Next Conservatism 3: Down to Bedrock

Things aren’t as bad as they seem. The political differences that divide Americans are trivial compared to the things that unite us. Next Conservatism works because even in the most heated ideological fights there are such things as self-evident truths.

We are one nation indivisible because the reality of our lives rests on common bedrock: we all use the same units of measurement. Our Great Denominators are kilowatts, pounds, calories, grams, hours, yards, miles, gallons, and so on. Our world is engineered with them. We don’t have to understand or even know about a pound-foot, kilowatt-hour, foot-candle, or kilo-pound per square inch to enjoy the safety and assurance their standardized use gives to us. There isn’t a voting district, a business, an institution or an individual that has its own versions of the Great Denominators. They unify our economy in every transaction of living (the dollar is one, after all). We underestimate the social value they give us: it isn’t mystic chords of memory that hold the United States together. It’s these standard units of measurement.

Science v narrative

Our mutual antagonism hasn’t engendered a Republican megawatt or a Democratic ounce. The Great Denominators are uniform for us all because they’re just too useful to everyone for anyone to deny. But even as millions of people use them, millions of the same people resist the idea of applied empiricism in principle. Bedrock empiricism as a political rule frequently conflicts with “narrative” as Movement Conservatism uses it, and in questions such as gay marriage, Biblical literalism, climate change and others, empiricism compels as it always has, as it has recently in Obergefell and Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, to test a narrative they want to hold. In their Conservatism, facts and the idea of fact itself are politicized for tactical application. Some things are true for some people, in some places, sometimes, based on how sincerely they believe them. Determining fact locally by legislation is an entitlement they fight to hold and to exercise in their classrooms, churches and public offices. Their sacrosanct liberty is to equate narrative with truth if they wish, case by case.

When making presuppositions of their choosing into incontestable truth is a right, denominator facts not of their choosing — Great Denominators — amount to epistemological threats.

Movement Conservatives argue that science they don’t like isn’t “settled”, that technologies for gathering data are per se invasive, and that the authoritarians who use hard data to make irrefutable arguments in any context are elitists seeking to infringe on Conservatives’ non-negotiable freedom to live by the narrative fiction they choose. Tactical fact-denial requires a strategic blanket denial that there is any such thing as a self-evident truth in the first place: if something can be proven true all the time, it’s a dangerous constraint on the whole idea of tactical nullification. One small accession on the fact of one fact implies that concessions must be made on others. Conservatives resist that constraint with visceral passion. Reality requires them to make concessions to fact all the time, and every concession is a blow to their right to place narrative above empiricism. It divides them against each other when one Conservative, making an empirical decision out of self-interest, has to justify it to the tribe’s liking. Those breaking faith have to rationalize how they can be Conservative when they’re acceding to empiricism in using solar electricity, or going to their son’s gay wedding, or calling Young Earth Creationism nonsense, or making common cause with liberals over anything. One breach in the wall means that Conservatives might be tested and proven wrong on all the issues that define them as a movement.

Their history since the Founding on slavery, women’s suffrage, the New Deal, and civil rights is one of repeated defeats of cherished presuppositions in the face of proof. They still cling to nostalgic Lost Cause narratives of each fight as though they can reenact the battles and make things come out their way. And like Baptists sneaking moonshine, they use the same units and measurements as their most hated adversaries and quietly change their actions, if not their minds, because there are limits to irrationality for even the most committed partisans. They see those limits more clearly than ever on the bathroom scale and the utility bills, and more than ever they concede to the fact of facts.

The Great Denominators now present Movement Conservatives with those choices and that problem in a million little fights every day. As technology becomes easier to use by more people making more self-interested decisions, it’s simply too easy and too useful to make empiricism the standard protocol for common sense living. Every decision they make to put data to work for them, to test their assumptions and to change their behaviors, strengthens their real lives as it weakens the epistemology of reality as a narrative and facts being subject to presuppositions. Choice by choice, the cost of their anti-empiricism in the marketplace becomes as clear as a scoreboard in a stadium. Every time they accede to the same facts as liberals live by, the authority of Movement Conservatism — and of the people who have politicized irrationality to their advantage — is weakened.

Rank-and-file Conservatism’s mutually antagonistic sects and tribes are being led by ideologies and purists, but even the most committed rank-and-file followers use the same Great Denominators as everyone else. This is why the movement is falling apart as we watch. They’re all questioning each other’s motives; they’re all deserting their cause as millions of quiet personal empirical decisions they make every day are, in the aggregate, eroding the power of their own Conservative politicians and pundits at the base. Hence their fear.

Next Conservatism 4: Nuts and Bolts is at