With American conservatives in power in the wake of the 2016 US Presidential election, the sharp dichotomy of political divisiveness from this election makes comparison of who makes up the two sides very easy. 21st-century American conservationism is bound to the post-both-Bushes Republican Party and to the populist “know-nothing-like” Tea Party (i.e. Freedom Caucus) movement largely populated, embarrassingly, by members of my own generation, the generation of Baby Boomers, born during and just after WWII. Older modern-day Republicans and modern-day old populists, on the average, are made of those relatively unaffected by the three-pronged social revolution in America during the 1960’s: Prong 1, the civil rights movement, Prong 2, the women’s movement, and Prong 3, the anti-war, anti-govt. movement. In my opinion, President DJT, a member of my generation, embodies the oligarchical and plutocratic branch of modern American conservatism giving big business a very bad name. Mix together these ingredients, and you have the definitive recipe of early 21st century American conservatism. In this post I would like to make the historical comparison of this conservatism with a group we studied in American history known as the Tories of the 18th century. (I could use “right/left” to describe the American political dichotomy, but herein I have obviously chosen “conservative/liberal.”)
The American Revolution was a close affair, whose outcome was in doubt for many years. As I have said elsewhere (The United States of America — A Christian Nation?, [June, 2012]), American colonists rebelling against the British crown and Parliament won by two decisive factors (besides tactical and strategic opportunism and plain old luck): a) the fledgling upstart nation made itself a secular, not a sacred, cause, and b) the French crown furnished the colonist cause with vital military and financial aid. What contributed more than anything to the Revolution being so nip-and-tuck and up-in-the-air was the large population of colonists who did not support the rebellion, those who remained loyal to Parliament and King George III — those who became known as Tories or Loyalists. There were not only patriot militias in the Revolution, there were Tory militias. At Revolution’s end, at least three fates awaited these Americans who opposed the rebellion. 1) Those who could afford passage made their way back to England, joining the likes of Benedict Arnold, 2) those of more modest means made their way to Canada (Today, many residents in the lower peninsula of the Province of Ontario between Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Huron are descendants of Tory families who crossed either the lakes or the Niagara River.), or 3) many Tories went “underground” with their “true” patriotism and gradually became indistinguishable within the new society of the United States. Almost all identified Tories faced violence and/or threat of violence as the Revolution concluded; many never tasted liberty and justice until they left the USA; “the spirit of ’76” could not tolerate anyone deemed “traitorous.” Even the bastard son of Benjamin Franklin was a Tory New Jersey governor, incarcerated during the Revolution, and he eventually moved to England in 1782, away from his father.
Clearly, 18th-century American Tories fit the “original” definition of conservatives — those who in principle oppose change in their lives, usually because they live more comfortable lives than others around them. This is why conservatives often are the rich and powerful. The original definition of liberals identified those who, like the conservatives, wanted for themselves and their families, money, power, property, and happiness; but liberals were not against change in their lives if that change meant others could also have the money, power, property, and happiness both liberals and conservatives enjoyed. This is why liberals are often connected with the idea of “spreading the wealth,” which, contrary to conservative political mythology, does not mean “robbing Peter to pay Paul;” liberals know that enough new wealth can be created, in principle, to allow all who work to live as comfortably as they. Succinctly, conservatives have always tended to exclude others, while liberals have always tended to included others.
The Tory position toward the American Revolution was obviously conservative; the Patriot position toward the American Revolution was obviously liberal. Only subtle differences in these “original” definitions are still around here in the 21st century. Today conservatives fear change will be at their expense, with complete disregard to today’s inequality of wealth, which causes the inequality in wealth of the 18th century to pale in comparison. Liberals have struggled to learn change must not be at the expense of any one of the three principles from the French Revolution (another liberal rebellion), liberty, equality, and brotherhood (liberte, egalite, and fraternite, or LEF for short). [The French Revolution, despite virtually the same ideals as its American counterpart, devolved into the Terror when equality was emphasized above those of liberty and brotherhood. Because of this liberal “black eye” concerning the Terror, I’ve proposed those who sustain all three ideals of LEF in perpetual equal importance be called “liberalists” instead of “liberals,” but, so far I’ve not gotten many “takers.”]
I therefore argue that in 21st-century America, conservatives are modern-day Tories.
This “Tory” argument is another approach in my earlier critique of American conservatism: An Expose of American Conservatism — Part 1, [Dec., 2012], An Expose of American Conservatism — Part 2, [Dec., 2012], and An Expose of American Conservatism — Part 3, [Dec., 2012]. Ancillary to these three posts are suggested changes in the modern American political system aimed at both conservatives and liberals: Citizens! (I) Call For the Destruction of the Political Professional Class, [Nov., 2012], Citizens! (II) The Redistribution of Wealth [Jan., 2013], and Citizens! (III) Call for Election Reform, [Jan., 2013].
One of many parallels one can draw from this approach is how in America attitudes of the rich and powerful toward the poor and disenfranchised has remained remarkably unchanged for about 240 years. In the colonies, British aristocrats in the form of colonial governors, many of the rich “landed gentry,” and rich British and American merchants tended more often than not to “look down” upon the poor peasant class of small farmers and workers, and especially down upon African-American slaves. Concern for the bettering of the lives of those struggling to live was not a priority of Tory-like conservatives. Today, oligarchs and plutocrats of many ilks have a similar lack-of-concern; or, as I like to crudely and rudely (some would say unnecessarily) say, conservatives, on the average, don’t give a shit about others beyond their own; liberals do give a shit about others.
I personally witnessed conservative disdain toward those not considered “of their own” in the small west-central town of Cisco, Texas, in which I grew up; this disdain by conservatives was like a pervasive xenophobia — uncomfortable with, dismissive of, and mistrusting of those who were “different” than they. The rich and powerful, usually town folk and large land owners, tended to “look down upon” poor town folk, small land owners, poor to middle-class farmers and ranchers, and generally anyone who lived in the country outside town; conservatives tended to classify people according to the size of their bank account, the amount of property they owned, and on which side of the city limit line they lived. There were very philanthropic, well-to-do people in my home town, but to me they seemed “few and far between,” although I grew to recognize them as part of the “Cisco liberals.” I saw conservative disdain by the rich “from both directions” or “straddling” this social judgement because I lived in a lower-middle to middle-class neighborhood in town and, simultaneously, “lived” on the farms and ranches of both sets of my grandparents outside town. I was fortunate that this unique perspective of my growing up never ingrained into me to “look down” upon anybody. But I sure sensed others “looking down” and sensed being “looked down upon.” All I had to do to be so sensed was to wear my “country” working cloths downtown. It was fun to project myself as a city boy sometimes and as a country boy at other times, but I soon grew to understand that what would not be fun is to become as those who “looked down upon,” or, who were, as I know now, modern American conservatives — who were, in words of this post, modern American Tories. I rejected the social bigotry that was obviously germane to the conservatism I knew; it took me a long time to figure out what that rejection meant I had become, but eventually (with the help of the social revolutions of the 1960’s and the political definitions above) I realized I was a liberal.
The attitude I’ve developed toward American conservatives as described above was encapsulated years ago when my wife’s maternal grandmother said, as she was encouraged to be impressed by the gubernatorial mansion in Austin, Texas, “Well, that doesn’t make him any better than we are!” At that moment I knew I had politically married into the “right” family for me.
I think I see why conservatives, modern-day Tories, fall prey to the social bigotries of their society. They simply parrot the bigotry of their parents and grandparents so doggedly they fail to see that what they politically preach is racist, inhumane, xenophobic, anti-Christian, greedy, sexist, misogynistic, selfish, and/or “blue-bloodied.” As I’ve told many of my generation who voted for and support Trump, they themselves may not be social bigots, but by their vote and support, they have “hitched their wagon” to the basest of these forms of social bigotry, because of Trump; they are guilty by association. While it is certainly true that both conservatives and liberals can be bigots, my experience has seen more social bigotry in the former than in the latter.
Lest I be accused of being too “black/white,” compartmentalized, or simplistic regarding the conservative/liberal duality, I fully acknowledge that instead of two separate parts of the political spectrum, the spectrum is a blend of the duality. And all along the spectrum individuals can be as free from social bigotry as possible, as Jesus taught. Just like men can have female attributes and women can have masculine attributes, there are liberal conservatives and conservative liberals, both groups hopefully being bigotry-free. For a long while I have considered myself to be a social liberal and a fiscal conservative, and I’ve met others who feel the same way.
Nonetheless, it seems logical that since the rich and powerful are few in number, a new-comer to the earth might, looking at the American political situation, predict that conservatives would never be put into office by the voting electorate. But, since we have approached closer than ever to universal suffrage during the 20th century in America, conservatives are in office as much or more than liberals. Part of that can be explained by corruption, as conservative oligarchs, like the Koch brothers and Cisco’s Wilkes brothers, can attempt to “buy” elections by having more campaign money than some liberals, but that is not the full story. Conservatives have co-opted the political tactics of aristocracies, monarchies, and church leaders to convince the poor and disenfranchised-from-the-“American dream” that they too can become rich and powerful like the conservative rich and powerful. And certainly that is possible, but it is like telling all junior high football players they will be able to play in the NFL; odds are they will not play in the NFL; likewise odds are most Americans will not become rich and powerful. The odds are better to go from poor and destitute to rich and powerful in the United States than anywhere else in the world, I agree, but to suggest that is common is to be cruelly misleading. The ease of that transition from poor to rich is the myth of conservatism, as it gets the demographically non-conservative to vote for the conservative, to vote against their own best interests; voting for liberals is to vote for those who are interested in the demographically non-conservative climbing to the same demographic as the well-to-do liberals and conservatives; liberals tend to see the “American dream” as potentially attainable, as difficult as it is to realize, for all who work to develop fully their personal attributes. When in office, conservatives usually work to see that it will be even more difficult for the poor-through-middle class to climb the socio-economic “ladder,” by funneling wealth so that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, like in pre-Revolutionary France. Thus, conservative politicians and their supporters are often culpable of using the myth of conservatism like propaganda to which every fascist could relate. A corrupt, bigoted American conservative, as the Trump era has shown, can sink to the autocratic depths of fascism and communism.
Hamstringing even slow, healing change among the modern American Tories is their almost reverent deference to authority, authority of any sort. It is like the divine right of kings turned into 21st-century jargon. The election of Trump among his supporters brought phrases like “We should respect the office of President always, and therefore, anyone in that office.” I think the framers of the Constitution were so “gun shy” of kings, queens, kingdoms, theocracies, and aristocracies of all ilks, for very good reasons, they knew that any office created by the Constitution is never at any given time any better than the individual occupying it. So the expulsion of Nixon in the wake of Watergate should not be viewed with tragic sorrow, but with great pride, as the system set up by the Constitution providing the peaceful transfer of power, even in times of crisis like Watergate, allowed the American people’s elected officials to preserve the dignity of the office of President for future Presidents. In that spirit, Thomas Jefferson taught that one of the most patriotic things a citizen can do is to be critical of all elected officials. Those of us howling about what Trump is doing to the dignity of the office of President are doing so out of the spirit of patriotism, the “spirit of ’76,” the bane of Tories past and present. Bottom line, patriots: elected officials must earn our respect, not be given it!
Germane to this myopic, almost blind, deference to authority practiced by modern-day Tories is the conservative tendency to not only defer to authority, but to believe everything authority tells them. The insanity and danger of this tendency was what the third prong of the social revolution of the 1960’s cited above was all about — don’t just believe what the government tells you; vet and check out what they are telling you for yourself. Today this is so much easier to do with cyberspace media (internet, etc.) than it was back in the 1960’s. In other words, grow a “metaphorical pair,” a spine, a courageous, confident skepticism! Parts of this conservative tendency to believe are intellectual laziness and ease of distraction. Formally educated or not, every American citizen can become an informed voter, but it takes effort, and in my experience, it also takes time, like enough time to read and reflect on a novel like War and Peace. Vital to an informed electorate is the ability not only to distinguish between fact and opinion, but also to recognize distraction from evidence. From the time of the original Tories and even much, much earlier, conservative and liberal authorities have “gotten away” with corruption and scandal because ill-informed voters cannot follow the “scent of the trail.” Once a voter learns such guidelines as “what evidence supports this,” “follow the money,” “what did he/she know and when did he/she know it,” and “where have we seen this before in history,” the trail will get hotter and hotter if there is actual corruption and scandal. Therefore, my fellow American citizens, don’t be like a Tory, be like a hound on a hot trail or a shark in bloodied water. Hold all politicians’ (conservatives’ or liberals’) “feet to the fire.”
One final warning concerning a thankfully few number of “ultra” conservatives — the horrible state of mind to which irrationally committed conservatives can stoop, in which they are un-phased by facts; the ideology in their heads “trumps” (pun intended) the evidence “staring them in the face.” These are conservatives who seem to have the attitude, “Don’t confuse me with the facts.” — a complete refusal to consider evidence. At the close of the Watergate scandal, many conservatives still believed Nixon was innocent and/or he was framed! This example reminds me of a story I used to tell my students in class to warn them of the “insanity” of irrationality and abandonment of “common sense.” Briefly, the possibly apocryphal story (to me “apocryphal” means “if it’s not true, it ought to be”) went like this: In Belton, Texas, years and years ago, a con man collecting money from his “marks” supporting the development of his “perpetual motion” machine, using a prototype with which he was publically “wowing” his credulous audience, was eventually exposed by skeptics who found a hidden battery/wire boost of energy to keep the prototype moving. The money was recovered and returned to those who had been conned, but a few refused their money because they still believed in the con man! Whether from fear of embarrassment or lack of the ability to understand the significance of the battery, those who refused to take back their money chose their faith in a crook over the facts before them. I personally experienced the same phenomenon years ago when I got a Biblical literalist, creationist friend of mine to admit that, no matter how much evidence I placed before him, he could NOT admit that he possibly could be wrong!
It is not hyperbole to state that it is possible that modern-day American Tories, today’s American conservatives, can sink to this depth of mental bankruptcy and intellectual indecency; this depth is like “credulity on steroids!” I’ve not yet met anyone of liberal tendencies who seems in danger of such depth. I am relieved to say that the overwhelming majority of my conservative friends also seem not to be in such danger, so I want by this to warn them not to be associated with such danger. In fact, let me exhort the entire political spectrum, conservative or liberal, to “call out” anyone on that spectrum who has sunk to this depth, anyone who, in terms of the “farm/ranch lingo” of my upbringing, has gone, politically speaking, “bat-shit crazy.”
I think history is on the liberals’ side. Post WWII’s emergence of progressive political ideals in Western Europe, North America, Australia, Japan, and other nations has marked the transfer of more political power into the hands of the electorate than into the hands of the elected; this despite conservatives’ everywhere “dragging their feet” against this transfer; remarkably and thankfully, our vote is mightier than the sword or the dollar. Consequently, history’s political compass points in a direction constituting anathema to 18th-century Tories, and, therefore, anathema to 21st-century Tories. It is the “good sort of anathema” towards which to steer the future.