A History of Conservative Panic
The funniest thing over the last couple of weeks in the world of politics is no longer the Republican Presidential nomination, which for several months in a row has been the best sitcom on TV. But the building panic from conservatives about Occupy Wall Street has replaced the presidential race as the most delightful show to watch. Eric Cantor is talking about mobs in the street, and Glenn Beck is doing maybe his best meltdown ever (and that’s saying something, because Beck has had some doozies). Conservatives by the truckload are freaking out all over the place.
What makes it even more fun for me is that their panic exactly echoes the kind of panic conservatives have always shown about the idea of democracy and taking on the monied interests throughout American history. In my book on the history of the American political debate, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, I discussed how conservatives throughout our history have always echoed each other on these subjects no matter what the era. Here’s a sampling:
- Written in 1776 by a pro-British Anglican Bishop: “If I must be enslaved let it be by a King at least, and not by a parcel of upstart lawless Committeemen. If I must be devoured, let me be devoured by the jaws of a lion, and not gnawed to death by rats and vermin.”
- In the 1790s, friend of the big New York bankers of his day Alexander Hamilton was at a dinner party, and yelled at a pro-democracy advocate: “Your people, sir – your people is a great beast.” An ally of Hamilton’s wrote: “A democracy is scarcely tolerable at any period of natural history. Its omens are always sinister. … It is always on trial here, and the issue will be civil war, desolation, and anarchy. No wise man but discerns its imperfections, no good man but shudders at its miseries. No honest man but proclaims its frauds, and no brave man but draws his sword against its farce.”
- In the 1830s, conservative hero John C. Calhoun (who first forged the bond between the idea of states’ rights and conservative politics) wrote: “The will of the majority is the will of a rabble. Progressive democracy is incompatible with liberty.”
- In the post-Civil War era, where the right-wing philosophy of Social Darwinism reigned supreme, conservatives were distressed about the idea of poor and working people voting and then taking from the rich. Charles Adams wrote, “Universal suffrage can only mean in plain English, the government of ignorance and vice – it means a European, and especially Celtic, proletariat on the Atlantic Coast; an African proletariat on the shores of the Gulf, and a Chinese proletariat on the Pacific.” And his contemporary Francis Parkman added, “There is probably no sweeter experience in the world than that of a penniless laborer … when he learns that by casting his vote in the right way, he can strip the rich merchant … of a portion of his gains.”
- These anti-democratic sentiments certainly did not cease in the modern era — all you have to do is look at all the Republican efforts to deny the right to vote to so many citizens to understand that. And their fears of demonstrators are vivid. Look at this quote, which certainly reflected the views of people in power like Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, from conservative author Samuel Huntington in a report he wrote in the 1970s: “Some of the problems of governance in the United States today stem from an excess of democracy. ... A democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and non-involvement on the part of some individuals and groups.”
From the anti-American Revolution Tories of the 1770s to the Glenn Beck/Eric Cantor conservatives of today, conservatives always have been on the side of the wealthiest and most powerful in society, and always have been absolutely panic stricken when people get out in the streets to protest the abuses of the rest of us by the economic elites. Conservatives don’t like democracy; they don’t want the poor or the young or people of color to vote; they don’t like demonstrators raising hell about the powers that be. The panic by these conservatives is, as I said at the beginning of this post, as funny as can be: you can’t make up stuff as genuinely unhinged as Glenn Beck's reaction to Occupy, he is far funnier than any satire of him could be. More importantly, though, the reactions of these conservatives — so like the reactions of conservatives throughout American history who have been on the wrong side of every big issue — give reassurance that the folks at Occupy Wall Street are on the right side of history.