I have long felt in an odd place politically. I am a liberal — even a socialist, although I think the word doesn’t mean much in an American political context. Yet I consider myself deeply conservative in a personal way. I’m not keen on change. I do value (good) tradition. What I’m not is hateful and exclusionary. And when I look backwards, it is not to see some static past, but rather to see the process. I am very interested in taking what has worked in the past and using it today. But I’m not at all interested in fetishizing the past.
But that is one thing about my conservatism: I think the whole process of not seeing the past correctly dishonors it. Here in America, there is far too much facile patriotism. People are patriotic in the same way that football fans cheer for the home team. Listening to most people talk about the country, the furthest they will go is to admit that “mistakes were made” in the past. They are of the mentality of, “My country, right or wrong.” But if you look at the actual Carl Schurz quote, it is, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” That seems to me to be the most basic kind of conservatism.
Corey Robin wrote a very interesting article about this question earlier this month, We Have the Left and Right All Wrong. Let me note that of course conservatives don’t look back. I’ve written about this a lot in the past: conservative thinkers only have a shelf life of about a generation, because after that, the vileness of their thinking becomes clear. As Robin noted, “In Burke’s case, it was aristocrats over commoners; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it would be masters over slaves, employers over employees, husbands and men over women and wives.”
One question that a lot of us liberals ask is why it is that workers rebelled against the power elite a century and more ago, but that they are largely complacent now. Robin claims it is because workers then had a memory of the way that life was before industrialization. Here’s a shocking bit of data: in 1820, 80% of all workers were self-employed; 120 years later, 80% worked for someone else. And nothing has changed since then. Don’t think that the people working for Uber are really self-employed. They are just employees by another name. Regardless, before industrialization, workers had more control of their lives. Remembering that was critical to liberal organizing at the end of the 19th century.
The greatest success that the power elite have had is in making everyone think that the current economic system we have is the only one possible. And this is how we get the New Democrats and neoliberalism. It is based on the idea that we can only tinker with the existing system. It’s a very dangerous mentality. If you truly think there is no other system, you don’t work on other systems. And you are stuck. As Robin wrote, “Capitalism rests upon repeated acts of forgetting; a robust anti-capitalism asks us to remember.”
When modern conservatives think about the past, it isn’t history or even memory — it is nostalgia. We see this in the Republican presidential debates. There is a constant hearkening back to when America was “strong” and “respected” and above all “authentic.” All of these ideas mean everything and thus nothing. They ultimately work to the benefit of an eternal now. Liberals are the ones who see the past and mine it for what was good and try to develop a better future. We are the ones who value history — we are the true conservatives.