Just finished reading a good student essay on Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” quoting a source saying that the poem does not indicate so much the conservative bent of the poet’s mind as his disinterest in politics altogether.
The essay reminds me that, with few exceptions, lack of interest in politics is a large part of what conservatism is.
Politics is the science of acquiring or challenging power to effect change in a society.
Liberals seek power ostensibly to liberate people from undue coercion and limitation of their natural rights … by the state, by the church, by the “tyranny of the majority” (to cite de Tocqueville and Mill), by the wealthy or otherwise super-privileged, and, more recently, by corporations.
Liberals, unlike anarchists, look to the state “to secure these rights” (to cite the Declaration of Independence) … even from coercion by the state itself—theoretically the function of divided government and the Bill of Rights. In doing so, they often extend the influence of the state over private lives in ways that alarm anarchists, libertarians, and, for that matter, a lot of people who don’t know what to call themselves.
Libertarians and anarchists consider themselves the “true” liberals—either seeking to radically limit the powers of the state or transfer those powers to syndicates, unions, communes, or other small working communities of choice—or, for anarchic purists, to each and every individual to fend for herself or himself.
A keen interest in politics drives all these people.
It drives reactionaries, too. Like liberals, libertarians, and anarchists, reactionaries want to acquire power to change society—more particularly, to re-acquire power to change society back—or return it to traditional points of authority: the aristocracy, the patriarchy, the monarchy or dictatorship, and/or God (or those acknowledged to be God’s vicars or proxies).
About the only groups of people who find no need to care about politics are those who believe change is unnecessary, because for them the status quo is good enough already, or those who believe change is impossible or out of the control of ordinary individuals.
Into the latter group I clump together cynics and opportunists, who see power strictly as a playground. Although they lack political ideals (or at least have set them aside as impractical), they follow the forms of politics, not so much to change society, but rather to enrich or empower themselves.
I would also include in this group those who have burned out or lost hope.
Such conservatism, like the poet Wordsworth’s, may derive from horror and outrage at the excesses or hypocrisies of past revolutions and idealism. The French Terror, for instance, moved a good many English romantic idealists to the right in Wordsworth’s day. Most, I dare say, simply threw up their hands and shrugged their shoulders.
Of course, the former group, who actually like things as they are, are the true blue (or red) conservatives. Their disinterest in politics is meant either to leave well enough alone or to preserve their own interests, which are embedded in the status quo. This is the group most properly called “conservative” and its values are those of the average American—quite literally “average”—all criticism, discontent, idealism, or sense of moral irony burned away in the crucible of the arithmetic mean.
I emphasize “average” because most individuals are not average. Most people want at least some aspect of the society they live in to change, but their values are offset by other people’s values and thus usually neutered … in opinion polls or in election years. It is only when the sum total of individuals in society is statistically processed and redistributed that we have the “average” American, who is, as I said, basically conservative … and largely a mathematical fabrication.
The people we normally think of as “conservative” are actually “reactionary” … at least on most issues. They want to return to the good old days … before Roe v. Wade, feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, R-rated movies, rap, the Second Vatican Council, Playboy, the New Deal, and Watergate.
Up to and including a fair share of the recent election, reactionaries have been effective in mobilizing the truly conservative side of American society, largely by appealing to its fear of change, even though the reactionaries want change as much as the liberals and the radicals do.
The liberals and the radicals at least have history on their side. The change the reactionaries want, though, is undocumented in the annals of history. Even the dark ages of the medieval era, the most successful instance of backwards change in history, were different from whatever preceded the classical world.
It is America’s conservative nature that, wisely or too cautiously, demands that its politicians be moderate, promise not to change things too much, or make concessions to opposite interests at the same time.
I think these demands are overly cautious. With rare exceptions, America since World War II has feared the future. It lost or hugely diminished its supplies of frank vulgarity, iconoclasm, can-do spirit, audacious laughter, and big-heartedness, replacing them with political correctness, teleprompt pieties, victim mentality, canned laughter, and identity politics.
As a culture, we have chosen “no” over “yes.” That choice is the heart of conservatism—even when it calls itself compassionate or moderate, even when it thinks it’s progressive.
Of course, no-politics does not equal no change in society. No-politics simply relinquishes the power of change to the corporate-owned media, corporate-funded politicians, and elites who take government loans but won’t lend any money back to you and me.
If the last eight years has taught us anything, it is the essentially destructive nature of choosing beer-drinking buddies as Presidents (especially those who reportedly kicked the hooch 20 years ago) or mistaking escapism and deliberate ignorance for liberation and innocence.