Stop Calling Them Conservatives

“It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” Ronald Reagan’s words at the 1968 Republican National Convention have long been a clarion call of the modern U.S. right. His successors continue to proclaim accountability for one’s actions to be the bedrock principle of conservatism and the right.

Most pundits and journalists seem to agree. It’s common sense to refer to Republican politicians and judicial appointees as conservatives. Sometimes the conservative label is also applied to Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Definitions usually echo the Reagan line: “Conservatives believe individuals can and must live their lives with a presumption of personal responsibility for what happens,” as two political scientists define the term.

That such statements are taken as serious analysis rather than Orwellian satire is a dismal comment on U.S. intellectual culture. Those who extol Reagan’s virtues of “personal responsibility, thrift, and initiative” and decry “big government” are typically the loudest advocates of public subsidies to private capitalists. They keep the public trough wide open for military contractors, banks, and drug companies to gorge themselves, at a scale that dwarfs the Build Back Better legislation. They’re the staunchest defenders of “qualified immunity” for police, which frees killer cops of personal responsibility for their actions.

The pandemic offers another indication of their commitment to the cherished principle. The evangelists of personal responsibility are the most vociferous opponents of mask and vaccine mandates, defenders of the sacred right to infect and kill others.

In other words, their mantra of personal responsibility is nothing but a club for bludgeoning workers and the poor. It’s wielded only to starve social programs of funding, as when Manchin insists on cutting the Child Tax Credit, and to demonize the targets of policing and incarceration, as Reagan was doing in his 1968 sermon.

The most important test of one’s dedication to personal responsibility, however, is their behavior in relation to the planetary emergency. The fossil fuel industry is the most parasitic in human history, directly endangering “the very foundation of human civilization,” as the leading climatologist Joëlle Gergis wrote in 2019. Massive crop failures, uncontrollable storms and wildfires, and human displacement will imperil the very existence of organized institutions. Gergis continues, “The Earth’s climatic past tells us that even between 1.5 and 2°C of warming sees the world reconfigure in ways that people don’t yet appreciate. All bets are off between 3 and 4°C, where we are currently headed.”

Attempts to quantify the violence can be found in recent peer-reviewed studies. Global heating is on track to kill 83 million people by 2100. Localized pollution from fossil fuels kills an additional 10 million people each year, or 800 million by 2100 at current rates. An estimated 28 percent of all species are at risk of extinction. These statistics represent incalculable suffering inflicted by fossil fuel barons and their enablers in high finance and government.

One might expect “conservatives” to show some interest in conserving society and the living beings that inhabit it, rather than consciously trying to obliterate “the very foundation of human civilization.” This process of obliteration will itself trigger drastic and chaotic responses by governments, businesses, warlords, and others, precisely the “rapid change” to society that conservatives profess to oppose on principle.

Conservatives might also be expected to oppose the $62 billion in annual subsidies that the global public gives the U.S. fossil fuel industry in the form of direct subsidies and by bearing the harms caused by fossil fuels. Globally, subsidies equal $5.2 trillion a year. The subsidies far outweigh fossil fuel profits, meaning that the industry’s very existence is dependent on its ability to avoid responsibility for its actions.

The commitment to obliteration is indeed conscious. More and more fossil fuel advocates acknowledge “there is a problem with climate change,” in the words of former presidential candidate John Kasich, but in the same breath declare that the U.S. will keep burning fossil fuels and “we are not going to apologize for it.” Fellow coal mouthpiece John Barrasso of Wyoming claims to take the problem seriously, but assails modest Democratic reforms for being too “drastic” and for damaging U.S. competitiveness against the sinister Chinese.

Joe Manchin likewise admits there is a problem but vows to block government from taking action on it. “I’m not going to sit back and let anyone accelerate whatever the market’s changes are doing,” Manchin told the press after announcing that he would block the most important piece of the Build Back Better legislation, which would have hastened utilities’ shift to renewable energy. Such statements are an admission of criminal responsibility of an unprecedented magnitude, surpassing even the twentieth century’s most monstrous regimes.

Yet no one in the major media seems to notice any contradiction between professed ideology and practice. Supporters of violence and impunity are conservative, moderate, centrist, or all three. In October 2020, just as Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett was telling Congress that she had no “firm views” on climate change, the liberal New York Times published a profile of Barrett that used the term conservative 32 times, characterizing her conservatism as “one rooted in family and faith.” That conservative roots might involve a commitment to actual families or to preserving God’s creation apparently escaped consideration. One could more plausibly characterize al Qaeda as “rooted in family and faith.” At least Osama bin Laden expressed some interest in the survival of life on Earth.

Whether or not conservatism is inherently bankrupt is not the question. Historically, most self-identified conservatives have been two-bit apologists for hierarchy and empire, for whom freedom has meant the freedom to enslave, exterminate, and expel. It’s hard to discern any coherent moral virtue in this tradition. But even if there’s a salvageable kernel somewhere, today’s leading conservatives are parasites who systematically dodge the personal responsibility they claim to stand for. It’s time we stop dignifying them with labels like conservative, moderate, and centrist.

Finding suitable replacement terms is difficult. Noam Chomsky notes the challenge:

I don’t know what word in the language…applies to people of that kind, who are willing to sacrifice the literal existence of organized human life, [and] not in the distant future, so they can put a few more dollars in highly overstuffed pockets. The word “evil” doesn’t begin to approach it.