U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Are Conservatives Parasites?

freeloaderThe following is a guest post from Mark Edwards.  Mark teaches American history and politics at Spring Arbor University in Michigan.  He has published numerous articles, including in Diplomatic HistoryReligion and American Culture, and Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions. His first book is The Right of the Protestant Left, and he is currently at work on a related project, The Christian Origins of the American Century: A Life of Francis Pickens Miller.

Notes on Axel R. Schäfer’s Piety and Public Funding

“We read to know we’re not alone,” C. S. Lewis reportedly once said.  I’m spending some time this summer with the works of Schäfer, Professor of American Studies at Keele University, and finding some great company.  First up is Piety and Public Funding: Evangelicals and the State in Modern America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).  Schäfer’s argument is simple enough and yet revolutionary: Conservative evangelicals since World War II have been among the most important champions of Big Government.  His primary subjects are the leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the flagship of Billy Graham’s postwar “new evangelicalism” or “postfundamentalism.”  NAE members insisted that their persistent premillennialism no longer stop them from critical engagement with “the world” of politics and diplomacy, the arts, and higher education.  Postfundamentalist cloning of Cold War Americanism, consumer rites, mass-mediated entertainment, and identity politics—culminating in the Religious Right—is fairly well known.  Schäfer’s welcome originality rests in his narrating of the new evangelicalism within the context of state-building—to counterintuitive results.

Central to Schäfer’s argument is the notion of an American “subsidiarist state” taking shape during, and in response to, the Cold War.  As he explains:

Scholars have used terms such as the “allocative state” and “third-party government” to provide a name for this extensive reliance of the state on nongovernmental providers.  However, the term “subsidiarity” best captures the process of reducing the federal government from a direct provider to a funding agency.  Derived from Catholic social thought, the term combines conceptually the devolution of functions to lower levels; the notion that mediating structures are superior to government bodies; and the definition of social problems in terms of rehabilitative intervention.  Merging national security and welfarist components, subsidiarist policies made federal monies available to private businesses and nonprofit organizations in areas such as higher education, defense-related and medical research, hospital building, social services, foreign aid, urban renewal, and community development (p. 8).

Schäfer draws upon Peter Dobkin Hall, Ellis Hawley, Michael Hogan, Barry Karl, and Edward Berkowitz, among others, in outlining the subsidiarist state.  What is most novel here is his assertion and substantial evidence that religious groups and organizations, since 1945, have been central actors in the give-and-take processes of nation-state formation.  Schäfer stresses the implications of that insertion for church-state relations, although his study also raises questions about the nature of postwar conservativism in general.  And that brings us back to my opening query.

Near the end of his introduction, Schäfer summarizes:

As the economic and cultural crises in the 1960s and 1970s exposed the electoral fragilities of consensus liberalism, however, a new generation of conservatives made their voice heard.  Their culture and ideas revolved around libertarian antistatism, the uncritical embrace of private economic power, and social conservativism.  They issued an uncompromising call for deregulation, retrenchment, and restoration of market forces.  Neoconservativism faced a dilemma, however.  The crisis in the aftermath of the 1960s had simultaneously revealed the political weakness of Cold War liberalism and the structural strength of the Cold War state.  Though liberal policies had failed to lay the political foundations for sustaining a unitary and generalized welfare state electorally, they had nonetheless engineered broad-based popular support for government spending, particularly in the Sunbelt constituencies of the New Right.

Therefore, the key to mobilizing this electorate, and to the broader cultural resonance of the New Right, was not relentless opposition to “big government” but the ability to calibrate effectively between an antistatist rhetoric and support for the basic structures of state building.  This is where the conservative evangelicals left their imprint.  While they continued to assail the federal government, they combined fiery antistatist rhetoric, entrepreneurial individualism, and moral traditionalism with staunch support for large-scale military spending, the social security state, and public funding for nongovernmental social service organizations.  In short, conservative evangelicalism and its new church-state stance mediated between neoconservatives’ market fundamentalism and postwar conservatives’ acceptance of the liberal state.

Resurgent conservativism thus constituted not so much an alternative to the ideology and institutions of Cold War liberalism than an appropriation of the established parameters of liberal state building.  The conservative calls for limited government, devolution, and morality politics need to be understood as specific ways in which the movement related to the state and sustained its basic structures in the post-1960s era.  They provided a space for backlash sentiments and the deep resentments against the alleged moral failures of the liberal welfare state.  At the same time, they advanced an ideological amalgam of growth politics, subsidiarity, and punitive welfarism the constituted the core of “big government conservativism” (pp. 17-18).

This passage spoke to me in a profound way.  In my survey classes, I suggest that Goldwater/Reagan conservatives did not beat JFK/LBJ liberals in the 1960s and 1970s, but rather liberalism imploded and conservatives simply stepped in to pick up the pieces of national leadership.  But, what did that “picking up the pieces” entail?  Did the New Right really offer anything genuinely new?  In terms of nation-state structure, Schäfer suggests no.  Instead, the movement was at heart “an appropriation of the established parameters of liberal state building.”  So, what do you think, is Schäfer right about the parasitical nature of the right?  Is his shift in focus from cultural ideology to social (state) structures historiographically or politically helpful—such as in rewriting the useful fiction of culture war bipolarity?

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think that Schafer is correct about the parasitical nature of the right in terms of growth and state structure, for a period anyway.

    But I’m not sure I’ve seen any Catholic thinkers talk about a “subsidiarist state” as Schafer is. Most conservative Catholics I know that discuss subsidiarity seem myopic in their discussions of subsidiarity—meaning they think only in terms of the smallest units necessary/possible. I’ve never figured out how folks like Patrick Deneen (e.g. here) reconcile the kind of defense spending advocated by conservatives today. In fact, I don’t think Deneen does. He never says this outright, but I’m pretty sure that Deneen doesn’t believe in the United States as it currently exists (in terms of geographical size, pluralism/difference, size of budget, etc.). – TL

    • Check Deneen’s writings at Front Porch Republic and you’ll see your intuition is correct.

    • I’ve never seen “subsidiarist state” either, Tim. Like you, I only know of it in communitarian terms. Schaeffer mentions he got it from Catholic thought, but I wished he had “sourced it out” a bit more. Perhaps I missed the point in the book where he does. At any rate, I think Schaeffer’s turn away from evangelical ideology to practice/policy makes for great reading–it’s been well-received by two other giants in the new political history of evangelicalism, Darren Dochuk and Bethany Moreton.

    • BTW, Tim, thanks for the link to the recent Deenen piece–he seems pretty close to the John Dewey of The Public and It’s Problems (as mediated by Robert Nisbet, who praised Dewey’s “associative pluralism” in QFC which Deenen quotes).

  2. So, what do you think, is Schäfer right about the parasitical nature of the right? Is his shift in focus from cultural ideology to social (state) structures historiographically or politically helpful—such as in rewriting the useful fiction of culture war bipolarity?

    “Parasitical” is pretty nasty charge, especially coming from from any gentleperson of the left. Not enough factual substance here to make that case against the right–examples of specific policies, and the numbers would be helpful. Necessary.

    Neither do I know of any politician or group who embodies Schäfer’s “parasite” except Dubya’s rather pale “faith-based initiatives” and “compassionate conservatism,” which were a political failure.

    Unaddressed here are

    a) Private sector economics, specifically the philosophy of free-market economy, a bulwark of modern conservatism–that social services become less necessary when the rising tide lifts all boats

    b) The role of private charity in a healthy society, that the government be the last resort, not the first.

    Neither do I think the “culture war” aspects of acid, amnesty and abortion [and later, same-sex marriage] come to bear on the accusation of parasitism. Dunno why that’s lumped in here. As for defense spending, it too makes for an awkward fit with Schäfer’s indictment of “parasitism.”

    although his study also raises questions about the nature of postwar conservativism in general

    Is this a “study”? Sociology with facts, figures, statistical rigor, “science” as in a claim to social science? I’m skimming it on Google Books

    http://tinyurl.com/mx8bgat

    and I’m seeing a lot of words but very few numbers. On Page 4 the author complains that it’s hard to get the actual numbers, so then it appears [to me] that he spends the rest of the book arguing via anecdote.

    So sure, the faith-based charities snarf up every government dollar they could figure out how to lobby or write a grant for. That’s a duh. As any academic professional worth their salt learns to do hopefully sooner rather than later. Call it “parasitism” if you will.

  3. Just so it’s clear, the “parasite” charge is my own and not Schaeffer’s.

  4. Mark,

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I put it on my summer reading list.

    I have read a couple of related monographs recently, and one of them specifically addressed Catholics and antistatism in the post-war period. Becky Nicolaides’ _My Blue Heaven_ discusses the shift of political sentiment in suburban Los Angeles after the Depression, and Colleen Doody’s _Detroit’s Cold War_ attributes the same effect to a fear of secularism and racial integration (framed by Cold War rhetoric.) Both books have some problems, but both authors make their argument.

    In response to Tom, I would add that there is a legitimate debate that could occur in the civic forum, but does not due to the effectiveness of working through élite networks. Yes, it happens all the time. But that doesn’t staunch criticism of groups that rail against the process while quietly reordering society. If the Right wants to earn the conservative moniker, then they should stop being duplicitous.

    • Thanks so much for your response, Mikael, and for the Doody reference! Schaefer address Catholic attitudes toward the state at several points in his book, so you should fid it helpful.

      • Sorry–that should be “Michael” and “addresses” and “find.” Geez–and I just chewed out my online class for not proofreading!

    • In response to Tom, I would add that there is a legitimate debate that could occur in the civic forum, but does not due to the effectiveness of working through élite networks. Yes, it happens all the time. But that doesn’t staunch criticism of groups that rail against the process while quietly reordering society. If the Right wants to earn the conservative moniker, then they should stop being duplicitous.

      Mark, although I have a guess, I won’t presume to know what this means. Sounds bad, though.

      Anyway, thx for the reply.

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