American Conservatives are Socialists, They Just Don't Realize It
I've always been fascinated by the contradictions in American political ideology. I think the biggest contradiction in American political ideology is within the so-called "Conservative" movement, and its interesting because the contradiction is so fundamental.
Generally speaking, conservatives are social collectivists. Social conservatism, in the most general and universal sense, is rooted in the public enforcement of collective social values. Liberalism is literally the transcendence of the individual over the collective, i.e. the freedom of each individual to believe and act according to their own desires, even when their beliefs and actions are abhorrent to the community.
What is so fascinating about American politics is that the "Conservative" movement of the past several decades has become solidly pro-capitalism, when it is in fact capitalism that is ultimately responsible for just about every ill that conservatives rail against in America.
An important thing to understand about conservatism, and American conservatism in particular, is that there is a populist basis for conservatism. When we look back at the liberal revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, of which the American Revolution was one, these were generally populist revolutions for liberalism against elite ruling minorities who were seeking to conserve the traditional, feudal, social and economic systems. The rise of capitalism itself was a part of these liberal revolutions. I get the sense that many people today really don't understand just how radical capitalism really is.
Just speaking anecdotally, two of the most fundamental statements that I hear from American conservatives are: #1 that "they", or "the community", have lost control of the culture (i.e. "liberals" have forced an unwanted culture upon them/America) and #2 that income should be based on work.
If you share those two beliefs (which by the way, both self described conservatives and leftists share these views) then you really are fundamentally against capitalism.
Today's conservatism is a different form of conservatism than the conservatism of the 18th and 19th centuries. Conservatism during that period was plainly a defense of the ruling establishment. If you were a conservative during the 18th and 19th centuries it meant that you were a supporter of monarchy, of theocracy, and of the established aristocracy, i.e. you were against democracy, against religious freedom, against market economies, etc., and so the idea of "populist conservatism" wasn't really considered at the time.
Today, however, we have to recognize that there really can be, and is, a populist basis for conservatism. So what is populist conservatism? From the most fundamental perspective, regardless of any political ideology, populist conservatism rooted in natural human desires to maintain a socially enforced moral code. I do think that conservatism in the general sense is a natural tendency within any social group. Society of course is a social group. Culture is the set of beliefs, ideas, and practices that are produced and held by a social group. Social groups tend to develop self-protecting mechanisms, which are conveyed in the beliefs, ideas, and practices of the social group. These protective mechanisms are inherently "conservative". They work to conserve the culture of the group.
For good or bad, better or worse, social groups tend to produce cultures that protect the collective interests of the social groups. Often times individuals within these groups can be victims of the culture, which is exactly what liberalism is all about, minimizing the collective power of the social groups, in order to grant more freedom to individuals to believe and act as they wish.
What true conservatives really want (I'm not talking here about libertarians, who are often lumped in with conservatives due to them often siding with the Republican party in America) is strong community based collective social power.
So, why do conservatives feel that they don't have strong community based collective social power in America? Well, firstly, because they generally don't have it, for multiple reasons. The most basic reason is of course the U.S. Constitution, which is a fundamentally liberal document, that goes to great lengths to limit the power of the majority in order to protect minority rights, and by minority in this sense I don't mean racial or ethnic minority, but minority beliefs and practices.
But the protection of minority rights in the constitution has only a passive impact on the culture. The most direct impact on the culture comes from capitalism.
Conservatives talk a lot about "family values", and there is good reason for that. The family has the greatest vested interested in its members, particularly its children. In a general sense the family is the most basic social structure, and the social structure in which those within the group have the greatest vested interest in promoting the well being of the individuals within the group and of the group itself. Families tend to be the social group that inherently has the best interests of its members, particularly its children, at heart, and thus is the social unit that typically instills the best "values" within its children. This of course is not always true, as child abuse cases and cases of delinquent parenting prove, but it is generally true.
Beyond the family the local community, often embodied in organizations like churches, schools, and local government, and in a loser sense simply in neighborhoods etc., also has a vested interest in the well being of its members, again, especially the children.
Thus the cultures produced by families and local communities tend to be sets of beliefs and practices that both protect the interests of the local community and that have the best interests of its individual members in mind. Again, there are always exceptions to these generalizations, and often those that don't fit into the social mold become victims of the community itself.
This is where industrialization and capitalism come in.
Industrialization and capitalism go hand in hand, indeed they both gave rise to one another. Capitalism is an economic system in which the rights to newly created value are granted by the ownership of capital, i.e. the owner of the property that is used to create goods and services is the owner of the goods and services produced via the use of said property. The workers, whose labor produces the goods and services, do not have any rights to the products of their labor, unless they themselves are also capital owners, as is the case with small business owners, etc.
This system of property rights of course makes capital quite valuable and played a major role in promoting the increasing development of capital in the form of industrialization and the development of modern corporations and intellectual property rights systems, etc.
How is culture expressed? Culture is expressed primarily in the products that we produce. Our culture is reflected in the homes that we live in, the clothing that we wear, our hair styles, the transportation that we use, the songs we sing, the images we display, the stories we tell, etc., etc.
During the 20th century the industrialized world was transformed from a place where culture was locally produced by communities to a place where culture was produced by highly centralized international corporations.
There are distinct differences between locally produced culture and corporate produced culture.
Locally produced organic culture is the product of local self-interest, i.e. the self-interest of the community. Locally produced organic cultures tends to reinforce beliefs and behaviors that are protective of the community (note here that this is not always necessarily positive, as the community may be run by the mafia or be abusive to minorities, etc.). Locally produced culture has a natural tendency to be conservative. For example clothing styles that are a product of organic locally produced culture will tend to reinforce the sexual behaviors that are collectively deemed in the best interest of the community.
Clothing styles produced by corporations, however, have completely different motives behind their development. And to understand why these motives matter we have to address fundamentals of human behavior and the role of social pressures.
Human beings, as anyone should know, have certain natural behavioral tendencies. Many of these tendencies are "socially destructive". This is a battle we have been fighting for thousands of years, its where the concept of things like sins come from, etc. Sins are basically socially destructive human behaviors. As with all social animals, the individual and the collective are in a constant state of conflict. Individual interests are often at odds with social interests and we constantly play a balancing game both individually and as a group of weighing these interests against each other. Liberalism, in the traditional sense, is the elevation of individual interest over the collective interest.
So, for example, if we take the issue of sexual behavior, a community may have a collective interest in promoting monogamy, in suppressing teen pregnancy and pregnancy, in suppressing adultery, in suppressing the potential for transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, etc. These interests may be expressed in a local culture by the promotion and adoption of conservative dress codes that are not sexually evocative or revealing, etc., and so by adopting standards of dress that diminish sexual expression, the community then feels that it is promoting its interests in socially regulating sexual behavior.
But, individuals within the community still have a desire to engage in sexual expression and behavior. So there will always be a general desire by individuals within the group to step outside the bounds of the culture to satisfy their individual desires, and there will be particular individuals within the group who have an acute aversion to the norms of the community and seek to subvert the norms of the community but may be unable to do so due to social pressure and/or lack of physical ability to be creators of their own culture.
So in the traditional sense we know that communities tend to promote collective interest through their own locally produced culture. The desires of individuals within the community, however, may be, and often are, at odds with the collective interests. (For example a group of 10 people have one small pie to share between them. The collective interests is to give everyone an equal, relatively small, piece of the pie, yet each individual within the group may prefer to have all, or at least more, of the pie to themselves.)
But what of corporate produced culture? Cultural artifacts produced by corporations are produced for a profit. The interest of the corporation is not the same as the interest of the community in which the corporation operates. The corporation prospers by satisfying individual desires. So even though a community may have an interest in promoting modest dress, a corporation will have an interest in promoting sexually expressive dress. Why? Because sexual expression is a core human behavioral desire. Teens especially have a natural biological desire to be sexually expressive, and indeed to make themselves stand out from the group sexually, and thus wearing sexually expressive clothing that goes beyond the typical clothing of the community is a natural desire of teens. The community, however, has its desire to enforce its culture on teens in order to regulate their behavior in the best interests not only of the community, but theoretically also the best interests of the teens themselves.
But the objective of the corporation is profit. Profit is gained by selling commodities to consumers. You sell commodities to consumers by making products that satisfy their desires, or at least claim to do so. Satisfaction of desires always goes back to baser human instincts, many of which are at odds with collective social interests and indeed are the motivators of so-called bad behavior that we as a social species have been struggling with for thousands of years.
So capitalism and industrialization in the 20th century resulted in a situation where culture was almost exclusively produced by corporations, which is to say, by a relatively small numbers of people who produced large quantities of products, from food to clothing to music to movies. The relative centralization of production that occurred with industrialization meant that culture went from being produced organically by local communities in ways that supported community interests to being designed by small numbers of people in international corporations, who designed culture specifically to serve their own interests, i.e. the profit interests of the corporation. Doing so inevitably meant catering to the base desires of the human psyche, which in many cases is exactly what traditional culture had evolved over thousands of years to suppress.
Capitalism is a product of the liberal revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Capitalism promotes liberalism and thrives in liberal environments. Capitalism thrives in liberal environments because permissive social environments allow corporations to more strongly appeal to human desires and to a wider array of desires, thus allowing for broader markets and stronger sales. As long as things like freedom of speech and minority rights are protected, markets within a capitalist system will themselves drive the culture towards greater permissiveness since this creates greater opportunities for profit. It doesn't matter if you are infavor of a permissive liberal socieity or against, you should still understand the role that capitalism and markets play shaping society.
The loss of control over the culture that conservatives lament is actually a direct product of capitalism. It is a product of culture that is produced by corporations for the self-interest of the corporation, instead of culture that is produced by families and communities for the self-interest of the families and communities.
While conservatives often rail against "Liberals", they really should be railing against capitalism. Indeed, most so-called "Liberals" in America are not in fact Liberals in the classical sense of the word, they really are light socialists, but the thing is, most so-called conservatives are too.
I think the two main reasons that the American conservatism is so conflicted are racism and the Cold War. American social conservatives were never strongly pro-capitalist, especially in the South, until after World War II, and even more-so after the enactment of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s.
Certainly the dominant big S "Socialist" movements of the 20th century included what can be called progressive platforms, i.e. they included support for things like racial and gender equality, support for reproductive rights, and were largely anti-religious. These things clearly put social conservatives at odds with 20th century Socialist parties and the big S Socialist movements, however "socialism" in the broader sense is not necessarily progressive, indeed there were several socialist movements in the United States during the 19th century and early 20th century which were religiously based and highly conservative. In fact the Mormons began as a socialist movement, and Mormons today retain many elements of their socialist roots. The Amish and Mennonites are also types of socialist societies, which are of course highly conservative.
Traditional American social conservatives were always populist. That populism was heavily tied to the Democratic party and in opposition to the wealthy and Wall Street until a socially progressive platform was adopted by the Democratic party in the 1960s, at which time Republicans adopted a socially conservative platform in order to court voters dissatisfied with the Democratic party. In addition, I believe that corporate America came to be seen by conservatives as a place still ruled by white people for white people, whereas the American government came to be seen (wrongly) as an instrument of undermining white interests in order to promote the interests of minorities, specifically blacks. And this is how, from the 1960s through the 1990s, racism played a role in shifting populist and anti-corporate conservative Americans into a position of being rabid pro-capitalists, along with the patriotic associations between capitalism and America during the Cold War, even though capitalism is actually the root cause of many of the conflicts that conservatives have with modern American culture.
The idea that taxes and the government were the primary enemies of American society became popular in the 1980s as government social programs were portrayed as benefiting minorities, especially blacks, and anti-taxation mentality was infused with the idea that taxes were a means of taking from white people and redistributing their income to black people. That sentiment was never directly expressed, but it was clearly the undercurrent of the Republican resurgence in the American South which took place during the 1970s and 1980s, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and LBJ's War on Poverty.
And thus a mentality grew within the Conservative movement in the United States that "free-market capitalism" must be great, because that's the framework in which "white people succeed" (without the government dragging them down), because the anti-religious Communists just had to be wrong about everything, and because the opposite of whatever so-called American "Liberals" said must be true.
But the reality of course is far different. The reality is that many of the so-called ills of society that American Conservatives lament are products of capitalism, and some of these so-called ills aren't necessarily ills. For example, the rising divorce rate in America and other modern economies is largely a product of two things: greater women's equality, which gives women greater ability to leave abusive relationships, and the change in the economy from a home based economy to an economy where work is performed almost entirely outside the home where husbands and wives work separately.
But its not necessarily the case that an increasing divorce rate is a bad thing in the first place. Certainly the fact that people are less likely to remain in abusive or unhappy marriages today than they were in the past has to be a good thing. Low divorce rates in and of themselves tell you nothing. We know that in the past, and today in societies where women have few rights and economic opportunities, divorce rates are lower, but also that many women stay in loveless and abusive marriages, where cheating is rampant, where they are physically abused, where one or both partners is depressed, etc. and the families of the American past weren't all like those in 1950s sit-coms either.
However the other leading cause of divorce, the modern economy, is something that could be considered a problem, although there is no clear answer to it. It is doubtful that any modern market-based economy could fully resolve this problem. Certain types of socialist systems could address this type of issue, but many such systems have their own problems as well. Families in groups like the Mennonites and even the Mormons do work together at much higher rates than the average American family however, and have lower divorce rates for that and other reasons, not all of them good.
Instead of addressing ways in which American capitalism has disrupted family structure, though, Conservatives do things like point fingers at homosexuals and somehow blame them for increasing divorce rates among heterosexuals.
What is ultimately so frustrating about misplaced Conservative angst in America, however, is that there is actually a lot of common ground between American conservatives and progressives. Indeed I would say that American conservatives and progressives are in agreement on many core fundamental issues.
American conservatives and progressives often talk past one another because political discussions often go straight to the issues of cause and prescription instead of focusing simply on desired outcomes. When this happens disagreement about causes or approaches in handling issues derails the conversation and common ground is never reached.
For example, lets just go back to divorce rates. No one really is in favor of high divorce rates. Everyone, including conservatives and progressives, would like to see more married couples stay together when children are involved. But when this type of issue comes up, the focus immediately goes to causes, with Conservatives blaming "Liberals" and "gays" and progressives immediately getting defensive and/or calling the other side bigots (which they often are). But in this disagreement the fact that both sides agree that they would like to see divorce rates go down is lost, and thus no progress is ever made toward a solution because common ground is never found, and also because the Conservatives are pointing fingers at scapegoats and not addressing the real root causes of the problem.
The problems that Conservatives have with modern American society are never going to be resolved as long as they themselves remain obstacles to solving them. The reality is that the primary driver of change in American society over the past 100 years has been capitalism. Until American Conservatives understand that, they will continue to point fingers at scapegoats and cling to irrational and distracting arguments about the issues they hold dear, and it is unfortunate because the reality is that many Americans, from the "far right" to the "far left", are actually in agreement on some of these issues.