Looking for a “vision of a future not built on a transporting to the past”

Charles Blow asks about the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), “Where were the grand conservative thinkers? Where was the philosophical heft?” He’s right to ask about that, and wrong to ask, “Where was the vision of a future not built on a transporting to the past?”[1]

The trouble for conservatives lately—and some of them are getting really, really annoyed about it—is that authoritarian populists (currently known as the “Tea Party”) have, for whatever reason, the loudest voices. But they are only one of seven “schools,” if you can call them that, of conservatism.[2] That’s part of why Blow is wrong to ask about a “vision of a future not built on a transporting to the past.”[3]

Traditionalists, for example, explicitly pine for local governance by “the squire and the parson.”[4] Of course, they would ban abortion. They’re also after contraception and even divorce.[5] In this, they share much in common with social conservatives, who really started to pick up steam when the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution and a wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century seemed, at least to some, to threaten white hegemony, which is probably why they historically opposed abortion: They seem to have wanted to keep white women pregnant, preferably with white boys, but at least with white girls to make more white boys.[6] And yes, to the extent that one can take megachurches as representative of social conservatism, it does seem that social conservatives are disproportionately white.[7] One social conservative lamented that an observation he attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., still seems true, that “Eleven A.M. Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.”[8]

I’m almost through analyzing an article by a social conservative who expects to apply the legal standards of the Old Testament in Hebrew villages in Israel to today’s problem of undocumented migrants in the United States.[9] I think I might need a new name for the fallacy of appeal to tradition.

The preferred future for a significant number of conservatives lies explicitly in the past. At the very least, conservative historian George Nash repeatedly describes conservatives as “standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’”[10] Traditionalists in particular often argue not only that to attempt to engineer social improvements would run afoul of the plan of the god of Abraham, but that to do so betrays an unbearable arrogance.[11] And authoritarian populists think that their values are sufficient for everybody in the U.S. As Kim Messick put it,

These voters, who figure prominently in the Tea Party, often decline to interpret political conflict as a struggle among interest groups or a good-faith clash of opinion. Instead, they tend to identify the country as a whole with an idealized version of themselves, and to equate any dissent from their values with disloyalty by alien, “un-American” forces.[12]

Blow thus fundamentally misunderstands the conflict between left and right in this country when he expects conservatives to offer a “vision of a future not built on a transporting to the past.”[13] He’s right, however, to look for intellectual heft. Though I strongly disagree with all flavors of conservatism, I’ve seen such heft in abundance particularly among traditionalist conservatives, and definitely not so much among authoritarian populists. But because the latter are now shouting everyone else down, one might also say that we have a conflict between those who accept the value of intellectual endeavor and those who reject it as elitist. As Thomas Frank described the “Cons” (conservatives) of Kansas,

Education at the K-12 level, meanwhile, is the main place where average Kansans routinely encounter government, and for the Cons that encounter is often frustrating and offensive. School is where big government makes its most insidious moves into their private lives, teaching their kids that homosexuality is OK or showing them their way around a condom. Cons find their beliefs under attacks by another tiny, insular group of arrogant professionals—the National Education Association—that stands above democratic control, and they look for relief in vouchers, homeschooling, or private religious schools.[14]

Blow might be waiting a while before truly intellectual conservatives dare to show their faces.

  1. [1]Charles M. Blow, “CPAC: Hackneyed and Hollow,” New York Times, March 2, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/opinion/charles-blow-cpac-hackneyed-and-hollow.html
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Dissertation Proposal: Conservative Views on Undocumented Migrants,” November 10, 2014, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2014/11/10/dissertation-proposal-conservative-views-on-undocumented-migrants/
  3. [3]Charles M. Blow, “CPAC: Hackneyed and Hollow,” New York Times, March 2, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/opinion/charles-blow-cpac-hackneyed-and-hollow.html
  4. [4]Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th ed. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2001).
  5. [5]Christopher Olaf Blum, “On Being Conservative: Lessons from Louis de Bonald,” Intercollegiate Review 41, no. 1 (2006): 23-30.
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Dissertation Proposal: Conservative Views on Undocumented Migrants,” November 10, 2014, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2014/11/10/dissertation-proposal-conservative-views-on-undocumented-migrants/
  7. [7]Warren Bird and Scott Thumma, “A New Decade of Megachurches: 2011 Profile of Large Attendance Churches in the United States,” Hartford Seminary, November 22, 2011, http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/megachurch-2011-summary-report.htm
  8. [8]John Stonestreet, “Christians, Race, and Reconciliation,” Breakpoint, January 19, 2015, http://www.breakpoint.org/bpcommentaries/entry/13/26711
  9. [9]Alex Crain, “Does the Bible Tell Us to Support Obama’s Immigration Amnesty?” Christianity.com, November 24, 2014, http://www.christianity.com/blogs/alex-crain/does-the-bible-tell-us-to-support-obama-s-immigration-amnesty.html
  10. [10]George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
  11. [11]Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th ed. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2001); Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time (Louisiana State University, 1964; Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995).
  12. [12]Kim Messick, “Modern GOP is still the party of Dixie,” Salon, October 12, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/10/12/modern_gop_is_still_the_party_of_dixie/
  13. [13]Charles M. Blow, “CPAC: Hackneyed and Hollow,” New York Times, March 2, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/opinion/charles-blow-cpac-hackneyed-and-hollow.html
  14. [14]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).

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