Leaving Conservatism Behind

The abandoned International Boiler Works, East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania (Nicholas A. Tonelli)

“You see that factory, Matt?” my father would say to me, as we passed a drab building in his pickup truck. “Every time I drive by, I get a little sick in my stomach, like I still have to pull into that parking lot. Never work in a place like that.” He meant the factory he started working at the day after he graduated from high school, the factory that left him with hearing loss, the factory he eventually walked away from after nearly twenty years to start a small business. He had worked swing shifts, pulling glass plates out of fiery furnaces—the factory made windshields and windows for automobiles. No matter how many times my father told me about the place, it felt fresh, his dread and loathing never receding.

That factory also functioned as a practical introduction to American economic life—or at least, central Pennsylvania’s. My father’s father had worked there too, retiring after he rose to a management position. Later I found out my grandfather had retired early—because he was asked to. I can also remember my father being laid off for months at a time, which seemed to happen more and more as I got older. The factory wasn’t unionized either, and workers were warned not to try: my father would tell me about men in suits from the corporate offices showing the employees charts comparing their wages to those, much lower, of foreign workers. The message was clear. By the time my father quit working there and struck out on his own, his job had become a dead end.

These might not seem like conditions likely to produce a young conservative, but they did. My parents were Reagan Democrats who became solid Republicans. The congressional district I was raised in—made up of once-thriving railroad towns and rural farmland—was a safe seat for the GOP. Most of our state representatives and local officials were Republicans too, a splash of red in an increasingly blue state. (It was no surprise to learn that Donald Trump carried over 60 percent of the vote in Blair County, the heart of this congressional district, during the recent Pennsylvania primaries—and that Bernie Sanders bested Hillary Clinton there, too.) Mainly this was for cultural reasons: they were God-and-guns voters who, in a previous era, might have happily voted for Democrats like former governor Robert Casey, but joined many working-class whites in moving right in the 1970s and ’80s. This was a conservatism of the heart—less a set of political and economic doctrines than fierce patriotism and an instinctive suspicion of cultural change, and I made it my own.

This was partly because, despite this blue-collar background, there was a real sense that I would inherit a country that provided more opportunities than my parents had. Neither of them had gone to college, but it was taken for granted that I would. My father’s small business was very small indeed—just him working in a converted garage in our backyard. He never made much money, but he made enough to keep going, and he craved the freedom of being his own boss. And because most of his clients were scattered across the country, and my mother worked for the local public school, my family didn’t directly suffer from the deteriorating economy we saw all around us. It all amounted to a not-quite-implausible story of upward mobility, however tenuous and incremental our gains. We certainly were not middle class, and not even lower-middle class; but in the singular way the nearly-poor take pride in not being genuinely poor, we attributed the distinction to our own thrift and virtue—especially the latter.

 

It wasn’t just growing up amidst factories and farms that made me a conservative. Even more important was faith—an apocalyptic strain of Christianity that stringently upheld “traditional values.” The term “fundamentalist” gets used haphazardly in our debates about religion and politics, a catchall pejorative for Christians deemed to be on the wrong side of history. But we embraced the label. My family’s church described itself as “independent, fundamental, Bible-believing.” It belonged to no denomination, though the label Baptist would have been accepted, with a modifier or two, by most who worshipped there. We used only the King James Bible, and preached a version of the faith that emphasized personal conversion and the impending end of the world. That strange and foreboding text that closes the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, was our guide to the late, great planet earth’s fate. Drinking was forbidden, book-learning viewed with suspicion, and the Bible treated as a literal handbook for life.

Such a faith lent itself to political conservatism in certain obvious ways. On moral and social issues, we reliably sided with the religious right. Abortion was murder, gender roles were rigidly enforced, and the general drift of the culture was viewed with alarm. The belief that America was a “Christian nation”—a heritage our country had supposedly turned its back on—found its way into sermons and Sunday School lessons.

These positions might have had a sharp edge when pronounced by those in our pews, but for the most part there was nothing unusual about them. After all, apart from a few distinctive deviations, these cultural views were well within the historic Christian mainstream, and until the last few decades were taken for granted by most Americans. They were a part of our conservatism, then, but something deeper—and more important—also was at work.

That deeper affinity our faith had for American-style conservatism came from the spirit of voluntarism and individualism that defined this version of Christianity. It held out the prospect that a person could transform their life by “asking Jesus into his heart.” The past could be put away, sins could be forgiven in an instant, and a new life begun with just a simple prayer. Religious experience was direct and unmediated. We had no sacraments that served as the means of grace: tradition was scorned and rituals were condemned as merely human inventions. Even the church was viewed as a kind of local, democratic association. We were “members” of one particular church, not incorporated into the mystical body of Christ.

This vision of the spiritual life was based on an exalted understanding of human freedom. Our wills were not bound and our ultimate fate was dependent on nothing but our own decisions. Sanctification came through individual effort and personal reform. It should be no surprise that this Christianity of the altar call proved a ready ally of all the fantasies and political and economic pieties we nurture about America: our belief in our capacity for self-invention and our trust that nearly limitless rewards could be gained through toil and travail. Suffering was ultimately the result of bad choices. You were, in the most profound sense, on your own.

 

It is far too self-serving to say my conservatism began to falter as soon as I seriously investigated what it really meant. Through college, and even into graduate school, I didn’t hesitate to call myself a conservative. But these political views, when they made contact with the world beyond central Pennsylvania, were almost immediately modified. By the time I graduated from college, I had already grown skeptical of the Republican Party. Instead of the wins and losses of electoral politics, I immersed myself in the work of conservative intellectuals like William F. Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, and Willmoore Kendall. In the name of this more theoretical and even literary conservatism, by the time I started my graduate studies, I was able to criticize liberalism without necessarily defending the George W. Bush administration.

The disastrous consequences of Bush’s two terms as president—the war in Iraq, the sanctioning of torture, his presiding over economic catastrophe—did not immediately lead me to abandon all of my political and intellectual allegiances. What they did do was force me to reexamine the self-satisfied story conservatives told about themselves. Movement orthodoxy instructed that against the tide of statism, contempt for the Constitution, moral relativism, and embarrassment about defending America’s ideals and interests abroad, a small band of intellectuals stood athwart History yelling “Stop!” What began as ideas—especially those found in the conservative journal National Review—became a movement, one that, as the religious right and neoconservatives joined it, would finally achieve political power when Ronald Reagan was elected president. And of course, as the story continued, the Reagan years vindicated conservatism by spurring economic growth and leaving the Soviet Union in the dustbin of history. It turned out ideas really did have consequences.

This heroic tale, so easy to be seduced by, fell apart upon examination. Reading beyond the catechism-like “histories” and hagiographies peddled by those in the movement revealed the rise of conservatism to be a far more complicated, and often more nefarious, development. The potted movement literature brushed aside National Review’s endorsement of white supremacy and segregation, and feigned ignorance of the role of race in conservatism’s ascendency more broadly. Official histories glossed over Buckley’s description of Senator Joseph McCarthy as an heir of the abolitionists; his threatening to punch a “queer” on national television never seemed a problem either. It still barely registers among conservatives that Reagan’s successes often came from resisting people like them: cutting deals with the Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill; leaving the size and scope of the federal government more or less as it was; and defying the hawks in his own party who denounced him for negotiating with the Soviet Union. The many conservative organizations dedicated to proselytizing for “free markets” obscure how the economic “booms” supposedly generated by unleashing capitalism—deregulation and massive tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans especially—have consistently proven to be less durable and widely shared than promised. These are not exhaustive examples.

Most political and intellectual movements understand themselves to be more pristine and virtuous than they are; that sin is not exclusive to conservatives. The sweep and scale of conservative self-understanding does stand out, however. What it offers is not just a hymn of praise to a few magazines and politicians, but a master theory of twentieth-century political history: how America lost its way, and how we found our way back.

This deductive quality of the conservative mind is its most distinctive feature. Certain axioms are true—about the Constitution, about morality, about economics, about our aspirations as human beings—therefore particular policies and courses of action should be pursued. Despite their vaunted claims to grappling with the world as it is, of being mugged by reality, conservatives in America practice a determined anti-empiricism. This is what holds together all the myriad failures of conservative politics: a devotion to first principles that simply must be true, whatever the consequences, and whatever the human suffering left in their aftermath.

The Bush years, then, were not an aberration but a culmination. What mattered to me were not finally the particular instances of bad behavior or misguided political ideas on the right in the early 2000s, but their cumulative force. I came to reject conservatism—fitfully, and without a coherent alternative at hand—because I understood it to be an ideology willfully resistant to reality. The misery caused by George W. Bush and the movement that enabled him mattered both in and of itself and because it revealed the fundamental limitations and failings of conservatism.

 

At least part of what it means to become an adult is seeing your childhood as it really was. Not with perfect clarity, of course: the remembered past always mingles myth with reality, and reflects present preoccupations back into our personal histories. Still, for me, adulthood has come with a belated class consciousness—perceiving my working-class roots for what they really are, and trying to understand what they mean.

When you are young—or at least when I was—you don’t really understand money. You might perceive its lack, or be aware when other families clearly have more of it. But only now do I look back and grasp how much economic circumstances marked my family’s life, as I try to decipher how my parents paid bills or what it meant for them to give me what they did. At the time, it simply was what life was like.

One conversation with my parents clearly stands out to me, and I think about it all the time—even now, over a decade later. I was a senior in college and had been accepted to a few graduate programs. What I didn’t know yet was if I would receive fellowships from any of them—if I would be offered enough money to be able to go. When I came home to visit my parents over spring break, we talked about it: what tuition would cost, what the cost of living would be, what it would take to make it work. I had paid for my undergraduate education with scholarships and student loans, so I knew my family couldn’t foot the bill for an even more expensive graduate degree.

Sitting around the kitchen table, my father said he had an idea. He and my mother would remortgage their house and pay for my graduate school that way. What did I think? Even then, I knew it wasn’t a good idea. They probably did too. And eventually I would be offered a graduate fellowship that provided a way forward. What lingers now is not that it all worked out, but the sheer generosity of what my father proposed, his utter selflessness. But even more, I remember the feeling of desperation, and what it was like to have opportunity thwarted by circumstances I had little control over. It was the first time in my life I remembered my parents wanting to help me, but not being able to.

This was not real deprivation, I know, and there are other, far more terrible situations that show how unchosen limitations can impinge on a life. As I moved farther from home, from college to graduate school, and then to teaching and writing, this sense of how our lives are determined by contingency only deepened. So did my understanding of how precarious working-class life can be.

Strange as it might seem, only in recent years did I realize that it wasn’t normal to come home from middle school to see my father hunched over a sink splashed with blood—he had pulled one of his own teeth because we didn’t have dental insurance. What money we could spare for such care was spent on my sister and me. Only belatedly did I find out that, when my father struck out on his own, and before my mother found work, kind and generous doctors gave us free samples of drugs to cut down on the expense of prescriptions. As an adult, watching my grandparents’ age and their health fail, I’ve seen them sign over their house to a nursing home to ensure care when their savings run out. And only now, having lived in places like Washington, D.C. and Manhattan, do I return home to central Pennsylvania and really see the poverty and even despair that exists there, and not only there.

 

The failure of conservatives to attend to the world as it actually exists, the world in its suffering and hardship, drove me from their ranks. And awareness of how suffering and hardship are so often unchosen and undeserved by those who endure it—and prolonged and deepened by a political system that assumes they are due to failures of “personal responsibility”—moved me to the left. But even more, all this convinced me that turning to class remains the most powerful way to understand and respond to these realities.

It is difficult to imagine another way to explain how, in the same year marriage equality came to all fifty states—a mark of at least one kind of progress—you could read studies showing that death rates for working-class whites were rising, driven by suicide and addiction to painkillers and alcoholism. Or how, almost a decade after the financial crash of 2008, those responsible for the economic devastation are thriving, bailed out with taxpayer money, all while working-class Americans, saddled with debt, try to make do with stagnating wages. Or why, casting a glance at those who depend on government assistance, our politicians blame the morals of the poor for their plight, even as those with power ask our forgiveness for their indiscretions and corruption. Our trade policies, our political priorities, our passion for sending soldiers into the deserts of the Middle East, are best grasped by turning to class: they all serve the interests of those not dependent on wages, or hemmed in by want.

The bromides of “personal responsibility,” the claims of capitalist efficiency and the dictates of “the market,” do little but allow the adversities of working people to be blamed on themselves. What could it mean to working-class people to be told, as one prominent conservative recently argued, that if jobs aren’t readily available where they live, to load up an U-Haul and just move to where work can be found? Such advice could only be premised on a freedom many do not have: the freedom given by already having the resources to afford the moving truck, to be able to pay the security deposit for a new home to live in, to have the time to look for work while raising children. And this is to say nothing of what it means to leave behind the community you are a part of, to strike out on your own without the help of neighbors and friends and nearby family.

Leaving conservatism behind, then, was like leaving behind my youthful fundamentalism. Both conservatism and fundamentalism assume freedom to be the foundation of our lives, not something limited by environment or resources. Both assume that virtue can conquer the brute force of circumstances. And both condemn us to a world where grace must be earned rather than freely given—a view of life that comforts and flatters the successful but can only prove cruel to everyone else.

A class-based politics acknowledges that we are bound in ways we do not choose; that we are constrained in ways that the exertion of our wills may never overcome. This is not to concede too much to defeatism or despair, but to resist making heroism a requirement for a decent life. Class politics is, finally, a form of solidarity, a way of joining together in our shared fallibility and weakness, and shaping our life together accordingly.

The tired platitude that the young, if they have a heart, should be liberal, and the old, if they have a sound mind, should be conservative, turns out to be wrong. Experience has taught me just how much contingency and chance are responsible for what good has come to me in my life. Growing up has meant an awareness that the struggles of so many are not because they lack virtue or ambition, but because we live in a country stacked against their material well-being and interests. And I know, when I think about what the people I love and so many others have endured, that it does not have to be this way.


Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal magazine. He lives in Manhattan.

Join the Dissent community. Subscribe today.

Subscribe now to get your copy of Dissent’s Winter issue, The Future of Work



Want to read our Spring issue for free? Sign up for our newsletter by March 31 to receive a full PDF when the issue launches.


×