False Labels: What Does “Conservative” Mean?

Former ambassador Dennis Jett published a thoughtful op-ed Sunday about the media entertainers and politicians who call themselves “conservatives” these days.  I consider them propagandists for an ideology which is, in many respects, the opposite of conservative as the word is normally understood. It is not “conservative” in any sense to invent facts, but they do it all the time.  It is not even conservative to exaggerate, but it is hard to find a value judgment by these propagandists which is not either manifestly false or a gross exaggeration.  For that reason, I usually take exception to labeling them “conservatives,” but with that reservation I agree with Ambassador Jett’s comments, which I reproduce below:

Commentary: The Unconscious of a Conservative

Sunday, August 8, 2010

By Dennis Jett, McClatchy Newspapers

Future historians will have plenty to argue about as they analyze today’s politics through the lens of time. One debate might be about whether 2010 was the year conservatism died. In the days of Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller, conservatives were those who wanted limited government and low taxes, but still found room to accommodate a range of beliefs under their tent. And they even had a degree of tolerance for those who were outside it.

Now intolerance is in and anyone violating any of the core conservative beliefs is branded a heretic. The political landscape is littered with the bodies of politicians who were deemed insufficiently ardent. Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, Florida Governor Charlie Crist and Utah Senator Robert Bennett all demonstrate that, for conservatives, moderate has become as dirty a word as liberal.

But it is not just intolerance that is the hallmark of today’s conservatives. They have become little more than the sum of their fears and their hatreds. What they fear most is the modern world and its pace of change. For them, the natural order of things is a country run by white, Protestant males. Today they are confronted with a black man in the White House, a woman as House majority leader, no Protestants on the Supreme Court, gays asserting their rights, and a Muslim immigrant winning the Miss USA crown. It is all too much to bear.

Instead of dealing with the world as it is, conservatives prefer to feel victimized and be victimized by politicians and pundits who promise a return to an Ozzie and Harriet era that never existed. Reconstructing a nonexistent past includes rewriting history and asserting that only they can channel the real intentions of the founding fathers. That allows them to deny anything is different from when the constitution was written by that collection of wealthy, white, male, Christians. Back in those good old days, blacks were property, women were in the kitchen, and Native Americans and Latinos were people from whom God said land should be stolen until the Pacific was reached.

To support their history, conservatives have their own facts. They whine constantly about being over-taxed ignoring the fact that the total tax burden is now lower than it has been since before Eisenhower took office. They also have their own science to support the facts they invent. Their answer to evolution is a biblically-based fairy tale. In their version of economics, tax cuts always pay for themselves by creating so much growth that the new tax revenue generated exceeds that lost by the cuts. No matter that no study has ever shown that to be true and that George H.W. Bush once referred to that theory as voodoo economics.

Conservatives today turn away from reality and prefer to swoon over the media stars that validate their worldview. The irony is that, while people like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Bill O’Reilly claim to be standing up for the little guy, all they really do is put the con in conservative. While standing tall for the small, they all take home eight-figure annual incomes and laugh all the way to the bank.

Their formula for success is consistent. They stoke the homophobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia of their listeners by using language that would embarrass George Orwell and name-calling that would turn Joe McCarthy’s stomach. Their response to the racists in their midst is to accuse others of racism. Politicians they don’t like are compared to Hitler and Stalin and any government initiative is socialist if not communist. They make allusions to using violence to protect the imaginary world their listeners live in. And in the meantime, they sell them books, videos and gold.

When the conservative cheerleader is a woman she has to be sassy and glib with far more bile than brains. She also has to be pretty. The audiences that gather to hear Palin are enraptured by her rap and unbothered by the fact that her train of thought derailed before it left the station. And they would pay no attention to her if she were as attractive as someone like say Meg Whitman, the Ebay billionaire who spent 90 million dollars of her own money buying the nomination for governor in California.

There will always be people suffering from a psychic crisis due to their inability to deal with the world. And there will always be those who will be ready to make a handsome living exploiting that condition. So 2010 probably won’t be considered the year that conservatism died. But it may be the year that it became recognized as the ideology of the impaired.

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8 Responses to False Labels: What Does “Conservative” Mean?

  1. Brian Runyon says:

    I agree with you Jack, people like Beck and Limbaugh are extremeist conservitives.

  2. JCarr56 says:

    I couldn’t disagree more. The problem is where to begin.
    The whole of Mr. Jett’s article oozes with hypocritical, arrogant, condescending, elitism. Without addressing any particular philosophical disagreement he has with conservatives, based on reasoning and facts, he simply barrages conservative minded people with the destructive name calling that, in the same breath, he disparages.

    Among his many offensive remarks, is “That allows them to deny anything is different from when the constitution was written by that collection of wealthy, white, male, Christians.”
    First of all, I’d like to remind Mr Jett that our founding fathers risked all of their wealth, their liberty, their lives, and their “sacred honor” to win our independence and to form a nation based on self-governance such that the world had never seen. Had we lost the revolution, doubtless Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and many others would have hung from British gallows. Though these men were not perfect, they don’t deserve such self-righteous dribble. Rather, they should be revered, honored, and remembered with considerable gratitude for what they accomplished and passed on to us and our children.

    When President John F. Kennedy welcomed 49 Nobel Prize winners to the White House in 1962 he said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” I would venture to take Mr. Kennedy’s assessment of (one of) our founding fathers, over Mr. Jett’s assessment any and every time.

    • Jack says:

      I agree that the reference to the founding fathers was unfortunate, though I would note that Jett had nothing to say that would suggest that they did not risk everything to secure independence, nor that what they created did not have the qualities that allowed us to evolve into the society of today. They, however, did NOT create a democracy as we define it today. They did not claim to do so. Only a minority of property owners had the franchise. In Benjamin Franklin’s words, when asked what the Constitutional Convention had achieved, “We have a republic, if you can keep it.” The republic, thanks in part to a bloody Civil War and the flexibillity to adapt the Constitution to new conditions, we have the system as we know it today.

      But none of this is really relevant to Ambassador Jett’s argument. It is that the loud-mouth pseudo-conservatives are not real conservatives. They are propagandists who prey on emotions by using labels that don’t really apply. They rarely check facts and repeat any rumor, no matter how outrageous. They are not conservatives but propagandists. And, in posing as champions of most citizens while pulling down six-and-seve-figure salaries, they are hypocrites.

      Like Ambassador Jett, I have had the experience of living in societies that were ruled by authoritarians brought to power by unprincipled propaganda. It is not a happy situation, I can assure you, and if the loud-mouth propagandists posing as “conservatives” have their way, the potential created by the founding fathers’ sacrificies will have been gravely damaged.

      So far as “elitism” is concerned, I take that to be a code word for something sinister. Such as a claimed “elite” based on something like birth, or religion, or race, or money. But for me, elite has a different meaning. I approve of elites based on knowledge, ability, and experience. If we need to attack a terrorist training ground, I am relieved that we have elite special forces to do it. And, yes, they are an elite! And when I need heart bypass surgery, I was lucky to have a member of an elite group of cardiac surgeons to perform the operation. As a Duke fan, I am delighted that Coach K is one of a small group of elite basketball coaches.

      Yes, we need elites. Not pseudo elites, but elites based on ability and performance. We do have elite military services, and also an elite diplomatic service. As a citizen, you are being well served by them.

  3. JCarr56 says:

    First, thank you for your reply. I enjoy the dialogue. I also appreciate the tone in your reply. It was more congenial and much less insulting and offensive than Mr. Jett’s diatribe. So with all due respect, I submit the following response to your reply.

    1) I never used the word “Democracy” in my initial response to Mr. Jett’s article. I am and have long been aware that our founding fathers laid the foundation for a democratic Republic, not a democracy; I wish the politicians in Washington would remember that fact. My point was that Mr. Jett’s only reference to those great men responsible for the founding of this nation, was a derogatory one.
    “Reconstructing a nonexistent past includes rewriting history and asserting that only they can channel the real intentions of the founding fathers. That allows them to deny anything is different from when the constitution was written by that collection of wealthy, white, male, Christians. Back in those good old days, blacks were property, women were in the kitchen, and Native Americans and Latinos were people from whom God said land should be stolen until the Pacific was reached.
    You state that you think Mr. Jett’s remarks were “unfortunate;” I think they were revealing.

    And while we are on the subject, conservatives do not “deny anything is different from when the Constitution was written…” We simply insist on strict adherence to that document, and any changes or amendments to it must be in accordance with Article V.

    2) I wonder if we are reading the same article. If Mr. Jett’s argument was primarily against the spokes-persons for conservatism, it got lost somewhere in the translation for me. Although this was part of his article, Mr. Jett spent considerable capital insulting all conservatives with such dismissive, unsubstantiated remarks and name-calling as follows:
    • …it is not just intolerance that is the hallmark of today’s conservatives…
    • They have become little more than the sum of their fears and their hatreds
    • Conservatives prefer to feel victimized…
    • To support their history, conservatives have their own facts…
    • Conservatives today turn away from reality and prefer to swoon over the media stars that validate their worldview…
    • They stoke the homophobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia of their listeners …
    • 2010 … may be the year that [Conservatism] became recognized as the ideology of the impaired
    • Their answer to evolution is a biblically-based fairy tale. (“biblically” should be capitalized by the way, but Mr. Jett’s obvious antipathy toward Christianity is topic unto itself.)
    Yet, he says it’s the conservatives who use “name-calling that would turn Joe McCarthy’s stomach.”

    3) Are the Liberal/Progressive “loud-mouths,” e.g. Alan Colmbs, Bill Mahr, Michael Moore, Joy Behar, et al, also propagandists? These people also receive six to seven figure salaries while appearing to stand for the little guy. Or perhaps they aren’t considered “propagandists” because they voice the progressive viewpoint.

    Are you aware that Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Hannity, and Mr. O’Reilly donate a considerable amount of their wealth and time to charity (at least 10%)? For example, Limbaugh’s two favorite charities are the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation. He also conducts annual telethons raising millions for these charities. In contrast, how much has Mr. Biden or Mr. Obama given to charity the past few years? According to their tax returns, just over 5% for the Obama’s, and about 0.15 percent and 0.31 percent for the Bidens (for years 2006 and 2007). In 2005, former Vice President Dick Cheney, reportedly gave 77 percent of his income to charity. So tell me again who it is that champions the people and who the hypocrites are? For more statistics, see George Will’s article “Conservatives More Liberal Givers.” It isn’t about how much money you make, it’s what you do with it that matters.

    4) You stated, “I have had the experience of living in societies that were ruled by authoritarians brought to power by unprincipled propaganda.” This succinctly states exactly what many conservatives and independents (including those who voted for Obama) believe is happening right now.

    Speaking of “authoritarian rule;” since coming to power, this Administration and Congress has and continues to push legislation that clear majorities of the American people (according to all major polls) do not want. The politicians in Washington were sent there to represent their constituents, not act independently and march in lock-step with party leaders. If they do not yet understand this, then I think the election results this November will provide an education for all of them.

    Propoganda? Mr Obama is not governing by the principles he campaigned on such as governmental/legislative transparency, low taxes, and cooperation with the opposition. He campaigned on “hope and change in America,” without offering many specifics. Many people are now beginning to realize what Obama meant when he said that he wanted to “fundamentally change America,” and they don’t seem like it. Obama’s candidacy was propped up by the “propaganda” machine of the left which includes ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, CNN, NPR, the NY Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, and many others. This love-affair by the “main-stream” media with Mr. Obama was so glaring that it became the subject of many comedy skits on Saturday Night Live.

    5) I served 21 years in the U.S. Air Force and am well acquainted with America’s elite fighting forces. But that does not equate to everyone in the military as being elite. I met a few bums during my time of service. And while I am aware of our elite diplomatic corps, I also know that not all diplomats carry such credentials as you do. Unlike yourself, some are appointed to diplomatic positions because they are owed political favors. I do not know Mr. Jett, so I do not know which group he falls into nor am I inferring anything of the sort. I am stating that just because someone belongs to an elite group, does not entitle them or their opinions to be considered as indisputable and above reproach.

    In my rebuttal, I did not say Mr. Jett was elite. I said his article “oozed with… elitism.” Elitism is defined in various dictionaries as follows:

    a. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.
    i. The sense of entitlement enjoyed by such a group or class.
    ii. Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class.

    b. The attitude that government should be by those who consider themselves superior to others by virtue of intelligence, social status, or greater accomplishment.

    Another synonym for ‘elitism’, and the one I intended is ‘snobbery: a person who strives to associate with those of higher status and who behaves condescendingly to others.”

    Mr Jett is extremely condescending in his article. Surely he exudes an air of superiority when he summarily dismisses all of us conservatives as, intolerant, fearful, hateful, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist, delusional (making up our own facts apart from reality, and clinging to “biblically-based fairy tales”), and in short, impaired (see point #2). Hence, I do not consider nor call him ‘elite,’ rather I say he is ‘an elitist,’ a snob. I still hold to that opinion.

    Believe it or not, conservatives have reasons for their positions. The true ‘elites’ of the academic and diplomatic world would listen to and try to understand those reasons; then they would engage the argument on the weaknesses of such reasoning, the merits of the opposing view, and thereby attempt to persuade__ or at least come to some greater mutual understanding. However, that would be the classroom technique of the educator. Mr. Jett apparently prefers the schoolyard tactics of the bully.
    But what do I know? I’m one of the ‘impaired.’

  4. Brian Runyon says:

    To jCarr56. I may be a Conservitive, but many of the Conservitive talk-show hosts have a lot of views and ideas that I can’t agree with, nothing wrong with that? Beck had the nerve of calling the President a Racist, which ranks pretty low in my book.

  5. JCarr56 says:

    To Mr Runyon: I don’t understand why anyone would be more upset and focused on the musings and statements of radio talk-show hosts, than on the actions and statements of our President. I can choose not to listen to Mr. Beck, Mr. Limbaugh, and Mr. Hannity. Aside from that, what they say and do does not affect the nation’s economy, nor does it affect the security of our nation, nor does it affect our national image at home or abroad. However, the mis-statements and mis-guided policies of our President has had great detrimental effects on our economy, our national security, and on America’s image at home and abroad. Be careful not to strain at gnats, and swallow camels.

  6. Brian Runyon says:

    to JCarr56: I can understand criticizing Obama’s policies, but some groups want to threaten his life, they want him dead, rather foolish I’d say. Many of the members of the Tea Party have many foolish views, especially Sharron Angle and the Pauls. Angle was so bad, Navada Republicans endorsed her opponent. Angle’s views on foreign affairs were insane. She believes the US shouldn’t be in the UN or NATO, what stupidity.

  7. Jack says:

    I consider a propagandist one who uses general, emotion-laden terms to promote a particular ideology, particularly when the terms are mis-applied, sometimes by exaggeration or caricature, sometimes by total misrepresentation. The views spouted by the talk showoffs criticized by Ambassador Jett fit that definition because they misrepresent reality. They are either hypocritical or simply ignorant. They are anything but conservative in any standard meaning of the word in the English language. The fact that they claim to argue on behalf of the average American when they are pushing policies not in the interest of the average American is a case of misrepresentation pure and simple.

    So far as the President’s policies are concerned, I see the following: When he took office, the country was on the brink of a depression that would have matched or exceeded the one of the 1930s. (I was a child then, but can remember the severe effects on society.) He inherited the largest deficit (in nominal terms) this country had ever experienced, all brought on by an administration that called itself “conservative” but did the opposite on almost every issue it faced. (Bush-Cheney inherited, don’t forget, a budget surplus.) Nor was the budgeting honest: war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan were handled off budget. (They are now in the Obama administration budget. How much praise from our pseudo-conservatives has he gotten for that?)

    It is conservative to try to balance budgets, even if it means higher taxes. It is irresponsible to cut taxes on the rich when the budget is in deficit, but this is what loud mouths claiming to be “conservative” counsel. (Face the facts: there is not enough discretionary spending to cut the budget significantly without deep cuts in the defense budget.) It is conservative to do honest accounting. It is conservative to set fair rules for economic the activity. It is not conservative to attack countries that do not threaten you. It is not conservative to fabricate intelligence reports. It is not conservative to apply torture to captives. (It is not even an effective way to obtain actionable intelligence.)

    It seems to me that most of President Obama’s policies have been fully justified, if accurately described and understood. America’s image in the world became much more positive and friendly with his election. If one has problems with specific policies, describe them accurately and give us an alternative to consider. We are not getting that from the “Tea Party” types. They are against all sorts of things (most of which I am against, too), but have no positive agenda at all. Except perhaps in one sphere, and that is the position that Ron and Rand Paul take regarding the defense budget and military interventions abroad. I agree with them on those positions and I believe the administration should work with them to get the defense budget under better control (and lower), and also to reduce our military footprint abroad.

    If Mr. Carr (if that is his name; the rest of us don’t mind using our full names) wishes to continue a debate on these issues on this site, I would suggest that he read my book Superpower Illusions, and offer his critique of the opinions I express there. I do not view the interest of the United States in politically partisan terms; I am an independent who voted enthusiastically for Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

    And don’t forget: we are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. Propagandists distort and misrepresent facts to make a case. A responsible citizen should hold them to account.

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