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What 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 and untested."

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 Standard.

That fundamental subversion of the rule of law enabled all subsequent violations:

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 own affair.

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 hawks.

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 consequences.

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, by ideology.

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.

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