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Conservative Mendacity--or Delusion?

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Message Manfred Weidhorn

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Away from intense ideological debate, a cool-headed liberal may concede, after a couple of relaxing drinks, that, philosophically, conservatism and liberalism are two equally compelling readings of reality. Conservatives believe that favoring the rich will encourage job-creating enterprises which will benefit everyone, while liberals believe that favoring rather the working and middle classes will create prosperity, which the rich, needing no extra help, will profit from disproportionately anyway. Trickle down versus float up. These positions are equally plausible and equally unprovable.

There is also a temperamental difference. Liberals see themselves as nobly and compassionately seeking to mend the world but are seen by their ideological opponents as governed by altruistic sentiments which bear no relation to the harsh realities of life. Conservatives, with a tough-minded greater allegiance to ideas than to feelings, claim to deal with the world as it is, not as it should be.

Having a respectable philosophy, however, does not exempt the conservatives from critical scrutiny. Indeed, their devotion to head rather than heart makes their casualness with the facts all the more peculiar. Statements that are irresponsible or mendacious should be embarrassing to the self-proclaimed party of ideas.

One such is the platitude that America is a center-right country. This is a curious statement to make about a nation that began with a revolution. In 1776, America was not just center-left but far-left. It was, in fact, radical, and was seen so by the rest of the world, which consisted of monarchies. If the wealth and status of the patrician class to which the Founding Fathers belonged prevented them from seeing themselves as radical, some of them certainly thought like radicals. Jefferson favored the French Revolution and noted that the tree of liberty periodically requires shedding the blood of tyrants; Tom Paine went further than Jefferson by actually participating in the French Revolution and by making proposals--universal free education, full employment, progressive taxation, limits to the accumulation of property--which would make him a "socialist" in today's misbegotten and ignorant abuse of words. There was nothing cautiously "center-right" about such classic American originals.

Confronted with the American Revolution as a counter example to claims of "center-right," conservatives might concede the radicalism of that period of the political "Big Bang" but would argue that, having achieved liberty, we have settled down and become reserved since then. Not quite. What enables the conservatives to get away with the "center-right" mantra is the fuzziness of language. They slyly attempt to turn current fashion into an essentialist statement about the American character, as though we are today what we have almost always been. Arguably, we may well be "center-right" at the present time, and possibly since 1980 or 1968, but we surely were not so during the Civil War, or the Progressive Era, or FDR's New Deal, or Truman's Fair Deal, or LBJ's Great Society. The truth is that America is essentially neither a right nor a left nation but a blank slate, and the political pendulum does what all pendulums do.

Twinned with the center-right mythology is the deification of Ronald Reagan, who gets an easy pass. Conservatives, while railing at budget deficits, keep on referring to his tax cutting policies as something to be applied to every social ill, during recessions no less than in prosperous times. What is not mentioned is that Reagan was the President under whom the debt and the deficit first started to explode because his lowering of taxes did not produce the expected compensatory revenues. The proof for this comes from another hero of the conservatives, Vice President Cheney, who famously said that Reagan showed that deficits don't matter. To love Reagan and hate deficits suggests either hypocrisy or schizophrenia. (In fact, Reagan had the integrity to then raise taxes to try to cope with the monstrous deficits his tax cutting had created.)

Reagan is also responsible for inaugurating three decades of derision of the U.S. government. "The government can't do anything right," has been the mantra of all devoted conservatives. To be sure, when the government is in the hands of people who do not believe in government and who hire people on the basis of ideology and cronyism, as was the case under President Bush II, it does indeed perform poorly, and the conservatives are guilty of the self-fulfilling prophecy. But when, as under FDR, competence was the criterion for hiring, the story is different. It behooves conservatives to explain how this same "incompetent" U.S. government in four short years became the arsenal of democracy and helped defeat simultaneously the two greatest military empires in history. No one denies that government makes mistakes, but is it more incompetent than the major corporations? Are the likes of Enron, GM, Toyota, AIG, and the Wall St. behemoths proof, at various junctures, that private enterprise does any better?

Does this conservative record of consistent paltering and disingenuousness have an explanation? It does. Since conservatives advocate for the rich and since liberals advocate for the non-rich and since the non-rich outnumber the rich by at least ninety to ten, liberals would easily win every election, and we would find ourselves regressing to a quasi-theocratic one-party rule. That embarrassment is avoided by allowing the rich (and the corporations) to spend as much money as they want in order to persuade the many non-rich and to thus level the playing field. No doubt that is the thinking, probably unconscious or unacknowledged, behind the Supreme Court's odd rulings that corporations are persons and money is free speech.

A less charitable explanation might be advanced by liberals: To right that huge imbalance, conservatives resort to lying. When liberals, for example, say that social security has diminished poverty among the elderly, they are demonstrably telling the truth; when conservatives say that privatizing social security or replacing the progressive income tax with a flat tax would benefit everyone, they are demonstrably lying. To seduce people into voting against their own economic interests for the sake of subjective moral issues like abortion or gay marriage which do not even belong in politics is another form of conservative duplicity.

Liberals, of course, also lie, but not as much as do conservatives. That is not because liberals are nobler than conservatives but because, with the majority of the voters potentially on their side, they have fewer occasions for lying. Were the roles reversed, liberals would lie as much as do conservatives; where you stand depends on where you sit. But the roles are not reversed.

The beauty of this last argument obviously is in the ear of the auditor, but does someone have a better explanation?

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For 51 years Professor of English at Yeshiva University. Author of 13 books and over a hundred essays.
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