The Purpose of Conservatism is to Conserve Inequity

A better, fairer, more compassionate world is possible. This is the truth conservatism does everything it can to deny.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted August 25, 2020 in Blog (Last Updated August 25, 2020)

This is a good time to recall that the foundation of conservatism, dating right back to its earliest origins, is to provide philosophical justification for conserving inequity. It is fundamentally a con to mollify the powerless.

As early as 375 BCE, Plato presented the "Noble Lie," in which rulers are made from gold while the lower classes are made from more base metals, to get the majority to accept their place in the hierarchy.

Medieval kings insisted they were anointed by God to inherit the crown and all its power under divine authority. As King James I put it, "to dispute what God may do, is blasphemy ... so is it sedition in subjects, to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power."

Edmund Burke appealed to Christian "Original Sin" in his pious insistence that we are inherently depraved and therefore must be governed by aristocrats and constrained by conventions, traditions and prejudices (that just happen to conserve the status quo).

Conservatism rejects the idea that society can become progressively more humane, compassionate and fair in its values. As Russell Kirk stated, "The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress".

Or as William F. Buckley smugly put it in 1955, conservatism "stands athwart history, yelling Stop". (He was already railing against "radical social experimentation" by liberals and grousing about college campuses.)

Conservatism fears instability above injustice, since instability threatens entrenched power while injustice, which flows directly out of entrenched power, is by definition only a problem for the powerless.

The powerful don't want to share their power or risk the hierarchical system that produces it. Conservatism dresses their naked sense of entitlement to privilege in high-minded concepts of prudence and skepticism to obscure the essential selfishness driving it.

Conservatism doesn't make for a lot of democratic enthusiasm. However, we do live in a democracy (nominally), and conservatism recognizes that it's hard to govern without the consent of the governed.

However, there just aren't enough rich, powerful sociopaths to produce a majority - not even under Canada's undemocratic first-past-the-post voting system, which gives a party most of the seats with less than half the votes.

You can only get so far with voters by touting the divine authority of aristocrats and the need for traditions and prejudices to rein in the depravity of the masses you're trying to get to vote for you.

One endlessly tempting way to get around this is to convince a plurality of poor, powerless people that they would be rich and comfortable if not for some other group - usually a group of even more poor, powerless people.

Done successfully, this redirects the anger and resentment of people who recognize they have been marginalized away from the people who marginalized them and onto people in other, even more marginalized groups.

So we get the various flavours of white supremacist, racist, nativist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic and chauvinist conservatism that are so common throughout the modern right.

But as Lee Atwater explained in an infamous 1981 interview, you can no longer just come right out with overtly racist epithets. Instead, you have to use coded language that evokes racist ideas under a veneer of plausible deniability.

So it's no accident that newly-elected Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O'Toole called his policy platform, "Our Country: A Call to Take Back Canada".

Who, exactly, took Canada? And who is counted among the people taking it back? O'Toole doesn't quite say.

But he spends a lot of time attacking liberals, threatening the Notwithstanding Clause to impose unconstitutional mandatory sentences, and railing against the United Nations and especially China, which he mentions 11 times.

There is zero mention of racism or sexism or police abuse of power. Those might be problems, but I guess they're not "our" problems. And apparently "discrimination" is only a problem if you're religious. Or Alberta. And all Indigenous people need is economic development.

O'Toole's fundraising appeals rail against "vandals and left-wing agitators" who are "defac[ing]" the "statues to Canadian heroes and national builders." He hails "our proud traditions" and promises to "stand up to left-wing mobs".

There is no mention whatsoever of the systemic racism, cultural genocide, institutionalized violence and generational trauma that underwrote those "proud traditions" he promises to stand up for while 'taking the country back'.

O'Toole's pandering is more subtle than, say, Derek Sloan's, but is all the more effective for that. When Sloan openly attacked the patriotism of Canada's chief public health officer, the party shrugged and mostly remained silent.

O'Toole didn't directly go after Dr. Tam. He doesn't have to. He relentlessly goes after "the Chinese regime" instead, as part of his "Canada First" messaging, which directly echoes Trump's racist "America First" rhetoric.

It's extraordinary how well the redirection strategy works: conservative policy exacerbates inequity, which creates widespread frustration and resentment that conservatives then hijack to seize more power in a vicious cycle.

But it's all a con, designed to trick you into hating and fearing people who are even more marginalized than you are, while taking the heat off the rich, powerful people who benefit the most from gross inequality.

A better, fairer, more compassionate world is possible. This is the truth conservatism does everything it can to deny. Don't let the reactionary forces of retrenchment claim a monopoly on the lessons of history.

Every social justice accomplishment succeeds despite the howls of outrage from conservatives opposed to change. They stand athwart the world, yelling Stop - but we know that standing still is not an option when there is still injustice to confront.

Don't fall for the con. Don't buy into the grift. Stop letting them scare you away from a world with less hatred, less deprivation, and more loving acceptance of all people.