Conservative Principles

For many years now, and again in this election season, I have struggled to understand what “conservative principles” actually are.  For expro_life_pro_god_pro_gunample, I saw a car this afternoon with a bumper sticker that read: Pro-God, Pro-Life and Pro-Gun.  How does that even fit into any kind of consistent philosophical system?

Democratic party principles, while not ironclad are, I think relatively consistent.  I think it can be summed as “Freedom is a pretty good thing, but needs limits for everyone to get along.”

So, you get a reasonably consistent set of policy proposals.  They don’t want to take away all guns, but want to control which guns people can buy and who can buy them.  Wants free enterprise, but with limits such as a minimum wage and environmental laws.  Not 100 percent consistent, usually close enough that things make sense.

On the Republican side, I have never, ever been able to figure out what the underlying “conservative” philosophy really is.

For example, Republicans are for freedom with little or no limits when it comes to people who own companies.  But that same freedom does not apply to people who use drugs or want to have an abortion.  Libertarians are consistent on this, but Republicans, not so much.

The same is true of so called “fiscal conservatism.”  Republicans hate budget deficits, but only when Democrats run them.  When Reagan and W. Bush ran deficits, no problem.  Republicans want to count every penny for Zika funding, but when it comes to the Pentagon, they just pour it on.  Even one penny less reduces the military to rubble.

Religious freedom, aka social conservatism, is just a muddled.  Of course there is the “if Christians do it it’s OK, but Muslims, no way!”  But that is just too easy to pick on.  In the areas of gay and reproductive rights, the idea of “sincerely held religious beliefs” has become a bit of mantra.  When I heard the Hobby Lobby decision, my first thought was “Sincerely held beliefs in what religion?  ‘Cause it sure in hell isn’t Christianity!”

I am sure you remember the bumper stickers, “Christians aren’t perfect, they’re forgiven.”  And you can look it up, Jesus hung around will all kinds of “sinners.”  Seemed to be pretty proud of it, actually, made a bit of a point about it.  Oh yeah and Jesus DIED FOR OUR SINS.  His whole freakingperfect purpose really.  But now, somehow, allowing employees to have access to birth control using their healthcare plan dollars, makes the bosses “complicit” in the sin of the birth controllers.  WTF??  Doesn’t Christianity say we are all sinners?  Didn’t Jesus die for our sins (at least those who pray to him in just the right way)?  So, how is baking a cake for someone making you a sinner?  Makes no sense whatsoever, especially WITHIN Christian theology.  So, even on religion, there seems to be no real “conservative principles.”

Philosophically speaking that is.

Sociologically speaking, it seems the picture gets a bit clearer and Trump is making it even more transparent.  The best way to put it is “in-group vs out-group.”  It is not racism strictly speaking, but it can certainly start there or be used to fan the flames.  So, let’s take another look at “conservative principles” through this frame.

People who use drugs or women who want to control their fertility are just not “honest hard working people.”  They have “no morals.”  Lock them up, punish them.

Which explains the military (at the national level) and prisons and police (at the state and local levels).  Got to have someone to lock them up.

Honest and hard working people deserve their Social Security and Medicare.  But those people, you know who I mean, don’t deserve food stamps and welfare, so we can get rid of those programs.  One of the reasons I think it is not straight up racism is people like Paul Ryan are moving toward another in/out distinction where working people don’t deserve retirement benefits, only folks like the Koch brothers should have it easy in retirement.  Because of course folks like them are the real “creators” and the rest of us are just takers.

And of course the religious angle is really just for show.  No one can convince me that the Hobby Lobby people are really religious.  And even if they are, they can’t really believe that Jesus just loves rich people, but can’t stand people who have sex without having babies every single time.alt-right

Us versus Them is the only consistent theme I can see in so called conservatism as it is practiced here in the US.  I think we need a new name for it.  Alt-Right is not a bad start, but doesn’t really have enough punch to it.  Suggestions welcome (and I am sorry, but Nazi was already used, so I will discount that one from the start.)

Now, I do believe that there could a consistent conservative philosophy.  There is no reason that you can’t be both pro-business and also want to conserve our natural resources.  Wanting a smaller government overall can be consistent if it applies equally and includes some kind of cost-benefit analysis.  Religious freedom is a good idea if it means not telling other people what to believe and letting them live their lives according to their own principles (until they unduly affect others, of course).  These all strike me as “conservative.”  But the modern Republican party does not embody any of these ideas.

It is not “conservative” in the least.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Libertarians are consistent on this…

    Well, if you exclude Ron & Rand Paul and their disciples, and some others, then maybe.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    The inconsistency that floors me is the mantra that “blue lives matter” and that we should all do everything we can to support and protect the police, combined somehow with the thought in the very same brains that universal gun ownership is somehow a good thing. As if you can’t tell in at least some of the recent police shootings that the cops are trigger-happy because they are scared that every. Single. Person. they stop might kill them.

    Also, they claim that one reason they need guns is to be a check on government lest it turn tyrannical, yet they have nothing but fury against the Dallas shooter who did exactly that.

  3. says

    But now, somehow, allowing employees to have access to birth control using their healthcare plan dollars, makes the bosses “complicit” in the sin of the birth controllers. WTF??

    And the same people will claim that they have no responsibility at all if they sell a gun to a person who then goes off to commit a murder.

    Now, I do believe that there could a consistent conservative philosophy.

    I agree. There could be real benefit to having a reasonable conservative movement that wasn’t founded on bigotry and “fuck you, I’ve got mine.” I’ve never seen one, though.

    • Midwest Humanist says

      It seems to me that the “Conservative” movement got lost with Nixon and came to be more about keeping power than doing anything “conservative.”

  4. says

    Good question. The way I think about this is grounded in a pre-supposition about how human moral reasoning works: “feelings first, explanations to follow.” Moral and political philosophy functions to explain (i.e. justify) our moral impulses to our language-loving fore-brain bits. And since there’s no reason whatsoever to expect our moral intuitions to be consistent, it’s not surprising that moral and political philosophy winds up being a bit of a muddle. (Put another way, we take our moral emotions to be the axioms of moral reasoning, and, as with any set of inconsistent axioms, we can use it to prove literally anything *and* its opposite.)

    I think so-called “moral foundations theory” (can you imagine a more pretentious name?) provides a good way of thinking about what the “moral axioms” actually are, along with a useful framework for understanding cultural and individual variation. Basically, MFT identifies five distinct “dials,” and finds that individuals differ in terms of the relative settings of these dials — from “very important” to “hardly important at all.” Each individual has her or his own set of dial settings, and cultures influence the prevalence of the various dial configurations within a community. [This comment seems to be getting longer than I had planned. Bear with me: I really am going somewhere with all of this. Honest!]

    Where this becomes relevant to the subject at hand is that the so-called “big five” dials actually fall into two categories. The first category we might label “universal,” and it includes (1) the help/harm dimension (i.e. “it’s good to help others, bad to harm them”) and (2) the notions of fairness and reciprocity. They’re “universal” both in the sense that they apply to everyone *and* in the sense that almost all humans place a high weight on both. (Failing to “get” these emotions is a key part of the definition of “psychopath.”)

    The second category might be called the “discriminatory” moral emotions, because they incline us to treat different people differently. (Others call this the “tribal” category, because these intuitions tend to play into in-group vs. out-group relations.) These are (3) authority/hierarchy, (4) loyalty (i.e. in-group preference), and (5) purity.

    Now, it turns out that there’s a decent correlation between these emotional dial settings and political alignment. Those on the lefty side of the spectrum generally assign little weight to the moral intuitions in the tribal/discriminatory category. That is, “lefty values” are *limited to* the universal values. On the right, we tend to find more weight applied to the tribal/discriminatory values. Bear in mind that those on the right also “score high” on harm and fairness, because basically everybody does. What’s different is that, for those with a “conservative” moral profile, notions like “expel the foreign and different” (purity) might matter *in the same way* as fairness, or that in-group loyalty could partially override help/harm (“It’s wrong to torture us, but it’s OK to torture *them*, because THEM”).

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, to my way of thinking, what actually unites conservatives is not a particular philosophy or set of rationally articulated principles, but rather a shared psychological profile which places heavy *emotional* weight on “tribal” or “discriminatory” moral intuitions.

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