Conservatives and Liberals?

Like most of you, I look out at the political landscape in America and see only “the One” and then the circus of opposition hopefuls, feeding on each other. How did it come to this? The Republican party of my parents – Ike, Rocky, Stassen, even Taft – descended to outrageous irrationality, lies, and sheer truculence.

Here’s one line I’ve been thinking about that comes out of my earlier work – the ever-changing meanings of Conservatism. The fractious debacle that is the present Republican Party claims to be the heir of Conservatism, but which one?

In the nineteenth century conservatism meant defense of old orders against the Enlightenment-fed revolutions of 1776, 1789, and, later, 1848. It meant the defense of patriarchy, monarchy, and order based on biological privilege over against republics animated by reasoned argument about the common good of all. For Edmund Burke, it meant change through evolution rather than revolution.

The Liberals, against which Conservatives fought, defended the release of entrepreneurs, corporations, and markets from governmental and aristocratic control. How ironic that today, with the rigid dichotomy of Liberals vs. Conservatives dominating our political spectacles, the positions are in most senses reversed.

Today’s Conservatives are nineteenth-century Liberals, but perhaps with one exception – paternalism and patriarchy.

Still burning bright behind John Locke’s scathing attack on political patriarchy in 1690 is a familial patriarchy of the emerging bourgeois household. The patriarchal monarchy of the entrepreneurial capitalist household remained in place until the late 20th century.

It is this form of patriarchy, wedded to “liberal” laissez faire capitalism, that today’s Conservatives seek to defend, with their attacks on women’s right to decide on matters of abortion, for instance. It is the conservatism of the “Baron” of corporate capitalism. What today’s “Liberals” have done is reject the entrepreneurial patriarchy of the industrial order, along with its barons.

However, the unregulated circulation of financial capital around the globe inevitably undermines familial patriarchy. It demands ‘free labor’ to follow capital, including the labor of women. Thus, a powerful contradiction begins to emerge between the classical liberalism of today’s Conservative politicians and the familial forms and values they fervently espouse.

The effort to hold together constituencies committed to these two conflicting value systems is foundering. The front runner has to uphold both sides of the contradiction, his only credibility lying in the voters’ amnesia.

The verbiage of his opponents for the nomination is no longer in touch with the actual way most people are trying to live their lives, including their concerns for the common good of environmental sustainability, education, and public health.

What is clear is that most Americans are “liberals,” in spite of the opinions they give to pollsters. The question for most is how to maximize their autonomy and, for the parents, that of their children.

While corporations provide the false autonomy of consumer choice, governments can also cut down every intermediary institution of family, church, profession, club, and university to secure the rights of individuals. Many people, however, are seeking some sort of “mixed” or “pluralistic” way that finds both liberty and common good in the complex “covenants” among institutions. Here we find, I think, the confluence of Tea Party and Occupiers.

Obviously, politics is a sub-violent struggle among groups for power over government. Ideas are propagated as they seem helpful for beguiling marginal constituencies who might decide the outcome. But it’s also clear to me that ideas matter, and confused ideas eventually bite the hand of those who spread them.

Well, that’s one thread to follow. I’d be delighted to hear about yours as you try to make your way through the bombast and perils ahead of us.

5 thoughts on “Conservatives and Liberals?”

  1. Thanks, John. Indeed, Parker and I come from the same intellectual lineage through H. R. Niebuhr, Kenneth Underwood and others at Yale in the 50’s and 60’s. His work on the construction and vitalization of publics is one where we are especially close, but we also share trajectories concerning the meaning of vocation and its attendant spiritualities. My earlier work, God’s Federal Republic, contains a good deal of convergence with his life-long emphases and perspectives. I haven’t read his new book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  2. Hi Bill,

    Thank you for your comments on conservatism and liberalism. I’ve been reading Parker Palmer’s new book “Healing the Heart of Democracy” in which he illuminates the habits of the heart for a healthy democracy. I’m wondering what you think about his ideas.

    John Fenner
    Director Courage & Renewal Programs for Clergy and Congregational Leaders

  3. Actually, Ken, maybe we all just need more conversation. I’ve expanded on these things in my other writings. The little book “Praying for God’s Republic” (free on this site!) goes into the background. So does, in greater depth, “God’s Federal Republic,” which I hope to prepare for free downloading this year. Thanks for checking in. I’ll try to work on being short without being too cryptic!

  4. Bill: Thanks for your insight and skeetch in this particular blog. For us non-academic minds, would it be possible to have a more simplified version? I get the gist of your blog but to digest it properly, I need a more “simplistic” version. – Ken J.

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