The Contradictions Inherent in American Conservatism

By image - February 24, 2004

American conservatives are surely a very frustrated group, because despite their seeming political success, they fail to achieve their goals. There is a very good reason for this; it's because both the Republican Party, and their own newfound ideology, are at odds with their own goals. It is impossible for American conservatives to reach their goals while supporting the things that they support.

To understand the modern American conservative movement requires understanding the history of the 20th century, and even the 19th century.

Prior to the rise of Marxism, Christian groups made up some of the strongest opponents to laissez-faire capitalism and big business, i.e. "Wall Street."

Wealthy businessmen were seen by Christians as immoral and greedy. In fact there was a significant element of anti-Semitism involved in Christian criticism of big business as well.

1902 Political Cartoon referring to child labor

A book titled Looking Backward was published in 1888 by Christian Socialist Edward Bellamy. It became a national best seller and was the 3rd most popular book of the 19th century overall. Many early 20th century economists called Looking Backward the most influential American book on economics, despite the fact that it was a work of fiction.

In Looking Backward the main character wakes up in America in the year 2000 when America has become a "socialist paradise," where everyone is an equal share holder in the nation's corporations and everyone retires at age 45.

The Society of Christian Socialists was organized in Boston in 1889. The society proclaimed that:

"...economic rights and powers were gifts of God, not for the receiver's use only, but for the benefit of all. All social, political and industrial relations should be based on the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, in the spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ. Capitalism was not based on Christian love but on a selfish individualism."

Many American Christian groups called for an increased morality to our economic system and in fact promoted communal economic systems and supported various forms of Christian based socialism.  

The Amish are a classic example of one of the enduring Christian American groups who followed a strict anti-capitalistic and anti-modern ideology.

When America entered the 20th century about 40 percent of Americans were still farmers and the majority of Americans still lived in small towns. Christian groups often identified strongly with small town values and opposed the "fat greedy capitalists of the east coast."

With the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 though, something changed.

The Communists had declared war on two things primarily, capitalism and religion.

This threat created a common enemy for both big business and Christians and led to a new and powerful alliance between religion and high finance, the likes of which had never been seen before in America.

Businessmen began to court Christianity in order to use moral appeals against "atheistic socialists and communists" as a means to build support for their interests, and in this process business leaders began establishing serious relationships with church leaders. Financial support of the Christian community by wealthy businessmen grew. Both businessmen and Christians knew that they had a common enemy and they knew that together they could better meet the challenge of facing that common enemy.

Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution the Republican Party was in many ways the most progressive party in America. Lincoln of course was far more progressive than his Democratic opponents. After the Civil War northern liberals, such as agnostic Robert Ingersoll, campaigned strongly for the Republican Party and Teddy Roosevelt ran one of the most progressive presidencies in American history.

During the Great Depression the Republican Party lost tremendous ground. Republicans lost major ground politically due to their ties to big business and what was seen as their contribution to the depression.

As black Americans moved to the Democratic Party during the FDR administration, and Eleanor Roosevelt promoted liberal social issues such as a progressive women's agenda and social equality, Republicans courted "social conservatives", i.e. bigots, to pick up votes.

Emerging from World War II, and with the death of FDR after his 12 years in office, the Republican Party and conservatives began a new struggle for political power. Prior to the FDR administration most social conservatives sided with the Democratic Party, but due to FDR's social progressiveness more and more conservatives changed sides to the Republican Party, who began courting the South, where racial tensions were high and conservative Democrats felt betrayed by the Democratic Party, which had been the traditional Southern Party since the Civil War when it was Democrats who favored the preservation of slavery. The Democratic Party had traditionally been the party of the white American worker, and in the South that meant being the party that most represented the interests of farmers.

After World War II Republicans were still the party of big business, and still the party which most represented corporate interests and the American wealthy elite.

With the rising anti-communist atmosphere in America the cooperation between religious groups and big business against the common enemy of godless communism continued to grow strongly again.

United by the common enemy, these strange bedfellows developed throughout the latter half of the 20th century into one of the most powerful political forces in the United States, but as we will see, this alliance is founded on an impossible ideological split and only occurred because of the threat of a common enemy.

It is impossible that true American conservatives can have their agenda satisfied by an alliance with big business because big business is, by definition, anti-conservative. Corporate America has used the anti-communist sentiment of American conservatives and Christians to support their own cause and the result has been the deepest corruption of politics, religious groups and private industry in American history.

What are the things that American conservatives value and want politically?

They favor "small town values." Conservatives are strongest in rural and suburban areas and are typically unhappy with places like New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Hollywood, etc.

American conservatives today are also the "champions" of "free-market capitalism."

This presents an interesting contradiction though because New York City can certainly be said to be the "capital of capitalism." New York City is the poster boy of capitalism, yet ask ten men in an Alabama barber shop what they think of New York City and I'll bet that you get ten negative answers, though possibly the new patriotism associated with New York due to 9/11 may have altered this attitude recently.

Big business and small towns have very little in common. How is it then that the champions of small town values can be the strongest supporters of big city business?

Who has been sending American jobs to China and Mexico? Who supported NAFTA? Its big business, largely with the aid of the Republican Party. How can people who complain about the loss of small town jobs and the corruption of big cities ally themselves with the very instruments of the demise of the way of life that they champion?

Who has supported lax immigration rules to allow more foreign immigrants into the US, another thing that conservatives typically oppose? It has been big business and the Republican Party. Corporations like the cheaper labor provided by immigrants and thus support laws that bolster immigration.

Who is supporting factory farming, genetically manufactured foods, and corporate farms that put family farmers out of business? It's big business, and it is capitalism itself that is driving these changes. Meanwhile, as large corporate farms are driving family farms out of business, the Republican Party has fooled so-called "conservatives" once again into supporting the repeal of inheritance taxes, called "death -taxes" by those campaigning against them. They have fabricated stories about how the so-called "death taxes" put family farms out of business, while in fact not one single case has ever been documented of this happening. It is in fact large corporate farms that drive family farms out of business, and then the Republicans, acting in the interests of the wealthy elite, shift the blame onto a tax that only impacts the very wealthiest of Americans, manipulating conservatives, once again, to vote against their own interests, and against one of the oldest taxes in American history, as President Teddy Roosevelt made clear:

"…the National Government should impose a graduated inheritance tax, and, if possible, a graduated income tax. The man of great wealth owes a peculiar obligation to the State, because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government. Not only should he recognize this obligation in the way he leads his daily life and in the way he earns and spends his money, but it should also be recognized by the way in which he pays for the protection the State gives him."

"This object can be attained by making the tax very small on moderate amounts of property left; because the prime object should be to put a constantly increasing burden on the inheritance of those swollen fortunes which it is certainly of no benefit to this country to perpetuate."

"This species of tax has again and again been imposed, although only temporarily, by the National Government. It was first imposed by the act of July 6, 1797, when the makers of the Constitution were alive and at the head of affairs. It was a graduated tax; though small in amount, the rate was increased with the amount left to any individual, exceptions being made in the case of certain close kin. A similar tax was again imposed by the act of July 1, 1862; a minimum sum of one thousand dollars in personal property being excepted from taxation, the tax then becoming progressive according to the remoteness of kin. The war-revenue act of June 13, 1898, provided for an inheritance tax on any sum exceeding the value of ten thousand dollars, the rate of the tax increasing both in accordance with the amounts left and in accordance with the legatee's remoteness of kin."
- President Theodore Roosevelt, 1906

Capitalism by its very nature brings change to society. Change in American society is driven by capitalism, and yet the strongest defenders of capitalism are the people who want the least change in society. This is the irreconcilable difference that makes the alliance between big business and Christian conservatism impossible to maintain. Without a "common enemy" this alliance is sure to break apart, the Republicans and corporations know this, and thus they constantly look for "new threats." The only reason it has lasted as long as it has is due to the common enemy of godless communism, and now that that threat is largely gone new threats have to be pointed out and amplified.

There is nothing truly "conservative" about the Republican Party, capitalism, or big business.

Capitalism is the vehicle for economic and social change. Capitalism is, and always has been, the driving force of change in American society. There was economic conflict between the industrial North and the agricultural slave South, which led to the South's eventual decision to break from the liberal and industrial North to "conserve" its old way of life.

It was the Industrial Revolution that caused millions of Americans to move out of the small towns and into the cities, where prostitution, gambling, racketeering, and organized crime expanded.

It is currently capitalism and the drive for profits that drives the permeating commercialism, materialism, and sexuality of American culture. It is really impossible to defend free-market capitalism and "conservatism" at the same time. Free-market capitalism is by definition amoral (not to be confused with immoral). A society that is purely profit driven is the exemplification of capitalist society. In what way can Christian conservatives support such a society, which, almost by definition, would be anti-Christian?

The ultimate example of this is how the Religious Right has adopted the corporate anti-environmental agenda. In what way can anyone be "conservative" and against "conservation?"

You can't claim to cherish rural areas and the untouched wilderness and also be opposed to protecting the environment. In addition, how can a group of people who claim to cherish the earth as part of God's creation also support big business and oil companies in their attacks on natural resources and destruction of habitats? Do Christian conservatives want all of America to be turned into big cities with strip malls? In what way is that "conservative?" Where do conservatives plan to hunt and fish if the woodlands are opened up to logging, and the fisheries are polluted?

On CNN Christian "Conservative" Jerry Falwell stated:

"The whole [global warming] thing is created to destroy America's free enterprise system and our economic stability," and later added, "I urge everyone to go out and buy an SUV today."

Don't Christian conservatives realize that big business is behind the expansion of chain restaurants and department stores like Wal-Mart, that have put thousands of small business owners out of business and literally shut down Main Streets in small towns across America? I don't understand how this is "conservative."

The recent news about the possible acquisition of Walt Disney Corp. by Comcast generated interesting responses as well. The LA Times reported comments from Disney fans such as this:

"Disney represents the cultural fabric of this country. It's more than just an investment. It established a standard of family entertainment and quality and a lot of people who evaluate the Disney performance determined the company had lost its direction, but the sellout to Comcast would be going from bad to worse... The Walt Disney Co's an American institution. Selling it would be un-American. Old Walt must be spinning in his grave today."

This person feels that Walt Disney Corp is "the cultural fabric of this country," and that selling Disney would be "un-American."

I have no idea if this person is conservative or not, but I find it interesting that in a predominately Christian nation a company, which has had from its very inception the goal of providing a secular alternative to Christian morality, would be seen as the moral backbone of what many people still call "a Christian nation." Furthermore, Disney is a corporation, whose goal is profits. Like Coca-Cola, Disney is a success because it has used a permeating propaganda campaign that impacts children from the earliest ages to form an "emotional bond" to the company's "product."

The fact that Americans believe that a company can represent "the moral fabric of this country" is, in my opinion, a little distressing. Disney's goal, like every company, is to make profits, not provide moral direction. Morality play is just another means of building a relationship with customers; it's all about the money though.

"We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective."
- Michael Eisner, CEO Walt Disney Company

The TV station Nickelodeon is another example. Nickelodeon's parent company is MTV, and this "children's" programming channel seems nothing more than a means to hook children on consumerism and the same types of imagery that parent company MTV uses. In other words, Nickelodeon seems to be designed to transition children to MTV viewership - an excellent marketing strategy; sublime capitalism.

It is through support of corporate America, and unrestrained capitalism, that the Religious Right helps to empower companies like Disney and MTV, and companies that send American jobs to "communist" China.  Check your "I love America" memorabilia, be it a flag, t-shirt, sticker, or something else, its most likely made in China… Rather ironic don't you think?

Again and again Christian "conservatives" seem to be coming out in defense of the most corrupt elements of American society, of widespread corporate corruption and increasing assaults on the environment and small businesses.

Here is a clue: abortion is here to stay. Conservatives can vote for Republicans forever, but abortion is going nowhere. Don't conservatives realize that Republicans use the abortion issue to string them along to get votes that are used instead to support corporate corruption and economic policy that promotes an ever more competitive and exploitive marketplace, where violent video games, porn, and sexual music continue to thrive because, guess what, it makes money!

The Christian conservatives are used and abused by corporate America to get support for its exploitive policies that the rest of the country refuses to back. The Christian Right shouldn't really want to back these policies either, but they have been duped into doing so. How can Christian "conservatives" continue to vote in a way that primarily supports Wall Street and the wealthiest Americans when according to the Bible Jesus Christ said that "the meek shall inherit the earth," and "I tell you the truth, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Yes, I tell you that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God."

Furthermore, while people keep talking of the fiscal irresponsibility of "liberals," it has been Republicans who have been some of the biggest federal spenders in the past 30 years. The presidencies of Ronald Regan and George W. Bush have seen the largest expansions of the federal government since the days of FDR, and the largest deficits since that time as well.

Key: Green = federal taxes collected; Red = unemployment rate; Blue = budget deficit

Christian conservatives are never going to achieve any true political success in America because they have formed a political and ideological alliance with a group that stands for the opposite of conservative goals, and its all about the money. Conservatives oppose social change, but the group they are allied with is the main group that is causing the types of social changes that they oppose, so they just continue to get frustrated and can't figure out why all of this political effort that they have put in for the past 20 years seems to be going nowhere. Conservatives may "win issues", they may be successful in getting various measures passed, but these measures don't have the impact on society that the conservatives are hoping for.

Its for a very obvious reason, its because the group they are allied with has ended up working against them at every turn. Sure, they keep pointing the finger back at "the liberals," but all you have to do is follow the money trail. The money trail leads straight to corporate America, who walked off with the piggy bank, while the Christian "conservatives" stood guard.

For further reading see:

Understanding Capitalism Part IV- Capitalism and Culture

Assessing the Vote and the Roots of American Political Divide

GOP Corporate Donors Cash in on Smut

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