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Why Conservatives Think the Ends Justify the Means | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Why Conservatives Think the Ends Justify the Means


Poll workers in Nashville ready their stickers for election day, November 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Let's continue my series on the continuities on the American right: the stockpiling of guns for the coming apocalypse; the panic over textbooks and the passion for reckless spending cuts; the horror at the government sponsoring pre-school education—and, for today, the comfort the right harbors for minoritarianism: the conviction that conservatives are fit to rule even if they don't actually win elections. We've been reading about that and again these days in the way the Republican Party does business: the "Hastert rule" which doesn't let a measure get to the House floor if it can't win a majority of Republicans even if the majority of all House members want it; the Republican embrace of gerrymandering that guarantees Republican congressional majorities in states Obama won decidedly like Pennylvania; the Republican comfort with the disenfranchisement of Democratic constituencies that the Nation's Ari Berman has been covering so effectively these days. This comes from somewhere—from the nature of conservatism itself. It is an old, old story.

Let's start, though, with a question of first principles, one absolutely crucial to understanding the difference between liberalism and conservatism, one that goes very deep at the cognitive level. We'll be returning to it when I arrive at the crucial question of how that which liberals consider hypocrisy functions on the right. That first principle is the matter of procedure versus norms. As I wrote in a 2003 review of Eric Alterman's book What Liberal Media?

We Americans love to cite the “political spectrum” as the best way to classify ideologies. The metaphor is incorrect: it implies symmetry. But left and right today are not opposites. They are different species. It has to do with core principles. To put it abstractly, the right always has in mind a prescriptive vision of its ideal future world—a normative vision. Unlike the left (at least since Karl Marx neglected to include an actual description of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” within the 2,500 pages of Das Kapital), conservatives have always known what the world would look like after their revolution: hearth, home, church, a businessman’s republic. The dominant strain of the American left, on the other hand, certainly since the decline of the socialist left, fetishizes fairness, openness, and diversity. (Liberals have no problem with home, hearth, and church in themselves; they just see them as one viable life-style option among many.) If the stakes for liberals are fair procedures, the stakes for conservatives are last things: either humanity trends toward Grace, or it hurtles toward Armageddon.

A very important point. It has to do, too, with the almost opposite definitions liberals and conservatives affix to the word "principle." For liberals, generally speaking, honoring procedures—means—is the core of what being "principled" means. For conservatives, fighting for the right outcome—ends—even at the expense of procedural nicety, is what being "principled" means. Think of it it, allegorically, this way: imagine in Washington DC, near Capitol Hill, a little old lady is crossing a hazardous street. A fastidious liberal congressmen, proud of always acting in a principled way in all things, stops to help her across the street—even though that means he might be late for a key vote (the sacrifice of an end, in itself, confirms his principled nature). A fastidious conservative congressman, on the other hand, leaves the lady to her fate and makes the vote (because the upholding of the end, in itself, is where honor lies—and dishonor rests, in the ultimate term of derision righties reserve for each other, in being a "squish").

In short, if you're a conservative, isn't the point of an election to win, so you can bend the world to your will, no matter the means it takes to get there? Even if you don't necessarily have the majority's support?

Here are some historical illustrations. Again and again, when I was doing research in the papers of Clarence Manion, the pioneering conservative activist who was the first to try to draft Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate, I ran across references to schemes to run conservative third party candidates. One, in 1956, ran T. Coleman Andrews, Eisenhower's former commissioner of public revenue—who now considered the states' income-tax-creating Sixteenth Amendment his charge to enforce, as a "sign[ing] away the powers that were reserved to them by the Constitution as a safeguard against degeneration of the union of states into an all-powerful central government!" Another, aimed at 1960, looked to draft Arkansas's segregationist Orval Faubus.

They planned these efforts not in the expectation that they might win, but with an eye just toward getting enough support to deny the front runner the Constitutional required majority in the Electoral College. Without that majority 270 electoral votes, the election gets thrown into the House of Representatives—something a nice procedural liberal might consider a dangerously divisive Constitutional crisis, but which I found Manion and his pals considering an outcome devoutly to be wished. For that way, right-wing congressmen could sell their votes in exchange for policy concessions—and a conservative minority that knew it was right could bend the world to its will.

That sort of cleverness, of course, no longer became necessary as the idea of making the Republican Party a vehicle for the conservative movement tout court came to seem more and more viable. Such that, as the late New Right founding father Paul Weyrich once put it, "I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." Which was pretty damned brazen, considering he was co-founder of an organization called the Moral Majority.

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Now, of course, for over a decade now, the brazenness is institutionalized within the very vitals of one of our two political parties. You just elect yourself a Republican attorney general, and he does his level best to squeeze as many minority voters from the roles as he can force the law to allow. And a conservative state legislature, so they can gerrymander the hell out of their state, such that, as a Texas Republican congressional aid close to Tom Delay wrote in a 2003 email, "This has a real national impact that should assure that Republicans keep the House no matter the national mood." Or you lose the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election but win in the electoral college—then declare a mandate to privatize Social Security, like George Bush did.

Which only makes sense, if you're trying to save civilization from hurtling toward Armageddon. That's how conservatives think. To quote one Christian right leader, "We ought to see clearly that the end does justify the means...If the method I am using to accomplishes the goal I am aiming at, it is for that reason a good method."

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