Restoring a Responsible ‘Conservatism’

As much as “liberal” has become a dirty word in U.S. politics, the word “conservative” has been ripped from all its honorable traditions and redefined as a dangerous form of radicalism, says ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller.

By Graham E. Fuller

What is it about the U.S. that makes it virtually the only country in the world where a political Left scarcely exists? We have a center Right — the Democratic Party. And we have a far Right — the Republican Party. In fact, just invoking the L-word “Liberal” can inflict quick political death. Yes, we’re safe from the Left here in America.

President Dwight Eisenhower delivering his farewell address on Jan. 17, 1961.

Having such a stunted political spectrum is bad enough in itself. Still worse is the utter corruption of the word conservative. U.S. society has allowed the Republican Party to hijack the word, distort it and redefine it to its own ends, against its real meaning.

Isn’t it time for progressives to stop bashing their heads against the “liberalism” wall? Even the Democratic Party machine itself has barred the gates against progressive Democratic candidates. At this point, we need a rethink.

Wouldn’t it make more sense simply to yield up the term Liberal to all its many enemies? Put it in the cold freeze? In a doggedly right-of-center country, it might instead be smarter to seize back the term conservatism out of Republican hands, re-own it, and restore it to its true meaning.

Conservatism has a venerable history. The very word says a lot. It seeks to preserve and conserve fundamental human institutions, values, and lives in a precarious world.

Such as, for example, conserving the planet we live on, its forests, its water, its creatures, its bounty. It’s our only home. In fact, preserving and conserving the earth really is the ultimate conservative agenda. We have been given a stewardship over this unique and precious blue orb in the cosmos upon which all life depends.

Indeed, it’s the Republicans who are False Conservatives. They place the interests of the corporate world, profit and the welfare of a minority above all else. Their agenda is clear: generating ever more corporate business, clearing more land for “development,” installing more robots to make production more efficient — this is a conservative agenda?

Actually it sounds like a very aggressive revolutionary approach to reshaping our entire earthly domicile in economic terms. It risks all in the name of production and profit. What true conservative could buy into that?

What of the preservation of life? Wouldn’t prioritizing the preservation of human life over death represent a true conservative agenda as well? How much good does war do for people actually living it on the ground? Nobody is saying that one should never fight in true self-defense, but in the end, it’s hard to make the case that war has done a lot of good for most human beings involved.

Can Peace Be ‘Conservative’?

Might one even say that almost any peace that spares human lives is better than almost any war? Might not that be a conservative value? In the U.S. we’re used to thinking about fighting wars over there. We are spared the need to conceive of war at home. So who among us actually ends up better off as a result of war? Our families? Our streets, our infrastructure, our loyalties, our institutions, our civilities, in the violence and anarchy of war? Yet our nation has been at almost non-stop war since the collapse of the USSR — following “conservative” values.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to give his “Mission Accomplished” speech about the Iraq War on May 1, 2003.

Republicans tend to believe that war is heroic, glorious, “our finest fighting men,” pride of the nation, anything to keep our nation safe, huge budget expenditures at the cost of almost everything else. Here’s what founding father James Madison had to say about it:

“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes … known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

So is it a “conservative value” to arm the nation to the teeth and lead the world in arms sales to others? “Conservatives” want to “protect freedom” by advocating the greatest and most intrusive national security surveillance state in history?

When it comes to “national security,” how much do our own communities genuinely benefit from U.S. military encirclement of China and Russia — an incredibly costly, provocative, never-ending undertaking that gins up increased international tensions? For that matter, would the U.S. ever tolerate for one second efforts by Russia or China to “encircle the U.S.” militarily? Is it “”conservative”” to “go abroad to seek monsters to slay,” as John Quincy Adams warned?

And what of the civilian sciences and exploration of space? NASA and non-military scientific research have grown impoverished. Education, surely a prime conservative value, languishes underfunded.

And then there’s the economy. Republicans generally believe that the number one policy goal of the nation is first and foremost the health of the economy — read the health of our corporations.

President Calvin Coolidge before the Great Depression famously said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” Republicans have even since managed to persuade faux Democrats to adopt this position. (Remember Bill Clinton — it’s the economy stupid!) But prioritizing the health of the economy gets the priorities wrong: for a genuine conservative the first priority is the health and welfare of our communities and our people.

Now, there is undeniably a relationship between the health of the economy and the general welfare, but they are not one and the same thing at all. Human welfare must be the end goal; a healthy economy, however interpreted, represents the means and says nothing of equitable distribution.) This is another issue that should be denied to the False Conservatism of the Republicans.

Making Progress Work

Preserving our communities should be among the highest conservative priorities. But it’s going to be increasingly hard to preserve jobs at home. Robotics above all is seeing to that. And it is more efficient to ship most jobs off to China, Vietnam or Bangladesh.

The run-down PIX Theatre sign reads “Vote Trump” on Main Street in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. July 15, 2016. (Photo by Tony Webster Flickr)

That’s why many creative Western thinkers are now seriously examining the concept of a guaranteed national income for all. Once a wildly radical idea maybe, but it’s time is coming. Because capitalism by definition sends jobs to where they can be most cheaply performed — and it’s not in the USA. Sending jobs abroad is not “conservatism.”

Keeping people alive, healthy, and engaged — not alienated or resentful — is the most important social task we face.

Remember, that while capitalism is a powerful productive engine it has no direct interest in community welfare. It’s not that capitalism is immoral; morality is just outside capitalism’s functional purview. Capitalism by definition is about maximizing profit; that’s what capitalism does. Yet today most Republicans enshrine free-market capitalism as the Holy Grail over the welfare of the community. They don’t worry about poverty and domestic despair. Or even the need to spread profits if society is to function.

Nor is efficiency a prime conservative value. Human welfare is. If we pay a dollar more for a loaf of bread that is largely locally produced, don’t we all gain in the community?

France, for example, has always sought to keep some elements of small-scale domestic agriculture alive rather than yielding it all to agro-business. They perceive some absolute social good in preserving this way of life, even if it raises costs. Japan does the same thing on growing (expensive) domestic rice that most Japanese support on social grounds. It’s kind of a tax for local benefit and welfare, to conserve the community.

Yes, the benefits of globalization can be real, but they need to be viewed in terms of the welfare of all, and not as an absolute ideological good. What good is a cheaper I-Phone when the rest of our standards of human welfare are dropping?

But where do our budget priorities now lie with most members of both parties in the U.S.? Cutting taxes. Yet what of the huge tax levied upon our families by a U.S. defense budget that is greater than the next seven most powerful nations put together? And going up. Have we become safer in a more stable world as a result?

Healthy communities also reflect a pride and exercise of artistic accomplishment. Is it conservative to dismiss cultural resources such as the Public Broadcasting System or the National Endowment for the Arts as economically without value? Or local arts?

Do you think the French or the Russians or Canadians don’t place high community and national value on preservation of their national arts — which is unprofitable from a business perspective but central to national pride and cohesiveness?

And what of privatization of public lands? How do Republicans get away with calling that “conservative?” Doesn’t “public” mean for the community? Is there no longer such a thing as the “public good?”

So let’s maybe give up the “L-word” as a hopeless cause and instead work to restore the real meaning of what conservatism should be. This has been the colossal hoax the Republican Party (and some faux Democrats) have perpetrated upon this nation — utterly twisting and redefining conservatism to their own ends. We must take the word back.

It is unconscionable — and incomprehensible — that conservatism today has come to stand for profit, the welfare of the military-security-industrial complex, and the massive corruption of our political order through their “political contributions.” Or that Republicanism should celebrate conservatism by throwing away social safety nets and sowing religious and ethnic fears.

And in the end there just might be some gain for the embattled progressive community in reclaiming the word: it could do better at the polls.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com

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24 comments for “Restoring a Responsible ‘Conservatism’

  1. Zachary Smith
    March 12, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    In general I like this rant. But regarding one part:

    Yet today most Republicans enshrine free-market capitalism as the Holy Grail over the welfare of the community.

    Are the Democrats doing any differently? They may duck and weave a bit more efficiently, but at the core don’t they behave just like their nominal opposition Republicans?

    Back in the day I liked to call myself a “Conservative” because I wanted to “conserve” systems which worked. Models of efficiency like the Post Office. Things of perishable beauty like the National Parks. I even extended the notion to stealing great ideas used by other nations – things like Single Payer health care.

    Eventually I figured out that this wasn’t the attitude of my fellow “conservatives”. They wanted to destroy Social Security and the TVA and sell the National Parks and so very much more like keeping women barefoot and pregnant and putting the “nigras” back in their place. Unfortunately, that destructive breed is well on its way to victory.

    • Bill Bodden
      March 12, 2017 at 5:57 pm

      Are the Democrats doing any differently? They may duck and weave a bit more efficiently, but at the core don’t they behave just like their nominal opposition Republicans?

      Walter Karp and others, especially whoever coined the phrase about the Democrats and Republicans being the two wings on the corporate bird of prey, have noted this behavior has been going on for generations.

  2. geoff
    March 12, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    we do not honor true conservatism. it has become the favorite whipping boy or the grand excuse to be a ‘jerk’. the country has lost balance (understatement). we have no dialogue, only captured narratives by fascists who i think have no sense of self or decency. i guess the only operative word is megalomania especially when you consider the history unveiled from the year 2000. and still running!!! and very dangerous!!!

  3. Josh Stern
    March 12, 2017 at 5:48 pm

    I’ve long felt that the traditional meanings of the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ were both good things, and not contradictory in any way. The US has a political system that was state-of-the-art in 1780, and patched in some positive ways by the Amendments to the Constitution and other laws, and yet still falling behind current societies needs and broken in others ways. The laws that cement the “two party system” and turn politics into a zero-sum game between two groups of inside players are one big part of that. People today place themselves in different media ghettos. One ghetto blames most evils on Republics and Conservatives while the other blames most evils on Democrats and Liberals. The standards of accuracy/objectivity in these blame assignments are very low. Both parties are very much alike: they support military adventurism, policies that are good for capital in preference to those that are good for labor, and increasing Federal govt., an every growing US empire of “influence”, every growing expansion of the set of real things that are forced to be secret for “national security”, increasing militarization of the local and Federal police, increasing regulation of medical care, drugs, and ingestible items in general, and, above all, ever increasing shares of spending going to “Security” and the military. In most countries, that level of similarity would tend to entail on political party rather than two. But in our zero-sum mindset, it leads most of the public to see it as a battle of good vs. evil.

  4. Sam F
    March 12, 2017 at 5:58 pm

    Yes, the right wing can never be politically conservative in the US, because its Constitution is a radically liberal document. Only liberals can be conservative in the US.

    The right wing has never conserved anything but its personal wealth and power. It has effected a right-wing revolution in the US, using economic power to seize the institutions of democracy. The right wing is a radical revolutionary and subversive orientation.
    They use the term “conservative” purely as propaganda to scare off critics.

    Guaranteed income is one expedient among many. It cannot be implemented effectively without productivity incentives, or few would work. Income can be guaranteed for those who cannot work, or are underage or elderly or on sick leave. Minimum income can be guaranteed for those who work fairly well or cooperate with employment programs. Additional income should be proportioned to training, when needed as an incentive to get training, and to productivity and innovation.

    The few slackers who refuse to work or cooperate with employment/retraining programs can be put into a multi-level program of less desirable work with lesser benefits, such as manual work at national parks, at the bottom of which the least cooperative can work for the next meal or the day’s shelter, with the opportunity to move up when they see the advantages of cooperation.

  5. March 12, 2017 at 6:12 pm

    Graham Fuller certainly speaks to me, but how to do anything in this system so corrupted by plutocracy, by capitalists hell-bent on maximizing profits at the expense of anyone and everything on earth, having exported its philosophy of plunder worldwide. The Native Americans, first victims of this behavior, stated that the white man is crazy, and I agree with them! How to change these plunderers (like the Koch brothers) though, at this late date?

  6. Bill Bodden
    March 12, 2017 at 6:14 pm

    What is it about the U.S. that makes it virtually the only country in the world where a political Left scarcely exists?

    What is it about the American people that makes the U.S. virtually the only country in the world where a political Left scarcely exists? would be a better way to phrase the opening sentence of this article. Despite the corruption in political campaigns, the American people still have sufficient power to override the plutocrats and party oligarchs. There was much whining about the awful choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but with higher standards the American people could have avoided that. The Democrats could have given us Bernie Sanders instead of Clinton, the Republicans could have made John Kasich or Rand Paul the Republican standard bearer, or they could have joined the independents and voted for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. None of these candidates would have been perfect, but any one of these alternatives would have been much less of a problem than Clinton or Trump, and we would not be in the current quandary and turmoil we are in today.

    • Sam F
      March 12, 2017 at 7:12 pm

      I would suggest blaming that on the control of public debate and the duopoly by money power, and only thereby on the people.

      • March 13, 2017 at 11:48 am

        When all else fails the election is stolen at the vote count, 2000,2004, possibly 2016 .

  7. Bill Bodden
    March 12, 2017 at 6:34 pm

    Conservatism has a venerable history. The very word says a lot. It seeks to preserve and conserve fundamental human institutions, values, and lives in a precarious world.

    First, I would like to say that we would all do well to give serious thought to all of this article by Mr. Fuller. However, on the matter of the words, “liberal” and “conservative” or any similar labels, we would be better off scrapping them and enunciate principles. For example, instead of single-payer health care or Medicare for all being called liberal, socialism, or government intrusion it would be more productive to refer to them as systems that are more cost-effective and support that claim with data from other nations that provide better care at less cost than our continuing system that is disastrous and lethal for so many people. I’m at a loss at this time to come up with a “conservative” example that could be supported by principles.

    The problem with words as labels we get charlatans like Frank Luntz who use them to manipulate people who are gullible enough to buy into them.

    • irina
      March 12, 2017 at 8:17 pm

      Great response ! However, as human beings we do like to categorize and it can be helpful to use descriptive ‘labeling’,
      with the understanding that those descriptions will inevitably end up warped and the most important thing is to match
      actions with identity. I’ve been wondering lately how to categorize myself (a former Green who re-registered as a Dem
      in order to Caucus for Bernie and was trying to give the Dems a fair chance at my loyalty but have given up on that).

      While I will most likely re-register as a Green, that still does not define me ideologically. The term which comes to mind
      is ‘Pragmatically Progressive Conservative’. Sort of too long for a bumper sticker but fairly accurate at this point in time.

    • Joe Tedesky
      March 12, 2017 at 11:18 pm

      Bill your comment is very astute for the fact that if we were to talk more about the cost and efficiency of more of our issues, this kind of rational would be better than putting a label to it. Although with a corporate media to out shout anyone who would think such as you suggested, it would be more than an up hill climb to get noticed. Bernie Sanders got noticed, because he ran as a Democrate, if he would have run on a third party ticket I’m sure he would have been labeled a spoiler, and received no publicity.

      Until we take the money out of our politics I can’t see how anything will change. We have allowed our corporations to get to overwhelmingly big. In case anyone didn’t notice the Trump campaign played against this over weighted money influence, and others would do well to study that Trump strategy. Until that day comes when the people may take charge I find it mind boggling to try and undo what is already in place.

      My fear, is that we in the U.S. are going to need and experience a real catastrophic event of somekind before anything of any real substance will come about. Sorry, I don’t mean to be such a Debbie downer but the structure of corruption appears to me to be so massive that I can’t see any other way than what I have mentioned here.

      • Bill Bodden
        March 12, 2017 at 11:32 pm

        Until we take the money out of our politics I can’t see how anything will change.

        Joe: There is a movement going on now in its very early stages as we have seen in the women’s march after the inauguration and the protests at Republican town halls. When more people discover what a disaster the Trumpcare health plan will be we will very likely get more protests. None of these events was or will be funded by plutocrats. Sanders and Jill Stein (mostly Sanders) got boosts from small donors without bribes from billionaires. I have been pessimistic about the American people having the gumption to get off their butts to stand up for what is right, but I am hopeful I’ll be proved wrong in the not-too-distant future.

        • Joe Tedesky
          March 13, 2017 at 9:16 am

          I’ll keep my eye out for that movement, and thanks for giving me something to put some hope in.

        • March 13, 2017 at 12:04 pm

          The ACA provision penalizing citizens for not purchasing a corporate instrument is blatantly unconstitutional, despite the Supreme Court ruling. ACA is a Heritage foundation document. Sellout to pharmaceutical and insurance. O crushed Single Payer. Single Payer is the wise goal.

          • Joe Tedesky
            March 13, 2017 at 1:02 pm

            BannanaBoat until there is a plan where profit doesn’t override the health of our financially ailing American society, nothing will provide what we so desperately need. BTW Google HR 1313 and see what maybe coming next. It appears genetic background requirements could be imposed upon employees…anything to help the insurance company profit structure. Trust me this HR1313 bill isn’t so much about good health as it is another invasive maneuver to take away our rights, and protect the medical insurance monopoly of America.

      • Peter Loeb
        March 13, 2017 at 7:25 am

        joe Tedesky and others…

        See my comment to Nicolas Davies piece in today’s consortium.

        More important, see Gabriel Kolko’s book THE ROOTS OF
        AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY which addresses your excellent points.

        —–Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  8. Plincoln
    March 12, 2017 at 8:27 pm

    Fuller is one of the architects of our Middle East policy going back to the 80’s. That said, a well thought out article. Liberalism has been wiped it in all but name and conservatism today is basically fascism -Mussolini style. Frankly, the Democrats and Republicans are just 2 flavors of the same drink, a nectar to the 1% and poison to the bottom 80%. Packaging and tone are a bit different is all.

    If people can get past the idea that money creation needs to be monopolized by private bankers and publicly spent money needs to be obtained by taxes or loans , there is no end to what may be done to rebuilding infrastructure and social welfare (national income and health care for all).

    That concept is taboo. At the heart of the matter is that they are neo-malthusians, a crypto-eugenics bunch who seek to limit population or at least keep them poor enough to consume less resources, and perhaps the stress promotes human evolution.

  9. March 13, 2017 at 1:24 am

    What difference does it make whether you call the sociopaths you vote for liberals or conservatives? After more than a century of believing that government can create a social utopia if only the right people are elected, why are there so many Americans that think government will protect them from bad actors? Isn’t it rather obvious that government acts to disempower individuals while enabling and empowering the darkest forces that exist. Perhaps it is time to look to yourselves and your immediate community to go about dealing with life and simply abolishing government as we know it from the face of the earth. Rule yourself! It won’t be a utopia, but it beats a dystopia that fools think will make life wonderful if only the right people somehow get elected.

    • Brad Owen
      March 13, 2017 at 5:33 am

      While believe you are right about community and localism and such, and Wendell Berry has written many wise essays on this subject, the strategy didn’t work for the Indians, or the Maori, Or the aborigines, or any other traditionalist society, including our own tribal ancestors before the onslaught of Rome. This was Alexander Hamilton’s precise reproach to the Jeffersonians…don’t dis-assemble before sociopathic Empire. What is obvious is that people, the commoners, have a piss-poor track record in HOLDING ON to the tool of government, Not that the tool of government is itself a bad thing. Things can’t be un-invented. In the end it is a moral issue, exactly as Bannon contends. While atomic power will exist, if morality is firmly established, nobody will be of a mind to use for the insanely criminal act of genocide. How that is done I’m not sure, and it may be as the Mystics say;you should endeavor to get out of this dark place, it is not your true Home.

      • March 14, 2017 at 6:32 pm

        Hi Brad – Interested in the source for this: “it may be as the Mystics say;you should endeavor to get out of this dark place, it is not your true Home”. A variety of searches did not come up with this wording. It may be your own astute recognition, for which I compliment you. All in all, this a most sensible dialogue. As a 1946 boomer Eisenhower Republican, I have no home. Having used debt to mine the future, bringing forward consumption that would not have occurred with debt limited by actual repayability, we’ve created true unsustainability.

  10. Brad Owen
    March 13, 2017 at 4:56 am

    Great essay,
    Mr. Fuller, on genuine conservatism vs false conservatism. Let’s focus now on that Thing, or Entity, which is using the labels, liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, fascist, socialist, left wing, right wing, and so on. I regard this group of people, wealthy and powerful, using these labels like a deck of playing cards, to be monstrous criminals; like the sort of characters you see on the show Blacklist…just like them. They care nothing at all about these labels, or if they acquired their filthy lucre in a conservative way or a liberal way. They may use these “costumes”, depending upon what circles of acquaintances they are moving through, to hide their true sociopathic natures. There may be some lower level players willing to perform unspeakable crimes in service to The High and Powerful Ones (who seldom get their own hands dirty), who take a sociopathic pride in “perfecting their craft”. THIS is what we’re dealing with, Mr Fuller. The two most lucrative operations for those too-big-to-fail banks in London and WallStreet are war, and money-laundering for the global drug trade. We’ve got a REAL war on our hands if we are serious about shutting down this insanely criminal operation. They make Al Capone look like a man of honor (who did, after all, have a left-handed concern for family and community, and sought to keep down collateral damage as it was bad for business, as he went about ruthlessly exterminating his competitors,before they did the same to him).

  11. Lee Francis
    March 13, 2017 at 5:02 am

    Yes, it really is amazing the way the political term ‘Conservatism’ has been usurped to the extent that it has become meaningless. My own understanding of the term is based upon the work of Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and his famous tract, ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, first published in 1790. This was a polemic directed against abstract thinking, a defence of culture, history and tradition, and an argument for pragmatism, peace an INTEGRATED inequality, and a paternalistic duty of the ruling elite to rule not just on behalf of themselves but of society as a whole – in short, Noblesse Oblige.

    Politics in the USA could not be further away from this set of postulates. A ruling class which is nothing more than a self-serving,plundering oligarchy and a set of crackpot, militaristic revolutionary doctrine of world domination through the massive export of violence. This neo-liberalism and neo-conservative doctrine is usually referred to as spreading democracy and wealth, in fact it does neither. It is a rapacious imperialism and is at war with reason, humanity and nature. Hmmm, I think nature is going to win. Such is the history of this type of quasi-totalitarianism.

    • Sam F
      March 13, 2017 at 7:42 am

      You are right to point out the use of the French Revolution as the defining opposite for fake “conservatism.” The oligarchy has used this as their sole means to claim that “mob rule” will result if wealth is not given power. But obviously (1) revolutions are the means and not the ends, and the result sought is never rule by a poor mob, but eliminating rule by a rich mob; and (2) it is the oligarchy to be overthrown that necessitates the revolution, not the democracy that overthrows oligarchy. Even today the Repubs use the idea of “mob rule” as their backup diabolism, and if asked for an historical example, can produce nothing but the French Revolution, and usually change the subject and declare the questioner a target of their mob.

      The US government and oligarchy are now the broadest form of gangsterism, their sole ideology, and lies are their art and technology. They have legalized theft and bribery, and slavery by economic force.

      The underlying problem is the introduction of economic power, by economic concentrations that did not exist when the Constitution was written, which has completely taken over and destroyed the tools of democracy, elections and mass media. Amendments are needed to restrict funding of elections and mass media to limited registered individual contributions. But that cannot be done without those tools of democracy.

      So once again, as always, the gangster oligarchy must be overthrown by the means it fears the most.

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