The Incoherence of “Conservatism,” U.S. Style

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The Republic that is the United States

It is very difficult to be both a good conservative and a good citizen of the United States, which is why U.S. “conservatives” so rarely make much sense.

The absurd reduction of the options in politics to two, “liberal” and “conservative,” dates, in our history, to the Glorious Revolution in England, when the English deposed King James II because he was Catholic and the English had decided to be Protestant, however nominally Protestant is the Church of England. At least Protestant enough to want not to have a Catholic king.

Defenders of the monarch and the monarchy as an institution claimed that the monarch derived his powers by a direct grant from the supposedly omnipotent god of Christianity and therefore should be immune to all challenge, much less a military revolt that would remove him from power entirely. They were the conservatives.

The leading philosopher of the opposition, whose position has had far more impact on the world in the long run, was John Locke, whose ideas were hugely influential in the English colonies of North America that would become the United States. Locke argued that all legitimate political authority emanates from the governed, who retain always the right, even the duty, to evaluate their government and to replace it when it fails to protect their natural rights sufficiently. He allied himself with the people who wanted to get rid of King James II, but he was not unhappy with the balance of power between the new monarchs, William and Mary, who replaced James II, and Parliament, the other main organ of government in England at the time and ever since.

Locke, then, defined western liberalism. His ideas, in turn, had a huge impact on the men who initiated the American revolution and then wrote and ratified the U.S. Constitution. The United States is, in an important sense, the apotheosis of the Lockean liberal republic in the world.

What is a poor conservative to do? At the outbreak of the American revolution, which had the purpose and the effect of removing the participating colonies from the governance of England and therefore from the power of the King of England, horrified conservatives, or loyalists (to the King), moved away, to Canada, or back to England if they could. As a result, there were essentially no ideological conservatives in the new United States at its founding. No one who was prominently involved in the American revolution, or the writing and ratification of the Constitution, was a self professed conservative in any sense, partly because it was not really an available concept in the modern sense, partly because it would have involved defending the rule of the king, which became a very unpopular, even dangerous, position to take after the revolution started.

The closest the new United States could come to conservatives were the slave owners, which group included several of the most important leaders of the revolution, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, our first, third, and fourth presidents, after their important roles in the revolution and the writing and ratification of the Constitution. The slave owning revolutionary leaders were liberal in their opposition to the rule of the King, but conservative in believing that their own right to private property could prevail over the individual rights of slaves, who had no rights in their opinions.

This, of course, is essentially the position of our modern “conservatives,” who ever favor the power of institutions over the rights of individuals. Government should prohibit women from exercising bodily autonomy by choosing to have abortions. Corporations should be free to build pipelines where they want, at the expense of the rights of individuals who live on the land the pipelines will run through. Banks should have the power to pursue individuals and exploit them in any fashion they wish.

So it is that the racism that our slavery system inflicted on the culture of the United States is a defining feature of “conservatism” as it stands here. They seem incapable of escaping it, as they showed by allowing the overtly racist Donald Trump to win their nomination for president.

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The American Burger King

Now these foolish “conservatives,” degraded, U.S. style, want to crown the racist Donald Trump as “American royalty.” Um, whoops. Dang that pesky, liberal U.S. Constitution. Article I, section 9, last paragraph, begins, “ No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States….” Royalty is just the pinnacle of the nobility, so it is hard to see how a republic — not a monarchy — can admit of having any royalty when it prohibits by its constitution any title of nobility.

Of course, the rest of that paragraph then articulates the prohibition on any U.S. official accepting any “present, emolument, office, or title” from any foreign government, another rule our good, U.S. “conservatives” want to let Trump ignore.

If Trump as president has done anything good for the United States at all, it may be that he has reminded us that our home grown “conservatives” are not very loyal to the principles that we claim to have founded our republic on.

They are not, in short, very good Americans.

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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