A great introduction to an article like this is Gallup\’s famous poll taken in 2009, where Gallup\’s pollster team phrased questions as such:
— Are you a Democrat or a Republican? 38% reported Democrat, 22% reported Republican.
— Do you identify as a liberal or a conservative? 40% reported conservative, 19% reported liberal.
There\’s something to be said for hiding behind a word. Liberals, as Lawrence O\’Donnell famously said, \”are so scared of the word (liberal) they have to call themselves progressives\”. Are Republicans hiding behind conservative, libertarian or the tea party? Are there real discrepancies between establishment Republicans and their ideological allies on the ground level?
Of course, I\’m not the first person to raise these questions in the context of a discussion about what it really means to be a modern conservative; almost everyone in the media has been speculating about this, \’the demise of the GOP\’, since the 2008 elections. While the debate has subsided with massive Republican victories in the House of Representatives (63 gains), it\’s certainly not over.
Let\’s look at the Dictionary\’s recent definition of what it means to be conservative.
Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.
According to a definition that is this simplistic compared to the mainstream political discourse, no one is a conservative when trying to get elected. George Bush ran on a campaign of changing Bill Clinton\’s policies, Ronald Reagan ran his campaign against welfare and unions protections, and the list goes on. Conservative politicians want dramatic socioeconomic change, as long as it contributes toward their beliefs and opinions of \’existing conditions\’ and \’traditional institutions.\’
What isn\’t often discussed is the difference between conservative politicians and conservatives on the ground (for our purposes, we\’ll call them real conservatives). If you talk to real conservatives, you\’ll find that they want heavily regulated banks. They want investors to have more control of the companies they invest in. They\’re totally naive to the fact that their politicians are bought by various industries (telecomm, health insurance, aircraft, high-tech, pharma, hybrid banks, etc.).
They do not understand that their politicians aren\’t slaves of \’big government\’, they\’re slaves to the \’free\’ market, which will never be free as long as powerful individuals exist. That\’s the catch in laissez-faire ideological goals. Adam Smith wrote in Wealth of Nations that real free markets should only exist under the condition that they lead to perfect liberty and equality, and it\’s blatantly obvious that they do not (as evidenced by many third world economies).
What all of this debate over the legitimacy of free markets (or the idea that they really exist) really comes down to is a pretty complicated question. What\’s the more realistic solution: attempting to force laissez-faire capitalism on corporations and various other powerful institutions, or enforcing legitimate regulation (meaning regulation made by accountable people, not the institutions being regulated)?
The choice is difficult until you look at how deeply entrenched the United States is in a state-subsidized version of capitalism. Between the court rulings that are now interpreted as defining corporations as individuals and the bought politicians and regulators, how could we possibly achieve real capitalism? More importantly, do we want to experience the ravages of the market when the state has less involvement, and would we be happy with the results that the un-subsidized market produces?
Now lets look at regulation, which has its success stories and in more recent years, disasters. The recent housing bubble was a fine example of revolving-door politics, with regulators and White House officials (Larry Summers, Tim Geithner) serving the interests of their former employers instead of the interests of the population. However, people generally have alot of faith that regulation is a tool of democracy, as evidenced by the fact that people no longer un-plug their appliances at night.
Economist James K. Galbraith (University of Texas at Austin) lectured following the release of his book in 2009 that regulation isn\’t imposed on markets, but it \”makes modern free markets possible\”. When one opens a bag of vegetables that are labeled pre-washed in the U.S, it\’s not necessary to boil them before eating in fear of pesticides and contaminants. In China, however, this doesn\’t hold true. In the United States, much faith exists in a regulatory apparatus that has proven itself in certain cases to be worthy of the people\’s trust.
Ghandi was once asked what he thought of Western Civilization. He said \”It might be a good idea.\” The same can be said about capitalism in the U.S. The rich and powerful elites wants a powerful state that favors them, and only them, designed with the sole purpose of protecting them from the ravages of the market.
So the conservative politicians are really doing exactly what their real conservative constituents are asking of them, but the constituents keep getting shafted. The economic and ethical realities are just incredibly flawed. As Noam Chomsky once said, \”Everyone seems to know this but economists.\” Middle class people who call themselves conservatives feel the burdens of a flawed system just like everyone else, but they\’re misinformed by an undemocratic media culture that\’s so heavily influenced by \’conservative\’ entities that it can be described as carrying out a propaganda function. The media constantly shills for a system in which free markets impose tough love on the working class, the rich can have their social contract, and you just can\’t know that.
Perhaps this is what it means to be \’conservative\’:
Disposed to love government when it does anything good for the power structure, but hate government when it does something good for them.