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.