The politics of pettiness
I’ve been trying to get at the heart of what bothers me so much about contemporary conservative politics & discourse these days. The closest I can come to an answer is that conservatives have fallen into the trap of modern politics – which is to say, they’ve become petty. Extraordinarily petty. The endless lament over the liberal menace; the incessant ballyhoo over anything and everything the president does or says; the irksome victimhood – it all boils down to a propensity toward pettiness. It becomes a cacophony of empty gestures and equally vapid posturing. (The other side does this as well, of course, but you know what they say about two wrongs.)
The reason for all this pettiness? I think it goes beyond merely scoring political points. I think it has much more to do with cheap populism. And nothing is more damaging or antithetical to conservatism than populism, even the rightwing variety.
Populism, after all, is just a nice word for “mob”. If ever there was a thing that conservatives were meant to protect us against it is the rule of the mob. Conservatives were never supposed to be the mob, were never meant to be its advocates.
The first problem with the rule of the mob is the sort of leaders it produces. Every mob needs a despot. That’s why we have a Democratic Republic in the first place as opposed to a more free-wheeling Democracy. Pure, unadulterated democracy is too close to mob rule, places too much political power into the hands of the majority. All too quickly such democracy leads to tyranny of one variety or another.
Populism can also turn a nation’s spiritual efforts into political efforts. If one goal of conservatism is to preserve the spiritual buoyancy of a nation or a civilization, then conservatives should avoid the evangelist populism dominating so-called “social conservatism” at all costs. Subverting faith or religious culture to the narrow and corrupting goals of politics can only backfire in unintended and perfidious ways. Certainly the divisive culture-wars that this religious populist movement has used have only led to more of a spiritually muddled nation, and a population more resistant than ever to organized religion. Political-evangelical Christianity is just as vulnerable as any other populist movement to the temptations of despotism, the need for charismatic and extremist leaders, and the shoring up of ever more power in order to achieve ever more ambitious goals.
In other words, populism is anything but limited, and political populism cannot lead to limited government. That is the great problem with the tea party movement. Liberty & order are precarious cousins, and populism is not the way to balance the one against the other. Yet the modern conservative movement has abandoned the “politics of prudence” in favor of the politics of pettiness. And it will be a while before reasonable people can right the ship. Populism is the sword of revolution and radical change. It is the predecessor of the guillotine and the gulags. It is not conservative in any historical sense, whether or not it manifests itself in the right-wing.