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Conservatives Are Hitting Rock Bottom

Ayn Rand and Jim Crow have driven the American right into moral bankruptcy. Two conservatives argue that there's no comeback in sight until they repudiate both.

Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey


 In mythology, the phoenix is a beautiful bird that bursts into flames at the end of its life as it dies. From the ashes of the old, a new phoenix emerges. This cycle of birth, fiery death and rebirth, makes the phoenix a symbol of hope and renewal.

Today, American conservatism has degenerated into an intellectually and morally bankrupt ideology. It offers nothing more than bumper-sticker slogans that pander to the prejudices and ignorance of the lowest common denominator in order to enrich and empower an oligarchic elite. Angry, cruel and sneering, it is exemplified by the carnival barkers on talk radio and Fox News. High in volume, but devoid of substance, it has no long-term future because it lacks credible solutions to the range of very real problems American society is facing.

Indeed, what passes for "conservatism" today is actually nothing of the sort. Modern American conservatism has forgotten its rich legacy and betrayed its best traditions. It has become infected with a virulent strain of extreme libertarianism heavily influenced by the thinking of Ayn Rand.

Rand's disciples claim to champion liberty and freedom, but really care only about license - the notion that actions have no consequences and individuals have no broader responsibilities to anything or anyone but themselves. As George Monbiot has  correctly noted, this brand of libertarianism, although often "dressed up as freedom," is in reality:

"a formula for oppression and bondage. It does nothing to address inequality, hardship or social exclusion. A transparently self-serving vision, it seeks to justify the greedy and selfish behaviour of those with wealth and power." 

The problems posed by the libertarian ascendancy are aggravated by a second tectonic shift in the political landscape that has been occurring over the last several decades - the movement of the modern heirs of the old Dixiecrats into the Republican Party. Today, thanks to the GOP's southern strategy, they are now an extremely influential force within the modern conservative movement.

In their own way, the Dixiecrats represent just as significant a break with traditional conservatism as do the  libertarians. They also contribute to the reality-denying know-nothingism characteristic of contemporary conservatism with respect to climate change and evolution. Libertarians are climate-change deniers because the science threatens their greed and their ability to do as they please without governmental interference; Dixiecrats are climate (and evolution) deniers because they believe God has ordained that these things  cannot be so.

Of course, a cynic might say that here God is simply being used to bless what the believers were inclined to do anyway - continue the Bacchanalian feast without further concern for its costs - the tab, after all, is going to be picked up by future generations anyway. The Dixiecrats have also discovered that libertarian ideology provides a useful intellectual cover for lingering racism and the preservation of structural inequality, as in, for example, Sen. Rand Paul's squirreliness regarding the constitutionality of the  Civil Rights Act of 1964. This point is also illustrated by their opposition to social welfare programs - a view exemplified by  Newt Gingrich's recent comments about African-Americans and food stamps on the campaign trail.

Together, the libertarians and the Dixiecrats have produced a new, inherently unstable, hybrid: libertarian-conservatism. Politically and morally, this is an alliance of the damned. The Dixiecrats' racial and religious prejudices and the libertarians' worship of unconstrained selfishness and the acquisition of wealth, have combined to produce an unappealing philosophy of political exclusion, environmental degradation and economic hopelessness.

Libertarian-conservatism has been, at least since the rise of the Tea Party, the dominant philosophy within the conservative movement and the Republican Party. The list of GOP-elected officials and candidates who have heaped praise upon Rand and her philosophy is too long to enumerate. Even worse, Rand's influence can also be seen in major Republican policy initiatives - such as, for example, Congressman Paul Ryan's budget proposals. More broadly, the libertarian view of government has poisoned conservative thought on the subject - we have gone from favoring a limited, but vigorous and efficient, government, to demanding an eviscerated one. Libertarian-conservatism also sets the direction of Republican environmental policy - both with respect to climate change and issues such as mercury pollution, toxins and even light bulbs.

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