For the second to the last quarter of my life (I hope) I have been trying to get to just what conservatism is. Vague references to “just sit and think” or “yell Stop” have been unsatisfying. In my personal life American conservatism has seemed to have race at its center. Can all those intelligent, educated people really be so limited? Is there not something at their core worth examining even if it fails to meet my politically liberal standards of good policy? Corey Robins went through conservative history to show it is nothing more than a negative reaction to change, but is that worthless in itself? Maybe not. So I read The Bulwark and Charlie Sykes’ and Max Boot’s books and many others, looking for a core other than resentment and churlishness and unbending arrogance. The article by Skold and Daniel confirms my deep suspicions about “the conservative mind.” Stuart Stevens’ “It Was All a Lie” tells me we were not vilifying the conservatives who aroused our suspicions about their attitudes toward our marriage: “race was not a bug, it was a feature” of the GOP.
I do not generalize personal experiences to all conservatives; for instance the Episcopal priest who said, when Kennedy was being buried, “too bad they didn’t bury that bitch along with him,” or the woman who was told MLK had just been assassinated and exclaimed, “Good! They finally got the bastard,” or the insurance agent who said that when it came to a choice between paying a premium or buying a bottle of wine, “you know which one they’ll choose,” did not personify the conservative to me. Having lived in Arizona most of my life, I have a million of these, including my Trumper neighbor, a good ol’ boy, who sincerely believes all the professors at Arizona State University are Communists. But I am still looking for the core of conservative beliefs that will stand against the fall of cherished custom like racial hierarchy, sexual hierarchy, Confederacy worship, Eurocentrism in school textbooks and the centrality of one religious sect.
So with Skold and Daniel, let’s look at where they reveal themselves as the same old conservatives we’ve always dealt with or tried to deal with. Let’s go first to
Woke: “It has become a common term of derision among some who oppose the movements it is associated with, or believe the issues are exaggerated. It is sometimes used to mock or infantilize supporters of those movements” – Benjamin Butterworth. Wikipedia treats it as well as other sites that explain it as a variant past participle of waken but in Black English woke is common, as in, “Are you woke yet?” S & D’s treatment in several places displays derision, as in “the woke brigade”. It is this treatment of features of Black culture that are known to everyone, even many people outside that culture, that betrays the vast removal of conservative culture from African-Americans, like Bernie Sanders wandering around among the tables of Black people not knowing how to introduce himself or start a conversation (cf. the Clintons in a Black church) – I know, Sanders is not a conservative. This seems to put a lot of conservatives off as if we were asking them to be familiar with the culture of Outer Mongolia. No, Black people have been here for 400 years. Get to know them.
I liked very much S & D’s focus on American history, what it is and how to teach it. As a retired teacher who taught both U.S. History and Government for a couple of years, I can say that the basic mistake of modern American conservatism as found in the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus is that American Exceptionalism was taken to refer to people, not institutions. I always told my students that this whole thing is held together by spit and chewing gum wrapped in baling wire. Then came the 2000 election, then the 2016, and I do hope they remember what I told them. The aftermath of 2016 is a “wonderful” history/government lesson. We survived 2000; 2016 not so much.
The focus on history demands an answer to “who are we” in “We the People?” The “we” has expanded but has left spots untouched. I guess that is what S & D mean when they write of the “spotty” record of American conservatism. Spotty is not the right word for it. Law & Order covered only some people and clearly left “spots” untouched (Black people used to refer to a “spot” when they saw one of “us” in a crowd of Whites, so it’s my play on words). Who is us? As a White working-class kid growing up in the Midwest and later Arizona, I was pretty sure it included me; my wife, growing up in segregated East Texas and Phoenix, felt different. In our many discussions over these 56 matrimonial years, we still have areas of friction and divergence coming from those very different early experiences. So if I have a hard time, I can imagine the struggle a White conservative hoping to get a better grip on the Black experience will have. We do have our “what do you mean, ‘we’, White man?” moments.
Any number of recent words and movements have arisen: the word ‘woke’, cancel culture, the word ‘trope,’ the word ‘disingenuous,’ BLM, boogaloo, Latinx, the alt-right, reverse racism ………. all quite dizzying. I have to laugh at the outrage over cancel culture – and I’ve seen any number of non-right people complain about thoughtless attacks on people and companies but S & D make it sound as if everyone to the left of George Will is out on a canceling binge – because we had movies, courses, textbooks, even teachers “canceled” in our conservative school district. But that was all in the name of patriotism and protecting children from the homosexual agenda.
Generalizations abound in this piece by S & D. e.g. American conservatives reclaiming their core principles and “reviving the American consensus.” I’ve seen low taxes (no comment), strong defense and aggressive projection of American power (aka boots on the ground), pro-business (that is what liberals are; Adam Smith said capitalism needed regulation), individual freedom (individual responsibility means you don’t get no welfare), limited government (unless it was local segregation ordinances), checks and balances (checking Obama’s duty to appoint a S.C. justice led to Trump appointing two more – nice balance to Obama’s two…… I guess), the rule of law (consult Wm. Barr), and a veneration for traditional values and a faith in God (read Baptist). My parenthetical qualifications should indicate I do not see much of a consensus. How do we get that?
Obstacles to that: religion (our god gave us the truth and the truth ain’t in you). Money (it’s not fair to look at how people got their money as long as they have it). Race (it makes no difference except where would you rather live, France or Zimbabwe, and what is the obvious distinguishing feature?). Authority (established authority must be obeyed or chaos results and chaos affects my portfolio – seriously). The latter is the life-boat analogy: the water is lapping at the gunwales, so don’t stir. If you do, the boat will sink. This goes to the fear that seems to haunt conservatives. Life is always precarious and change always has unpredictable consequences, but if a ship is passing, somebody has to wave a shirt at them. Scary predictions don’t always come true, as when the slaves were freed and there was no retaliation. That is why Birth of a Nation was so important, to establish the legitimacy of White fears.
Conservatives do need to get realistic about who is in “the left.” Lefties like Progressives and further left need to get to know some conservatives and see them in all dimensions. It is true they will vote to deprive the poor of needed support so as not to “disincentivize them” (nothing more despicably disrespectful than that), but they will go to lengths to help the poor folks in their town or neighborhood. Liberals may, OTOH, despise “White trash” as bigots without ever knowing them. I have always identified as a liberal and distance myself not from Progressive goals but from their direct and immediate appeal to government to solve problems. But admitting the warts among us all does not get us over the humps that religion, money, race, authority aka law and order impose. I once sat for two hours with a dedicated right-wing conservative, ex-cop, his wife a Falangist from Spain, and could never get past religion with him. His son-in-law was Black (my wife’s nephew), no problem there, but authority and religion seemed deal breakers. I was wet with sweat when we shook hands good-bye. Hard work, but that’s what it takes even if there is little progress toward consensus or reconciliation.
So the conservatives need to be able to engage seriously with us and stop waving the red flag of U.S. Grant being pulled down as if A.O.C. was pulling on the rope; generalizations like “we live at a time when historical figures are literally being pulled off pedestals” as if the last few months constitutes an era; labeling people like me as hyper-partisan just because we do not vote for Republicans, even decent politicians like John McCain and Jeff Flake or Mitt Romney, because they support the GOP agenda – Romney’s “47% of people want free stuff” (akin to disincentivise) is a good example. F you, Romney, I don’ want free stuff and I’m not lazy because I became a teacher instead of starting my own insurance company. Revisions of our cherry tree American narrative by Howard Zinn and James Loewen doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy John Wayne movies (they’re MOVIES!). As half-Italian and half-Appalachian I can celebrate Columbus and Davy Crockett, as long as I know Davy was fighting to preserve slavery against the new Mexican constitution. Labeling opponents on Constitutional issues as utopian and fanatical does not advance the cause; just stop calling BLM members ‘soulless Marxists’ (Red State) when far more Blacks, including BLM members, are more dedicated Christians than a good many White people. Raising the specter of reparations to scare what are always labeled ‘hard-working Americans’ (sorry here, but I will assert that that is code for White) as if reparations can only be considered as docking White folks’ pay to give “free stuff” to Black people. So a slogan, defund the police, is immediately translated by conservatives into that 60s bumper-sticker, “Next time you need a cop, call a hippie.” Good God! Ditch Uncle Harry and Grandpa Jones, conservatives!
The crazy generalizations get crazier: S & D write, “… as America burns.” Really? Some nut cases riding in on the protests set fires and hyped-up young people cheer, that is “American burning?” It reminds me of how the Phoenix City Council imposed a curfew on the Black part of town where we lived in 1968 when someone threw a molotov cocktail into a trash can. S & D would have you believe that those tens of thousands of Americans marching across the country wanted to take guns away from the police but I’m not even sure those holding the signs really meant that. ASK THEM!
And here is another barrier, one I did not list above: language. What most people call discourse, as in public discourse or civil discourse, is loaded with signals of propriety, respect, deference, recognition, acknowledgement, binding and distancing. The languages of young people, inner-city speakers of Black English, code-switching Latinxs (= Latinos and/or Latinas), evangelical ministers, businesspersons, white shoe law firm executives, hedge fund managers, Hollywood and Las Vegas entertainers, on and on, all have ways of signaling these functions of language but they are different. Threading those differences can be demanding for impatient people.
So will Republicans campaigning in Black neighborhoods trot out their Black driver to prove their bona fides a la Mark Meadows? Will the Right give any fewer purity tests than Progressives? Will some on the Left taste blood and push for immediate universal health care and free higher education (I’m for them ) a la Bernie Sanders? IOW, just how many ways can the Left and Right screw this opportunity up. Opportunity? Yes, after Trumovid, the true nature of the Chinese character combining ‘precarious’ and ‘change point’ yielding ‘crisis’ will be manifest.