The Conservative Story
Much has been made in recent years about the languages of liberalism and conservatism. Especially important here has been the work of George Lakoff and the recently closed Rockridge Institute (www.rockridgeinstitute.org). In works like Moral Politics, Thinking Points, and Don't Think of an Elephant, Lakoff makes a compelling case that conservatives think in terms of strict father morality, whereas liberals utilize a nurturant parent model. There is, of course, a lot more to it. But boiled down, that's what we're looking at: conservative/masculine vs. liberal/feminine as the fundamental frame of reference. And completely aside from its objective accuracy, conservatives themselves are inclined to think in these terms. I'm sure there are oodles of manly liberals out there who would put lie to this generalization, but it rings true at a fundamental level for conservatives. Liberals are seen as coddling, overindulgent, kumbayah-singing pansies, who would rather weed the flower bed than scream along in the forest on their ATVs. These different moral languages for liberals and conservatives have other facets, as outlined by Lakoff: authority vs. empathy, strength vs. wholeness, health vs. happiness, etc. The whole project of analyzing these "frames" is extremely fruitful, and I encourage everyone to consult the work of Lakoff and Rockridge.
But in perusing these works on framing and moral/political language, there seems to be one missing piece. What is the conservative story of America? What is their metanarrative? In listening to conservatives through the years, pundits and regular folks alike, I am convinced that subconscious stories are even more important in explaining political discourse than the elements discussed by Lakoff and his associates. After all, we are story-loving animals. Drama is everything. From the earliest campfire hunting tales to epic poems to modern novels; we are defined by our stories. The dramatic narrative form is a fundamental tool for distilling, organizing, and relaying information about the world. Human culture itself is really just a grand story-making endeavor.
So what is the story that conservatives tell themselves about the state of America? Let me say first, this is not the story that professional conservatives necessarily espouse. This may or may not be what George Will or Sean Hannity believe in their hearts. But I think it's pretty close to the archetype narrative lurking around subconsciously in the American right. The foundational question that all Americans face right now is, "what the hell has happened to us?" Our once-great country is at the precipice of economic, moral, and ecological disintegration. How have we fallen so far, so quickly? This sense of anxiety, dread, and disbelief provides the key plot-line for any political thought today. There may be deeper narratives of founding fathers, civil wars and great depressions, but explaining the Fall of America since World War II is the root of all meaningful contemporary stories. Call it American Theodicy. Here is the conservative story.
After World War II, the United States was sitting pretty. We had defeated evil incarnate, had pulled ourselves out of depression by the sweat of our brows, and had laid the groundwork for decades of economic and moral prosperity. The Greatest Generation returned home from the war and set about creating a domestic paradise. Homes went up around the country, babies were boomed into life, and the wartime industrial apparatus was put to work for peaceful purposes. The nuclear family in a sensibly-appointed suburb emerged as the high point of development, helped along by the GI Bill.
America was flush. Men had good jobs, women were happy as domestic heads, and children were provide with the best of all possible worlds. Entertainment was clean, churches were full, and hard-working blue collar jobs could easily support families of four or more. The American Century was in full swing.
But then, the Fall. For various reasons, people who should have been grateful got uppity. Women began demanding more rights. Perhaps the taste of independence through wartime work had poisoned the womanly reservoir of domesticity. Blacks began agitating for more recognition and less discrimination. Young people, teenagers who had been given everything by their war hero fathers, started to rebel against all that was good and decent. And perhaps worst of all, and possibly the catalyst for all of the other rebellious factions, were the intellectuals. Effeminate, war-dodging eggheads in the universities were attacking America and its traditional values from within, abusing the very freedom of speech that soldiers had given their lives to preserve. And none of these rebels appreciated the real threat of Communism, which absolutely had to be combatted with core American values, without compromise.
Since these uprisings began in the Sixties, America has essentially been at war, an internal cultural civil war. The various liberal factions (feminists, gays, blacks, and socialists-commies) have been dissolving the moral fiber of the US, attacking religion, patriotism, discipline, and authority. The conservatives have been left to defend the core principles that built America in the first place: piety, obedience, toil, discipline, responsibility and bravery. Unfortunately, liberals have won the battle, and the ensuing social chaos is not a surprise. But conservative will marshall on, true to what they believe in, until the tide turns back on the liberals or until the Lord comes again to announce the end of days.
Sure, this is a bit sketchy, but I'm convinced that it's basically correct. I must confess, I give this conservative narrative a lot of thought, because I find it fascinating. I myself am not a conservative, but I really identify with this interpretation of events. I empathize with the conservative desire for order, stability, and well-defined roles. And much in the conservative critique of culture has merit: there is a lot of useless, trashy stuff in the media; children really do need much more respect for authority; kneejerk atheist attacks on all things religious really is harmful; the lack of parental presence in the home really is eating away at our moral character.
But while there may be something to salvage in this conservative narrative, ultimately it falls short. The suburban nuclear family utopia would never have been a long-term reality. Global economic conditions would never had allowed families to exist on one blue-collar income forever. And despite my respect for conservative desires for solid social roles, women, minorities and young people have made society infinitely better through their relentless drive for equality, respect, and truth-telling.
But maybe the saddest thing about the conservative narrative is that it is locked into one faulty mechanism to explain bad times: it's the liberals' fault. So as things get worse, there's nothing to say except, "See, those damned liberals are still messing everything up. If only..." So the unfathomably conservative mainstream media, as pro-consumption and pro-corporate an entity as there is on earth, is still described as "liberal." Things that Republican governments do are still somehow traced back to creeping liberalism. And even though, by all measures, Americans are working harder and more efficiently than ever and still falling behind, lazy liberalism must still be polluting the economy, accounting for its failures. The conservative story has no way to explain collapse except by attributing it to liberalism. And in the end, since Democrats and Republicans have contributed equally to our misfortune, all the bums in power must be to blame, and thus must all be liberals. Liberalism becomes a tautology, a simple synonym for "all that's bad."
So great, the conservative narrative doesn't hold water. No problem. We're liberals anyway, so we knew our story was better anyway. Unfortunately, in many ways, the liberal story is even worse than the conservative one. That's our next problem to tackle.