Words are tricky things. And words that label complicated political movements do not stand still.
Take, for example, the word “liberal.” As used in the United States, “liberal” means something completely different and almost the opposite of what it means in most continental European political systems, where it generally refers to people and parties that favor less government (and thus have more in common with what we Americans call “libertarianism” — like the Ron Paul stuff).
“Conservative” has not gone through such a diametric change, but the style of “conservatism” practiced by the contemporary Tea Party movement represents a significant break with at least one important element of the traditional meaning of the term, specifically how it relates to the concept of change.
For most of my life, I would say that liberals were on the forefront of pushing various changes that were also often identified as “progressive.” (And, after Republican propagandists did a pretty good job of ridiculing the term “liberal,” many liberals actually dropped the word and started asking everyone to call them “progressives.” This transition may still be under way.)
But conservatives, when I was learning the meaning of terms on the political spectrum, were leery of change — or at least reluctant to embrace too much change, too far and too fast, perhaps for fear of unintended consequences.
The Tea Party movement seems to have taken that impulse to the next level, where a passionate aversion to the latest liberal ideas for making things better (and yes, for the moment we’re talking about the aversion of Obamacare) leads them to not only want to resist those changes when they are proposed but to repeal them after they have been duly enacted, and finally to be willing to adopt fairly radical and risky tactics (and yes, here we’re talking about shutting down the government and/or refusing to raise the debt ceiling) that risk a great many unintended consequences that some people worry will have horrid consequences for our system of government, for our economy and even for the political future of the Republican Party to which most Tea Partiers belong.
How radical can you be?
I thought of all this when reading the latest column by Thomas Edsall, the deep-thinker who currently writes a weekly online column for The New York Times. In his latest, Edsall takes on the question of how radical you can be and still be considered “conservative.”
Commenting on the latest events, Edsall says:
Whatever you think of this strategy, the tactics are radical. How can Republicans, courting a full-fledged fiscal crisis, claim to be conservative?
“This is not conservatism either in terms of disposition or governing philosophy. It is, rather, the product of intemperate minds and fairly radical (and thoroughly unconservative) tendencies.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial page, normally a principled advocate of belligerent conservatism, argues that House Republicans are on a path to defeat:
“Kamikaze missions rarely turn out well, least of all for the pilots… We’ve often supported backbenchers who want to push G.O.P. leaders in a better policy direction, most recently on the farm bill. But it’s something else entirely to sabotage any plan with a chance of succeeding and pretend to have ‘leverage’ that exists only in the world of townhall applause lines and fundraising letters.”
Edsall also has a dangerous tendency to read academic experts, and he found some who have been thinking about reactionary nature of some Tea Partyist ideas:
Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto, who teach political science at the University of Washington, recently published “Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America.” They contend that there are two major strands of conservatism in America: what they call “non Tea Party,” “traditional” or “real” conservatism; and what they describe as “Tea Party,” “reactionary” or “pseudo-conservatism.”
In response to my inquiry, Parker wrote in an e-mail:
“Ultimately, a conservative — in the classical sense — wishes to preserve a stable society. Of course, this includes stable institutions and observing the rule of law. For these reasons (and several more), a conservative prefers evolutionary, more incremental change to revolutionary change: revolutionary change threatens the stability conservatives seek to conserve. Hence, conservatives reluctantly accept change — so long as it isn’t revolutionary. They do so for the sake of stability and order. Moreover, for the sake of order and stability, real conservatives are amenable to political compromise with their opponents.”
Conversely, according to Parker, reactionary conservatives are backwards looking, generally fearful of losing their way of life in a wave of social change. To preserve their group’s social status, they’re willing to undermine long-established norms and institutions — including the law. They see political differences as a war of good versus evil in which their opponents are their enemies. For them, compromise is commensurate with defeat — not political expediency. They believe social change is subversive to the America with which they’ve become familiar, i.e., white, mainly male, Protestant, native born, straight. “Real Americans,” in other words.
If you read the full Edsall piece, or the Parker and Barreto book, you’ll find that the two scholars used surveys to identify differences in the underlying beliefs of mainstream conservatives versus Tea Party adherents.
For example, one survey question (which is in the Edsall piece along with several others) asked if the respondents hope that, in general, President Obama’s policies will fail. (Not expect them to fail because the respondents disagree with the policy, but hope they will fail).
Among mainstream conservatives, 36 percent said they hoped Obama’s policies would fail. I find that kinda sad. But among those who identify with the Tea Party, 78 percent said they hoped Obama’s policies would fail.