Culture

Right angles

Culture | With multiple varieties of conservatism, the right exhibits far more cultural diversity than does the left

Issue: "Supreme warning," July 5, 2003

The political world is commonly divided with a spatial metaphor; liberals are on the left and conservatives are on the right. Political ideologies, though, are more complicated than that. The "left" and "right" model comes from the 19th-century French Assembly, in which those who supported a strong government centered in a monarchy sat on the right side of the room, while those who believed in democracy and a free economy sat on the left.

Where would a contemporary American conservative sit? The monarchists on the right would not approve of someone who believed in limited government. Furthermore, the defenders of aristocratic land-based economics did not approve of the new capitalism that accompanied the industrial revolution.

But if the conservative time-traveler moved over to the left side of the hall, he would squirm at the way the radicals there were willing to throw out traditions, including Christianity. And he would balk at their revolutionary bent, their blithe assumption that they could reinvent society according to some utopian scheme. He would surely get up and leave.

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Maybe he would have to hop a ship to America. But even here, his principles of free-market economics, personal liberty, and a limited government would classify him with the liberals of the day. (The word liberal comes from a Latin word meaning freedom, and even today right-wingers find themselves calling for a "liberal economy.")

Today, though, it is "liberals" who want a strong centralized government and a controlled economy, something that in the 19th century would have been staunchly "conservative."

But the complications keep coming. Today many factions consider themselves "conservative," and while they agree in opposing today's liberals, their ideologies are quite diverse. Liberals do not realize that conservatives exemplify, more than they do, their alleged principles of pluralism and cultural diversity.

There are country-club conservatives, concerned with conserving their wealth. There are cultural conservatives, concerned with conserving their American heritage and what they term "family values," a group that often lacks the wealth to receive invitations into country clubs.

Libertarians value free markets, both in economics and in culture. They seem quite "liberal" on issues such as abortion and gay rights and go far beyond most Democrats in their desire to legalize drugs, prostitution, and "victimless crimes." As a rule, libertarian conservatives oppose cultural conservatives but sometimes sound like them in their exaltation of the right to keep and bear arms.

There are also neo-conservatives, mostly ex-liberals "mugged by reality," who retain a belief in an activist government. They agree with liberals that "government should be a force for good in the world"; they disagree with them about what that means. Neo-conservatives supported war in Iraq as a means of improving the world in the Middle East.

They are opposed by paleo-conservatives, who are isolationist on foreign affairs. Patrick Buchanan, for example, opposed the war in Iraq, says immigration weakens the historical American culture, and wants a more or less controlled economy that protects select American workers from global trade.

When Mr. Buchanan launches off against multi-national corporations and NAFTA, he sounds like a leftist, and yet on other issues, such as abortion and patriotism, he is leftism's polar opposite.

There are even "granola conservatives," or, in columnist Rod Dreher's memorable phrase, "crunchy conservatives." These folks resolutely oppose mass society, pop culture, cookie-cutter industrialism, big corporations, and the various travesties of both modernism and postmodernism. They can come across as environmentalists, valuing nature over commercial development, and they tend to prefer organic food. But unlike leftists, they oppose abortion, are skeptical of feminism, and tend to be religious. They are conservatives because they are pre-modernists.

And then there are "compassionate conservatives." They believe, like leftists, in social responsibility, but they believe that the most effective compassion-that which improves people's lives-does not come from bureaucratic government programs, which often make problems worse, but from the private sector, particularly churches.

Christian conservatives can be found in any of these camps, and there are, of course, Christian liberals. This is because Christianity is not an ideology. All of the varieties of Christian conservatives would agree on being pro-life and recognizing moral absolutes and their applicability to society. Unlike some conservatives, they would not idolize their country, since they know their own culture too is plagued by sin, and they would be skeptical of utopian promises from the left or right. They will want to protect the institution of the family.

In practice, of course, the different kinds of conservatism overlap, and some say such differences are exaggerated. But if today's liberalism continues to self-deconstruct and even passes from history, America will still have its share of disagreements.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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