Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Conservative faith

Much of the blogosphere, both left and right, has been abuzz over Glenn Greenwald's excellent post limning the cultic nature of the modern conservative movement. It created, as Greenwald observed in a followup post, a predictable response from right-wing circles.

Among the responses, incidentally, was a post pointing out that Greenwald had served as World Church of the Creator founder Matt Hale's lawyer in his attempts to obtain a law license. Now, I obviously hold no brief for Hale: I've been dogging him at this blog from my very first post. But I've also been around the block enough to know that civil libertarians take up these kinds of cases all the time as a matter of deep principle, and I've seen no indication Greenwald was any kind of exception. I may disagree with them, but I respect their reasons for doing so.

This is simply an ad hominem smear job. Which, as Greenwald points out, is precisely the response one would predict from a cultic mindset.

Some of Greenwald's commenters pointed out the similarities of his observations to some of mine. I suspect they were thinking of this:
When trying to make sense of the seemingly inextricable political morass into which we've descended, one of the real keys to understanding our situation is realizing that conservatism and the "conservative movement" are in fact two entirely different things.

Conservatism, like liberalism, is not a dogmatic philosophy, but rather a style of thought, an approach to politics or life in general. It stresses the status quo and traditional values, and is typified by a resistance to change. Likewise, liberalism is not relegated to a discrete "movement" but rather describes a general politics that comprises many disparate concerns.

The "conservative movement," however, is a decidedly dogmatic political movement that demands obeisance to its main tenets (and exiles those who dissent) and a distinctly defined agenda. Movement followers proudly announce their membership. (In contrast, there is no "liberal movement" worth speaking of -- just a hodgepodge of loosely associated interests.) Importantly enough, their raison d'etre has transformed from the extenuation of their "conservative" impulses into the Machiavellian acquisition of power, usually through any means necessary.

... When movements like this take shape and gain real power -- and especially when they consolidate complete control of the reins power, as the conservative movement has done in the past four years -- they often take on a real life of their own, mutating into entirely separate entities that often bear little resemblance to their root values. In the process, they almost always become travesties of their original impulses.

Certainly, one only needs review the current state of affairs to recognize that the "conservative movement" -- especially as embodied by the Bush administration -- has wandered far astray from its original values. Just how "conservative" is it, after all, to run up record budget deficits? To make the nation bleed jobs? To invade another nation under false pretenses? To run roughshod over states' rights? To impose a radical unilateralist approach to foreign policy? To undermine privacy rights and the constitutional balance of power? To quantifiably worsen the environment, while ignoring the realities of global warming? To grotesquely mishandle the defense of our national borders?

I've also explored the way the movement has exploited Bush's religiosity in a way that elevates his presidency to near-divine status, and questioning him becomes tantamount not just to treason but blasphemy:
It's clear that not only does Bush see himself as a man on a divine mission, but he actively cultivates this view of his importance among his staff. Moreover, the White House similarly promotes this image to the public, particularly among conservative Christians.

... The sum of all this identification of Bush with a Divine Agenda -- which has reached such heights that now conservative Christians are even organizing fasts for Bush -- is especially troubling in light of the presence of a proto-fascist element within the ranks of those who openly and avidly support him. While Bush himself may not be charismatic in any kind of classic sense, his adoption of this image may be an effective substitute for rallying a fanatical following -- one which is all too willing to discard of such niceties as free speech and constitutional rights in the name of homeland security -- in a time of war.

But as much as I agree with Greenwald, I think there is a difference between his argument and mine. Greenwald argues that this is a Bush-specific cult, and for good reason, but Atrios points to the important caveat in all this:
The interesting paradox is, as I've written before, that they'll dump Bush and transfer the cult onto the next Daddy figure that comes along.

Along the same lines was Digby's take, in which he also identifies the conservative movement as an "authoritarian cult," but notes:
So, it isn't precisely a cult of George W. Bush. It's a cult of Republican power. We know this because when a Democratic president last sat in the oval office, there was non-stop hysteria about presidential power and overreach. Every possible tool to emasculate the executive branch was brought to bear, including the nuclear option, impeachment. Now we are told that the "Presidency" is virtually infallible. The only difference between now and then is that a Republican is the executive instead of a Democrat.

(Be sure to read his followup post too.)

I wonder if there isn't another way of framing this that can help progressives get a handle on what we're dealing with. Particularly, I wonder if it wouldn't help to think of the discrete conservative movement as a political religion.

Here's the Wikepedia entry, which is actually rather accurate on the subject:
In the terminology of some scholars working in sociology, a political religion is a political ideology with cultural and political power equivalent to those of a religion, and often having many sociological and ideological similarities with religion. Quintessential examples are Marxism and Nazism, but totalitarianism is not a requirement (for example neo-liberalism can be analysed as a political religion).

... The term political religion is a sociological one, drawing on the sociological aspects of religion which can be often be found in certain secular ideologies. A political religion occupies much the same psychological and sociological space as a theistic religion, and as a result it often displaces or coopts existing religious organisations and beliefs; this is described as a "sacralisation" of politics. However, although a political religion may coopt existing religious structures or symbolism, it does not itself have any independent spiritual or theocratic elements - it is essentially secular, using religion only for political purposes, if it does not reject religious faith outright.

Obviously, this movement embraces religious faith outright, which may give it certain advantages over more secular political religions, since it so readily taps into ordinary people's deeply held beliefs and exploits them.

Nonetheless, when we begin to run down the various aspects of political religions, the resemblance becomes even sharper:
Key memetic qualities often (not all are always strongly present) shared by religion (particularly cults) and political religion include:


-- differentiation between self and other, and demonisation of other (in theistic religion, the differentiation usually depends on adherence to certain dogmas and social behaviours; in political religion, differentiation may be on grounds such as race, class, or nationality instead)

-- a charismatic figurehead, with messianic tendencies; if figurehead is deceased, powerful successors;

-- strong, hierarchical organisational structures

-- a desire to control education, in order to ensure the security of the system


-- a coherent belief system for imposing symbolic meaning on the external world, with an emphasis on security through purity;

-- an intolerance of other ideologies of the same type

-- a degree of utopianism and the aim of radically transforming society into an end-state (an end of history)

-- the belief that the ideology is in some way natural or obvious, so that (at least for certain groups of people) those who reject it are in some way "blind"

-- a genuine desire on the part of individuals to convert others to the cause

-- a willingness to place ends over means -- in particular, a willingness to use violence

-- fatalism -- a belief that the ideology will inevitably triumph in the end

Another significant resemblance is the religion's reliance on fear: "The state often helps maintain its power base by instilling fear of some kind in the population." It also consistently externalizes the blame for the nation's problems, either on Muslims, Hispanics, or just "unAmerican" liberals. And there is no shortage conservative propaganda to be found on the airwaves and in print.

Now, there are obvious differences between the current state of the conservative movement and the mature, state-based political religions described here. No one has mandated the construction of W statues. Loyalty oaths have not been prescribed, nor are there reeducation camps. There are no mandated leisure or cultural activities, and there is no secret police.

Not yet. And yet we can see hints even of these things: Why exactly, for example, does Bush want to create a uniformed Secret Service police, and empower them to arrest protesters under Patriot Act II?

Using this model to frame the discussion, I think what we can readily see is that -- as with pseudo-fascism -- the conservative movement is still in a somewhat nascent stage as a political religion. The examples of more mature religions provide us with a fairly clear picture of where it's headed, however.

And it won't necessarily be under the leadership of George W. Bush. The discrete conservative movement is structured such that it needs a "charismatic" figure at its head; it's essentially a psychological imperative for this kind of belief system.

So if the leader it elevates happens not, in fact, to actually be charismatic, as Bush really is not, then the movement will tailor its reality to make him so. True Believers -- having been steadily propagandized with Fox News and RNC talking points about Bush's superior character -- now really do see Bush as a charismatic figure, which leaves most non-believers shaking their heads.

But he is in essence disposable, an empty suit filled by the psychological needs of the movement he leads. He's sort of like a Fraternity President on steroids: Bush's presidency is all about popularity, not policy. He's a figurehead, a blank slate upon which the movement's followers can project their own notions of what a good president is about. And when his term is up, the movement will create a new "charismatic" leader.

Leaders like this, as True Believers themselves, usually have a symbiotic relationship with the movement they lead. Most of the time, his initiatives and policies are perfectly in synch with the rest of the movement, and they feed off the cues they give one another. But the movement itself will quickly reel in any leader who presumes that the movement is about him.

This explains, for instance, seeming anomalies (cited much by Greenwald's critics) like the uproar over Bush's attempts to place Harriet Myers on the Supreme Court. Bush consistently tried to sell her to conservatives on the basis that she was personally loyal to him; but she did not meet muster with the movement itself, and in the end was jettisoned for someone who did.

The reality I think we're all seeing is that genuine conservatism has been usurped by a political religion in metastasis that is no longer conservative but simply power-mad. Communicating that to the public is going to be an essential problem for progressives in the coming campaigns, especially given the deep emotional and psychological investment in the movement that so many followers have made.

But talking about it openly is a great place to start.

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