We continue our series on "What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It? " from the 2004 essay by Philip E. Agre:
"//3 Conservatism in American History
"Almost all of the early immigrants to America left behind societies that had been oppressed by conservatism. The democratic culture that Americans have built is truly one of the monuments of civilization. And American culture remains vibrant to this day despite centuries of conservative attack. Yet the history of American democracy has generally been taught in confused ways. This history might be sketched in terms of the great turning points that happened to occur around 1800 and 1900, followed by the great reaction that gathered steam in the decades leading up to 2000.
"America before the revolution was a conservative society. It lacked an entitled aristocracy, but it was dominated in very much the same way by its gentry. Americans today have little way of knowing what this meant -- the hierarchical ties of personal dependency that organized people's psychology. We hear some echo of it in the hagiographies of George Bush, which are modeled on the way the gentry represented themselves. The Founding Fathers, men like Madison, Adams, and Washington, were, in this sense, products of aristocratic society. They did not make a revolution in order to establish democracy. Quite the contrary, they wanted to be aristocrats. They did not succeed. The revolution that they helped set in motion did not simply sweep away the church and crown of England. As scholars such as Gordon Wood have noted, it also swept away the entire social system of the gentry, and it did so with a suddenness and thoroughness that surprised and amazed everyone who lived through it. So completely did Americans repudiate the conservative social system of the gentry, in fact, that they felt free to mythologize the Founding Fathers, forgetting the Founding Fathers' aristocratic ambitions and pretending that they, too, were revolutionary democrats. This ahistorical practice of projecting all good things onto the Founding Fathers continues to the present day, and it is unfortunate because (as Michael Schudson has argued) it makes us forget all of the work that Americans have subsequently done to build the democratic institutions of today. In reality, Madison, Adams, and Washington were much like Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. Like Gorbachev, they tried to reform an oppressive system without fundamentally changing it. And like Gorbachev, they were swept away by the very forces they helped set into motion.
"The revolution, though, proceeded quite differently in the North and South, and led to a kind of controlled experiment. The North repudiated conservatism altogether. Indeed it was the only society in modern history without an aristocracy, and as scholars such as the late Robert Wiebe have noted, its dynamic democratic culture was most extraordinary. It is unfortunate that we discuss this culture largely through the analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville, an aristocrat who wanted to graft medieval notions of social order onto a democratic culture that he found alien. In the South, by contrast, the conservative order of the gentry was modified to something more resembling the oppressive latifundist systems of Latin America, relieved mainly by comparatively democratic religious institutions. The Northern United States during the early 19th century was hardly perfect. Left-over conservative hierarchies and patterns of psychology continued to damage people's minds and lives in numerous ways. But compared to the South, the North was, and has always been, a more dynamic and successful society. Southern conservatism has had to modify its strategies in recent decades, but its grip on the culture is tragically as strong as ever.
"Something more complicated happened around 1900. Railroads, the telegraph, and mass production made for massive new economies of scale, whereupon the invention of the corporation gave a new generation of would-be aristocrats new ways to reinvent themselves.
"The complicated institutional and ideological events of this era can be understood in microcosm through the subsequent history of the word "liberal", which forked into two quite different meanings. The word "liberal" had originally been part of an intramural dispute within the conservative alliance between the aristocracy and the rising business class. Their compromise, as I have noted, is that the aristocracy would maintain its social control for the benefit of both groups mainly through psychological means rather than through terror, and that economic regulation would henceforth be designed to benefit the business class. And both of these conditions would perversely be called "freedom". The word "liberal" thus took its modern meaning in a struggle against the aristocracy's control of the state. Around 1900, however, the corporation emerged in a society in which democracy was relatively strong and the aristocracy was relatively weak. Antitrust and many other types of state regulation were not part of traditional aristocratic control, but were part of democracy. And this is why the word "liberal" forked. Democrats continued using the word in its original sense, to signify the struggle against aristocracy, in this case the new aristocracy of corporate power. Business interests, however, reinvented the word to signify a struggle against something conceptualized very abstractly as "government". In reality the new business meaning of the word, as worked out in detail by people like Hayek, went in an opposite direction from its original meaning: a struggle against the people, rather than against the aristocracy.
"At the same time as the corporation provided the occasion for the founding of a new aristocracy, however, a new middle class founded a large number of professions. The relationship between the professional middle class and the aristocracy has been complicated throughout the 20th century. But whereas the goal of conservatism throughout history has primarily been to suppress the mob of common people, the conservatism of the late 20th century was especially vituperative in its campaigns against the relatively autonomous democratic cultures of the professions.
"One of the professions founded around 1900 was public relations. Early public relations texts were quite openly conservative, and public relations practitioners openly affirmed that their profession existed to manipulate the common people psychologically in order to ensure the domination of society by a narrow elite. Squeamishness on this matter is a recent phenomenon indeed.
"* the 1970's
"The modern history of conservatism begins around 1975, as corporate interests began to react to the democratic culture of the sixties. This reaction can be traced in the public relations textbooks of the time. Elaborate new methods of public relations tried to prevent, coopt, and defeat democratic initiatives throughout the society. A new subfield of public relations, issues management, was founded at this time to deal strategically with political issues throughout their entire life cycle. One of the few political theories that has made note of the large-scale institutionalization of public relations is the early work of Jurgen Habermas.
"Even more important was the invention of the think tank, and especially the systematic application of public relations to politics by the most important of the conservative think tanks, the Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation's methods of issues management have had a fantastically corrosive effect on democracy.
"* the 1980's
"The great innovation of Ronald Reagan and the political strategists who worked with him was to submerge conservatism's historically overt contempt for the common people. The contrast between Reagan's language and that of conservatives even a decade or two earlier is most striking. Jacques Barzun's "The House of Intellect" (1959), for example, fairly bristles with contempt for demotic culture, the notion being that modern history is the inexorable erosion of aristocratic civilization by democracy. On a political level, Reagan's strategy was to place wedges into the many divides in that era's popular democracy, including both the avoidable divides that the counterculture had opened up and the divides that had long been inherent in conservatism's hierarchical order. Reagan created a mythical working class whose values he conflated with those of the conservative order, and he opposed this to an equally mythical professional class of liberal wreckers. Democratic culture in the sixties had something of a workable theory of conservatism -- one that has largely been lost. But it was not enough of a theory to explain to working people why they are on the same side as hippies and gays. Although crude by comparison with conservative discourse only twenty years later, Reagan's strategy identified this difficulty with some precision. People like Ella Baker had explained the psychology of conservatism -- the internalized deference that makes a conservative order possible. But the new psychology of democracy does not happen overnight, and it did not become general in the culture.
"* the 1990's
"In the 1990's, American conservatism institutionalized public relations methods of politics on a large scale, and it used these methods in a savage campaign of delegitimizing democratic institutions. In particular, a new generation of highly trained conservative strategists evolved, on the foundation of classical public relations methods, a sophisticated practice of real-time politics that integrated ideology and tactics on a year-to-year, news-cycle-to-news-cycle, and often hour-to-hour basis. This practice employs advanced models of the dynamics of political issues so as to launch waves of precisely designed communications in countless well-analyzed loci throughout the society. For contemporary conservatism, a political issue -- a war, for example -- is a consumer product to be researched and rolled out in a planned way with continuous empirical feedback from polling. So far as citizens can tell, such issues seem to materialize everywhere at once, swarming the culture with so many interrelated formulations that it becomes impossible to think, much less launch an effective rebuttal. Such a campaign is successful if it occupies precisely the ideological ground that can be occupied at a given moment, and it includes quite overt plans for holding that ground through the construction of a pipeline of facts and intertwining with other, subsequent issues. Although in one sense this machinery has a profound kinship with the priesthoods of ancient Egypt, in another sense its radicalism -- its inhuman thoroughness -- has no precedent in history. Liberals have nothing remotely comparable."
Next: "The Discovery of Democracy," followed by "How To Defeat Conservatism."
"Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart."