February 18, 2012
The lull in the Republican presidential primaries allows us to assess what is going on with conservatism as America continues its conservative drift during its economic crisis.
Mitt Romney is still the front runner (he's electable according to the Republican elite) and the spoilers (Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum) rise up and down. The GOP’s positions have shifted far to the right as the candidates espouse an anti-government ideology to capture the Tea party vote with their heady rhetoric of roll back “Obamacare,” empower “free enterprise,” and slash taxes, whilst being very careful to leave Social Security and Medicare untouched.
So much for the libertarian principles of “limited government" and getting government out of the picture altogether. The Tea Party populist conservatives demand that bankers be freed from red tape and the scrutiny of the law, and whilst standing in the bread they weep for the banker lounging on his yacht.
In Will the Tea Get Cold? in the New York Review of Books Sam Tanenhaus observes:
The impracticality of this war against government, which in fact offers no serious plan to scale government back, suggests that the conservative populism of our moment is rooted not in a coherent worldview so much as in a “mood” or atmosphere of generalized undifferentiated protest.....Richard Hofstadter, an early astute observer of modern right-wing passions, gave such a position the name “pseudo-conservatism” in 1955 and asked, “Why do the pseudo-conservatives express such a persistent fear and suspicion of their own government?”
Hofstadter’s account of populist conservatism is one of provincial resentments, suspicion, and nativism rather than the constitutional principles of limited government, US sovereignty and constitutional originalism.
The culture wars witnessed white working-class Americans willing to sacrifice the welfare state and labour rights to align with a rich elite who played to their distaste for abortion, homosexuality, secularism and immigration. They accepted the ideology of "market populism", a strand of philosophising among the elite, who justified themselves while undoing the social compact by arguing that market forces most truly represented the popular will and the order of nature and God.
The Tea Party still embraces a top-down, money-driven conservatism. On this account capitalism, left to itself, is infallible. It must have been government regulatory interference that caused the banks to push sub-prime loans, inflate the real-estate bubble, and hide this ticking time bomb from itself in opaque and unregulated derivatives.
The Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol and her research student Vanessa Williamson have done helpful demographic and interviewing work---The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism ---which suggests that the Tea Party consists primarily of middle-aged and senior citizens, economically comfortable, already conservative Republican, and more likely than the average to be evangelical Christian. What matters about the Tea Party is not that it represents the grief of ordinary Americans at vanished savings, lost jobs and underwater mortgages. On the contrary, it has articulated the fears of a small propertied class, past the age of educating children or raising families, which worries that it will have to pay a price for the rest of society, and which nurtures a pre-existing rage at immigrants and a liberal black president.