America's Political Spectrum
Left, Right, or Center: Who's Conservative Today?
conservative adj. - disposed to preserve existing conditions and institutions, or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change
- Webster's Unabridged Dictionary
When Adam and Eve were arguing over whether to pluck an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, one of them probably took the conservative approach. To "preserve existing conditions" probably made sense to at least one member of the First Couple. And had they listened to God's instructions and contented themselves with the paradise they had, things might never have changed, for better or worse.
But of course things did change, conservative impulses were ignored, and the apple was plucked. Nevertheless in the years since, conservatism has remained with us -- both politically and psychologically. Its psychological characteristics have been methodically examined in a fascinating just-published academic study, which Kathleen Maclay summarizes in this issue of Garlic & Grass.
But what are the current political incarnations of conservatism? What groups or organizations act conservatively in this country today? Let's first examine the most powerful of our political organizations, the politcal parties.
Who in today's American political spectrum is conservative?
All large groups defy generalization, and the Republicans are a diverse group. But if we consider their actions, few of them, and none who are actually in elective office, qualify as truly conservative. While speaking at great length about 'traditional values,' they generally act from a root urge that has little to do with preserving existing situations or protecting the way things are or recently were. Instead, over the past 30 years, Republicans have focused primarily on increasing corporate power.
Republicans talk about freedom, responsibility, and family values, but consistently support corporate consolidation and deregulation of industries from media to meatpacking and from drinking water to depleted uranium weaponry. Republicans also consistently back enlarging the huge American military, though there clearly are no enemies out there demanding the 47% of our federal budget that they now devote to it. 15% would probably do. But Republicans push the American corporate agenda over all other concerns. Essentially, they continuously enlarge the military budget because the military both purchases from, and protects the interests of, large corporations. Republicans talk about small government but create instead a vast corporate government that is half military and half private companies who take public tax money. This root urge to increase corporate power is further apparent when one sees that the Republican agenda also seeks to weaken the primary forces countervailing corporate power -- labor unions, antitrust regulations, and environmental protections.
Thus it's remarkable to see large numbers of common folk, who consider themselves traditionalists and small government conservatives, voting for Republicans. These voters seem unaware they're empowering corporations to control all aspects of their private lives. Enriching and empowering corporations comes at a huge cost to small farms, small businesses, and all aspects of traditional small town life. Corporations seek to homogenize small town culture and encourage cultural conformity, because sales are more profitable and more efficient when all towns are the same.
Perhaps Republican voters are choosing the lesser of two evils, seeing the Democrats as worse. Or perhaps they're simply misled to believe Republicans are conservative and have no agenda at all, aside from perhaps allowing prayer in schools and outlawing abortion. Some extraordinarily wealthy individuals, to be sure, do know what the Republicans are all about and vote for them proudly -- but they are not voting for conservatives.
The Democrats are another large diverse group that at first defies generalization, but the actions of the Democrats are actually quite consistent. Satisfied with the progress they accomplished in the 1960's and 1970's, they've spent the past 30 years resisting change. After pursuing for half a century an agenda of increased labor rights, civil rights, health care rights, environmental protections, and educational reform, they have now settled down, sold out, given up, or just grown complacent. Thus the Democrats have become today's dictionary-definition conservatives, opposing most changes to the status quo and only putting up a fight to mute change.
In part this is because the DLC, a corporate-leaning "Republican Lite" group, has seized power from within the party and now guides its policies and nominations. The DLC is pro-business and pro-military. Combine this with the genuine complacency and feeling of entitlement that has settled through the ranks of the Democrats, and you have conservatism. The Democrats' root urge comes from a belief that a majority of Americans support them -- and so they don't need to do much. They think, "We did good in the past, and now you owe us your vote."
The Democrats have become today's dictionary-definition conservatives.
Clinton's administration in the 1990's was a perfect example of status quo DLC-controlled conservatism: the Democrats fought neither to increase nor diminish the power of labor, or of corporations; they passively allowed deregulation to slowly give corporations the upper hand. The Democrats didn't fight to save the environment, or to change our approach to healthcare or schools, or prisons, nor to our military or to America's fundamental role in the world. Whether in a Bush or a Clinton administration, the Democrats "preserve existing conditions" and "limit change."
The Green Party, while still small, clearly is fighting to become America's progressive party. By pursuing political reform, they seek to carry forward the mantle of progressive social change that has been worn at various times in American history by Democrats, Populists, and Socialists. Greens seek to reform the way elections are conducted by implementing Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), and they want to remove corporate contributions from the political equation through publicly-funded elections. These goals are fundamentally opposed to the Republican agenda to increase the power of transnational corporations. But Greens want to do more than just oppose the Republicans; they want to revamp how politics are conducted. Their urge is progressive: to foster deeper democracy and bring ecological wisdom into public policy, and generally to use the power of government aggressively to improve the social conditions of Americans' lives.
The Green Party is the largest political force today pushing for progress. Facing corporate power, they call for ending corporate personhood, which grants to corporations the rights expressly given only to citizens in the US Constitution. Pushing for greater social services also directly confronts corporate power by making people less physically dependent on their employers. Greens want to make the weapons industry non-profit, provide universal healthcare, raise the minimum wage to a living wage, and put more women in politics. These urges are not conservative.
The Republicans and Democrats are the biggest parties, and the Greens are the fastest growing, but there are of course other political forces at work in this country. Socialist, Communist, and Christian political movements are each dedicated to an agenda of social change, and are in some ways the fuel of the non-conservative political movements described above, but each is unpalatable to a large portion of the populace, so their power when they stand alone tends to be small.
The Libertarians are the only other party that could be considered conservative -- insofar as they push to reduce the size of government and to expand civil liberties. But Libertarians seek an end to all social services and public education, which doesn't really sound conservative at all. Libertarians want complete freedom all the time. They want to push society into a new place, or perhaps a very old place -- Libertarians crave a Hobbesian state of nature where there are virtually no limits on behavior. In such a world, the strongest and richest conquer all. Corporate and personal freedom taken this far would create a world without personal responsibility -- to communities or to other human beings. This isn't a conservative urge at all. Also, the most important plank in their platform is deregulation of corporate power; Libertarians are effectively pushing in the same direction as the Republicans.
Reexamining The Spectrum
The spectrum should in fact be seen as an archer's target, with the DLC Democrats right in the bull's eye in the middle. They're the conservatives today. The non-DLC Democrats and Republicans push moderately for change, and the Green Party and the PNAC Republicans seek aggressive and immediate change. As it turns out, today the PNAC Republicans control one branch of the federal government, and the non-PNAC Republicans control the other two. So change is happening -- and not in a conservative way.
Ultimately, by recasting our view of the American political landscape to account for the ascendant Republican agenda and absent Democratic agenda, it becomes apparent that the Democrats are, and have been, this nation's conservative party. They push for...nothing. This has opened the space -- indeed the necessity -- for another party to carry forward the banner of progressive change, and the Green Party is picking it up. The bitter vehemence with which Democrats attack Greens seems to reveal their fear of facing these facts; few Democrats wish to face the reality that they are in a conservative party. But as more and more progressives vote Green, the Democrats will be forced to look in the mirror.
Tony Brasunas is publisher of Garlic & Grass. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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