The Paradox of Conservative Political Philosophy in Contemporary America

06/02/2012 17:06 | Updated 06 April 2012
  • Tony Sobrado social scientist, writer and podcaster on philosophy, science & current affairs

Conservatism as a political philosophy is difficult to define and locate within a philosophical spectrum. From a traditional standpoint it's more a disposition and attitude than a fully fledged philosophy or doctrine. At an obvious first glance the disposition is about the conservation of values and ideals. This is in terms of abstract conceptions which then have ontological consequences in the political realm. This is because these values often become applied to the preservation of constitutions, political institutions, statutory rights and social values.

Instead of teleological goals, Meta universal theories and eternal truths, the doctrine of political Conservatism is best captured by the description of pragmatism. Piecemeal change where required simultaneously accompanies the philosophical mantra of "if it isn't broke don't fix it". In this respect, Conservatism is the most flexible political philosophy. As where classical Liberalism will not retreat from what it sees as inalienable natural rights, Marxism on the distribution of social wealth, for conservatism, at least in theory, there is nothing in the disposition to restrict it permanently to any ideals. Change and response to social and political phenomena comes about by a concoction of necessity and adaptability. This unique perspective allows one to both look to the future and the past with regards to decision making.

Current Conservatism in America takes a somewhat different tone to that espoused on the European continent. There are of course aspects of Conservatism that overlap. For instance fiscal Conservatism is an idiom applicable to both European and American parties. It is often accompanied by a monetarist economic policy with low business and tax regulation as well as minimal welfare expenditure. Outside the economic sphere the resemblances become much more difficult to detect. America, founded on the doctrine of Liberal Government emphasises the separation of the branches of Government, the separation of Church and State and open free and fair elections, is none the less a republic. A Republic in political philosophy is another ubiquitous term. This is due to the different historical and cultural terms applied to the governmental concept over its long past. Thus the American Republic should not be thought of in the same vein as Plato's or Cicero's Republic.

Nonetheless what we see now in America is an aggressive conservative tone propagated by certain leaders in the Republican Party. Instead of being flexible in current situations and being adaptable to the demands of a current economic and cultural context, this Conservative movement only looks to the past. Thus it is Conservative in one sense but lacks the adaptability and malleability administered by European Conservative action.

Now of course these political proposals are shaped by the current political climate. In the face of aggressive Liberal proposals advocated by the current Democratic Party, the Republicans have to play the part of a polar opposite alternative, which means going to the extremes of Conservatism. Ironically, here these Republican policies are shaped by current contexts but not in adapting to them only reacting to them - going back down the conservational path.

The paradox of current American conservative political philosophy is twofold. Firstly the Republicans value both Conservatism and Republicanism often tied to the principles of the founding fathers, the Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence. Here the appeal to antiquity is most apparent but its utility is somewhat erroneous. Take two controversial issues in America over the last few years: stem cell research and homosexual marriage. Instead of being flexible and adapting to change, one might think that exploring stem cell research is a practical modern day necessity that may one day produce better medical results in fighting fatal diseases, the Republicans oppose this. The paradox occurs here because the Republican's are not just being inflexible but its authority for such a position is the recourse to the sanctity of "life". It would be very hard to argue that an embryo is a "life" in a conventional, social manner but technically it is! But more specifically it is a collection of cells and thus a biological organism only classed as a "life" in the same context as say a plant. But the authority of this is based on the Bible in which all "life" is sacred and no entity has dominion over genetic production and its reproduction over than God. This Biblical notion then supersedes the practical approach that a collection of cells is not a conscious being with emotions and a nervous system and perhaps not a full human life. This aspect of Republican ideology is neither malleable, pragmatic or looking to the future. Instead it is stuck in the past using traditional dogma for justification. This makes it paradoxical because the Conservative disposition should be pragmatic and adaptive when looking to the future. However pragmatism is devoid in the argument as the past reigns superior. Thus, paradoxically, it is not conservatism in its full disposition. Instead "if it ain't broke don't fix it" is replaced by "even if it is broken don't fix it because tradition says so".

However this is not the most serious violation of the Conservative political disposition. The deftest paradox occurs in the most illogical and startling way when applied to same sex relationships and marriage. The Republican Party strongly adheres to the Federalist Papers and its emphasis on individual liberty as well as freedom from the intrusion of others in one's own life domain and the choices this entails - and rightly so for the political works of James Madison and co are philosophical precepts that should be upheld by anyone seeking to facilitate protected Liberty in a political community. The Republicans oppose same sex marriage; and here the paradoxes and logical inconsistencies run wild.

Firstly the principle of citizen equality and equality of opportunity is not adhered to for the rule is only applicable to some not all, thus negating the very description of equality. Secondly non infringement on another's individual Liberty is trespassed as homosexuals are dictated their relationship status by others; and if the Republicans were in control, from the State as well. The latter being a contradictory approach to "small" Government. Most prominently with such a claim towards the "unnaturalness" of same sex marriage comes the violation of another American founding principle - the separation of Church and State. This also ties into the paradox in terms of using scripture from the past to warrant validity and justification in the present. The authority is the King James Bible, so the Republicans are not being adaptable to a current situation. Moreover the use of the Bible is the intrusion in the public life by the church. The separation of church and state has vanished and the paradox of American conservative Republicans and its logical inconsistencies are ever apparent. To resolves these political paradoxes the Republicans must at least attempt to answer the questions of equality for "whom and what" and argumentative reasoning based on what grounds exactly? If not they are not being pragmatic and neglecting a fundamental axiom of what the Conservative political disposition is about.