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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

“Conservatism” Conserves Nothing

Whatever “conservatism” is, it does not involve the conservation of a stable climate, or the polar ice caps, or the coral reefs, or the global food supply. 

“There are few genuine conservatives within the U.S. political system, and it is a sign of the intellectual corruption of the age that the honorable term ‘conservatism’ can be appropriated to disguise the advocacy of a powerful, lawless, aggressive and violent state, a welfare state for the rich dedicated to a lunatic form of Keynesian economic intervention that enhances state and private power while mortgaging the country’s future.” — Noam Chomsky

In Miami, a historic mansion that once belonged to Al Capone has just been demolished, thanks to a law signed by Ron DeSantis that prohibits municipalities from blocking the demolition of historic structures. Preservationists were “blindsided” by the legislation, which permits developers to raze buildings that would previously have been protected, and puts beloved Florida landmarks like Miami Beach’s Art Deco structures at risk. 

It’s not the only way that DeSantis has allowed developers to subvert city ordinances. I wrote a while back about how, thanks to another DeSantis law usurping the power of cities, developers can cut down beautiful old trees by simply deeming them “hazards.” (I wrote about a particularly beautiful oak tree, hundreds of years old, that stood in my parents’ neighborhoodand had been marked for death. After giving the tree a brief stay of execution in response to public outrage, the developer has appeared to come up with a clever workaround that will soon result in the tree being cut down.) Jeff VanderMeer wrote about how Florida’s natural beauty is being “annihilated” by rampant development. Every time I return to Florida, more of the places I knew growing up have simply been destroyed, replaced with ugly, treeless suburban sprawl. 

The right plays neat tricks with language. One of the tricks is the idea that they are on the side of the “people” against the “elites” when, in reality, right-wing policies inevitably further empower the ruling class by gutting labor regulations, cutting taxes for the rich, slashing the social safety net, etc. Another trick is convincing people that there is something “conservative” about the right, that they stand for stability/order/tradition/community whereas the left stands for disordered chaotic change and destruction.

It’s true, of course, that we on the left are dissatisfied with certain features of the society we find ourselves in and are committed to changing them. If your definition of “preserving order” is “preserving/returning to a world where LGBT people must remain closeted, because there is intense social hostility to their identity,” then, yes, the left is challenging your preferred social order. If you want the minimum wage kept low, then it’s true that the left isn’t interested in “conserving” the particular American tradition of paying terrible wages for extremely hard work.

However, it is a mistake to think that right-wing politics is about conserving much of anything. In fact, because the right is committed to the rule of the market, right-wing policies will unleash much more destruction than preservation. Take the climate disaster. We saw in the recent Republican debate that nobody on the right is willing to say that we need to restrict the use of fossil fuels, and some are happy to push outright for the expansion of fossil fuel use. Whatever “conservatism” is, then, it does not involve the conservation of a stable climate, or the polar ice caps, or the coral reefs, or the global food supply. 

Take some of the major issues of our time. Right-wing belligerence moves us closer to a war with China that would be a disaster for the whole human race. Anti-immigrant hysteria promises to rip people from their homes and expel them from the country with military force. The right’s antipathy toward regulations enables new forms of exploitation, the destruction of public schools, the poisoning of our air and water, the gig-ifiication of the economy. Or look at the right’s new battle plan, “Project 2025,” which aims to tear the government to pieces and enact a radical privatization plan that will further wreck the Earth.

I reject “conservative” attacks on things that are important to the public. I don’t want Social Security and Medicare taken away, with seniors facing a disastrous new cost-of-living crisis. I don’t want global temperatures to get out of control, triggering massive global refugee crises. I don’t want new laws that make my transgender friends and neighbors scared that if they use the “wrong” (i.e., right) bathroom, they’ll be dragged out by the cops. I don’t want public schools privatized, with profit rather than education being the goal of the school system. I don’t want new restrictions on the right to vote. I am in many ways an actual conservative, in that much of my politics is dedicated to trying to protect those things that are precious and are under serious threat. What I consider the two most important issues facing humanity, the climate crisis and the threat of nuclear war, are both issues of trying to keep what we have and avoid letting it be destroyed. 

A lot of what we do around here at Current Affairs involves helping people see through rhetorical obfuscation and propaganda. There is no more misleading branding than the right’s effort to portray itself as “conservative” when everything it advocates would radically transform society into what many of us would consider a horrible feudalistic dystopia where those with money ruled absolutely over the rest of us (even more so than they do already). If you like your community, and don’t want to see it ravaged by climate change, or torn up by developers who cut down all the trees and bulldoze the landmarks, you need to be part of a movement that actually values conserving and nourishing community. Right-wing populism has always been a fraud because it speaks the language of tradition, community, family, etc. but then supports policies that separate families, atomize communities, and obliterate traditional cultures. Understanding the fraudulence of the word “conservatism” is critical to seeing what the real consequences of the right-wing agenda will be, namely a very different and much worse world.  

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