U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Liberty and Order: Or, the Perplexities of American Conservatism

I’ve been thinking a great deal about American conservatism lately. OK, I admit, this topic is always on my mind, but more so lately than usual. I’m currently teaching a unit on American conservatism in my freshman honor’s seminar to students who know little if nothing about the subject, which has forced me to take a step back in thinking about hierarchies of significance and historical causation. On Wednesday, my students and I participated in a videoconference seminar with students at American University in Cairo (a cross-cultural exchange that is a regular feature of my courses—the Egyptian Revolution has made these meetings that much more exciting!) Our topic of conversation this week was the Tea Party. Discussing a topic so particular to American political culture—indeed, parochial—with Egyptian students compelled me to take more than a few steps back. Below are some of my thoughts. (By happy coincidence, conservatism has been a hot topic at USIH lately, including Tim’s thoughtful post on conservative emotions yesterday.)

In preparation for the discussion on the Tea Party, I had the students—in Illinois and in Cairo—read a number of articles that helped set the parameters of “high” discourse about the Tea Party, including Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article “Tea and Sympathy,” which became the basis for her book The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. The most provocative of these articles, in my opinion, is Mark Lilla’s, “The Tea Party Jacobins,” from The New York Review of Books. Lilla argues that the Tea Party manifests as “the politics of the libertarian mob.” Like David Courtwright, who in No Right Turn contends that libertarianism can be discerned in both the countercultural revolution of the sixties left and the Reagan revolution of the eighties right, Lilla believes that the Tea Party accepts both forms of radical individualism. He describes the new American Jacobin ideology as such: “blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their powers.”

The libertarianism of American conservatism, as expressed by the Tea Party, was completely alien to the Egyptian students. As they explained to us Americans, their form of conservatism stems from French notions of natural order, modified to fit an Islamic vision of the world. Thus, to conservatives in Egypt—for example, to the Muslim Brotherhood—libertarianism of the sort advanced by the Tea Party is anathema, since the thing to be avoided at all costs is disorder. Egyptian conservatives support universal healthcare because it provides order. They also support an Islamic moral establishment.

This liberty-order distinction is instructive, but it got me thinking: it’s simply incorrect to imply that American conservatism tilts unequivocally in “live free or die” directions. Here I would call attention to David Sehat’s book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom, about the rise and fall of the American Protestant moral establishment. Sehat points out that, insofar as the Christian Right has mobilized since the 1960s to reassert a moral establishment in the midst of an increasingly secular and individualistic public sphere, it is hardly libertarian. In this light, I think we should qualify Lilla’s contentions about libertarian hegemony in the Tea Party. If the Tea Party is entirely separate from the Christian Right, then Lilla’s points remain plausible. Certainly much has been made about how Tea Party leaders have sought to deemphasize divisive social issues such as abortion in an effort to unite over taxes. But given the demographics of the Tea Party as reported in the New York Times—Tea Partiers are whiter and more likely to self-identify as “very conservative” than their fellow Americans, which make them more likely to be evangelical—alongside anecdotal evidence about the proclivity of prayer at Tea Party gatherings, not to mention their feverish support for Pentecostal Sarah Palin, it’s also plausible to assume that many Tea Partiers would prefer lower taxes and a return to the moral establishment.

In thinking about the longer history of the Christian Right, Daniel Williams convincingly demonstrates, in his excellent new overview, God’s Own Party, that its main goals have been, first, to find a vehicle for reestablishing a Christian moral establishment (though he doesn’t use that language), and second, to make the nation reflect its original Christian identity. In their first goal the Christian Right has been relatively successful in that the Republican Party has come to represent the Christian Right vision of the nation (though there remain divisions and contradictions in Republican Party ideologies and policies). In its second goal, to make America Christian again, they have been far less successful. But, since the Christian Right represents the largest organized faction of American conservatism, and insofar as they wish to reestablish Christian moral authority, it is simply incorrect to say that libertarianism dominates American conservatism. And beyond that, this holds true when speaking more specifically about the Tea Party, if the Tea Party is largely comprised of the Christian Right (which I realize is debatable). In any case, we should be careful when transposing a particular conclusion about the Tea Party—that it’s libertarian—to a more general analysis of American conservatism.

You might think this a good place to conclude. But the complex relationship between liberty and order within American conservatism gets even more perplexing. I have found in my research that often those making what sound like libertarian arguments are Christian Right activists. For example, in culture war struggles over the curriculum, it’s the Christian Right that most forcefully argues against national control in favor of local control of schools. It’s the Christian Right that has made it its strategy to get elected to local school boards in order to stem national trends in education they abhor, such as the teaching of evolutionary science. Similarly, in his must-read article, “Family Policy Past As Prologue: Jimmy Carter, the White House Conference on Families, and the Mobilization of the New Christian Right,” Leo Ribuffo shows how in the Progressive Era and before, persistent evangelical concerns over the crumbling family were often married to progressive economic concerns about the destructive force of unregulated capitalism. But by the 1970s, Christian Right activists uniformly blamed the decrepit condition of the traditional family on the welfare state, which they believed encouraged dependency, divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing.

So how do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory facts: that the Christian Right wants a moral establishment, a coercive vision of government, with its libertarian framework? Here I would draw a crucial distinction between libertarianism and anti-statism. Members of the Christian Right are decidedly not radical individualists of the Age of Aquarius. But they are opposed to the state insofar as it represents a secularism that they despise. The state as it is currently constituted is seen as the greatest barrier to their Protestant moral establishment. Now, obviously, many Christian Right leaders celebrate unregulated capitalism—“free enterprise”—to the degree that they fit well within the Republican Party, which would give corporations a freer reign than they already enjoy. This holds true even in the wake of the recent destructive financial collapse that is so obviously the result of giving free reign to finance, the most powerful sector of corporate America. This tendency needs better historical explanation than I can give in this blog post. But it does not take away from the fact that libertarianism is not anti-statism, and that the Christian Right, and thus much of American conservatism, holds to the latter, not the former.

Postscript: In Mike’s excellent comment on one of our many Age of Fracture posts earlier this week, he brought attention to what will surely be one of the more important historiographical debates in the near future: the importance of race to American conservatism. David and I had a long debate on this topic a few weeks ago in the comments section of my George Nash post. Though I disagree with David and tend to reject the notion that American conservatism is a racial project, I do think that bringing race into the discussion of the Tea Party would be useful in drawing a distinction between libertarianism and anti-statism. One of the things that Lilla briefly mentions but then quickly brushes aside is the fact that Tea Partiers happens to be much more prone to Birtherism. Obviously, then, much of their animosity pointed at Obama is related to race. Though Clinton, who despite rumors was not our first black president, received his fair share of hostile conservative rhetoric, he was never accused of being a foreigner. With this in mind, I would contend that many Tea Partiers are anti-statist, not out of libertarian principles, but due to their assumption that the federal government, as represented by Obama, no longer stands for their racialized vision of America.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very interesting post, Andrew. I tend to agree with your amendment to Lilla’s view.

    I’d add that the other institution (really set of institutions) that the Tea Party (at least anecdotally) seems supportive of is the military, and along with it the structures of the national (and “homeland”) security state. AFAIK they’re entirely comfortable with our ever-growing system of incarceration. They don’t object to the growth of surveillance at home. They support efforts to increase the power of the state (at both the federal and state level) to more aggressively target “illegal aliens.”

    This does not even look like anti-statism to me.

  2. In trying to understand modern conservatism, and especially the Tea Party, one is faced with a consistent contradiction; many Tea Party activist received benefits from the federal government but claim to be against government benefits. When pressed they generally say the same thing, they personally deserve these benefits but “others” do not deserve them. The others that they are talking about are almost always people of color.

    There is open hostility against illegal immigrants, but especially those from Latin America – I am waiting for Tea Partiers to talk about cracking down on illegal immigrants from Canada and Ireland. And there is open hostility against African American who receive public aid of any kind. This fits in with their hostility towards public education which is a two-fer for the Tea Party because this can be an attack on the teaching of evolution as well as an attack on those who most benefit from well-run public schools, poor people of color. A lot of the movement to vouchers and charter schools is designed to re-segregate the schools and stop the teaching of evolution.

    So race is certainly a part of the Tea Party ideology even if it not always stated up front. The right has gotten very good at appropriating the language of the left and understanding some of what can and cannot be said. So they don’t say they are frightened by a black president and instead say he represents un-American values or is foreign.

  3. Ben: I guess it goes without saying that hardly any conservatives, bar consistent libertarians like Ron Paul, oppose the prison- and military-industrial complexes. But given the enormity and centrality of these complexes to American life, these contradictions in conservative anti-statism should probably be stated more forcefully. So thanks for these qualifications.

    Anon: Yes, much has been said of those in the Tea Party who “want government to keep their hands of their Medicare.” Maybe too much?

  4. Andrew:
    In the context of race and the modern right I think it bears repeating because there are many commentators who have not looked beyond the simple contradiction. Too often these statements have been dismissed as evidence of a lack of intelligence or understanding but I think it is more than that and that it belies a racism that is an important part of what unifies the disparate groups that make up the modern conservative movement; including the Tea Party, Republicans, and some Libertarians.

  5. Andrew: What were the other articles you assigned to your students, besides Lepore and Lilla? I have a student doing a summer research project on the Tea Party’s ideas, and I’d greatly appreciate some suggested readings.

    (Wonderful blog, by the way. I just discovered y’all when preparing to teach this semester’s American intellectual history course. You’ve given me lots to ponder, both in the classroom and beyond.)

  6. Professor Hartman, I would examine the concepts of innovation or heresy to explain this incarnation of “conservatism.” The Tea Partiers view the innovation of “Obamacare” to be an example of socialist tyranny. The secular humanists have captured the government and media and have inflicted the heresies of evolution and relativistic moralism. Evangelicals have traditionally been obsessed over concerns of “true religion” which is often a blind spot of academics. This emphasis on true religion and orthodoxy can be seen in the legal doctrine of “originalism which is favored by the right, and the many decades long fight against Keynesian economics.

    You are correct that Clinton was never accused of being a foreigner. He was accused of renouncing his citizenship while studying overseas, of killing Vince Foster(with his lesbian wife, Hillary), and interestingly enough Clinton was also accused of fathering a black prostitute’s son. John McCain faced the same smear in the 2000 South Carolina primary. Racism is certainly a sore spot for the modern Right as evidenced by Ken Mehlman’s apology for the GOP playing the race card.

  7. @Anon: Good point, but to repeat a point I’ve made here several times–see the back-and-forth David Sehat and I had on my post about George Nash (linked above)–I think boiling conservative coherence down to racism allows us to avoid analysis of other areas of conservatism that in some cases are more important. I’ve spent the past few days in the archives looking at ephemeral materials from 1970s and 1980s conservative groups like the Eagle Forum and Heritage Foundation, and the striking thing is the consistent appeal to concerns about the family. I’m not arguing family politics transcend race–hardly–but they can’t simply be boiled down to race, either.

    @Jeff: I also had them read “At the Tea Party” by Jonathan Raban, also in the New York Review. And I had them read a number of blog posts at the National Review, to get a conservative perspective. Nothing too systematic–it’s all so new.

    @Brian: If you’re saying that fundamentalism, or absolutist forms of understanding the world, informs conservative thinking in a number of ways, such as in constitutional originalism, then I agree with you. But as has been pointed out to me by Bruce Kuklick and others, not all liberals or leftists are the opposite–relativists. Noam Chomsky, for instance, grounds his longstanding and harsh critique of capitalism and US foreign policy in a pretty firm or absolute sense of not just right and wrong, but also natural and unnatural. Search around for a debate he had with Foucault in the 70s or 80s for more evidence of this. They were speaking different epistemological languages.

    And thanks for reminding me about some of the choicer language used by the right to denounce Clinton (and McCain).

  8. Andrew, I appreciate your caution against painting conservatives or others on the right as primarily motivated by racism so that other factors are not overlooked, and to remind folks that those on the left also hew to fundamentalist thinking, notions about purism, and other true-believer epistemologies.
    Along these lines, it is important to recall that in 2000 a lawsuit was brought by Democrats against Dick Cheney because he, along with George W., was from Texas. Amendment XII of the Constitution outlaws this. These Democrats demanded paperwork related to Cheney’s residency status.

  9. “So how do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory facts: that the Christian Right wants a moral establishment, a coercive vision of government, with its libertarian framework?”

    This is something that Thomas Frank grapples with in Whats the Matter With Kansas… One thing to keep in mind is the pioneer ethos we have here. The self-made man is the embodiment of moral character. Having a strong, pioneer type in charge is perhaps our version of order. It’s no coincidence that Sarah Palin is a mama grizzly who talks like Minnie Pearl. She’s an apparent pioneer with bootstrapping ability that some people respond to.

    Of course if you were to get a close look at the sausage factory, you would see that Sarah Palin in fact is *not* a self-made person, but was chosen by an elite, and she did *not* in fact always work hard, at all. Or you could make the case to someone in the tea party that Jim Sleeper makes in this article, that modern conservatism has shown itself to have an “incapacity to reconcile its yearning for ordered, sacred liberty with its obeisance to every riptide of the global capitalism” (fascinating piece by Sleeper by the way, although it’s a bit breathless. I’ve been trying to unpack it for the past 2 years), but if you were to make that case against capitalism to that base member, you’d probably get a strange look and they’d say “hey, if my boy had a little more drive to participate in some capitalism, and had the drive that Sarah Palin has, that would be a good thing. He definitely doesn’t need a handout. So maybe it’s not perfect, but capitalism is good.”

    Also, although capitalism doesn’t make for good hierarchies, the conservative movement itself is hierarchical, as Michael Lind has pointed out:


    …With social conservatives at the bottom of the hierarchy. Maybe they’re just good doobies, like Thomas Frank argues, and they just dutifully take whatever they can get, which isn’t usually very much. But again, they don’t look closely at how the sausage is made…

  10. Along these lines, it is important to recall that in 2000 a lawsuit was brought by Democrats against Dick Cheney because he, along with George W., was from Texas. Amendment XII of the Constitution outlaws this. These Democrats demanded paperwork related to Cheney’s residency status.

    I’m not sure how this suggests purism or fundamentalist thinking.

    To begin with, it’s worth noting that the suit in question came from three Texas voters. As far as I can tell, neither the Gore campaign nor the Democratic Party as such were involved in this effort, so while the voters may well have been Democrats, it’s a little deceptive to say that “the Democrats” did this. In addition, neither at the time nor afterward was there any sort of mass movement to deny the legitimacy of the Bush or Cheney’s election on these grounds (though there was such a movement around the Florida election results and the SCOTUS decision in Bush v. Gore).

    At any rate, the question in this case was whether Cheney was a resident of Wyoming. The 12th Amendment requires that the electors of a state cannot cast their ballots for two residents of their own state. If Cheney were a Texas resident, then Texas’s electors could not vote for both Bush and Cheney. This is not “purism”; it’s just the Constitution.

    Both parties are willing, on occasion, to play hardball with ballot access laws and minimum qualifications. By and large both parties do so only against outsiders of various sorts (e.g. third party candidates) and give major candidates something of a pass. Though there were some interesting questions about whether McCain’s birth in the Canal Zone qualified him as a natural born American citizen, there was no effort whatsoever to deny him a place on the ballot. And questions about McCain’s citizenship status were largely an academic curiosity.

    The problem with Birtherism about Obama is not that its proponents are insisting that the President be elected constitutionally. The problem is that the Obama campaign provided plenty of evidence for then candidate Obama’s birth in Hawaii. What makes this political movement bizarre is the fact that it is utterly disconnected from reality. And that its proponents are willing to invent elaborate conspiracy theories to explain why truth is on their side despite all the evidence (see, for example, this latest nonsense from Jack Cashill).

    There are certainly examples of such elaborate, fact-defying conspiracy theories on the left–the 9/11 Truther movement is probably the most obvious recent example–but they are a lot more marginal. Members of Congress and serious GOP presidential candidates are among those who still question Obama’s place of birth.

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