of “Too Big To Fail” it’s certainly back to one-fifth and only shows signs of rising.
Nevertheless, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves in slamming the One Percent. Even if there’s much more inherited wealth in America than any Republican admits, there isn’t anywhere near the inherited concentration of wealth there was a century ago. However, this “New Aristocracy” in which wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few tens of thousands of families is exactly where we’re heading. This essay is already too long to provide all the statistics to show it, but they’re only a Google search away.
There is an amazing and almost entirely fictional scene in Assassins (Remember that? The musical this essay’s supposed to be about?) where Leon Czolgosz, assassin of William McKinley, accosts the socialist revolutionary, Emma Goldman. It’s true that Czolgosz and Goldman briefly met, and Goldman worked very hard in Czolgosz’s defense. But in the play, they don’t just meet. In this fictional interpolation, Czolgosz declares his love for Emma Goldman, and claims he’s followed her from town to town.
Among American Presidents, William McKinley was one of the ultimate Plutocratic Conservatives. His presidency was an unholy alliance of the very 18th century belief in economic non-interference and the very 19th century belief in nationalism. He believed that the best way to ensure American prosperity was through the consolidation of American monopolies, which could dictate economic terms to consumers all around the world; and in rebellion against 18th century liberalism, he instituted tariffs on all foreign imports so that American monopolies could consolidate their power still further. Never had trusts grown at the rate which they had under McKinley, and we can only hope they never will again.
Leon Czolgosz was the virtual embodiment of the factory worker, crushed under the gears and smog of the McKinley era. His hands were utterly damaged by the conditions of the bottle factory in which he worked. Multiple times a day he would have to stick his hands into a 12-1400 degree oven, and if he did not hold his breath for the entire time his hands were in there, his innards would burn. In Assassins reimagining, Emma Goldman becomes a modern Virgin Mary, and Leon Czolgosz is the meek who shall inherit the Earth.
One hundred years later, so complete is Plutocratic Conservatism’s hold upon America - and therefore the world - that even seven years of Obama cannot stop its power. The Left has failed the world, but at least until recently, the Left was completely in abeyance - dishonored and discredited by the failure of the Soviet Union. The failures of our era are almost entirely the failure of the Right. It is only a matter of time before a modern Leon Czolgosz - whether a Latin-American worker, or an African American harassed by police, or a repressed practitioner of Islam, or a white nationalist inflamed by Fox News and talk radio - takes arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, ends them.