How are we understand divisions in American conservatism? Of the top three candidates in the Iowa caucuses two, Ron Paul & Rick Santorum, have expressed dissent with aspects of contemporary American conservatism. The key to understanding conservative politics is that conservatism is a disposition, conservatives know what they are against rather than what they are for. A substantial number of self-defined conservatives in the United States hold liberal views on economic and social policy.
Yet official conservatism in the US is a highly organized movement committed to a combination of laisser-faire economic, social conservatism and American assertiveness. It is possible for individual conservatives to experience a dissonance in which they fell troubled by aspects of conservative policies whilst remaining emotionally attracted to the idea of conservatism. This arises when reality does not confirm to conservative predictions. Thus Ron Paul is troubled by the constraints on freedom imposed by Republican and Democratic administrations, together with American military adventurism but Rick Santorum is troubled by unemployment and poverty particularly as it affects the white working class. But both are vehement opponents of the political left which has also criticized these problems. Conservatives feeling discontented with the conservative status quo are unlikely to move to the left and renounce conservatism, rather they are likely to move towards the radical right. We now think of European fascists as malign incarnations of evil, but many who joined fascist movements were concerned by social wrongs such as unemployment and poverty. When Edward VIII before his ascension to the throne declared after witnessing poverty in south Wales that ‘something must be done’ he spoke for many fascists. Yet before fascists were fascists they were conservatives and separated themselves had cut them off from the left which alone could provide an effective response to the social wrongs that some fascists were genuinely concerned about. Thus they are driven towards conspiracy theories of which anti-Semitism was the classic example. Paul can only attribute the fall of the Republic to conspiracies, Kevin Williamson can blame the sins of Wall Street on the Democrats. Santorum can offer only tax rebates for families as the thinnest of progressive icings on a deeply regressive tax policy. Santorum has complained about inequality and unemployment for years but he offers no sustative proposals to address this. Santorum proposes a remission of corporate taxes on manufacturing, effectively this is a protectionist plank and protectionism was the standard interwar conservative response to unemployment. Indeed all the Republicans express concern for the manufacturing sector. The ideal position for troubled conservatives is to be able to blame the left for the flaws of capitalism. The Nazis blamed Jews for capitalism, Marxism and liberalism. One reason for the popularity of discourses around ‘welfare dependency’ is that they enable the right to blame the left for poverty, the recent critique of aboriginal self-determination is comparable. Conservative ‘workplace relations’ expert Ken Phillips admits that workers are subordinate to their employers, he even employs the term ‘wage-slavery’ but then blames the left for discouraging people from becoming self-employed by a simple exercise of will. This pattern of blaming the victims is apparent in Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. To Hayek fascism would never have argued if German conservatives had been Spencerian classical liberals, to explain this corruption Hayek can only suggest that conservatives were corrupted by socialism. To Hayek socialism remains the main enemy, a Hayekian liberal in 1933 Germany who have presumably abstained from political participation on the grounds that social democrats and Nazis were equally in the wrong.
We can conclude that some conservatives can see when something is wrong but they offer no solution. As Andrew Levine notes this applies to Edmund Burke.