Ted Frier

Ted Frier
April 02
Ted Frier is an author and former political reporter turned speechwriter who at one time served as communications director for the Massachusetts Republican Party, helping Bill Weld become the first Bay State Republican in a generation to be elected Governor. He was Chief Speechwriter for Republican Governor Paul Cellucci and Lt. Governor Jane Swift. Ted is also the author of the hardly-read 1992 history "Time for a Change: The Return of the Republican Party in Massachusetts." So, why the current hostility to the Republican Party and what passes for conservatism today? The Republican Party was once a national governing party that looked out for the interests of the nation as a whole. Now it is the wholly-owned subsidiary of self interest. Conservatism once sought national unity to promote social peace and harmony. Now conservatism has devolved into a right wing mutation that uses divide and conquer tactics to promote the solidarity of certain social sub-groups united against the larger society while preserving the privileges of a few.


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DECEMBER 30, 2011 8:19AM

Conservatives weren't always pro-capitalist

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One tradition that's been almost entirely forgotten now that Republicans have remade themselves into the wholly-owned subsidiary of Wall Street and other corporate interests is that older species of conservatism which was always hostile to capitalism because it celebrated greed and destroyed the stability of the community.

It is impossible to overstate how much of their own legacy and how many of their own scruples modern "conservatives" have had to jettison in order to remake themselves as the unapologetic cheerleaderss for capitalism - and not just any capitalism, but a particularly predatory species of capitalism that blindly serves the interests of the top 1% irrespective of the impact the interests of these ultra-rich have on the other 99%.

Conservatives are by temperament conservators - of traditions, of community, of institutions, of what is known over what is hypothetical and speculative. If there is a molten core to conservatism, says the late historian Samuel Huntington, it resides in conservatism's "passionate affirmation of the value of existing institutions."

What this implies, writes Jonny Thakkar in The Point Magazine, is that conservatism is less the rigid, doctrinaire worldview we've come to recognize in recent years as it is "situational," even "relativistic" - as much temperament as ideology - whose positions on specific issues varies from place to place and from time to time because conservatives prefer the is to what could be. As such, conservatism is a belief system flexible enough to "conserve" all manner of institutions, even those we might normally locate on the liberal side of the political ledger, such as those which fight inequality, safeguard the environment and tame market forces.

Ever since Ronald Reagan first threw down the gauntlet in his very first speech as President that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," we've accustomed ourselves to think about conservatism as a fighting faith determined to give America and its "liberal, secular culture" an extreme makeover based on a rigid and uncompromising adherence to certain well-defined "conservative principles."

Yet, even Reagan's radical-sounding call to arms against the government contained an important qualifier: "In this present crisis." In this present crisis, said Reagan, government is the problem and not the solution. Not for all time, perhaps, and certainly not by its very nature. But "in this present crisis" government is a problem - here, in 1980, as the nation faces inflation and interests rates running into the double digits, and with unemployment way up and the top rate on taxes above 70%. Now is the appropriate time to cut government and unleash the latent potential of the American people.

It's a proviso, however, that's nearly always left out by those who, for their own narrow purposes, would rather cast Reagan as the spiritual leader of a radical right wing revolution bent on regime change than as a conservative reformer who respected America's institutions and traditions, even those that supported positions he disagreed with.

That's one reason, 30 years later, an old Ronald Reagan hand like former OMB director David Stockman has called Grover Norquist with his No Tax Pledge a "fiscal terrorist." That's the reason former GOP Senator Alan Simpson reminds anyone who will listen that Reagan raised taxes 11 times when he was President.

These are two old fashioned fiscal conservatives (and there are many more like them) who recognized, perhaps too late, that Reagan's careless and hyperbolic rhetoric about the "evils" of government did not promote prudence and responsibility as he may have intended but instead unleashed right wing extremists determined to dismantle what Reagan only wished to repair.

Today's Republican Party may revere Reagan as the patron saint of low taxation, writes Tim Dickinson in Rolling Stone, "but the party of Reagan - which understood that higher taxes on the rich are sometimes required to cure ruinous deficits - is dead and gone."

Instead, says Dickinson, the modern GOP has reorganized itself around "a grotesque proposition" that the wealthy should grow wealthier whatever the consequences for the rest of us.

"Modern-day Republicans have become, quite simply, the Party of the One Percent - the Party of the Rich," says Dickinson.

"The Republican Party has totally abdicated its job in our democracy, which is to act as the guardian of fiscal discipline and responsibility," adds Stockman. "They're on an anti-tax jihad - one that benefits the prosperous classes."

The statistics are familiar, and grim: Since Republicans started slashing taxes for the wealthy in 1997, the average annual income of the 400 richest Americans has more than tripled, to $345 million - while their share of the tax burden has plunged by 40%, writes Dickinson. Today, a billionaire in the top 400 pays less than 17% of his income in taxes - five percentage points less than a bus driver earning $26,000 a year.

"Republicans talk about job creation, about preserving family farms and defending small businesses, and reforming Medicare and Social Security," says Dickinson. "But almost without exception, every proposal put forth by GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates is intended to preserve or expand tax privileges for the wealthiest Americans."

Some of those "common-sense measures" would actually increase the amount of taxes middle-class taxpayers and the poor must pay. And with 14 million Americans out of work, and one in seven families on food stamps, "Republicans have responded to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression by slashing inheritance taxes, extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, and endorsing a tax amnesty for big corporations that have hidden billions in profits in offshore tax havens," says Dickinson.

Republican economic policy in the 21st century is predicated on the theory - call it an alibi - that if we let the rich get richer everybody else will benefit too. But as Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz notes: "That, empirically, is wrong. It's a philosophy of trickle-down economics that's belied by the facts."

All the Bush and Cheney tax cuts for the wealthy have done, says Stiglitz, is produce two things: "lower growth and greater inequality."

The Bush era produced the weakest economic expansion since World War II, says Dickinson. It's the only one in modern American history in which the wages of working families actually fell and poverty increased.

Worse, says Dickinson, by privileging gambling on stocks over working for a living, Bush administration tax policy also fueled speculation on Wall Street and further widened the gap between rich and poor.

"It was a very destructive combination to have a national economic policy that stimulated debt-financed capital gains and then taxed the windfall at the lowest rate imaginable," says Stockman. "That contributed, clearly, to the growing imbalance in household income and wealth."

All of us would like to believe that our motivations and our values are in alignment, says Professor Theodore Lowi of Cornell. And American conservatives in particular feel a strong emotional pull to square their heedless support of free market capitalism with their equally strong desire for stable, virtuous communities.

But it can't be done. Try as conservatives might to argue that Adam Smith-style free market capitalism is rooted in the virtues of altruism, morality and Christian charity instead of avarice, selfishness and greed, "there really is no way morality can shake hands with the invisible hand," says Lowi.

If conservatives were honest with themselves they'd be anti-capitalists because "there really is an unbridgeable chasm between morality and capitalism," says Lowi. Indeed, he says, "it seems preposterous to most people to say that the way to create a good and bountiful society is to give maximum freedom to a group of predatory capitalists."

George F. Will agrees - or did before the price of crossing the Wall Street party line became too steep. Conservatives tend to worry in "collective categories" and govern in terms of "severe individualism," Will wrote in his 1983 Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does.

Conservatives turn to religion and to religiously-oriented political movements, says Will, because they worry about the collective moral standing of the community. And yet, at the same time, conservatives delude themselves that the public good can somehow be produced "by the spontaneous cooperation of individuals making arrangements in free markets."

It was the "radical" Karl Marx, ironically, who was among the very first to notice the radical impact of capitalism on the community and its institutions, and in The Communist Manifesto he often sounds like a conservative lamenting the passing of something familiar and beloved: "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.  All that is holy is profaned."

Until he became a shill for Wall Street, thus representing the worst of what has become of the conservative tradition, Will went so far as to say that the very laissez faire attitude Marx just described isn't really conservatism at all.

There are those, said Will, who think "conservatism is capitalism, no more, no less."

But while markets can be rational allocators of resources, "the severely individualistic values and the atomizing social dynamism of a capitalistic society conflict with the traditional and principled conservative concern with traditions, among other things."

Those "other things," says Will, include: "The life of a society in its gentling corporate existence - in communities, churches and other institutions that derive their usefulness and dignity from their ability to summon individuals up from individualism to concerns larger and longer-lasting than their self-interestedness."

How are those sentiments different, really, from the ones expressed by President Obama earlier this month in Osawatomie, Kansas, when the President reaffirmed his deep conviction "that we're greater together than we are on our own?"

As the President added: "I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren't Democratic values or Republican values. These aren't 1% values or 99% values. They're American values. And we have to reclaim them."

Yet, these "traditional conservative" ideas - whether spoken by George Will 30 years ago or by President Obama 30 days ago -- would likely wither like delicate flowers under the white-hot heat and searing lights of what passes for conservatism today, as it is seen on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal or heard on the prime time line-up on Fox News, where the only issue that matters is the stark choice between "freedom" and "Big Government."      

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nice/comprehensive/literate/thorough analysis. yeah the meaning of "conservative" is really flipped on its head these days. what are they "conserving"? how about conserving the environment? or wages and benefits for laborers?
foxnews seems to have perfected the formula of highly distilled propaganda.... but it can also blow up in their face as with the obama election and the occupy party. its an epic struggle & I think weve finally got the basic frame right... ie 99% vs 1%
The INVISIBLE HAND is not some universal law of physics; it is a large primate's knee-jerk reaction to fear or greed.

Auwe (Alas)

You've taken my argument much further than I intended for it to go. As Mark Lillia wrote in a the New York Review of Books, "The quarrel between liberals and conservatives is essentially a quarrel over the nature of human beings and their relation to society."

Conservatives see society as prior to, and superior, to individuals, and so give the preference to the demands of the community over individual rights. You've described the Dark Side of that belief, in which individuals are held prisoner by a repressive and backward looking society. Liberals on the other hand treat individuals as prior to society and so give the preference to individual civil rights over ancient codes of conduct or social traditions, which liberals view as human creations that can be changed by humans just as easily as they were made in the first place. This debate between liberals and conservatives has been raging for centuries and is basically unresolvable. The reason is that each has its dark side, as you suggest. The logical extension of liberalism is anarchy just as the logical extension of conservatism is tyranny. But we don’t live on the logical periphery, we live in the real world where the resolution of the balance between legitimate demands of the community and the individual is the stuff of everyday politics.

My aim was much more limited. I wanted to show how today's conservatism is basically contradictory and incoherent. Conservatives treat the individual as subordinate to the community in all matters involving morality and personal behavior -- except in the all important area of how individual make their living, in which case conservatives abandon the community and embrace a radical species of laissez faire capitalism predicated on an absolutust view of both individualism and personal freedom. Compare what George Will said about the sinfulness of free market greed above written about 30 years ago with his more recent attacks against Elizabeth Warren and her ideas of a Social Compact – that it expresses the “liberal project” which Will defines as the effort to “dilute the concept of individualism, thereby refuting respect for the individual’s zone of sovereignty. The regulatory state, liberalism’s instrument, constantly tries to contract that zone — for the individual’s own good.” That is a huge concession to individual freedom and selfishness which conservatives are now willing to make in order to remain politicaly relevant within a Republican coalition that would never give them the time of day if they attacked free market capitalism and tried to promote the very regulation of capitalist greed and avarice that Wall Street interests pay lobbyists top dollar to fight in Washington.