02 September 2010

Can Conservatism Be Predicted?

For the past week I've been mulling over a profile of the brothers Charles and David Koch that appeared in the last New Yorker. The article by Jane Mayer strongly insinuates that the Kochs, oil-based industrialists, provided the "astroturf," so to speak, for the Tea Party movement as patrons of think tanks like the Cato Institute and sponsors of new organizations, e.g. Americans For Prosperity. The author probably overrates their role in fueling the anti-Obama reaction, which would probably have started at a grass-roots level without any pump-priming by money men or their spokespersons. I was more interested in the brothers themselves, whose combined fortune is said to rival those of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. While those two billionaires are notorious for insisting on the social responsibilities of their class, to the point of calling for higher taxes on themselves, the Kochs are said to be dogmatic libertarians. Philanthropists and patrons of the arts in their own right, the brothers vehemently oppose the regulatory state.

The Kochs' position as super-rich reactionaries conforms to a certain stereotype of right-wingers, and of the right wing as the cause of the super-rich. The stereotype is often belied by facts. The Republican party, for instance, may be the party of the rich, but it isn't necessarily the party of the richest. As Mr. Right often points out to me, many of the richest either support the Democratic party or are active Democratic politicians. My own research has led me to speculate that the entrepreneurial conservatism that has characterized the American right for the last fifty years is more representative of new money than old money, or appeals more to people who feel they haven't yet made enough money than to those who think they do have enough, or more than enough. The Koch brothers would appear to prove that class or relative wealth can't accurately predict a person's ideology.

Mayer implicitly identifies the Koch's anti-statist, anti-regulatory ideology with their status as willful polluters, but also notes that their father was an original John Bircher who was also embittered against the Soviet Union by personal experience in Russia. David and Charles are heirs rather than first-generation entrepreneurs, but they are only two of their father's four sons. They bought out the other two brothers after bitter battles over control of the family fortune. Did that competitiveness contribute to their hardcore political views? It's hard to say.

It might be nice to find a magic "meme" that inclines people to reactionary opinions and attitudes but could somehow be bred out of humanity, but I doubt the possibility. Reaction seems to emanate from many different social, cultural and psychological sources. In my own experience I know people whom I'd call "poor" who nonetheless identify with the so-called party of the rich. Critics might want to dismiss such people as "stupid," but there are people with Ph.D.s who also espouse reaction in academia and in think tanks like those funded by the Kochs. Some may be tempted to identify religion as the common element, but history shows us outright atheists like H. L. Mencken who were also politically heartless reactionaries on social and economic issues. Mencken himself might suggest that it comes down to morals. As a Nietzschean, he'd probably draw a distinction between the "slave morality" of the left and whatever he chose to call his own worldview. His analysis might not have been accurate, but we may as well recognize some kind of plurality of morality, with one morality placing an absolute priority on individual liberty, another on collective well-being, and others with different priorities. Some people reason their way to one morality or another, while others go on gut feelings of right and wrong to the same destinations. These differences may not be as irreconcilable as opposing exponents sometimes believe; anyone who believes in democracy should at least hope so.
* * *
Democracy, however, has a morality of its own, or at least an ethics of its own. While ideally it would never dictate how to think, by definition it tells people how to live. Democracy depends on any minority accepting the majority's will on matters of collective interest. It may be an inadequate vehicle for anyone convinced that the direction society must take is not a matter of popular whim. It can't force a resolution of the intellectual disagreements underlying political issues, but does it require minorities or individuals to suppress their disagreements, for a time or forever, in the name of peace or progress? When we bring questions to this level, I doubt that a person's income, education or religion will determine the answer. But if nothing automatically determines how a certain kind of person will answer, should we assume that everyone can be persuaded one way, or at least that everyone is capable of tolerating a collective choice for any direction? Is democracy possible as long as anyone believes that going in some direction,-- left, right or other, -- is intolerable? When we get to this level, we might get each individual to speak for himself or herself without suspecting that it's the money or the region or the race talking. We might be better off if politicians debated these questions instead of tax rates, or at least if we didn't try to categorize each person's opinion before he expressed it.


d.eris said...

This is a very interesting discussion you've begun here, which broaches the question of freedom itself, but there's another point I wanted to mention.

In the search for the "magic meme" determining one's political outlook, whether the decisive factor is religious, philosophical, social, cultural, or some combination thereof etc., you mention but pass by one which is worthy of greater consideration, namely, family ("their father was an original John Bircher"). I've read before, in a number of places I can't track down at the moment, that the politics practiced in one's family is the most accurate predictor of one's own politics, virtually for the rest of our lives. Republicans breed Republicans and Democrats breed Democrats. Which is why the question of freedom is so important here. To quote the old feminist refrain: biology isn't, or shouldn't be, destiny.

Samuel Wilson said...

d., the influence of family depends on the family. In some households, a child's political views may be a form of rebellion against the parents. A parent's attempt to inculcate a political viewpoint can backfire, just like an attempt to impose religion.

On a related note, for all that right-wingers claim that public schools are out to brainwash kids into loving the government, I'm pretty sure that a lot of young conservatives, libertarians, anarchists, etc. are products of the modern public school system. In our culture no single influence is strong enough to shut out the others.