by Wodek Szemberg Friday November 18, 2011

As if there weren’t enough real, big, increasingly menacing problems out there, we have a major problem with the way we use ideological nomenclature.  Too often, much too often, too many people use ideological epithets as rhetorical baseball bats.  Barack Obama becomes a Marxist and Stephen Harper is denounced as fascist in a manager’s clothing.

The widespread linguistic extremism tells us a number of things. Our political cultures are shaky. Traditional parties and the labels they carry are no longer wedded to traditional political programs because these programs no longer relate to the challenges our societies face.  Conservatives no longer conserve, liberals do not defend individual freedoms and socialists no longer dare to believe in socialism.

Most politics has become reactive. Political programs define themselves in opposition to the ideological enemies on the battlefield. It ‘s difficult to advance political programs when the future is as unimaginable and unpredictable as it has become in our collective imagination.

Reactive politics is the natural domain of conservatives and it came about in reaction to the French Revolution, the ground zero for all modern ideologies.  Samuel Huntington, best known as the author of  “The Clash of Civilizations”, wrote in a 1957 essay entitled Conservatism as an Ideology that conservatism is “that system of ideas employed to justify any established social order, no matter where or when it exists, against any fundamental challenge to its nature or being, no matter from what quarter. The essence of conservatism is the passionate affirmation of the value of existing institutions.”

And so was the case with Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism. The author of “Reflections on the Revolutions in France”, outraged at the excesses of the French revolutionaries, turned from an early supporter of the revolution to its first principled critic. In the process he articulated a series of conservative responses to those who advocate radical projects of how to revamp entire societies.  So here is a handy list of his reasons for why radicalism is wrong

  1. Human beings need faith and authority. It’s best if that authority is religious in nature.
  2. Inequality among human beings is natural.  We are only equal in the eyes of god 
  3. Society functions best if change is slow and organic.  It is wise to assume that institutions that have lasted for a long time are more right than newly hatched political schemes
  4. Individual actions should be subject to communal judgment
  5. Human beings are creatures of instincts and emotions as well as reason.

It is the last point that I find most interesting. Especially, the extent to which reason represents the clothes we need to wear in order to hide from others but also from ourselves our instinctual nakedness. And it is there at the level of instincts and emotions that we become the bearers of our own personal ideological constructs.

Most of us do no engage in an introspective analysis for why we hold the beliefs that we do.  More often than not, the answer to the question of why we hold the political beliefs that we do on the myriad of subjects from size of government and appropriate levels of taxation, to abortion or the death penalty is some self-glorifying version of:  I think this because I’m right and if all people agreed with me peace and harmony would reign supreme.

Not to fall into that type of vanity, one would need to understand why it is that others naturally disagree with us.  (I apologize to those of you have read me touch on this before, but it is a point to which I will return on the grounds that if everybody agreed with me about the instinctual basis of our political beliefs we would all be much better off or if not better off, then certainly we would have much greater clarity about what is going on in our political culture.)

Our program tonight offers an opportunity to see the extent to which conservatives themselves are by no means unified in their opposition to those on the left of the political barricade.  There are conservatives against too much capitalism and there a conservatives who are for capitalism and against too much conservatism. There are conservatives who are religious and those who are completely irreligious themselves but might agree that religion is useful for others. There are conservatives who accept the market’s decision about the unequal value of what people do for a living, while other conservatives claim that too much inequality is destructive of social order.  There are conservatives for lower taxes and there are conservatives for higher taxes.

Is there a common ground on which all those who either call themselves or who are called conservatives by others stand?  Yes, and that is opposition to those who occupy positions on the other side of the barricade.

But what if, rather than having one barricade, we had more than one.  What if we had four barricades?  Would that offer us greater clarity about our politics?  I think so. But that’s a discussion for another time. 

In the meantime.  I’ll leave you with this Agenda discussion about Temperament and Ideology:

Very slowly, we are inching towards a grand reformulation of the nature of our political beliefs.


Would Edmund Burke approve of the focus on the instinctual and emotional underpinnings of our political positions?  Or would he find it just a bit too radical a move away from our comfortable prejudices about the wrongness of other people's politics?