Would Edmund Do?
May 11, 2002
By Chris Christensen
Last year in Portland, Oregon, McDonald's Corporation attempted
to place a hamburger franchise in the middle of a small-business
district surrounded by an old neighborhood. The neighbors
and shop owners fought the attempt. Local liberals sided with
the neighbors, while conservatives backed McDonald's. When
the decision was announced that McDonald's had won, a coworker
of mine, a right-winger with whom I had engaged in spirited
debate, gloated and giggled with glee.
A mega-corporation muscles its way into a community that
doesn't want it, and a conservative crows with delight? What's
wrong with this picture? What would Adam do? If Adam Smith,
the eighteenth-century economist and conservative icon were
still around, he'd man the barricades against McDonald's.
Smith espoused local control of business so that owners had
a stake in the community. He also believed in a living wage.
McDonald's is not known as a champion of either of these principles,
and neither are today's conservatives. On the contrary, they
celebrate corporate power and resist even the slightest increase
in the minimum wage.
The local McDonald's controversy and my co-worker's reaction
make a perfect metaphor for the current state of conservatism
in this country. Bluntly put, so-called conservatives have
betrayed their own principles to such a degree that they are
no longer recognizable as conservatives. Or, more accurately,
the philosophy of conservatism has been hijacked by pretenders
motivated not by principle but by the desire to triumph over
liberals. What is this thing called conservatism? How has
it been plundered?
The seeds of modern conservatism were planted in the eighteenth
century by Edmund Burke, the British political philosopher
who wrote the classic, Reflections on the Revolution in
France. The father of conservatism, in reaction to that
upheaval, advocated respect for the established order and
opposed attempts to alter or abolish traditional institutions.
The conservative philosophy today is well summarized by the
Cambridge Encyclopedia: "a set of political ideas, attitudes
and beliefs which stress adherence to what is known and established
in the political and social orders, as opposed to the innovative
Conservatives have a pessimistic view of man. They hold that
man is inherently weak and corruptible, and therefore is not
to be trusted with utopian schemes to improve his lot. An
antidemocratic strain runs through this view. Burke sought
to limit suffrage to the propertied class, distrusting the
"swinish multitude." A distinction should be made
between counterfeit conservatives and those who genuinely
adhere to the philosophy. Among the genuine are such politicians
as John McCain and Chuck Hagel, who stem from an honorable
line that includes Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater. Pundits
loyal to Burke include William F. Buckley, David Brooks, and
Alan Keyes, who may be excitable, but is intellectually honest.
At the head of the counterfeit class are George W. Bush,
most of his cabinet and advisors, and the Republican leadership
in Congress, including Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, Trent Lott,
and Phil Gramm, to name a few. Special mention goes to Solicitor
General Ted Olson. Phony conservative pundits include David
Horowitz, Robert Novak, William Bennett, and the editorial
board of the Wall Street Journal.
Keep in mind that the political spectrum has moved considerably
to the right over the past twenty years or so. This has resulted
in two dramatic outcomes: the veritable extinction of the
pure liberal (e. g., Hubert Humphrey), and the coming to power
of the counterfeit conservatives. Moreover, the rightward
shift of the political spectrum has legitimized and allowed
entry to the antidemocratic, anti-intellectual, fascistic
element that always lingers on the fringe of the right wing.
This element is embodied in the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ollie
North, G. Gordon Liddy, and their listener parrots.
A list of conservative tenets would include the five R's:
reverence for the rule of law; restraint in the use of natural
resources; respect for local control; regard for individual
responsibility; and reluctance to make changes in the existing
order that could bring unintended consequences. Viewed through
the lens of its own principles, the contradictions of modern
conservatism are legion:
Reverence for the rule of law. Since assuming office,
the Bush administration has announced its intent to unilaterally
ignore, abrogate or "unsign" several international
agreements, including the 1972 ABM treaty, the Comprehensive
Test Ban Treaty, the Kyoto Accords on Climate Change, and
the treaty to establish an International Criminal Court. Now
that the latter has become a reality, the U.S. is demanding
absolute immunity. A recent report, "The Rule of Power
or the Rule of Law?," published by the Institute for
Energy and Environmental Research, and by the Lawyers' Committee
on Nuclear Policy, says that the U.S., along with its closest
allies, "may be violating agreements."
To be fair, conservatives have a philosophical aversion to
international engagement that doesn't involve the use of weaponry
or subversion, and in that sense there is consistency here
in belief and behavior.
There's no shortage of domestic outrages. Chief among these
are the means by which the Republican party barged into the
White House. Without this prime legal sacrilege, all subsequent
abuses could not have occurred. Throughout the 2000 election
aftermath, "conservatives" joyfully trampled on
the grave of Edmund Burke.
On November 22, 2000, a right-wing mob organized by GOP operatives
forced the Miami election board to halt its manual recount.
Joining the "swinish multitude" were a policy analyst
from Tom DeLay's office, a staff member of the National Republican
Congressional Committee, and an attorney on the staff of the
House Judiciary Committee. Perhaps worse than the riot itself
was the reaction of the GOP standard bearers. George W. Bush
and Dick Cheney congratulated the rioters and joked about
the incident. The Wall Street Journal celebrated.
Skipping over other abuses - tampering with ballot applications,
removing blacks from the rolls - we go right to the Supreme
Court rulings that stopped the recount and put Bush into the
White House. Those decisions not only violated the principle
of respect for the law, they trashed such conservative ideals
as states' rights and judicial restraint. Let the testimony
of genuine conservatives speak for itself:
On the December 8th decision to stop the recount:
The decision was "incomprehensible" and "an
unmistakable partisan decision without any foundation in law."
--Terrance Sandalow, a judicial conservative, who supported
the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
"By stopping the vote count in Florida, the United States
Supreme Court used its power to act as political partisan,
not judges of a court of law." -- nearly 700 law professors
of varying political stripe.
On the decision that elevated Bush to the White House:
"To any conservative who truly respects federalism,
the majority opinion is hard to respect...." "The
arguments ... are constitutionally disingenuous at best."
-- John J. DiIulio, Jr., writing in the conservative Weekly
That fundamental subversion of the rule of law enabled all
Since September 11th, thousands of "suspects" have
been jailed and denied legal representation;
The Bush administration, in violation of the 1978 Presidential
Records Act, refuses to release papers from the Reagan administration;
Vice President Cheney, on specious legal grounds, and despite
repeated requests from the General Accounting Office, refuses
to turn over information concerning his secret meetings with
fellow chiefs from the energy industry, during which he formulated
the nation's energy policy.
What would Adam do? Smith would take a dim view of the man
from Halliburton meeting secretly with the men from Exxon
Mobil: "People of the same trade seldom meet together.
. . but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the
public, or in some contrivance to raise prices." Smith
apparently never intended his "invisible hand" to
pick the pocket of the public.
Restraint in the use of natural resources. Conservatives
can be sensitive to legal obligations - when a judge orders
it. Recently, Energy Department papers, obtained by law suit,
reveal that the department gave environmental groups 48 hours
to respond to the Energy Plan. This generous offer came after
the department met secretly for months with industry lobbyists,
who wrote the plan.
What would Teddy do? The GOP loves to invoke Theodore Roosevelt
- for his dashing military prowess. You won't hear about his
legacy of conservation. If TR were here to witness the assault
on the environment, he'd have raced Jim Jeffords out of the
GOP. Since taking office, the Bush White House has encouraged
the use of off-road vehicles in national parks, weakened the
Clean Air Act, gutted the mandate for lower gas mileage, and
demanded the drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge. To bolster the case for drilling, Interior Secretary
Gale Norton, cheated twice. She distributed (illegally) an
industry pro-drilling film, and prevailed upon the U.S. Geological
Survey to alter a 12-year study that found drilling would
be a threat to wildlife.
Respect for local control. When it's convenient, pseudo-conservatives
gladly invoke the principle of local control (or "states'
rights") to justify policy, as in the case of off-road
vehicles. But when the principle of states' rights collides
with their controlling, antidemocratic impulse, it's no contest.
Twice the citizens of Oregon voted for an assisted-suicide
law. Several states, through citizen initiative, have legalized
medicinal marijuana. In both cases, Attorney General John
Ashcroft threatens federal action against the states.
Regard for Individual responsibility. This one is
especially rich. So-called conservatives love to lecture us
on personal responsibility. Unfortunately, like the rest of
us, they are human and subject to the weakness and corruption
that Burke so wisely pointed out as innate in mankind. The
difference is we don't lecture them.
During the impeachment of President Clinton, Republican members
of the glass-house gang gravely scolded the miscreant chief
executive for his moral turpitude - all the while forgetting
about their own ethical shortcomings. It turned out that the
paragons of virtue - Henry Hyde, Bob Barr, Dan Burton, Bob
Livingston, Newt Gingrich, et al - had each dabbled in his
Then there are the super patriots, quick to consign others
to cannon fodder, but cautious enough to control their own
urge to sign up. The list of Vietnam "chicken hawks"
is familiar: Dick Armey, Tom Delay, Trent Lott, Dick Cheney,
John Ashcroft, Newt Gingrich, Elliot Abrams, Pat Buchanan,
Phil Gramm, Dan Quayle, Rush Limbaugh, and of course, William
Bennett, CEO of Personal Responsibility, Inc.
What would Abe do? Republicans never tire of citing the GOP
as the "Party of Lincoln." Conveniently, they fail
to mention Lincoln's ultimate act of personal responsibility.
As a young congressman, he protested the Mexican War and the
lies that justified it. If he'd been around in the sixties,
Abraham Lincoln would've hit the streets with Bill Clinton
to protest the Vietnam War and the lies that justified it.
Thank God the present Commander-In-Chief followed his conscience
during the Vietnam years. Rising well above the call of duty,
he pulled family strings to leap ahead of a hundred fellow
patriots to join the Texas Air Guard so that he could fight
the Viet Cong while going AWOL to help the GOP elect more
Reluctance to make changes in the established order that
could bring unintended consequences. This is the governing
principle of the conservative philosophy. Without it there
is no conservatism. The vandals of the right have laid waste
to the Supreme Court and the U.S. Constitution. Now their
sights are set on another institution: Social Security. Established
generations ago and highly respected by the American people,
Social Security is the crown jewel of Franklin Roosevelt's
New Deal of the 1930s. The program has helped millions of
Americans, be they liberal, conservative, or indifferent.
Extremists of the right hated Roosevelt and his "communistic"
New Deal. Genuine conservatives of the time didn't like it
much better, but they argued against it on honest grounds.
They saw Social Security as a utopian scheme that tinkered
too much with the existing capitalist order - a drastic change
that might bring dreadful results. That they were mistaken
does not impugn their intellectual honesty.
The same cannot be said for their political descendants,
who would uproot Social Security and turn it over to the uncertainties
of the stock market. Ironically, this is precisely the kind
of drastic change that Burke would argue against - on the
conservative grounds that to dismantle an established institution
that well serves millions of people could bring unintended
The right-wing argument that Social Security is in crisis,
that only privatization can save it, is specious on two counts.
First, the Bush administration's own Social Security Trustees
Report of 2002 gives it a clean bill of health, a prognosis
good until 2041 (if it is left alone). Indeed, the report
finds the system stronger now than in the 1940s, '50s, '60s
or '70s. Second, the notion of privatizing Social Security
and leaving its beneficiaries at the hands of Wall Street
undermines the conservative belief that man is weak and corruptible.
If man is so afflicted, why trust him to make risky financial
decisions that are not necessary in the existing order? Man's
inherent weakness better serves an argument against privatization,
and, for that matter, for tight regulation of the market.
Is there no weakness or corruption in the world of Enron?
The fervor of the attack on Social Security lays bare the
paradox of modern conservatism. Conservatives like to think
their philosophy is not really an ideology like those utopian
"isms," Socialism or Communism. Yet today's "conservatives"
don't act like they believe it. They pursue their political
aims with a zeal that can only be driven, at least partly,
And if not ideology, or even conservative principle, what
then motivates the counterfeit conservatives? I think it's
the pursuit of power - not for the realization of a vision
brought into being by fair means - but for power as an end
in itself. (A permanent program of tax cuts for the wealthy
does not a vision make.)
This unprincipled pursuit of power inevitably unleashes the
antidemocratic impulse. The result is not pretty: a single-minded
ruthlessness and an abject disregard for legal niceties -
whether committed by a mob dressed in Armani suits or by magistrates
donned in the robes of justice.
What would Edmund do? Burke would stand by the words of a
real conservative, John J. DiIulio, Jr., on Bush v. Gore:
"There was . . . a time when conservatives would rather
have lost a close. . . election than advance judicial imperialism,
diminish respect for federalism, or pander to mass misunderstanding.
. . . If there ever was such a time, it has now passed."
Chris Christensen, a Portland writer, is a regular contributor
to Elysian Fields Quarterly, a journal devoted to baseball.