Struggling to See the Way

The Triumph of Death
 There is a mess of confused categories afflicting our politics. Words like “conservative” and “liberal,” and even “political,” have been so distorted that they conceal more than they disclose. The problem is not just that the meanings of words change over time. Meanings do change. The problem is that meanings do not always change at the same rate, or in the same ways, within the different minds of the people who seem to be speaking the same language. And sometimes it is worth taking the trouble of either resisting the change or doing the hard work of checking to see what we really mean to be talking about.

This recent headline from the New York Times suggests the problem: “Mike Pence: A Conservative Proudly Out of Sync With His Times.” What does it mean to be a “conservative” that is “out of sync with his times”?

Politically, to be “conservative” is to believe that the established order represents the accumulation of collective wisdom over generations of incremental change, and for that reason is too precious to be sacrificed to the whims of the masses. To be “liberal,” however, is to believe that no one has a greater stake in current policies than the people who are alive today, and for that reason those people should have priority, through democratic processes, over established institutions and unitary institutional leaders like monarchs.

Those are both reasonable views. And the constitution of our federal government here in the United States represents a compromise of both views, in the form of republicanism. Elections by citizens and the House of Representatives are both liberal ideas. The Senate (whose members were not elected directly until 1913 when the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified), the Electoral College, and a judiciary that is appointed not elected are all conservative ideas. That is, the institutions of our federal government were designed to accommodate change according to the will of the people, but not too quickly.

Because the conservative outlook prizes the current order as a representation of past lessons learned, many people think of conservatism as fundamentally backward looking. And because liberalism, when politically empowered, tends to result in more rapid change, many people think of it as fundamentally forward looking. But those characterizations place too much emphasis in the wrong places. Both conservative and liberal views, as political views, are focused on the present, because that is where and why political decisions are made. If conservatives seem to see the past as a guide, it is because they are searching for a ground that lends confidence to their decisions. Liberals are searching for a similar ground, but they find it in the collective voice of the people, expressed through democratic procedures. And if they seem to be oriented primarily to the future, that is only a byproduct of their focus on the present, which, because it changes constantly, seems more like the unknown future than the apparently solid past.

Mike Pence is neither conservative nor liberal. And the modern Republican Party is neither conservative nor liberal. Pence and his party represent radicalism, which is a movement to change the current order quickly, and with violence if necessary. Unlike conservatism and liberalism, radicalism is not a political outlook, or a process of sharing power through participation, but a movement to disrupt and seize power.

There are at least two kinds of radicalism. One kind of radicalism looks to the past, sees a Golden Age, and moves to disrupt the powers of the current order so that it can seize power to reestablish that Age. Another kind of radicalism looks to the future, sees the possibility of a Utopian Paradise, and moves to disrupt the powers of the current order so that it can seize power to usher in that Paradise. But those kinds of radicalism are not really looking to the past or the future; they are rooted in fantasy. There never was a Golden Age, and there never will be a Utopian Paradise. Both are illusions. (Other varieties of radicalism might include Christian Dominionism and radical Islam, neither of which is strictly about establishing a prior Golden Age or ushering in a Utopian Paradise. They might better be characterized as movements to establish the future glory of a past promise, something that never was, but ought to be.)

But because Golden Age radicalism seems to be backward looking, we tend to align it with conservatives. And because Utopian Paradise radicalism seems to be forward looking, we tend to align it with liberals. So we talk about “right-wing radicals” and “left-wing radicals.” Those are terms are misleading, though, because right-wing radicalism has very little in common with conservatism, and left-wing radicalism has very little in common with liberalism. (I have sometimes used the term “retrograde radicalism” to describe the Golden Age radicals in the modern Republican Party. The comparable term, by strict opposite, would be “anterograde radicalism.” But even fewer people still use “anterograde” than still use “retrograde.”)

The Republican Party is transforming into a movement of Golden Age radicalism because its adherents are seeking to disrupt established institutions (for example by shutting down the government or abolishing a bevy of agencies), to seize power from others (including women, people of color, people who are not a particular kind of Christian, and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender), and to do so quickly by violence if necessary (for example by deporting people, building a border wall, increasing police militarization, and advocating for open and concealed carry of firearms by citizens who are sympathetic to their aims). These are not political movements because they are not about a process of sharing power through participation, either in conservative institutions or in liberal democracy.

We have no significant radical movement in the United States based on a Utopian Paradise. The people who march mostly peacefully and cluster on trendy social media hashtags might seem radical, but they are generally just demanding that the people who control established institutions use them differently, and measure the popular will through more effective democratic procedures. Those people are still just liberals who feel desperate and disenfranchised. But if they continue feeling that way for too long, they will radicalize, too. It has happened before, for example with the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, the socialist movement of the early 20th century, and the civil rights movement of the middle 20th century.

The Golden Age radicals of the Republican Party would probably disagree. They appear to believe that they are not radicals, but late conservative defenders of a political order only recently overcome by Utopian Paradise radicals. A study of history should disabuse them of that view. The struggle to bring people of color into the circle of our politics is now centuries old. The struggle for women is about 175 years old. Even the gains of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are not just a recent arrival, but the results of almost half a century of open efforts now—and they have tracked with popular approval. Our strong federal government dates back 150 years to the end of the Civil War. Social Security is more than 75 years old. Medicare is more than 50 years old. We have experienced many, many waves of immigration coupled with violence—going all the way back to English colonists. None of these things is new.

Mike Pence is not a “conservative proudly out of sync with his times,” because being out of sync with your times is not compatible with being conservative. Only radicals are out of sync with their times. Being conservative means living deliberately in your times, as you received them from your predecessors, moving cautiously with attention to the wisdom of the past, and leaving the world a better place by whatever increment you can ethically and morally manage. The Republican Party has given up on that conservatism. The only conservative running for president in 2016 is Hillary Clinton, because she is the only one that explicitly advocates conserving the progress we have made while rejecting radical change. If you were looking for a liberal candidate, it was Bernie Sanders, who, although he advocated polices that might be characterized as “socialist,” was really just expressing the complaint that our government institutions are not sufficiently democratic by highlighting the disjunction between popular opinion and actual governmental outcomes.

Donald Trump, however, is just a power-hungry demagogue who is putting on as a Golden Age radical. He recognizes that there is an enormous part of our population that feels desperate and disenfranchised, but is either unwilling to channel those feelings into political processes or recognizes that they are popularly outnumbered and will not have their way unless they exit politics and radicalize.

But even after trying to cut through that mess of categories, and recognizing that the mess might be mostly a byproduct of language change, there are still real problems. Those problems are fueling the feelings of desperation and disenfranchisement that lots of different people are feeling.

I think we can identify the root causes of those problems pretty easily: globalization and climate change, which are not disconnected phenomena. Globalization has accelerated climate change, even as it suggests, for the first time in the history of our planet, the possibility that there might be truly global problems that demand truly global solutions—and we might not be up to the task.

Interestingly, the Golden Age radicals of the Republican Party deny both globalization and climate change, although in slightly different ways. They deny that climate change is happening at all, but their denial in connection with globalization subtler. What they deny is that a globalized economy should have any noticeable effect on our local—that is, national—economy. They want the benefits of “growth” through greater consumption by imperializing resources and outsourcing labor, but without the burdens of thinking about what that might mean for a domestic economy, or about how it affects climate change. The result is a domestic economy where a few control the movement of labor and resources in and out of the country to their own enormous financial benefit, but many, many people are left behind by disappearing jobs.

What we need are new ideas, new metaphors, new narratives, new categories, and new institutions to sustain us into a more humane globalized world where we can address all of our problems, including climate change, peacefully and effectively together. That is not a call for a Utopian Paradise, but a call to live deliberately in the world that we actually have, with all its problems, without slipping into radicalism, by learning from the past while listening to the voices of the present. Each of us needs to remain political, by whatever disposition, and work to maintain the participatory circle with eyes to the present, eyes to the past, and eyes to the future.

Donald Trump would not get us there. Hillary Clinton would probably help to prevent us from losing ground. But the only way for things to get better is for all of us to decide to live right here, right now, in sync with our times and all their troubles, without being tempted by the fantasies of the Golden Age or the Utopian Paradise.

(The picture at the top is the painting “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegal the Elder.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.