Since high school, I have claimed to be a “Progressive-Conservative.” Working in academe for all my adult life (until now), claiming to be anything with the word “conservative” in it is not a good career advancement move, but hey, I’m a rebel (!). Working within The Episcopal Church and referring to oneself as some sort of “conservative” can be a form of ecclesial suicide, too.
American “conservatism” (political, social, economic, or religious) is a very different animal than it was 20 odd years ago when I was an idealistic high schooler. I was a political and international-affairs geek, you bet ya. (As I’ve mentioned before, during my senior year I was voted most likely to become president.) Conservatism today, in its more popular and public form, is of a different nature, particularly as it is expressed through the Republican Party and this administration. (In my humble opinion, the Bush administration is not at all “Conservative.” I don’t know what it is, aside from the “neo-conservative” label often applied to it.)
Why is the world experiencing such a relatively swift move to “conservatism?”
Western-Rational-Liberalism (not that individually â€œWestern,â€ â€œRational,â€ or â€œLiberalâ€ are to be understood pejoratively) in its drive to remake the world and all institutions and with its underpinning in the Enlightenment idea that history will realize the continual forward movement of humanity as it evolves for the benefit of maximizing human fulfillment, is coming to an end. Modernism vs. Post-modernism. Even during its zenith in the West, it ended up being not much more than “managerialism,” and not done very well at that. (That term comes from Andrew Sullivan’s book, “The Conservative Soul,” which I’m reading right now.) This idea of rational-liberalism had a wide berth – seen in Johnson’s Great Society, the democratic-socialists states of Western Europe, and in Stalinist and Maoist Communism in the USSR and China. It expressed itself, too, in the theologies of the Liberation and Social Gospels, and in “Death of God” and Process Theism. In the United States, the full results of the building societal shift to this way of thinking burst forth most profoundly in the reactionary and revolutionary Baby-Boomer generation of the 1960’s.
Society change was needed legitimately needed during that time. Change still needs to happen, but that generation was determined to bring about the change it deemed necessary. Much good was done, but one of the more negative results occurred in the negative over-reaction to the past and to tradition. There was an obsessive drive to usher in the Age of Aquarius and remake all things in this new image. We are still living with the consequences and still living through the push for such change by those in power who cannot realize that the 1960’s are over and the Age of Aquarius never materialized.
Change in and of itself isn’t the issue. Change is always with us. Uncritical change is the problem â€“ unrelenting change for changes sake. The issue is whether the change being called for or realized is honestly beneficial for the society and for the individual or not. There has been a lot of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” A common accusation made by the younger generations towards their parents and grandparents. Remember, the beginnings of Gen-X are now in their mid-40’s. Those that make up Gen-Y have been graduating from college for a few years now.
What has resulted from the often uncritical change occurring over the last 30 years and on such a massive and all pervasive scale is chaos. Forms of chaos are now the norm in education, in economics, in international affairs, in trade, in war, in perceptions of the common good or cohesive cultural glue, in morality, in politics, in religion, in every aspect of life. When chaos rules and when there is little sense of common connections that give identity and the assurance that what one is doing matters and is able to survive and contributes to something good, when all this is missing then the human tendency is to move to “conserve” at least what is perceived to be left of that which gave meaning, identity, and assurity.
We are in a state of chaos, and as a human reaction we have moved more diligently and deliberately and far more swiftly towards “conservatism.” But, towards what kind of conservatism are we moving?
Due to the long march against “conservatism” over the last 30 years by those who claim the “liberal” label, but are really only “anti-conservatives,” what has developed is a form of “conservatism” that no longer represents its best philosophical ideals, but a fundamentalist form of “conservatism” fuelled by angry zeal and a determination for revenge. The label “conservative” is still used, but it has morphed into something different, something more radical, something more determined, something more totalitarian that belies what traditional, philosophical Conservatism actually stands for.
As a result of the inherent deficiencies of Western-Rational-Liberalism, “anti-liberals,” who opened up the table to anyone and everyone except conservatives (even serious and thoughtful ones), are now falling pry to the fruits of their labor. The marginalization and demonization of reasonable, thoughtful conservatives (particularly in academe) has enabled a “conservative” backlash to occur that is far more extreme then anything that existed before. We are in the midst of the backlash and are experiencing the results in politics, economics, and religion; we see it expressed in the American culture-wars, the increasingly fundamentalist turning of the Religious Right and American Evangelicalism, the angry polarization and developing schism in world-wide Anglicanism, and the list goes on and on.
There are positive signs that mitigating forces are afoot, and I can only hope that they will come into ascendancy and keep the extremes from their ultimate triumph – collapse as proof of the evil of the other. I still refer to myself as a “Progressive-Conservative,” and hope that I can live up to the best ideals held within what may seem to be contradictory concepts.