Contemporary American conservatism

Liberals loathed George Bush but did not invoke fantastical fabrications or root arguments in metaphor like the conservatives’ take on Obama. File photo: AP  

More evidence of our great American divide arrived last Friday in the form of some focus group studies undertaken by Stan Greenberg (Bill Clinton’s pollster in 1992) and James Carville. They oversaw conversations with a group of hard-shell conservatives in Georgia. The fascinating results explain a lot about my country’s political tensions and shed light on the question of what makes contemporary American conservatism — well, unique, let us call it.

They found that conservatives “stand a world apart from the rest of America” in terms of how they view Barack Obama and how they see politics. There is a continuum, in other words, in U.S. politics, running from those on the left who have already concluded that Mr. Obama is a sell-out, to mainstream liberals who are basically happy with him, to moderates who are approving but with reservations, to centre-right folks who are unconvinced but pulling for him to succeed, for the country’s sake if nothing else.

Then there are committed conservatives. They are off the continuum, in three basic ways. First, they fundamentally question his legitimacy as President. Second, they believe a successful Obama presidency would destroy the country and are “committed to seeing the President fail”. And third, they think he is “ruthlessly advancing a ‘secret agenda’ to bankrupt the U.S. and dramatically expand government control to an extent nothing short of socialism”.

Big deal, conservatives will say to liberals. You people loathed George Bush. What is the difference? It is a fair question. But I think there is a difference. It has to do, I think, with the different ways liberals and conservatives define their relationship to their country.

On the first point, liberals questioned Mr. Bush’s legitimacy, too. Of course, there were solid empirical bases on which to do so. His campaign stopped the vote recount in Florida, and the Supreme Court, not the voters, put him in the White House. Around Mr. Obama’s victory there were no such vexations. And the questions that do exist about Mr. Obama’s legitimacy — his citizenship and religious affiliation — are fantastical fabrications. Be that as it may, let us be generous and acknowledge simply that legitimacy issues have been raised on both sides.

It is also true many on the liberal-left wanted to see Mr. Bush fail. To some degree that is just politics. Matters get trickier when one discusses Mr. Bush’s wars, because that raises questions about whether wanting to see him fail crossed the line into wanting to see America lose a war, however illegitimate that war might have been in liberal eyes. Most Bush opponents tried not to cross that line, but I cannot say it was never crossed. So let us be gracious and call this one a wash too.

The third point is where the difference enters the picture. As much as liberals despised Mr. Bush, people never thought (except maybe on the fringes) that he was secretly out to destroy the U.S. We felt some of his administration’s principles were not American as we understood the concept (the arrogation of executive power, or the approval of torture). But there was none of this Manchurian Candidate business. Liberals assumed that Mr. Bush was doing what he, his team and their supporters believed was the right thing based on their understanding of American values.

Conservatives do not believe this about Mr. Obama. Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Carville stress that race was not a factor in their all-white Georgia focus group, and while I would agree that conservatives’ problems with Mr. Obama are far more ideological than racial, I have to believe that race is a subliminal factor of some sort. But it also has a lot to do with history.

One often hears conservatives speak of how Mr. Obama is destroying “my country”. They use the “my” because conservatives tend to feel a type of ownership regarding the country that liberals do not. They are certain that they represent “real” American values, and that liberals represent alien values.

There is a long history here, which is bound up in everything from the two sides’ different definitions of patriotism — “my country right or wrong” versus “I want to improve my country because I love it” — to religion to militarism to cosmopolitanism to a thousand other things. Every American presidential campaign, on some level, is about the Republican trying to frighten people into believing that the Democrat does not share “your values” and the Democrat trying to reassure people that he does. So, for conservatives, Mr. Obama is not just a guy whose views they vehemently disagree with. He is an ideological Typhoid Mary, a carrier of unknowable and barely comprehensible infections. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

(Michael Tomasky is Editor at large, Guardian America)

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Oct 1, 2020 10:45:46 PM |

Next Story