As the Conservative Political Action Conference is happening, it seems a good time to ask what conservatism actually means. The dictionary definition is:
1. commitment to traditional values and ideas with opposition to change or innovation
2. the holding of political views that favor free enterprise, private ownership, and socially traditional ideas
Is that really what it means? Hardly anybody in the U.S. is opposed to private ownership in general, or to "free enterprise," whatever that means. And what ideas are considered "socially traditional" depends on your tradition. I'll grant you that conservative politicians use rhetoric that corresponds to number 2, although getting to the world they espouse would require a great deal of change and innovation. However, the entire program at CPAC is about idolization of a serial adulterer and con artist whose socially traditional ideas consist mostly of racism.
Philip E. Agre was a highly accomplished and prolific scholar of information theory and linguistics, who wrote the famous essay "What is Conservatism" in 2004. Shortly thereafter, for unknown reasons, he dropped out of academia and out of public life entirely. He let it be known (by way of his sister if I remember correctly) that he was well and his choice was voluntary. Whether he painted his mailbox blue I do not know. In any case, here is his definition:
Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.
Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.
He uses the word aristocracy loosely. For sociologists and historians, it refers to a particular kind of ruling caste, with titles of rank, usually associated with landholdings. But he is referring generally to a ruling class of one kind or another. "From the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the self-regarding thugs of ancient Rome to the glorified warlords of medieval and absolutist Europe, in nearly every urbanized society throughout human history, there have been people who have tried to constitute themselves as an aristocracy. These people and their allies are the conservatives."
To maintain their privilege, they need to convince people that it is right and proper. Hence the defense of "tradition." We are your overlords, that is traditional, therefore it is right. But most people, if they had the chance to think about it and act on their conclusions, might well decide it isn't right after all. So as Agre goes on to say:
Conservatism in every place and time is founded on deception. The deceptions of conservatism today are especially sophisticated, simply because culture today is sufficiently democratic that the myths of earlier times will no longer suffice. . . . American culture still being comparatively healthy, overt arguments for aristocracy (for example, that the children of aristocrats learn by osmosis the profound arts of government and thereby acquire a wisdom that mere experts cannot match) are still relatively unusual. Instead, conservatism must proceed through complicated indirection, and the next few sections of this article will explain in some detail how this works. The issue is not that rich people are bad, or that hierarchical types of organization have no place in a democracy. Nor are the descendents of aristocrats necessarily bad people if they do not try to perpetuate conservative types of domination over society. The issue is both narrow and enormous: no aristocracy should be allowed to trick the rest of society into deferring to it.. . . Conservatism has opposed rational thought for thousands of years. What most people know nowadays as conservatism is basically a public relations campaign aimed at persuading them to lay down their capacity for rational thought.
He goes on to describe specific strategies and rhetorical tricks that we think of as being largely innovations of the Trump years, but remember he was writing in 2004 during the reign of George Bush II. I recommend you read the whole thing. I'll discuss it in more detail anon.
Yes Woodie, 74 million voters are against Democracy. Donald Trump is a fascist.