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.