Lots of people on both the left and right believe the United States is in decline, an empire past its glory days, a tragedy in the making. I think we just might be living a comedy instead, a comedy of growing misunderstanding. I think lots of liberals misunderstand conservative motivations. They often see the right as a conspiracy. In turn, lots of conservatives are naive about progressive motives, which I think may be less about social justice and more an imagined battle of good versus evil.
In classical terms, a comedy need not be funny, it just needs a happy ending. In Shakespeare’s day, everything that was not a tragedy was a comedy. If I’m correct about the misunderstanding driving our growing political divide, then maybe honest discussion of our core political ideals and motivations might reveal misconceptions and reunite our nation toward continued prosperity and happiness.
Pundits and politicians are professional ideologues, and we expect them to entertain conspiracy theories about their opponents. But lately I’ve seen widespread tales of right wing conspiracy in less expected places.
I previously wrote about the movie Avatar and how its moral message is simplistic and misleading. More recently, I also saw District 9, another good film that was not nearly as simplistic but with some of the same moral agenda, making a large corporation the villain even if government would have been far more plausible. Popular culture seems to be going out of its way lately to blame big business a wide range of problems, from racism and ecological disaster to military adventures.
Right-wing government storm troopers are also villains of choice in recent literature, as if it is conventional wisdom that the Bush administration behaved a lot like Hitler’s regime. Olen Steinhauer’s excellent spy story, The Tourist, has CIA rogues and their masters on Capitol Hill engaged in widespread foreign assassinations and equally ruthless domestic cover ups, both presumably illegal. What really amazed me was the latest Jack Reacher thriller from Lee Child. In the past, similar books from Lee Child, Tom Clancy and others made heroes of federal agencies and their operatives, the fictional realm where government actually worked well. But now we see shadowy federal agents illegally detaining citizens or even making them disappear.
Wandering through my local library in relatively conservative southern New Hampshire, I recently encountered a long row of books explaining why our nation’s recent activities in Iraq were works of stupidity, conspiracy or both. That’s basically the same story I heard at a dinner party a while ago, when a respected liberal acquaintance seriously argued that President Bush was engaged in a secret conspiracy to invade Iraq for ulterior motives including oil wealth for his family business.
Then there was a recorded lecture by a popular professor of music history. “It is sadly an historical truism that when things really begin to go bad within a culture, within a society … , right wing demagogues come out of the woodwork and blame outsiders for the problems.” He was talking about the growing influence of anti-Semitism in 19th century Vienna, but this blanket “truism” was implied for other times and places, possibly including contemporary America. Are right wing demagogues today being similarly racist, possibly blaming domestic minorities or foreign Islam for problems we ourselves created? I don’t think conservatives blame minorities for our domestic problems at all, and it disturbs me that an insightful academic I respect might think so.
I keep wondering if I missed something. Did the U.S. invade Poland while I wasn’t looking instead of Iraq? Increasingly, the lesson seems to be that conservatives are racists, war mongers and robber barons, that a vast right-wing conspiracy is thwarting progressive justice out of stupidity and self interest.
This argument is especially topical lately as Democrats accused the anti-government anti-tax Tea Party movement of racial slurs on the eve of the healthcare vote. The idea that opposition to President Obama’s government is racially motivated has been reported by respectable publications with no evidence other than hearsay by liberal partisans. Lately whenever some atrocity is committed, press accounts immediately label it as the work of right wing extremists, though they often turn out to be wrong.
Conspiracy theories are usually fantasies with little basis in reality, the product of our literary imaginations. I think our new cultural penchant for these theories is a bad sign. It worries me because these stories seem the unwitting propaganda of unrecognized left-wing totalitarianism.
A Progressive Historical Narrative
Why would progressive liberals see the conservative movement as fundamentally amoral? Because history says so, at least as they see it. America was one of the last nations on earth to practice slavery, and resulting racial inequities remained for well over a century after the Civil War. American robber barons of the late 19th century amassed vast wealth producing dangerous products, while millions of minority immigrants did their dirty work and lived in slums. Following rampant speculative greed in the 1920’s, the Great Depression was caused by barons of banking and it impoverished even our middle class until Roosevelt averted the disaster. Then the totalitarianism of right-wing fanatics like Hitler resulted in unspeakable racism, world war and genocide. Nixon, the very first Republican president in decades (save one old war hero), was revealed as the most criminally corrupt leader in our history. American involvement in Vietnam and later Iraq revealed a level of imperial adventurism unseen since the decline of Rome. Worse, a Republican president launched a war of unprovoked aggression, relying on fabricated tales of non-existent Iraqi weapons programs. Now American industrial disregard for global warming threatens all life on Earth.
Of course, history can be interpreted differently. A Republican president ended slavery and the Democrats were the party of southern racism following the Civil War.
The American industrial revolution made our nation wealthy and benefited all Americans, even the poorest, with a much better standard of living than the world had ever known. That millions immigrated here as a result was a testament to widespread prosperity. We are even richer now and view 19th century working conditions with disgust, but most workers and especially new immigrants were enthusiastic supporters of the joys of capitalism and if some others got very wealthy, that was considered a sign of American opportunity.
The federal government and FDR did not fix the Great Depression, they mostly caused it and then delayed the recovery. The real culprits were excessive tariffs and gross government mismanagement of our money supply, latter abetted by the Soviet-style regulation of the New Deal.
Hitler and World War II fascists were themselves progressive liberals and not the right wing conservatives that history teaches. In effect, the Nazis were the right wing of the Communist Party. Fascism and resulting racism and war mongering are one of the risks of unbridled progressivism, which has always favored social engineering though increased government power at the expense of market forces, allowing the rise of ruthless dictators in many places including Germany, Russia and China.
Nixon was a career politician with big government values rather than the prototypical conservative of today. Very few Republicans would even consider his amazingly misguided wage and price controls.
Modern American militarism has been pretty muted, especially for a world power, and has always been a lot more altruistic than critics allege. People in Vietnam and Iraq really did want and need our help against oppressors. Communists in Indo China eventually killed innumerable innocents, probably far more than died on both sides during the war. We also forget that Vietnam and Iraq had bipartisan support in Congress. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was a self admitted supporter of terrorism and the destruction of Israel and the United States, who committed mass atrocities against his own people. Concerning Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, I’m still amazed people believe there was no threat. Saddam was not stupid and had months of warning to cover his tracks, plus friendly governments on at least one border. And remnants of his regime, possibly aided by journalists who were increasingly antagonistic to American involvement, might have aided any cover up even afterward even after he was disposed. If nothing else, the threat was entirely credible given Iraq’s years of evasions and deceit in the face of arms inspectors.
Finally as I’ve reported before, Global Warming may be a myth and is certainly the subject of liberal academic deceptions.
So are conservatives on the right responsible for the ills of the world? Progressives know they themselves are good people with good intentions. So they assume others must be the villains and interpret history accordingly. The mistake is basically paranoia, assuming that since things are bad, others are out to get them and conservatives are to blame.
Worse, a lot of history’s lessons came too late for the generation of liberal baby boomers that currently dominate many American institutions. During my generation’s formative years, it was a lot easier to believe in the progressive agenda. Communism’s universal economic collapse was still decades in the future, the tyranny of Mao’s Cultural Revolution was not yet revealed, government anti-poverty programs were not yet abysmal failures, and Stalin’s atrocities and genocide could be rationalized as an aberration. Now that we should know better, I fear early prejudices make objective pragmatism very difficult.
Real Conservatives Don’t Carry a Pitchfork
So I think progressive liberals support questionable policies because they have an incorrect view of the bogeyman. Many believe with all their heart that their opponents are unquestionably evil. Because liberals are fighting the devil, victory is more important that economic prosperity or even freedom. For we all go to hell if the devil wins.
Many on the left assume conservatives are rich racists, totalitarians whose goal is to steal from minorities and foreign nations and to keep an elite class in power. Less wealthy Republicans are assumed to be racists too stupid to know they are tools of a powerful oligarchy. In short, conservatives are too often seen as stupid self-centered fascists out to dominate the world.
Of course that’s simply not true. For one thing, the very wealthiest Americans are usually Democrats. Fascism has always been a product of the progressive left rather than conservative politics. I’m a somewhat wealthy white conservative who has founded a number of businesses, and I am pretty sure those stereotypes do not apply to me. Nor do they apply to anyone or any organization I’ve ever encountered. The conservatives I’ve known have always seemed more interested in the common weal than in personal gain, whereas identity politics of the left is often candidly self serving. Conservatives believe the debate is over freedom and economics. It is over how to help the underdog rather than whether to help. Yet I fear the liberal debate is more about opposing greedy conservatives than about our national prosperity and happiness.
If business moguls and conservative leaders are mostly well meaning altruists, defenders of liberal freedom and equality, then who is to blame for the mess we’re in, the economic meltdowns, the poverty, the wars, the basic unfairness of life? Possibly progressive liberal policies play a stronger role in poverty, economic meltdowns, and maybe even war than you think. More importantly, maybe this is as good as it gets. Maybe we cannot engineer society very well because we cannot engineer our innate human traits. Maybe all progressive utopias are worse than quixotic quests, maybe utopias invariably lead to misery because our species is not so adaptable as we imagine. Maybe we need to understand that we are all pretty good people doing our best in an imperfect world. Maybe there are no real villains. And maybe belief in the villainy of others is destroying America.
It’s time for conservatives to defend their honor. That the left persists in seeing only war mongering white supremacists and self serving rich seems a misunderstanding so fundamentally wrong as to make American politics a comedy, one with a possible happy ending that could be a revelation to us all.