Go your own way

28 05 2014

Conservatives, like most populists, harbored deep suspicions of institutions not under their control, . . .

It’s a throwaway line in Nicole Hemmer’s re-view of three conservative texts from 1964 and their influence on the nomination of Barry Goldwater, but it shot out of the screen right at me.

OH! I thought. Oh! That makes perfect sense!

Not that you’d be suspicious of any institution not under your ilk’s control—that does not make sense, especially in a pluralist society—but that such suspicion could help to explain the resentment and fear of a politics and culture which goes its own way.

Even more, it helps to explain the disconnect within a hyper-patriot’s rants against the US: You people cannot be trusted with all that is great and good in this country and the fact that you hold power means it is no longer great and good.

They don’t live in “our” country, but in “my/not-my” country.

Anyway, I don’t know that this is necessarily a populist or even a conservative thing. Yes, populists may be skeptical of the institutions of power and conservatives might see themselves as holding the line, but as long as they can recognize that The Other—whoever The Other may be—is not alien then they can, however grudgingly, accept the legitimacy of that Other’s rule.

In other (Other?) words, it’s possible to be a populist or a conservative and a pluralist. Harder, perhaps, than it is for a liberal (ideologically, if not in day-to-day experience), but hardly impossible.

No, I think this suspicion is more a matter of authoritarianism mixed with righteousness: We must rule because we deserve to rule because we are right and you are wrong.

Not all authoritarianism is righteous—see the many, many nations run by mere kleptocrats—but righteousness fits easily within authoritarianism (of whatever sort). If you are convinced that you have the correct answers to all questions worth asking, then there’s really no point to granting space to anyone with any other answers—or questions.

It is perhaps not so odd, then, that righteousness is so often a part of anti-authoritarian politics as well. It can take the form of a kind of counter-authority—you are wrong and we should be in charge—but it can also be joined to liberationist sensibilities, as a way of shrugging off authority altogether.

The righteous authoritarian and anti-authoritarian are not, it should be said, mirror opposites. I’ve been around and have sometimes been a righteous anti-authoritarian and they (we) have been at most really irritating: it’s tough to get shit done without authority. Since they are fine with the notion of authority per se, however, righteous authoritarians have no problem taking and exercising power.

That makes them not irritating, but scary.

It also, in its own roundabout way, helps to explain why righteous authoritarians are suspicious of anyone running things who isn’t them. They assume that others will rule just as they would, so cannot trust that they might be merely unhappy under another’s rule. They thus translate that unhappiness into oppression and prepare themselves for the persecution they know is coming.

Whether or not it ever does.

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