A lot of the greatest minds of human civilization(s) have thought about the fundamental problem of politics as the collision between progressive and conservative values. So how does it break down?
Tradition is inescapable in any society. Generations accumulate, and over just a few decades of relative social stability, a contingent set of norms, institutions, presumptions, and perspectives feel necessary and obviously true.
When you defend tradition because it’s tradition and tradition is correct, you should be called a conservative. That’s the idea I get when I read Leo Strauss discussing the political philosophies of deference and critique in the abstract.
But this idea doesn’t quite fit with how people come to think of themselves as conservatives in real life. Or how people think of themselves as liberal, progressive, or whatever word you think best expresses the push for social change.
The word ‘conservative’ means a lot of different things depending on what country you’re standing in when you say it. I’m used to the American meaning, referring to literalist Christianity, an uncomfortable haze of racial bias, and strong anti-government feeling.
But that isn’t conservatism, at least not according to what I’m reading at the moment in Natural Right and History. Here’s an example. Literalist Christianity, despite being the faith of many millions of people in the United States, is a fairly new development.
The conservative take on Christianity would be to read the Bible as a series of complex metaphors, allegories, and ethical quandaries. You know, the proper way to be religious. Instead, American religious leaders and practitioners have innovated a strange new way of reading the Bible that contradicts scientific discoveries and common sense.
As Strauss analyzes conservative thinking as such, he finds a very Edenic vision of morality and justice. The notion that tradition alone is a guide to true justice depends on the presumption that looking to the past will improve our morality.
That implies that people of the past were more moral than people of the present. If you follow the chain back far enough, then the origin of civilization was a perfect state, or at least as close to perfect as humans can ever achieve.
Modern conservative politics features rhetoric that evokes such a golden age of their civilization, and the politicians publicize themselves as working to return society to that golden age. But the true golden age never existed, at least not in the form that most of these politicians describe.
The golden age often evoked in right-wing political discourse – the “again” of Make America Great Again – never existed. The purely Christian society never existed, for example, and neither did a fully technological society without a real government.
These ideas are innovations. Those who identify themselves as conservatives in contemporary Western politics will deny it, but they’re just as dedicated to changing their society along the framework of a new vision as the left-wingers whose ideas they oppose.
It’s just that the right-wing progressive agenda depends on myths of the golden age and America’s corruption from a damn near divine origin (in the Constitution), if they want to keep their supporters.
Because their supporters still believe that whatever the ancestors did was good. They just believe that the ancestors did different things than they really did. To be continued . . .
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