What Is Conservatism?

If you ask me, conservatism is fundamentally about accepting responsibility for one’s actions. If you take some action and something unfortunate results, you step up to the plate and take your medicine. A society built on personal responsibility toward one another is one where government intervention and regulation may be kept at a minimum. Indeed, the more "conservative" a society is, in this laudable regard, the more arguments like that by Tom Paine regarding the government that governs best governs least make the most sense.

It’s been a long time since America enjoyed a responsible conservative worthy of the name. Those who claim its mantle today are oftentimes its worst enemies. Ask yourself: What is conservative about the behavior of those involved in the recent Republican National Committee-sponsored $1,946 field trip to Voyeur, a topless dancer and bondage club? The RNC also spent more than $17,000 for private planes in February and nearly $13,000 for limousines. Other impressive expenditures include $144,549 for rooms at the Four Seasons Resort in Jackson Hole, WY, in 2009 and $31,980 for one day of catering by the Breakers Palm Beach in Florida. But the really impressive accomplishment here is the $13,622 it managed to spend at Dylan’s Candy Bar in New York City.

Of course someone, in the case of the Voyeur trip, Allison Meyers, who was the director of the RNC’s Young Eagles program, was fired. Someone always is. And all future Young Eagle events have been cancelled for the time being. But is that person really accepting "responsibility" for what happened? RNC chair Michael Steele, who also spent $18,000 to redecorate his office and gives personal motivational speeches for tens of thousands of dollars a pop, is going to stay right where he is. (Apparently he even looked into purchasing a private jet with RNC funds.) Where is Steele’s responsibility for all this?

As The Washington Post‘s Chris Cilizza notes, "Steele is the chairman, period. That means that anything that happens at the RNC—good or bad—accrues to either his credit or his detriment." In reality, that’s pretty difficult to discern. Steele has evinced no responsibility whatsoever for what happened at Voyeur and simply sidestepped responsibility by noting that he was not there, did not approve the expenditure, and heck, may not even know this, what did you say her name was again? (And is it mere coincidence that Steele’s reaction to this scandal is almost identical to his reaction to this one just a few weeks earlier?)

To be honest, almost all scandals involving politicians spending donors’ money for tawdry titillation are more fun than important—and this kind of thing has been happening as long as there have been politicians. It may be more fun when conservatives do it because of all that harrumphing about "family values" and the like. But that hardly makes it more significant.

What strikes me as genuinely troubling is not Steele’s unwillingness to take responsibility for the "Voyeur" action, but the host of right-wingers who, of late, appear to want to shift responsibility for far more worrisome actions in a manner entirely antithetical to the belief in personal responsibility conservatives consider a central tenet of their movement.

Take Newt Gingrich, for instance. He insists, as noted on Think Progress, that Democrats "have to take some moral responsibility" for far-right death threats. Since the health care bill’s passage lawmakers have had had white powder mailed to their offices and have had to get police protection. One has received countless death threats. Others have had their buildings vandalized, and one Tea Party blogger has even warned that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) life is in danger and that there may be a "thousand little Waco’s." [sic]

Who is responsible for this egregious breach of the most fundamental aspect of democratic, nay, civilized behavior? According to Gingrich, it is the targets of the violence themselves. The Democratic leadership:

has to take some moral responsibility for having behaved with such arrogance, in such a hostile way, that the American people are deeply upset. So let’s be honest with this. This is a game that they’re playing. People should not engage in personal threats. I’m happy to condemn any effort to engage in personal threats.  But I think the Democratic leadership has to take some real responsibility for having run a machine that used corrupt tactics, that bought votes, that bullied people, and as a result has enraged much of the American people. And I think it’d be nice for President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Leader Reid to take some responsibility over what their actions have done to this country.

If you think that’s amazing—and I do—recall that Gingrich did much of the same blame shifting regarding the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech in April 2007, for which the ex-speaker—who happened to be the most popular guest for the bookers of NBC’s "Meet the Press" in 2009—also blamed the "liberal elite" for creating the atmosphere that led to the shootings. This is the same elite, whom, he has explained, "taught self-indulgent, aristocratic values without realizing that if an entire society engaged in the indulgences of an elite few, you could tear the society to shreds." With a logic like that you really don’t have to take responsibility for anything.

A similar tack could be found in a recent column by New York Times pundit Ross Douthat. Discussing the role of the Catholic hierarchy in enabling literally thousands upon thousands of examples of child abuse—including the abuse of handicapped and deaf children—the author blames not only the conservative Catholic hierarchy who aided and abetted the abuse, but also, "The permissive sexual culture that prevailed everywhere, seminaries included, during the silly season of the ’70s deserves a share of the blame, as does that era’s overemphasis on therapy."

Oh really? Does Douthat think that this abuse began with the birth of bell-bottoms and pet rocks? Can he be unaware that the "culture" of the ’70s had many manifestations—frequently quite conservative—and that most of us managed to avoid sexually abusing vulnerable children during that period? Can he, in fact, point to a single example of such abuse within the Church—or its purposeful cover up—that can be honestly attributed to the "culture" rather than to the willingness of personal and institutional corruption and an unwillingness by this deeply traditional institution to confront it in its midst?

Whatever. How much more convenient it is to blame anyone and anything but those who were responsible for these heinous crimes.

Finally, and perhaps most shocking of all, was the reaction of conservative consigliore William Kristol to the terrorist atrocity that took place in Moscow this week, when two "female suicide bombers set off huge explosions in two subway stations in Moscow" killing more than three dozen people. Kristol, speaking to conservative radio host William Bennett, insisted that the Russians "in some ways have brought" the terrorism "on themselves" because "they’ve been pretty brutal in Chechnya." Well, it just so happens that American soldiers have, sadly, been "pretty brutal" in more than a few places themselves. This kind of thing tends to be unavoidable in war. Does Kristol therefore think this relevant in the case of the purposeful murder of innocent civilians on say, September 11, 2001, as well?

To be fair to all of these conservatives, none of them exactly excused these horrific crimes. They merely sought to help the guilty evade responsibility for their actions. Conservatives used to laugh at liberals who concerned themselves with the social "environment" that allegedly led to criminal behavior. Now their most distinguished intellectuals have embraced exactly this same tactic and expanded it to crimes that are indefensible by almost any standards. It’s not only Tea Partiers and birthers that have sullied this once proud tradition—this fish is rotting from the head down.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.