As this century rolls on, we approach the centennial of the 1920s and with it comes the key to understanding what the Dumbos and Teabaggers are trying to impose on the rest of us. Michael Lind traces the tripartite Dumbo/Teabagger "synthesis of Biblical fundamentalism, constitutional fundamentalism, and market fundamentalism." In 2021, we will party like it's 1921. Then, the current pinup girl from the Monstrous Regiment of True Republican Women Bachmann Moron Overdrive proclaims herself to be a "Constitutional Conservative." Just when it seemed that the Dumbos/Teabaggers couldn't get any dumber, along comes a real loon (i.e., a crazy idiotic person who likes to rant) from Iowa/Minnesota. If this is (fair & balanced) national loonacy, so be it.
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 The Wingnut Fundamentals Michael Lind
 What The Hell Is A "Constitutional Conservative"? Ed Kilgore
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The Three Fundamentalisms Of The American Right
By Michael Lind
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In contradiction to the hostility to Darwinism shared by many of its constituents, the American right is evolving rapidly before our eyes. The project of creating an American version of Burkean conservatism has collapsed. What has replaced it is best described as triple fundamentalism a synthesis of Biblical fundamentalism, constitutional fundamentalism, and market fundamentalism.
Following World War II, the American right was a miscellany of marginal, embittered subcultures anti-New Dealers, isolationists, paranoid anticommunists, anti-semites, and white supremacists. Russell Kirk and others associated with William F. Buckley Jr.'s National Review sought to Americanize a version of high-toned British Burkean conservatism. While the eighteenth century British parliamentarian was embraced by conservatives for his opposition to the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, a champion of the rights of Britain’s Indian, Irish, and American subjects, could also be claimed by liberals like Yale Law School’s Alexander Bickel, who preferred gradual, cautious reform to radical social experimentation. In its liberal as in its conservative forms, Burkeanism disdains reaction and radicalism alike, and favors change in lesser things when necessary to maintain the continuity of more fundamental institutions and values.
The religious equivalent of Burkean politics is orthodoxy, not fundamentalism. Orthodoxy means the continuity of a tradition, as interpreted by an authoritative body of experts, such as priests, rabbis or mullahs. The term "fundamentalism" originated in the early twentieth century as a description of reactionary evangelical Protestants in the U.S. who rejected liberal Protestantism and modern evolutionary science and insisted on the inerrancy of the Bible. The phrase is nowadays applied indiscriminately and often inaccurately to various religious movements, some of which, in the Catholic, Jewish and Muslim traditions are better described as ultra-orthodox.
America’s Burkean conservatives like Kirk tended to favor Catholicism or the Anglo-Catholic school within the Anglican church. For them, establishment and hierarchy were terms of praise. But once white Southerners captured the Republican party and the conservative movement, the High Church right that found Kirk and Buckley among its college of cardinals gave way to the political equivalent of the Foot-Washin’ Baptists.
Today Protestant fundamentalism is associated with the Scots-Irish in the Bible Belt from West Virginia to Texas, but its ancestry lies in now-secular New England and the Midwest and it migrated southward only after the Civil War. As Burke observed at the time of the American revolution:
"All Protestantism…is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance: it is the dissidence of dissent and the protestantism of the Protestant religion."
It is also the populism of Populism. As an intermediary between the soul and God, the church hierarchy has been all but replaced by the Bible in fundamentalist Protestantism. Nor is there any need for theologians to expound the Bible, which was conveniently written in English so that it can be understood by any plain American.
The increasingly-Southernized American Right has transferred the fundamentalist Protestant mentality from the sphere of religion to the spheres of law and the economy. Protestant fundamentalism is now joined by constitutional fundamentalism and market fundamentalism.
In all three cases, the pattern is the same. There is the eternal Truth that never varies the will of God, the principles of the Founding Fathers, the so-called laws of the free market. There are the scriptures which explain the eternal truths the King James Bible, in the case of religious fundamentalism, the Constitution or the Federalist Papers, in the case of constitutional fundamentalism, and Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in the case of market fundamentalism (The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand can be substituted for Hayek, on request).
"There’s only one book you ever need to read," a Bible-believin' Texan Baptist once assured me. He was two books short of a populist conservative bookshelf. But in the age of post-intellectual, fundamentalist conservatism, three books are sufficient to make anyone the equal of the most erudite intellectual. The books need not actually be read, and for the most part probably are not; it is enough, in argument, to thump the Bible, and to thump The Road to Serfdom and Atlas Shrugged, too.
The mentality of fundamentalism, not Burkean conservative traditionalism, underlies the rewriting of American constitutional history by the Straussians associated with the Claremont Institute in Cailfornia and of American economic history by conservative propagandists like Amity Shlaes. Burkeans viewed the history of British and American freedom as a gradually unfolding process of dare it be said? evolution, in which useful innovations, after suitable probation, could be incorporated as elements of the tradition. This "Catholic" view of political history is incompatible with the "Protestant" view of right-wing political fundamentalism, which transfers the script of radical Protestantism to the realms of political history and economics.
History, to the fundamentalist mind, is a story of original perfection, followed by betrayal and restoration. The early Christian church was perfect; it was corrupted and betrayed by medieval Catholicism; and it was restored to its original purity by radical Protestant reformers. In the same way, the American constitution was not a flawed compromise among rival states and factions, to be improved by later amendment, but a document of superhuman wisdom, created in a kind of secular Pentecost at Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. To believe today’s constitutional fundamentalists, the true constitution was betrayed around 1900 in the name of the "living constitution" by progressives and liberals, who play the villain’s role in political history that the evangelicals assign to the Catholic Church in Christian history.
Modern American market fundamentalism, too, is recognizably modeled on the fundamentalist Protestant version of church history, even though market fundamentalists need not be Christian conservatives. Ignoring the long history of tariffs, land grants, military procurement, and mixed public-private corporations in the United States, the market fundamentalists pretend that the U.S. was governed by the laws of the market until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal replaced capitalism with socialism (or statism, or fascism, or whatever Amity Shlaes or Jonah Goldberg want to call it). Russell Kirk wrote that any true conservative would be a socialist before he would be a libertarian. But then he was a Burkean High Church conservative.
The rise of triple fundamentalism on the American right creates a crisis of political discourse in the United States. Back when conservatism was orthodox and traditional, rather than fundamentalist and counter-revolutionary, conservatives could engage in friendly debates with liberals, and minds on both sides could now and then be changed. But if your sect alone understands the True Religion and the True Constitution and the Laws of the Market, then there is no point in debate. All those who disagree with you are heretics, to be defeated, whether or not they are converted.
For their part, progressives have no idea of how to respond to the emergent right’s triple fundamentalism. Today it is the left, not the right, that is Burkean in America. Modern American liberalism is disillusioned, to the point of defeatism, by the frustration of the utopian hopes of 1960s liberalism in the Age of Reagan that followed and has not yet ended. Today it is liberals, not conservatives, who tend to be cautious and incremental and skeptical to a fault about the prospects for reform, while it is the right that wants to blow up the U.S. economy and start all over, on the basis of the doctrines of two Austrian professors and a Russian émigré novelist. Barack Obama, who would have flourished in an age when conservatives and liberals shared a common Burkean sensibility, finds himself as baffled and flustered by the tribunes of the Tea Party as Edmund Burke would have been by the young Marjoe Gortner.
The era of triple fundamentalism on the American right is bound to come to an end. Sooner or later, dogmatism and reality will collide, and it is not reality that will crumple like tinfoil. The only question is how much damage will be done to the American polity before the revolution of the saints fizzles out. Ω
[Michael Lind is Policy Director of New America's Economic Growth Program and the author of The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life (2006). Lind holds a B.A. from the University of Texas-Austin, an M.A. from Yale University, and a J.D. from University of Texas-Austin.]
Copyright © 2011 Salon Media Group, Inc.
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The Hidden Meaning Behind Michele Bachmann’s "Constitutional Conservatism"
By Ed Kilgore
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Michele Bachmann really wants you to know she’s a “constitutional conservative.” The term is featured prominently on her web ads. She mentioned it three times in her announcement speech. It’s in the first sentence of her official bio. But what exactly does it mean? While the term can signify different things to different people, it turns out it’s especially important to Bachmann. As a candidate who doesn’t want to get confined to a social conservative ghetto in an election year that is revolving around fiscal and economic issues—and as someone with a well-earned reputation for extremism—her strong “constitutional conservative” stance indicates, but only to those who are trained to listen, a decidedly radical agenda that is at least as congenial to rabid social conservatives as it is to property-rights absolutists or anti-tax zealots. In short, it enables her to run as a middle-of-the-road conservative who just wants to get rid of ObamaCare and balance the budget, even as she lets the initiated know she has other, more ambitious, plans for the country.
Despite the growing ubiquity of the “constitutional conservative” identifier in the Tea Party movement and the right-wing blogosphere, there’s no authorized definition of the term and some who proudly wear the label doubtless disagree about its meaning. Adam J. White of the Weekly Standard attributes its recent emergence to an influential 2009 essay in the Wall Street Journal by the Hoover Institution’s Peter Berkowitz. The Berkowitz formulation did indeed focus on the need for Republicans to return to first principles, with “the constitutional order” providing the key optic. But he also called “moderation” in the pursuit of liberty an essential constitutional concept, which is not a term one would normally associate with Michele Bachmann or Constitution-brandishing Tea Party activists.
Among this crowd, it more commonly connotes an allegiance to a set of fixed—eternally fixed, for the more religiously inclined—ideas of how government should operate in every field. Constitutional conservatives want to distinguish themselves from the more tradition-bound type of conservatives who adapt to changing social and economic needs and, for that matter, to the perceived wants and needs of the populace. They rarely come right out and denounce democracy, of course, but it’s clear they think their liberties are endangered by people who, say, would like government-guaranteed access to affordable health care.
Conservative polemicist and radio host Mark Levin offered an exceptionally clear explanation of the connection between this kind of affinity for the Constitution as the sum of political wisdom and a degree of hostility to democracy:
[F]or the Founding Fathers, individual liberty was not possible without private property rights. For the Founding Fathers, the only legitimate government was not only one that was instituted with the consent of the people, but one that would preserve and protect the individual’s right to property. Jefferson talked about it, talked about ‘tyranny of the legislature.’ So the consent of the governed is only part of it.
Levin’s words are an appropriate reminder that constitutional conservatives think of America as a sort of ruined paradise, bestowed a perfect form of government by its wise Founders but gradually imperiled by the looting impulses of voters and politicians. In their backwards-looking vision, constitutional conservatives like to talk about the inalienable rights conferred by the Founders—not specifically in the Constitution, as a matter of fact, but in the Declaration of Independence, which is frequently and intentionally conflated with the Constitution as the part of the Founders’ design. It’s from the Declaration, for instance, that today’s conservatives derive their belief that “natural rights” (often interpreted to include quasi-absolute property rights or the prerogatives of the traditional family), as well as the “rights of the unborn,” were fundamental to the American political experiment and made immutable by their divine origin.
This Restorationist character of constitutional conservatism was nicely captured by The Economist’s pseudonymous American reporter w.w. in a commentary on Bachmann’s Iowa launch event:
[I]f one bothers to really think about it, constitutional conservativism, as construed by Ms Bachmann and her boosters, might be better labeled "constitutional restorationism", which I think more clearly conveys the idea of a return to the system of government laid out in the constitution, interpreted as the authors intended. But this idea, if taken really seriously, is staggeringly radical.
No kidding. But that’s where the dog whistle aspect of calling yourself a constitutional conservative comes into play. The obvious utility of the label is that it hints at a far more radical agenda than meets the untrained eye, all the while elevating the proud bearer above the factional disputes of the conservative movement’s economic and cultural factions.
On the economic side of the coin, most mainstream politicians are not going to publicly say that the monstrosities they associate with ObamaCare, “redistribution of wealth,” or Keynesian stimulus techniques are rooted in their desire to reverse the New Deal, as well as a long chain of Supreme Court decisions that also happened to make possible the abolition of segregation. But many conservative activists actually think that way, and have in mind as their goal nothing so modest as a mere rollback of federal social programs to the levels of the Bush or even the Reagan administration. Bachmann and other candidates can talk to most voters as though they are simply trying to defend America from a vast overreach by the 44th president. But to the radicalized conservative base that dominates contests like the Iowa Caucuses, the constitutional conservative label hints broadly at a more audacious agenda ultimately aimed at bringing back the lost American Eden of the 1920s, if not an earlier era.
On the religious side of the coin, meanwhile, the phrase is equally if not even more useful to Bachmann. The Christian Right, which is Bachmann’s authentic political home, has largely organized itself over the years around the proposition that activist judges have destroyed the true faith-based character of the Republic, along with unleashing a “holocaust” of legalized abortion and inflicting various indignities on the patriarchal family. Restoring the Founders’ design, in their eyes, means overturning Roe v. Wade and abandoning the idolatrous fiction of church-state separation. In this sense, it’s very handy that Bachmann can use the phrase to efficiently remind the faithful that she’s still in their camp by pledging allegiance to those God-fearing Founders, while avoiding the need to dwell on particular issues.
But will this gambit succeed in allowing Bachmann to seek to keep the base excited while simultaneously reaching out beyond its ranks? That’s hard to say. Bachmann’s own intimate connections to the more radical strains of conservative thinking, which long predate the Tea Party movement, are there for anyone to see. And there is only so much mileage she can gain from her so-far successful efforts to exceed the expectations of those who had the vague but erroneous impression that her extremist tendencies are the product of stupidity or indiscipline.
It is clear, though, that Bachmann’s task is made much easier by the tendency of observers unfamiliar with the code to dismiss constitutional conservatism as meaningless or banal. Those two words pack a lot of punch. Ω
[Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic. Kilgore is a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, as well as managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, an online forum. He was previously vice president for policy at the Democratic Leadership Council; communications director for former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA); and a federal-state liaison for three governors of his home state of Georgia. Kilgore is a graduate of Emory University and the University of Georgia School of Law.]
Copyright © 2011 The New Republic
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