I think like most people the 2016 election really struck me. Not just because it contradicted the general decency that we’ve come to expect in politicians, which was already a lowering bar. No, it struck me because people we thought we knew seemed to instantaneously turn around and say they hated “us.” Not because of anything we did, but because of our very existence. Extrapolating the chants and actions from huge crowds at Donald Trumps’ rallies reviled that Mexicans are a problem, that Muslims are a problem, that Black people are a problem. But, not just a problem, the problem. There is a whole segment of the population in the United States, roughly half of it, that think things are bad because of them. Now, conservatives will say this is not a fair statement. That it is illegal immigrants, ISIS, and gangsters that are the problem. But those amendments to statements or chants are always made in hindsight, as if that conceals the true intent or values of those spotting this language. There is clear purpose in the words and actions. They are used to drive a deeper wedge between rural and urban, between dark and light skin, between Democrats and Republicans. That wedge proliferates because of misunderstanding, so here is my attempt to explain.
Conservatism has a soft spot in my heart, growing up in Texas for a good portion of my life. I believed in hard work and fairness, but — most of all — I believed in free markets. I was a Thomas Sowell libertarian; I believed that if there was a way to do something, the government would ultimately screw it up and the market would do a better job. Whether we’re talking about social justice issues, welfare reform, defense, or otherwise the ultimate solution is less bureaucracy and more autonomy. This ideology has been around for a long time and has roots that can be traced back all the way to The Age of Enlightenment. I will attempt to prove to you, that this philosophy is an extension of a deep-seeded foundational structure associated with conservative ideology, and something we all hold dear: independence and liberty. I will use both interchangeably. While I assume independence needs no definition, I will define it anyway to avoid miscommunication: Merriam-Webster defines independence as “freedom from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like of others; or, the state of being independent, not influenced or controlled by others in matter of opinion, conduct, etc. and not subject to another’s authority or jurisdiction; autonomous; free.” It is in this definition of independence and liberty that conservatives seek their idealized republic, or lack thereof, in order “to form a more perfect Union.”
What could be greater or nobler than an individual using all of their capabilities to achieve something their peers could not, or vice versa? As a proxy, let us think of ourselves as rugged, imperfect, yet endlessly achievable individuals. We are, as most conservatives would put it, very equal in our abilities: All we need to do is work hard, complain less, and make something of ourselves. Milton Friedman has spoken on this subject a lot: “[A] society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.” Values & Capitalism, a pro-conservative, pro-Christian initiative at the American Enterprise Institute, expands on Friedman’s ideology, citing his “three categories for human equality: equality before God, equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. He thinks the first is [America’s] Founders’ use, the second is compatible with liberty, and the third is socialism.” Ignore the first form of equality for now. I will focus, instead, on the second and third form of equality: equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. Friedman says, “equality of opportunity more simply describes some of our rights and how we are all equal before the law. This type of equality is not inconsistent with liberty, but ‘an essential component of liberty.’ Friedman notes that if someone is denied a job they are qualified for based on their ethnic background, color, or religion, then they are being denied equal opportunity. Equality of outcome is the problematic view. This is the idea that everybody should literally be equal.”
Intro Kant, a unique philosopher who brings some foundational knowledge to subject matter. He is not well-known for being a political philosopher, nor is he really considered a founder of the conservative movement. He is neutral, and in his neutrality we can understand our contract with the state a little better. But we have to start off with his many idea, and it’s something we all learn as children. “Kant’s first formulation of the [Categorical Imperative] CI states that you are to ‘act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law’.” In this convoluted sentence, Kant is speaking to a well-known universal religious teaching that proceeded him, that of the Golden Rule: “[D]o unto other as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12). The philosophy has a foundational understanding upon which we all agree — something so innately ingrained in our education we can hardly fathom was a revelation instead of a law in our constitution. This provides a lens to understand our fellow citizens, and, more importantly, the role of government in a more appealing, nuanced way; without judgement, persecution, or accusations. He very much believed in the rule of law, as he believed in our ability to make our own laws based on reason. In this respect, he provides us a valuable piece of insight into the deeper narrative of the movement by that:
“[t]here is only one innate right,” says Kant, “Freedom (independence from being constrained by another’s choice), insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law” (6:237). Kant rejects any other basis for the state, in particular arguing that the welfare of citizens cannot be the basis of state power. He argues that a state cannot legitimately impose any particular conception of happiness upon its citizens (8:290–91). To do so would be for the ruler to treat citizens as children, assuming that they are unable to understand what is truly useful or harmful to themselves.”
This is where conservatives may find their piece-of-mind with Kant. Welfare is not a given right and, in this respect, neither is wealth, education, happiness, health, or the co-option of definitions: like, marriage, free speech, etc. This is a principle of the conservative movement. I want to be clear: This does not take away from the opportunity to access these things. Friedman, a true father of the Reaganism and conservative thought, states, “[E]quality of opportunity more simply describes some of our rights and how we are all equal before the law. This type of equality is not inconsistent with liberty, but ‘an essential component of liberty.’ ” We are unequivocally allowed to pursue any activity we deem necessary or prudent, according to Kant, as long as we acknowledge and accept them as a maxim that can become a universal law to be applied more broadly. As long as we do unto us what we did unto them, or we can do unto the environment as long as we let others do, or as long as x then others x, then this is a universal law. For Kant, our sole “freedom in political philosophy is defined, as . . . the only innate right, as ‘independence from being constrained by another’s choice’ ”. If I can, I should — as long as I let others do as I did (and vice versa). No state or authority has any obligation to otherwise coerce someone into anything, because that coercion infringes on our independence, liberty, and freedom. In this respect, we can all agree that independence and thus, freedom, sounds pretty awesome. If I don’t have some force holding me back, traditionally the state, then I can achieve anything I want.
The critic of conservative thought could point to obvious points in American history that contradict this philosophy: slavery (as the first example that comes to mind), subjugation of women, Jim Crow laws, pro-life, anti-gay rights, etc. The lay-conservative would probably brush those off; more importantly, those moments of contradiction are not pivotal for conservative ideals. In their minds, “yes, they happened, but not anymore so why does it matter?” The savvy conservative might argue that they, and any other future civil inequity, are explainable because of government interference and, thus, are not a symptom of independence but a by-product of the lack of independence — a doubling down. They may also try to redeem their predecessor’s civil injustices by arguing, as Jim DeMint did: “[T]he move to free the slaves came from the people, it did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong.” In addition to the government’s creation of these problems, any movement to reset the trajectory of the system, any self-correcting measure, is not a state initiative but a self-correction in the Kantianism sense — an acknowledgement by the individual of an oppressive law that must be done away with, because I do not want this to be done to me. That makes it difficult to argue, then, since all movements do start at an individual level. It is here that we get our insights into why some seemingly contradictory policies and conservative principles flourish among the populous.
Currently, conservatives view a world in which, for the better part of the past decade, they have been subjected to government intervention, which they believe has cost them their independence (especially because of the Affordable Care Act). To further explain, I’m going to use a recent example — gay rights — which seems like an obvious contradiction of equal opportunity. If I am a conservative, not a libertarian, who values independence, why would I oppose something that is all about independence and an equal opportunity to access marriage? To analyze this, there needs to be a distinction made between the different aspects of the Republican Party and our government system before we dissect this apparent contradiction in thought.
Elected officials to Congress, specifically the House of Representatives because of the frequency of election, are constantly at odds with polarizing emotions among the electorate. The more energized or emotionally charged the base, the more likely for favorable turn-out. There is a large incentive, for both parties, to presume the worse coming from the other side in order to galvanize the electorate. Knowing that the Republican Party has co-opted the religious vote, a part of their platform is opposition to gay rights on a religious basis, which we will explore in a later post. Because of this, there is consistent pandering to that base, making it impossible to see where the pandering stops and the ideas of independence we’ve been talking about begin.
So, we need to go deeper. We need to analyze the Republican Party outside of Congress — the Judicial Branch of government. This is where the conservative theorizations meet practical law; this is where we see clarity and consistency in the arguments. On principle, the Republican Party does not believe that the federal government should have any power to legislate who can marry whom. Remember, Kant showed us that we are not guaranteed happiness or welfare by the state. We are, as Kant says, supposed to be free — as long as that freedom does not impose itself on others. For those reading on the left, this will still seem like shaky ground because conservatives are imposing their will of marriage onto others by dictating who can and cannot get married. You would be correct, but that’s not the argument put forth by conservatives. The argument, which could not be better said than by the late Antonin Scalia in his dissent from the Supreme Court’s decision to rule in favor of gay marriage, is this:
“[I]t is not of special importance to me what the law says about marriage. It is of overwhelming importance, however, who it is that rules me. Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court. The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact — and the furthest extension one can even imagine — of the Court’s claimed power to create “liberties” that the Constitution and its Amendments neglect to mention. This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves”
On the left, we might say, as we did in the Supreme Court ruling, that gay couples are “ask[ing] for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” But, these are two very different arguments. Scalia is pointing to our perversion to interpret. While, the opinion of the court holds that interpretation is necessary. All to say, the opinion of the court restricts our liberties by imposing a will we might not want. That is the platform on which the Republican Party operates, and it’s been a long-standing idea in the United States, dating back to the 1780s. We are not, as a country founded on liberty and independence, supposed to force unto others what we might not want. It is a break of Kant’s universal law; by extension, it is a break of the Golden Rule and, thus, a break of God’s rule. Through interpretation, this philosophy can be applied to everything: taxes (the big one), welfare (second big one), public schools, etc. All of those, and almost every civil right issue, is an imposition by the federal government on our liberties because the government, first, is interpreting for us and, then, imposing law unto us. If we accept this, we can acknowledge how desperate, given all the movement in federal policies of the past decade, conservatives are for change.
If you’ve always been a liberal, even if you’re a conservative, chances are you have not encountered this explanation of conservative thought before. Why? We covered part of it. Most of our interaction with politics comes from our interaction during an election season. We are pandered to during that time: single issue voters are asked to come out; policy hawks join late night TV pundits; we are inundated with stories about the candidate’s life; we do not dive deep into the underlying philosophies that make up stories and viewpoints. All of that is true, but couldn’t conservatives explain this point of view? Some can and do; some can’t and don’t know how. The truth is, we, at all levels of society, do appreciate this conservative view of independence and liberty — a part of America is founded on those principles. We glorify solo-heroes, build statues of leaders, and tell stories of our successes while rarely involving others in our accomplishments. We do these things not maliciously but because we’re human. We crave status and want glory, statues, and stories about us. Independent of where you grew-up, how you were raised, and what you were taught as a child, the fact remains: We all crave attention. One way to get attention is to be hard-working, rugged, imperfect, yet endlessly achievable individuals. We cannot be endlessly achievable though if an authority larger than any sole individual picks or predetermines for us the winners and losers of a society; if that authority is redirecting our wealth to someone we don’t believe is worthy of it; if that authority implements programs we believe should not exists but we have to pay for. In this respect, regardless of practical implementation of these ideas or specific policies, we would all agree we don’t like doing things we don’t like doing. Thus, it seems as though all society needs is less government and more freedom.
If you grew up in a homogenous community you’re less likely to understand people different from you. If all your interaction with those in different communities are gunshots on TV, planes blowing up buildings, women conducting house work, white cop beatings, and stories of people sneaking across borders, why would you see the potential in them, their struggles, or their faces, not plastered against a mugshot? It’s not cruel to think this way, it’s just human, what we see is all there is. I don’t have a remedy to fix these problems, but the solution probably lies somewhere between exposure and education, peppered with a dose of humility and curiosity. Then maybe we don’t need to have such striking elections, and we can have ones that are to benefit of all Americans.