Posted in Rants on April 28th, 2010 by Ed

"Just as Americans in general do not have the habits of deference, so the conservative in America does not have them either. Ultimately he does not defer even to the country’s institutions. If one of these institutions, such as the Supreme Court, makes decisions he detests, he will defame that institution. He is as ready as is the common man to bypass the institutions he ought to defend."

Recently in my public opinion course we've talked about the substantial research detailing the precipitous decline in levels of trust in the government in the United States. Data from the Pew Center and the National Election Studies illustrate this point quite clearly:

When I see this data many potential explanations come to mind – researchers usually identify the end of post-War prosperity around 1970, the Vietnam War, and Watergate as primary culprits – but I always think of the quote at the beginning of the post. It is from British conservative Henry Fairlie. He wrote it in 1980 at the Republican National Convention in Detroit as he watched the dumbing-down of the American right culminate with the nomination of a B-movie actor turned Goldwater acolyte turned soft-seller of neoconservatism.

I've made the following point many times previously, but the American right used to have an image problem. They still do, of course, but it is a very different one today. Prior to Reagan, the stereotype of American conservatism was a handful of wealthy white men in tuxedos sitting around a country club drinking expensive cognac. It was snooty. It was elitist. It had unshakable faith in the fundamental goodness of our nation and its institutions. Fairlie was prescient in noting how rapidly this would change with the ascension of the Hero of the Common Man – "common", in reference to voters, inevitably meaning "stupid." The party of East Coast industrialists became the party of yokels, rubes, creationists, xenophobes, and assorted other knuckle-headed bottom dwellers in this vast country. They still have an image problem, but now it is that the word "conservative" conjures images of Glenn Beck and some Teabagger screaming idiocies through clenched teeth while holding a misspelled sign.

It certainly can't be the fault of the right alone that trust has fallen so dramatically over the last three decades, but Fairlie identified the reasons why they shoulder a good deal of the blame. I'm not British enough to use a word like "deference" to describe their problem. It is more accurate to say that they lack any respect at all for our institutions and have gone far out of their way to convince Americans that if the government is not doing exactly what you want at all times, then the system has failed and it becomes a legitimate target for torrents of seething rage.

If the government spends money on something that does not directly benefit you, then taxes are evil. If your candidate loses an election, elections are ACORN-choreographed frauds. If Congress passes a law you do not like, then Congress is an illegitimate institution and your Governor should start talking about secession. If someone interprets the Constitution differently than you do, then the Constitution is being shredded by traitors and socialists. If a person who does not look like you becomes president, then he must be a foreign usurper. And of course one's faith in all of these same institutions is restored and manifests itself with great enthusiasm as soon as things are back to the way you want them.

Our country is worse off, in short, because of the right's "southern strategy" of appealing to the lowest, basest instincts of the masses, vilifying the very institutions they hope to control. It is not a coincidence that we hear the word "secession" every time they are out of power, because any institution that displeases them is slandered as illegitimate. I do not expect that we can recover the level of "Gee Ain't America Great!" sentiment that existed in the 1950s, but it would be nice if American conservatism would stop working quite so diligently to convince the public that it is not only acceptable but also one's duty to profane our system of government every time it acts contrary to the wishes of the average rural Texan.