The modern conservative movement is built upon a paradox. Indeed, both Parties in the United States system – and there are functionally only two – have long preached basically the same message. Means are almost the only thing separating Democrats from Republicans; certainly their ends remain nearly indistinguishable from one another; that is, to build wealth and prosperity and promote liberty – and for conservatives especially, to do all of this by means of the Gospel of Rugged Individualism.
Individualism ties in well with the Republican Party’s superficial promise of small government through lower taxation. Democrats, on the other hand, believe that to some degree the State needs to intervene, to provide social safety nets in a society that obviously merits them. They have more faith in the power and beneficence of the government. Republicans are equally bound to the State, but believe in a broader partnership between it and private institutions. Both place an enormous amount of faith and emphasis on the individual. The irony, of course, is that individualism and the size of the State are bound inextricably, the one to the other. The more Americans become boxed into their “liberating” roles as individuals, the more detached we become from our communities and families. These antiquated institutions become accidentally irrelevant. Once upon a time, our family was our social safety net, and the community an even broader one. Yet, as we’ve been increasingly driven into our roles as individuals – through political and economic policies as well as through rapid technological development – and as our faith in community and family has dwindled, we have become ever more reliant on the State to provide for our needs.
Often you will hear Republicans decrying reliance on the State as a very bad thing. Often you might hear them rattling off superficial lines about family values or talking points morality. But in the end, the economic policies of the conservative movement – free trade, supply side economics, globalization – have led directly to this dependence on the state. We were not composed to exist merely as individuals. We are communal beings. Atomization is not in our DNA. Economic policies that focus on wealth rather than humanity are essentially demoralizing and destructive – perhaps not to our superficial standards of living; perhaps not to our culture of material prosperity; but to our core values as people living on Earth, they are detrimental. This is a system doomed to failure because its central claims are false: that we are nothing more than individuals who consume, and that liberty is our birthright, and that the natural extension of liberty is consumerism – essentially that choice trumps all, and in its purest form manifests in our ability to choose to buy lots and lots of things.
This is the fundamental flaw in modern economic theory. It touts the creation of cheap goods via cheap labor and resources as the purpose of prosperity in and of itself. Never mind that this requires shipping all our manufacturing jobs overseas. The once well-paid auto workers will be able to buy such inexpensive goods from China that, if they are lucky enough to find them, jobs in fast food restaurants and retail outlets will be enough to subsist – nay, prosper – upon.
What a farce! Such a brilliant hood-winking of the American people! Such a plot can only be accidental, but even so, even such a conspiracy of happenstance has the same effect. The tragedy is that conservatives have bought into this scheme so completely. The only difference between the two Parties now is that one believes in taxing and spending, and the other believes in not taxing and still spending. One pretends to address the moral concerns of poverty and equal rights and the other pretends to address the moral concerns of the Religious Right. In the end, both ignore the moral concerns of a society driven by the express goal of building wealth, by excess and debt over thrift, and above all else, identifying as a society not of workers, builders, or citizens, but of consumers.
The cries of “socialism” leveled at Obama from the Republicans seem odd, given the Republican propensity toward enlarging government, even privatized government. I’m as troubled as the next by this massive spending, but then again, massive spending has been the status quo for years. Only, instead of spending trillions on health care reform, we’ve spent it on wars in far off lands. Apparently the moral concern of expansionary militarism is less significant than the the expansion of our social safety nets; the sequestering off of our freedoms under the guise of a War on Terror is less worrisome than the building of high speed rail. Perhaps our priorities have been skewed by our isolation from each other.
Individualism leads to the growth of the State because individualism denies the need for community and family; it abandons such antiquated notions as God and tradition and favors reason and wealth over history and modesty. In the end, however, individualism inevitably falls short; reason inevitably contradicts itself. A nation of individuals is inherently chaotic, and will gravitate, sometimes consciously, oftentimes not, toward a bigger and stronger and more all-encompassing State.
A second irony is that once this Big Government is in place, it becomes almost impossible to dismantle. People become so accustomed to relying upon it that they grow to love the entitlements they claim to despise, because our faculties of self-governance have become so diminished, and our values so skewed toward selfishness, that we can conceive of no alternative. So when cuts are made to entitlement programs, it is met with justified anger. Now we’re hooked, after all, acclimatized, and it’s cruel to think that simply cutting back government by hacking away at its branches,will somehow turn back the clock without at the same time causing a great deal of societal pain. How can this effort hope to succeed while the basic economic and political premises that brought it about remain unchallenged and unchecked?
There are signs of collapse, however. Divorce rates are at unprecedented levels. Depression is as common as the common cold. We patch our sadness up with pills and purchases. People are generally not made happier by their ability to buy cheaper goods, and pharmaceuticals have only mixed success. Defining prosperity by our consumption instead of our work may be at the heart of much of this.
Hard work is good for us. It can stave off boredom; it keeps us fit and gives us purpose. There is a reason we term it our calling or occupation. But nowadays hard work is not something that is generally viewed as very worthwhile or necessary. Ambition and entitlement make strange bedfellows. Yet we are dropped into a culture of want, and told that we can do anything, and not only that but that we deserve it as well. All men are created equal, and thus all men deserve equal success regardless of our merit, our work, our good luck. The tragedy, of course, is that we have lost the very thing that allows us to truly succeed in life – our communities, our families, our sense of place and time. And so what can we ambitious, entitled Americans turn to when we fail?
Ponzi schemes? False promises? The State? Big Business? The Rugged Individual within us all?
Some suggest that the problem stems from our inability to accept modernism, globalism, and so forth, and that a fusion must be made between these new social constructs. Pre-modernity, of course, is little more than wishful thinking, so perhaps “glocality” as Scott termed it, is a better answer – a compromise of necessity. He may be right. Globalization has been widely accepted as good, lack of evidence notwithstanding. This is not to say that the coming together of cultures across the globe is inherently bad, but the rapid and wealth-driven globalization that we are now experiencing is without a doubt both unnatural and the source of too many societal ills to list, ills that manifest both here and across the “developing” world. Free trade has widely been accepted as a beneficent force, though the actual reasoning behind this is couched solely in economical terms rather than in terms of morality or humanity. Protecting our manufacturing industry is a good first step toward disemboweling these notions, though the political support behind protectionism (that dirtiest of all words) is virtually non-existent. Regaining control of our currency, too, might serve in some sense to dispel a few of these illusions of wealth, as Chris pointed out recently.
What the conservative movement doesn’t realize is that to shrink government we must first find a way to transform our communities. We must find a way to undermine this vision of the individual above all else, and tap into that lost art of solidarity. We must abandon our illusions for realities, and our culture of entitlement for one of virtue and accountability. Until we do this, the better option will always be the Democrats, who at least acknowledge that in this fragmented society of individuals we do in fact need a large State, if only to try to patch up the many cracks we, as individuals, are bound to fall between. There is no viable alternative to big government save perhaps a massive corporate state (perhaps an even more frightening prospect), without first experiencing a cultural sea change. We must seek to redefine prosperity. This is a cultural challenge even more than a political one, though where the one leaves off and the other begins is hard to say.
After all, can a political Party be built around a platform that emphasizes the necessity of the whole over the importance of the individual? Can a conservatism of virtue and simplicity which claims that greed is not in fact good, prosper? Will a conservatism be born that puts to lie the claim that we are all destined to become billionaires, or capable of success by simply going it alone, or that denounces American hegemony and militarism? Can we ever revive our sense of place, our priorities of localism, agrarianism, and self-government? Both Mark and Kyle have made suggestions and laid out critiques of the Republican Party and its attempt to become relevant once again. I would only add to this conversation that this country could use a Party that addressed actual conservative principles of community, modesty, and restraint, rather than greed, war, and materialism.
For now, instead, we rush from bubble to bubble, from one crash heedlessly to the next. We are all entitled to our wants and ambitions whether or not we bother to work for them. We are all satellites, orbiting one another endlessly, pretending that society can be built out of greed and detachment, while we know in our hearts that this is not so. “No man is an island,” John Dunne famously wrote. “Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls it tolls for thee.” Not just any man’s death, I might add, but every man’s life. We are bound to each other and to our history as surely as ever, only we’ve come to believe otherwise. Perhaps it’s time we shook the cobwebs from our eyes, and put these illusions of ours to rest, to look within ourselves and find out what prosperity actually means – how we let it define us.