Last Sunday afternoon, during a two-hour drive, I started looking for the Patriots game on the radio somewhere just west of Hartford and, after a couple times flirting with it, began listening to a conservative radio station. Every once in a while I decide to tune in to Fox News or others of that ilk just to see if anything they are saying resonates with me or is factual and not unalterably stained by some agenda or another. This has been suggested to me by all of my conservative friends, “just give it a chance”, “keep your mind open ”, “you have to listen to both sides” etc. but to this day I come out of it more and more confused about why otherwise rational, genuine and kind people buy into this increasingly radical ideology.
I don’t use the word ideology lightly; conservatism in this country is much more of an ideology than nearly anything else in the US. This is especially apparent when one compares it to its antithesis, progressivism, a movement that is in many ways only now recovering from McCarthyism and the numerous other Red Scares of the Cold War. There are, naturally, many shades of conservatism in the US and the stuff we get in the Northeast is usually pretty diluted stuff and can be genuinely thoughtful. Normally it is fiscal conservatism, which is by all means a reasonable stance to take, or (Irish) Catholic social conservatism which less so, but the radio show I heard was straight out of “Real America”. It spoke of prayer rugs and Korans in the Arizona desert and believes everyone left of Ted Cruz is a fellow traveller. More to the point though, it is lately becoming more and more apparent that “Real America” is actually those who tried to secede from it about 150 years ago.
The vast majority of Republicans today that wear the darker shades of conservatism, what has become the Tea Party, are heavily concentrated in Southern states that once made up the Confederate States of America and, in the last century, the Dixiecrats (southern Democrats that switched parties during the Republican “Southern Strategy”) that attempted to block the Civil Rights movement. A more productive and accomplished writer than I has written about how the “South is holding America hostage” and while I agree with the Michael Lind’s initial premise and for that matter his solutions, which include a living wage, nationalization of social insurance, voting and districting reform, and abolishing the filibuster and the federal debt ceiling, the notion that we (alternatively meaning Democrats, Yankees, everyone except Tea Party Patriots etc.) must confront this ideology in the same way as a similar coalition did in 1861 is a dangerous one, simply because it will play into the rhetoric of persecution that this movement thrives on.
The rhetoric of the Tea Party is one of fear; fear of government, fear of immigrants, fear of taxes; and pessimistic nostalgia for an “America” that never actually existed. From the combination of these two sources, fear and pessimistic nostalgia, a cry for autonomy emerges that is both paradoxical and devoid from reality. It is also, unfortunately, the most extreme articulation of an American self-image that marks the country as delusional in its domestic policy and hypocritical abroad.
Domestically, the delusion appears in the dissonance between politicians saying that the government isn’t needed and then complaining when government-run monuments aren’t open or when they claim they speak for America when they’re only really speaking for a small majority in their gerrymandered districts; it comes when the name “Obamacare” carries largely unfavorable views and the trait of “un-American”, yet the actual tenets of the Affordable Care Act are considered reasonable and good ideas; it comes when between 80-90% of the population favor universal background checks for gun ownership and yet rational conversation on the issue is a nonstarter; it comes in the idea that because the political elite or Wall Street don’t feel the repercussions of a government shutdown, it really wasn’t a big deal after all.
Abroad this self-image has been the bane of our foreign policy for decades. The claim that America stands for democracy and freedom while more often than not propping up dictators in support of the all-powerful and yet somehow ever-illusive Free Market, or worse, has created a geopolitical reality in which our military force, driven by a domestic Military-Industrial Complex, is our greatest asset instead of our certainly powerful and honorable norms These norms were long ago undermined through strategies defined by ends justifying means.
All of this is based on a patriotism founded on the concept that the US is the greatest country that has ever been on the face of the Earth. There very well may be an argument for this; there are few nations that have the US’s record of democratic progress over nearly three centuries. But this sort of blind patriotism that is found far too often in Americans and is xenophobic in nature, grinds any sort of progress to a halt and has, over several decades, made the US into a pretender towards its potential greatness. In education, healthcare, the judiciary, overall quality of life and numerous other areas that truly matter, areas that many American think and claim we are the best in, the US is simply mediocre.
I will not sit here and tell you that I don’t blame the conservative movement, and primarily the Republican Party for this mediocrity. I do, and that is why I am a Democrat, an imperfect party by all means but at least one that does not attempt to suppress voters. To a much larger degree though, I find fault in a national ideological shift that has judged corporations to be people and has allowed for the systematic disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor, all the while placating them, especially the latter, with delusions of greatness, and for that, both parties are at fault. To conclude, I want to finish with a quote from Hemingway: “I’ve seen a lot of patriots, and their patriotism was only good for legends; it was bad for their prose and made them write bad poetry.” American conservatism, that which has made “patriotism” its bedfellow, has created a great legend out of fear and false nostalgia, but has failed in the prose of governance and has corrupted the poetry of elections.