Yeah, yeah, I know. Barack Obama has a funny name. He’s relatively young and inexperienced. Oh, and – have you heard? – he’s also black. But, just the same, I mean, c’mon. A Republican could win the presidency in 2008? You gotta be kidding, right?
All of this is deeply related, in multiple ways, to what is without a doubt absolutely the first most astonishing fact of American politics. And that is that conservatism (I prefer to call them ‘regressives’) isn’t the most repudiated ideology this side of cannibalism. And that regressive practitioners of this hateful disease masquerading as a political philosophy haven’t been tarred-and-feathered, hung, drawn and quartered, then run out of town on an electrified rail. And that any red-blooded American wouldn’t infinitely prefer in this day and age to be called a pedophile, a terrorist or a European – heck, or all of the above combined – rather than a conservative.
I mean, seriously, people. Now that Wall Street has imploded, potentially taking down with it the entire global economy in a fun reprise of the 1930s, what more could possibly be necessary to repudiate a set of ideas for which a good day is when thousands of people don’t die (again) as a result of anyone, let alone the world’s sole superpower, subscribing to something so astonishingly stupid? Really, is there anything that the regressive agenda has touched so far that hasn’t completely turned into a pillar of salt? Not only do these nice pious Christians show every evidence of actually being the antichrist, they’ve also managed to be the anti-Midas as well.
The scope of the destruction is breathtaking to gaze upon. The rapidity with which American affluence and power and respect and responsibility were converted into their opposite numbers is mind-boggling. But the most astonishing thing of all is the absence of repudiation. Not from subscribers, of course. That army of clones was so existentially terrorized in their impressionable years by some toxic stew of religion, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-communism and/or some other forms of anti-otherism – along with a sinking economic status – that their cold, stiff fingers will never be pried from the politics of guns, gays and god. Especially now, when they can also add to their fears the blame for being so spectacularly wrong about everything imaginable these last decades. Who would want to own that?
But what about the rest of us? What, indeed. We still live in an America where almost nobody dares call themselves a liberal. But what’s even more bizarre – and I mean like watching-a-Twilight-Zone-marathon-in-Wonderland-sitting-there-with-Alice-and-frying-on-acid-while-listening-to-In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida-("here-comes-the-drum-solo-man!")-backwards-and-at-half-speed kinda bizarre – is the degree to which conservatism has not become a dirty word and a rejected ideology. For my money, this is the single most absolutely anomalous political curiosity currently to be found in what is surely one of the most curiously anomalous polities that ever existed. Oh, and, for the record, it turns out that that bit about ‘my money’ is quite literally true – a whole bunch of it has already been spent on the various insanities of this backwards ideology, and probably a lot of yours too.
But I digress. What is conservatism, and how should it be regarded? Like any ideology, it has lots of flavors and sub-cults, many of which don’t necessarily get along with each other, and certainly don’t agree on which conservative projects should be given priority at any given time. All the same, I think we can boil the ideology down to a few key concepts – indeed, ones that even our regressive friends would agree accurately represent the ideological program.
Traditionally, well... tradition has been key, as a matter of fact. One key tenet of conservatism is to avoid change. Reactionaries go even further, preferring the (typically heavily mythologized) world that grandpa inhabited. Economically, conservatism is all about low taxes, low government spending (except when it comes to cops and bombs), balanced budgets, low regulation of the private sector and privatization of any service which might otherwise be provided by the government.
This is why conservatives love to describe themselves as the ideology which maximizes freedom, but this turns out – shockingly, I know – to be a lie. Indeed, it first turns out to be a lie because in practice supposedly conservative governments break most of their own economic rules catalogued above. Saint Ronald The Reagan quadrupled the national debt by irresponsibly slashing tax revenue (especially for the rich) and massively increasing spending. Before he sold out the country for his own career aspirations, George H. W. Bush described that formula as "voodoo economics". He ought to know. His voodoo spawn was not to be outdone by any White House predecessor. Or even all of them. Lil’ Bush has followed an irradiated version of the same formula as Uncle Ron and has now doubled all the national debt which was incurred by his 42 predecessors. Combined. Very ‘conservative’, eh?
But the even bigger lie is that the supposed ideology of freedom from government doesn’t even pretend to extend outside of the economic sphere. Ladies, would you like to control your own bodies? Better try another ideology. Real conservatives don’t even want you to have access to birth control or divorce, let alone abortion. Want the freedom to decide who you can sleep with, what you can do in bed (even if you’re a married hetero couple), and who you can marry? Oops, you stumbled into the wrong philosophy, brother. And don’t even get me started on substances of various sorts one might choose to imbibe, even to stay alive while undergoing chemotherapy. Freedom? Guess again. Unless of course you mean the freedom to live the life prescribed for you (but not themselves) by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Mark Foley, Larry Craig or Newt Gingrich, based on their selective misinterpretations of some obscure text written by hermit politicians 4,000 years ago in the Palestinian desert. (Where people are still fighting over ownership of the sand to this very day – hey, let’s follow that model!)
Lastly, conservatism means hawkish aggression in the face of potential threat, real or imagined. Abroad, that translates into sending in the Marines or small nuclear devices to deal with pesky former clients who’ve now gotten a little uppity in their ambitions. Domestically, that means lots of cops, lots of judges, lots of jails and lots of electric chairs (but only for little people, of course, who can’t afford good lawyers).
So that’s the formula – and, again, I doubt even conservatives would dispute this rendering: traditionalism, the pretense of small government in the economic sphere, big government in the social domain, big stick abroad and on the streets.
But here’s the part that they won’t admit to, despite the fact that it is inescapably true. Indeed, precisely because it is true, and because of where it leads. And that’s this: This is an ideology that has been tested. Nobody can say that George W. Bush, or his cronies in Congress or his enablers on the Supreme Court have pulled any punches these last eight miserable years. But the truth is, it runs a lot deeper than even that. With the exception of Bill Clinton’s moderately and sporadically progressive social policies, it’s actually been a solid thirty years of conservative politics in America, including Clinton’s economic policies, which were indistinguishable from anything you’d get out of Wall Street or off the GOP convention platform of any given year. Ever since Reagan, and in some ways even back to Carter, Washington has been all about implementing a conservative agenda of tax cuts, deregulation and privatization, unraveling feminism, gay rights, civil rights and the Constitution, along with interventions abroad and mass incarcerations at home. In short, it would take an obscene distortion of truth – of which regressives have so often shown themselves singularly capable – to argue other than that we’ve had a very thorough and robust test of the ideology these last decades, and especially under George W. Bush.
So, hey, how’s it all turned out? Can you say "unmitigated disaster"? Not even John McCain, who nowadays will say anything, argues that we’re better off than we were four years ago. He, of course, neglects to mention the degree to which he’s been part of the problem, and now even seeks to extend it another four or eight years.
Let’s start with national security. The "grown-ups" who were supposed to come to town and show Clinton Democrats how to do government right were so obsessed with their little pet Iraqi project that they were asleep at the switch (if not behind the wheel) during America’s worst national security crisis ever. Then they went to war against the supposed perpetrator of that crime in Afghanistan, until they got bored with it all and sent the troops to Iraq instead. The upshot has been two endless wars completely un-won seven years later (at least one of which was also completely unnecessary), a broken American military, global hatred toward the US, massive ‘defense’ spending equal to more than that of every other country in the entire world combined, and a polarized and deceived public at home. Quite a score-card, eh?
It gets better. At home, the highest national surplus ever was rapidly turned into the greatest national deficit ever, adding and compounding now to nearly $10 trillion in debt (and rapidly rising), twice what it was (then falling) when the Little Bush came to Warshington. That’s $66,666 (hey, don’t all those sixes mean the devil is nearby?) per taxpayer, for those of you keeping score at home. If Bush’s massive tax transfers (commonly but erroneously referred to as cuts) are continued, as McCain vows to do, that number will explode even more than it will still be mushrooming anyway without them. Meanwhile, the dollar is lower in value than ever, the trade deficit is astronomical, inflation is rising behind gas and food prices climbing off the charts, and a steady diet of regressive deregulation has jeopardized the entire global economy, requiring taxpayers to ante up another trillion bucks to rescue us from the depredations of the robber baron elites, whose vision of capitalism – abetted by their cronies in government – is that all profits go to them and all risks go to stupid regular people.
What a great economic record, eh? Since the 1970s, when the right side came to bat, polarization of wealth in America has increased to banana republic proportions. The rich now account for half of the income in this country – up from one-third during the liberal period of the 1930s through the 1960s – and the middle class has actually lost ground, despite an economy that has been fairly steadily growing over the last decades. It ain’t rocket science, folks. Cut the legs off of unions, apply pressure to workers to keep them too frightened to organize, globalize jobs abroad and reward their export with tax incentives, change the structure of the tax system to favor the rich – guess what’s going to happen? Guess what has happened? Of course, it hasn’t hurt to also throw in a few scary foreign boogeyman monsters, racism, homophobia and some other nifty tricks to keep voters distracted long enough to loot their wallets.