Sunday, June 5, 2011

Does American conservatism have an authenticity problem?

Mitt Romney, a multimillionaire (or is it billionaire?) and former head of Bain Capital, has pledged to make job creation the laser-like focus of his attention should he be elected President. Call me cynical or something, but I find it hard to persuade myself that Romney cares all that deeply about how many of his fellow Americans are employed or unemployed. (This is not a feeling I have exclusively about Romney or other Republican politicians, incidentally, but I will focus on Republicans here.)

My skepticism about the genuineness of Romney's concern for the plight of the unemployed and underemployed may be an instance of what has been called Romney's authenticity problem -- although this phrase, admittedly, has been used more with specific reference to his stance on health care reform. It may also, however, point to a larger issue: an authenticity problem of American conservatism in general.

One could argue that this problem, if it does indeed exist, is more a consequence of historical accidents than of the personal failings of American conservatives as individuals. Conservatism in the U.S. has labored under handicaps compared to the conservatisms of Britain or continental Europe. These handicaps may not have been so evident in recent decades, as the Right everywhere has converged on a mantra of neoliberal worship of 'the market,' but they nonetheless continue to operate, or so one might contend.

Put briefly, American conservatism, unlike (say) British conservatism, cannot appeal to the virtues of hierarchy and expect such an appeal to be heard in the same way that it would be heard in a society with a medieval past. On one level, this is just the well-worn Hartzian argument about American exceptionalism stemming from the absence of feudalism. But it's more than that. As Samuel Huntington wrote more than forty years ago (Political Order in Changing Societies, 1968, p.133):
In America,...[c]onservatism has seldom flourished because it has lacked social institutions to conserve. Society is changing and modern, while government, which the conservative views with suspicion, has been relatively unchanging and antique. With a few exceptions, such as a handful of colleges and churches, the oldest institutions in American society are governmental institutions. The absence of established social institutions, in turn, has made it unnecessary for American liberals to espouse the centralization of power as did European liberals.
From an historical perspective, Huntington's statement that American conservatism "has lacked social institutions to conserve" contains a rather glaring omission: namely, slavery (and, subsequently, Jim Crow). And I have no doubt that historians could come up with an entire list of social institutions that American conservatives have been interested in conserving. Nonetheless, Huntington's observation remains suggestive.

One might add that, where they have focused on defending social institutions, U.S. conservatives have not tended to be hugely successful. For instance, the defense of conventional marriage and the conventional family is a matter of intense concern to a part of the electorate, but it's a minority. Rather, when American conservatives have succeeded electorally in the fairly recent past, it has been as putative defenders of the common man and woman against the alleged depredations of "big government," even though the American welfare state has always been underdeveloped in comparative terms. Hence Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, vowed that he would "get government off the backs" of ordinary, hard-working voters. Romney is trying to tap into this Reaganesque vein. But Romney is no Reagan and with Romney, moreover, the inauthenticity of one candidate is arguably compounded by the authenticity problem of an ideology.

I'm not sure that any of the foregoing helps to explain the less-than-overwhelmingly-impressive field of Republican presidential candidates. (Although Jon Huntsman, for one, has sort of an interesting biography.) There is probably a more mundane explanation for the lackluster field, namely, a reluctance to run against an incumbent president, even in economic hard times.

But even if this mundane explanation is correct, it may be worth thinking about a more basic problem facing any conservative movement in a mass democracy: how to generate popular enthusiasm for an essentially negative ideology. Thanks to Wikipedia's very long article "Conservatism in the United States" which I skimmed through just now, I was reminded of William F. Buckley's statement that conservatives "stand athwart history, yelling Stop". Yelling 'stop' is not a slogan that will win elections. Thus conservatives in the U.S. have transformed it into other slogans: no big government, no socialism, no government-run health care, no tax increases, etcetera. Whether these slogans can still rev up the conservative faithful in the required numbers -- as they did not manage to do in 2008 -- is an open question as the 2012 presidential campaign season begins.


hank_F_M said...


Is Romney a conservative? There seems to be some doubt depending on who you listen to.

I think he has conservative inclinations but mostly he puts a wet finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. Perhaps unfair because as governor of MA I’m sure he had to make a lot compromises that he would not have had to make in a less blue or even red state. Of course his finger is telling him that the number one issue is jobs, and he has to hit it to be elected and do something to be reelected.

Outide the beltway he rather like Senator McCain, acceptable in a 4th choice way but who works hard for their 4th choice.

Perhaps the current incumbent should put a wet finger in the air.

There is not one conservativeism

The media tends to call anyone who is not liberal conservative. You would have to look for authentic representatives of the different parts. Can some build a coalition? To early to tell.

LFC said...

"You would have to look for authentic representatives of the different parts..."

And who might they be, in your view?

hank_F_M said...

In a philosophical sense I do not think there are any who have come to the fore. Many site Thomasa Sowel’s Conflict of visions. An excellent book, but it is more description of the intellectual landscape, not a philosophy.

Different groups.
Libertarians. 5% of the electorate they can get 10% as a protest vote. They seem to be excited about Ann Rynd. I read part of one of her books and put it down because of boredom so I can’t say if she has anything to offer. Ron Paul is an authentic case of the very worst of that movement. Someone created a stir a few years ago calling them the Marxists of the right, some good critiques but unworkable solutions, will stick to an ideology regardless of the facts.

Where the libertains are in inclined to think there is no legimate government function other groups think there is proper governmental and non governmental functions, they just do not agree on what the are.

Social Conseratives
A fractured group. Mostly they want to raise families and want the government to support that or get out of the way. The government should create an environment where they can raise families but should not do it or supervise it. The authentic leaders of the last generation have died or retired The upcoming generation has developing leaders but they are not there yet. Sam Brownell is probably the most authentic political leader and perhaps Rich Santorum.

Economic Conservatives
The government should create an environment for the smooth functioning of the economy and bussiness but not run it. Neutral services such as the Federal Reserve, necessary regulation and courts to arbitrate disputes. The old guard of the party.

Fiscal conservatives
The Government should be run in a fiscally sound manner with a balanced budget.

And to bring up a genuime authentic voice may I point to the much maligned and underestimated Governor Palin. She served as a solid fiscal conservative in Alaska when it would have been expedient and easy to cave in, and she also has good credentials with the Economic and Social Conservatives. Not a philosophical sort of person, in a practical sense she is putting voice to the concerns a large number part o f the electorate.

I doubt she will run, if she doesn’t who ever is nominated needs at least her passive approval and attemping to trash her will be death on the Republican side. I suspect she will do like she did in the off year election, work to the election of like minded congressmen, who ever is President will have to deal with a more “Tea partyish“ Congress.. If she tries to run the smear campaigns may have alrady made a general election win impossible, but then she is so underated she could effectively win before the opposition realizes there is fight.

I am not endorsing her, I don't know yet

LFC said...

Well, I'm beginning to be just a little bit sorry I asked.


'Sam Brownell' -- I think you probably mean Brownback.

I don't think Gov. Palin is running.

Incidentally, to call libertarians "the Marxists of the right" might plausibly be construed as unfair to (or an insult to) Marxists. But in the interests of amity, I won't go there.