Dennis D. McDonald (ddmcd@ddmcd.com) consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

How "Conservative" is "Radical Nationalism?"

How "Conservative" is "Radical Nationalism?"

By Dennis D. McDonald

How "Conservative" is "Radical Nationalism?"

The July 6, 2019 issue of THE ECONOMIST published an interesting short essay on the history and meaning of political conservatism titled “Briefing: The Self Preservation Society.” The essay provides a brief overview of the current status of what it calls “reactionary nationalism“ around the world based on what is happening politically in the United States and in various European countries:

In America and much of the rest of the rich world, conservative parties have been taken over or challenged by reactionary nationalism. This is a threat not just to the parties involved, but to conservatism as a political idea, at least as it has been understood in the English-speaking world for the past 200 years. Those who have defined themselves in opposition to the right will miss that conservatism when it’s gone.

It’s clear that labels such as “conservative“ are increasingly difficult to define in practice. Why, for example, should it be viewed as “conservative” to consistently promote public and fiscal policies that favor the “haves” over the “have nots”? Why do conservative favor policies that seem to pull the ladder out from under those trying to advance themselves and their quality of life? How can a silver-spoon elitist like Trump possibly present himself convincingly (to some) as a “populist”? Why do conservatives, long thought of as promoting personal responsibility and decisionmaking, feel it appropriate to involve government in private family health decisions? There’s no simple answer to such questions as we attempt to make objective and meaningful distinctions between fuzzy labels like “liberal” and “conservative.”

My own attempts to understand such distinctions and to understand how they relate to phenomena such radical nationalism focus on two variables: Social Darwinism and control of communication channels.

Social Darwinism

The idea behind “Social Darwinism” as it is generally understood is that social groups tend to advance and prosper in relationship to other groups based on their natural (e.g., inherited) abilities. Groups that advance relative to others do so because they are better able to adapt to or take advantage of changing conditions. Conversely, those that are “left behind” do so because they are “deficient” in some way. Thus, so the thinking goes, inequality across groups is a natural occurrence. Those at the lower rungs are there for natural and expected reasons.

Left unstated by this simplistic analysis is whether those at the top have any obligations to those that are not so well off as those at the top.

Exacerbating such distinctions is that, increasingly, “have nots” are of two kinds:

  1. Those “in country” who thought they were playing by the rules but are suffering (for example U.S. coal miners and employees at the closing GMC Lordstown plant).

  2. Those on the outside trying to get in (for example, asylum-seekers at the US borders and the boatloads of refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Africa).

How can you convince the former group that they are in fact more threatened by the latter group than by the system and rules that are placed them at the bottom of the wrong ladder? That’s where communication control comes in.

Communication Control

Controlling messaging is a critical element in today’s media landscape which has evolved through advances in targeted advertising, communication technologies, and social media.

Unfortunately, increasingly the lines are blurred — often intentionally — between fact and propaganda. Messaging rooted in promoting fear of the “other” resonates emotionally with those seeking to focus blame for personal circumstances that are seemingly beyond their control. Shifting blame on to those least able to defend themselves is, as we are seeing in U.S. politics, can be an effective motivating tool.

These two groups — the downtrodden “ins” as well as the desperate people trying to get “in” — are surprising similar in their aspirations. Yet it is a hallmark of modern reactionary nationalism that the former group feels more threatened by the latter than by those claiming that “social Darwinism “ places them where they deserve to be.

What’s odd about this strategy is that once upon a time “personal responsibility” was a major theme of traditional conservatism. Yet here we see radical nationalists, frequently associated with conservatism in the popular consciousness, deliberately focusing blame on “others” who often, it turns out, have brown skin.

False Equivalence

Which gets us back to the difficulty of under standing what terms like “left,” “right,” “liberal,” and “conservative” now mean.

Having been raised in a lily-white middle-class mid-western suburb with 12 years of Catholic school education, I now find that the social values taught by the priests and nuns back then related to equality and social justice are now sneeringly referred to as “liberal” — and therefore not to be trusted — by some on the right.

Unfortunately, much political discourse these days is about “us versus them“ with the wildcard being what we mean by“ us“ and “them.“ This distinction is relevant to understanding the significance about The Economist’s article about reactionary nationalism.

No matter how much people try to treat both sides of every issue as being of equal weight, it’s still necessary to make personal decisions about what is right and what is wrong. For example, no matter how justified you are in thinking it is only right and proper to update US immigration policies and laws, you will never get me to agree that it is right and proper to terrorize young children in order to scare away potential immigrants and asylum-seekers.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Dennis D. McDonald

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