06 February 2008

Conservatives: Patriotism without Solidarity

The latest luminary to cast a cold eye on Senator McCain is Dr. James Dobson, the Focus on the Family mogul, who accuses the Arizonan of thumbing the collective conservative eye to often to deserve the pious vote. McCain is unworthy because he will not use the U.S. Constitution to condemn gay marriage and toleartes embryonic stem-cell research. Republicans and self-styled "conservatives" must make what they will of all this, but an objective observer remains appalled by the fratricidal spectacle.

Every time some talker tells McCain he's not a conservative, the Senator will say he is. As far as I can tell, McCain hasn't tried to say his critics aren't conservatives, so give him that much credit. There's no reason why McCain's friends and enemies alike can't both be conservative, since conservatism is essentially a philosophical stance and more specifically depends for definition on whatever you want to conserve. The problem with conservative Republicans at this time is that their conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude. The talkers don't share McCain's attitude, so to them he isn't conservative.

So what is that attitude? Let's call it patriotism without solidarity. Patriotism is loyalty to country, or to whatever you think it stands for, while solidarity is loyalty to your fellow citizens. The talkers want to defend their country and their "freedom," but seem far less interested in the material well being of other Americans. They expect you to die for them and their freedom, and assuming them to be sincere for the sake of argument, they're willing to die for your freedom, but they feel no obligation as citizens to help the poor, protect American jobs, etc. They may be quite charitable in private life, but they seem to think that their good intentions matter more than the needs of those they help; it's supposedly morally superior for them to volunteer their charity rather than give as a national duty.

McCain (and Huckabee) offend this sensibility because they exhibit signs of solidarity. They dare, in their differently limited ways, to criticize wealth and corporate power for offenses against the national interest. This is unacceptable to the patriotism-without-solidarity crowd because to them there is no contradiction between "freedom" and the national interest. "Freedom" defined as the right to maximize profits is the national interest for these folks, and matters more than any individual's well-being. After all, the individual can be expected to sacrifice his life for freedom, so why should he expect to benefit materially from it. From this perspective, for anyone to complain against the social order because he's poor is an affront to the country and an offense against freedom. It's even worse if people begin to complain on each other's behalf -- that's solidarity at work, or "populism" in this particular conservative lexicon. Whatever they call it, it's so intolerable to them that when people like McCain and Huckabee exhibit it even to a degree that "liberals" might deem negligible or contemptible, the talkers react as if they've seen sacrilege. Their instinct is to excommunicate the heretics, or to revert to their own "come-outer" roots and sulk in their tents.

Patriotism without solidarity isn't just an accident of ommission. Solidarity isn't something that these conservatives just happened to forget. The doctrine requires acolytes to renounce solidarity positively. Once you understand this, the hostility to McCain makes sense. The talkers believe that you can't be conservative until you renounce solidarity, populism, "class warfare," or whatever you call it. McCain and Huckabee may consider themselves conservatives, but having never taken this extra step (whatever Democrats assume to the contrary) they've failed a crucial litmus test in the eyes of this fanatic faction that happens to think it knows what conservatism really is. Well, you can't tell them that they don't know their own minds. They certainly have a coherent ideology, but I'm not sure that they're right to call it "conservatism." Some would say that having an ideology of any kind violates conservatism, but we don't want to get into yet another issue here.

So here we have "patriotism without solidarity." A few days ago I used "solidarity without conformity" to describe my own position. We may be able to work with these three elements -- patriotism, solidarity, conformity -- to attempt a more detailed survey of the political spectrum. Populism, for instance, may be said to include all three elements, while some strains of libertarianism may include none of them. We may have more opportunities to develop this scheme in the future. It would prove useful if it gave more people a sense of where they really belonged politically and the will to actually build something on their actual intellectual turf.

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