Modern Street Conservatism

In light of the street demonstrations and mob attack on the Capitol, I think it timely to reflect on how the demagogue currently in office succeeded in directing a mass action (there and elsewhere). The question at the heart of the Sixth of January’s surreal moment is an apparent reverence of conservatism and particularly the brand of populist “he speaks his mind” faux authenticity celebrated by Trump’s supporters.

Conservatism used to descend from the king’s court, its laity, writers, bureaucrats, and jesters. Locating its origin was a little simpler for historians.

When the excluded (landless whites, blacks, women, and others) pushed for greater democracy and equality and sought to gain more power, they made important arguments about their humanity. They did this over and over again despite the endless confusing counterarguments offered by the protectors of the status quo.

Since at least the nineteenth century, things have become a bit topsy-turvy. With modernity came vast advances and improvements including greater efficiencies in controlling the masses, specifically turning one against the other, using prejudice and fear to animate power struggles.

I want to introduce the term modern street conservatism to define how conservatism continues to win adherents or keep them in their fold. Modern references recent and current America; street references the transmission belt dynamic of crackpot ideas circulating and recirculating in daily thoughts, conversations, radio, TV, internet searches, Facebook communities, Twitter, and alike as well as the caustic delivery and attitude of its messengers and adherents; and conservatism paints in a broad stroke the package of ideas that foster distrust, alienation, and hate and that justifies the denigration of humanity as a function of individual isolated decisions.

It does not matter if these followers and converts are hurt by its very ideas and policies or that they contradict or at least strain the meaning of varying world religious tenets. Modern street conservatism empowers because membership in this street gang automatically protects one from logic, counterevidence, and absolves all from the need to know history. This includes the folk who wish to put history on a pedestal, fixed with meaning and devoid of context and perspective.

Modern street conservatism speaks to a vernacular constructed in a dystopian imaginary landscape. It is no surprise that the fictional dramas filling the entertainment spaces engage this nightmare context. It defines the world in simple binary terms, normalizes the heist and suburban crime ring, and creates superhuman heroes. In positive thinking, escapist America, whatever strategy that shields one from reality are welcome resources and major speculative opportunities.

Modern street conservatism is defined by an ethic of faux cynicism. This ethic translates to a distrust of any policy that seeks to expand conceptions of humanity including in the areas of gender and sexuality or efforts to bolster the social welfare net from health care to education, from food security to public housing. It’s intellectual and cultural roots may be found in the efforts of past ruling elites—some who justified their power on divine right—to undermine calls for greater social democracy and economic security. Divine right evolved into narratives of genetic code and/or embarrassing claims of superior work ethic.

More specifically, modern street conservatism operates in a workshop that produces fear. The ingredients in this fear product includes distorted realities and phantoms built to scare all and any who would blasphemously challenge the doctrine of conformity. This conformity is defined by an adherence to a dog-eat-dog mindset, hyper-individualistic self-conceptions, heroic narratives of the work-ethic, and the caricaturing of the other or difference.

That is, this conformity represents a marriage between the Calvinist obsession with work and the Social Darwinist celebration of the morality of competition and markets. Modern street conservatism is also wholly ahistorical. Its notion of power is framed in primitive notions of strength. It is therefore not surprising that threats of violence, the celebration of the use of force, and the actual use of violence has marked several Trump supporters. As Trump noted on the Sixth of January, “You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”

And the liberal-enlightenment escape hatch has usually been the libertarian default of each-to-their-own-don’t-expect-me-to-lift-a-finger-for-anyone-else. Liberty as “choice” is the fool’s gold of modern street conservatism morality. It offers an apparent absolvent to despicable attitudes, indifference, and ignorance. Trump articulated this view succinctly when he uttered to Bob Woodward that he prefers to be in his shoes and not in anyone else’s. This is the homespun recipe for intolerance, its anti-intellectualism, and dislike for empathy is profound and dangerous.

This deep ignorance and cynicism is easily identifiable among its practitioners from high to low. It usually is indicated by some or all of the following: snickering, loud voices, boisterous expression, and other similar displays of disapproval, disagreement, and impatience. Ironically, vehement declarations of their open mindedness are usually made and are accompanied by the requisite scoffing criticism of perceived liberal restrictions on free speech now labeled cancel culture.

Other characteristics that may help identify for you the modern day street conservative: a disbelief in the face of facts (for example, rolling one’s eyes or moving one’s head side to side, etc.), counter proposals of problematic alternative facts (not vetted, contextualized, or revealing major flaws and gaps), and the inability to identify relationships including cause and effect. Its currency is the anecdote and no antidote of systematic analysis can destroy its common sense.

Obsessive commitment to personal responsibility (except when inconvenient), resistance to structural explanations (except for victim identity complexes), and an intellectual attitude that flourishes in contradiction and logical dissonance. Its fake intellectualism is rooted in an almost instinctual skepticism of any government program and loops back to personal responsibility.

The success of modern street conservatism is in the confidence it fosters in its adherents. It’s the sugar rush, the roid rage, and the drunkard’s euphoria that sadly seldom ends. It reduces all history, social issues, and political economy as matters of opinions. Its skepticism of democracy, aversion to critical thinking, and passion for performative “discussion” devoid of analysis have helped threaten the civic health of the country.

Perhaps the first step toward recovery is a brief reminder of some historical moments and where the conservatives stood.

If conservatives had their way, there had been no end to slavery. Abolitionists argued and took to the streets to make their case that human beings were not property. Conservatives considered abolitionists protesting in the streets radical and menaces to society.

Conservatives deemed women marching in the streets, getting arrested, and engaging in hunger strikes unruly and unbecoming. How dare they act unwomanly and demand the right to vote, uttered conservatives at the time. They argued women’s maternal instinct made them unfit for politics.

Workers taking over their workplaces in 1936 and 1937 for the right to organize and form a union were criticized by conservatives for endangering the sanctity of property. The fighting in the streets between workers and their employer’s goons demonstrated how bad things had become. In many ways, much, much worse than the complaints made by critics of Black Lives Matter. These sit-down strikes revealed to the conservative mind that a radical threat existed in America. Never mind that these workers were only fighting for dignity. Luckily, these automobile workers succeeded in finally getting a union and helping to usher in major advances (however limited) in worker rights—pensions, health care, vacations, sick days, higher wages, and other income securities. Yet they had to keep fighting charges of radicalism.

Conservatives argued against any form of government relief during the Great Depression, as they had done before and have since when considering extending government help during other economic crises. Conservatives were adamantly opposed to hours and wage legislation (40-hour work week and a minimum wage law) and Social Security. It’s good that others had the guts to do what was right.

Many southerners were appalled when their Black neighbors went out in the streets and marched against the injustices they faced—segregation, repression of the vote, and so much more. These southern conservatives called MLK and other civil rights activists communists and socialists for trying to change their “way of life.” White southern conservatives proudly waved their confederate flags in defiance of social justice and to celebrate white supremacy. They did not hesitate to resort to violence and intimidation to deter the expansion of civil rights. Some other moderate, good hearted, well-meaning, and meek conservatives preached patience to Blacks and told them not to expect such quick change. It had only been a hundred years or so since the Civil War.

Ronald Reagan called Medicare and Medicaid socialized medicine. Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party 1964 presidential candidate (who former AZ senator Jeff Flake proudly said he modeled his politics from), adamantly opposed these programs. Others like George H. W. Bush (41st president) criticized it as socialized medicine as well and Bob Dole (1996 republican presidential candidate) voted against it in 1965. Thankfully conservatives were not successful in blocking these programs and have been unable to destroy them despite many efforts to undermine them.

I wonder if conservatives and supporters of Trump know the democratic tradition of protest when they express their fear of the Black Lives Matter protests. Of if they know the resistance that conservatives have made over the course of history against efforts to assure equal opportunity and basic human decency.

It is interesting to see how segments of these folk were living their dreams last Wednesday, dreams distorted in surreal collapses of time and space, and psychedelic juxtapositions of ideas and images. The politics of fear tends to operate this way. One wonders if they know the great tradition of social justice or how charlatans like Trump and his conservative cronies have long cashed in on their delusions.

Thomas Castillo, an Assistant Professor of History at Coastal Carolina University, is completing a labor and class history of early twentieth century Miami, Florida. He is also working on another book on the history of the right to work.