Ted Frier

Ted Frier
April 02
Ted Frier is an author and former political reporter turned speechwriter who at one time served as communications director for the Massachusetts Republican Party, helping Bill Weld become the first Bay State Republican in a generation to be elected Governor. He was Chief Speechwriter for Republican Governor Paul Cellucci and Lt. Governor Jane Swift. Ted is also the author of the hardly-read 1992 history "Time for a Change: The Return of the Republican Party in Massachusetts." So, why the current hostility to the Republican Party and what passes for conservatism today? The Republican Party was once a national governing party that looked out for the interests of the nation as a whole. Now it is the wholly-owned subsidiary of self interest. Conservatism once sought national unity to promote social peace and harmony. Now conservatism has devolved into a right wing mutation that uses divide and conquer tactics to promote the solidarity of certain social sub-groups united against the larger society while preserving the privileges of a few.


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DECEMBER 31, 2011 1:02PM

Conservative Catholic Santorum Rejects Democracy

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Rick Santorum's surprisingly strong homestretch finish in Iowa serves as a reminder to me of just how creepy this former Pennsylvania Senator really is.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a practicing Catholic, too, who regularly reads at mass. But while most practicing American Catholics define themselves as belonging to the "Cafeteria" variety of the faith who pick and chose which parts of Catholic doctrine to consume, Santorum is like those obsequious types we'd meet in parochial school who were so eager to please the parish priest they'd eat everything on their plate.  

And let's face it. Whatever else you think of Catholic theology, in its political doctrines orthodox Catholicism's relationship with democracy is problematic at best. The problem begins, for Santorum and for Catholicism, with their view of the composition of society and how this view manifests itself politically. Since for Santorum and conservative Catholics the family is at the center of society, their view of politics - even democratic politics - is inevitably paternalistic as well.

In a recent campaign stop at a sports bar in Iowa, for example, the New Republic reported that Santorum was once again declaiming on his signature theme -- the decline of the family as the root cause of most of the country's woes: "Thirty years ago the percentage of people married over the age of 18 in America was 71 percent. Today it's 51 percent. As the family breaks down we have to build more prison. As the family continues to break down, we're going to build more prisons and we're going to be less free. Ladies and gentlemen, this is what's at stake. We have a president who explicitly accepts this."

But it's not just with President Obama or the Democratic Party that Rick Santroum takes issue. He's up against centuries of Western political evolution. For what Santorum and conservative Catholicism cannot abide is the very foundation of liberal democratic societies based on popular sovereignty, consent of the governed, civil rights and individual free will and autonomy.    

This often leaves Santorum sounding like some village scold out of the Dark Ages.

In a Washington Monthly review of Santorum's book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, William Galston accuses this Opus Dei-leaning Catholic of indulging in "serial caricatures" of his liberal opponents that are "rooted in the conservative echo chamber that is an increasingly prominent part of Beltway political culture."

Thus we learn from Santorum, says Galston, that liberals want to "pulverize" the nuclear family and discourage economic self-sufficiency. We also learn that liberals are hostile to work and ordinary morality. These are just the tip of a mountainous iceberg of insults which Santorum heaps on liberalism as an "ideology" that contrasts sharply with the "common sense" of conservatism. And by "common sense" what Santorum really means is that conservatism is instinctive and automatic, its beliefs inherited from centuries-old traditions maintained by institutions constructed like the paternalistic family - institutions just like, in fact, the Catholic Church.

Santorum's family (and father) centric views are perfectly conventional as sociology. We all did begin as small families, clans and tribes before organizing ourselves into more complex nation-states held together by rule of law instead of kinship ties and family myths. But as political science the implications of Santorum's organic worldview are radical when extended to the workings of modern, pluralist, liberal democracies with their emphasis on free will and individual rights. And isn't this what we really mean by the separation between church and state?

The quarrel between liberals and conservatives, as Professor Mark Lilla has written, "is essentially a quarrel over the nature of human beings and their relation to society."

Conservatives believe the essential fact about sociology and politics is that human beings are born into already functioning societies which are prior to the individuals who inhabit them and therefore deserve the priority of place. To these conservatives, says Lilla, "the unit of political life is society, not individuals, who need to be seen as instances of the societies they inhabit."

Conservatives draw their politics from the implications of this relationship between societies and the individuals who are mere "instances" of them. As Lilla says: "Conservatives have always seen society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for; we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights."

Liberals on the other hand "give individuals priority over society, on anthropological as well as moral grounds," says Lilla. "They assume that societies are genuinely constructs of human freedom, that whatever we inherit from them, they can always be unmade or remade through free human action."

Liberals are not revolutionaries or radicals bent on destroying the family or undermining everything that is good and holy, as reactionaries like Rick Santorum suggest. Those rants are more an extension of Santorum's own right wing extremism than they are a reflection of liberalism's actual beliefs.

But it is true, as Lilla says, that liberals are temperamentally "suspicious" of appeals to custom or tradition, "given that they have so often been used to justify privilege and injustice."

Despite the "if it feels good do it" slanders which conservatives frequently hurl at liberals, Lilla says that both liberals and conservatives recognize the need for social restraints on individual behavior. The difference is that, unlike conservatives who get their codes of conduct from their faith traditions or church hierarchy, liberals believe the arbitrary and capricious whims of individuals are better kept in check by impartial and universally-applicable "principles" that transcend particular societies and customs.  

For liberals, in other words, says Lilla, "principles are the only legitimate constraints on our freedom."

And it's these principles which allow liberals to build larger communities composed of very different groups while conservative with their more limited beliefs can only reinforce the group solidarity of the communities they already have.

This debate between liberals and conservatives has been raging for centuries and is basically unresolvable. That is because the logical extension of liberalism is anarchy just as the logical extension of conservatism is tyranny. Luckily, we don't live on the logical periphery but in the real world where the resolution of the balance between legitimate demands of the community and the individual is the stuff of everyday democratic politics.

Inconvenient for conservatives however, says Lilla, is the fact that American assumptions today about human nature and society are unfailingly liberal.

"We take it for granted that we are born free, that we constitute society, it doesn't constitute us, and that together we legitimately govern ourselves," says Lilla.  

Most intellectuals who call themselves conservatives today "accept as self-evident the truths enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, which no traditional European conservative could" that humans are born equal and free and with an equal right to life, liberty and happiness.

True, American conservatives draw from the European conservative tradition when writing about "the constructive role of civil society, the habits and mores needed to exercise liberty, and the limits of government action."

But these are not "real" conservatives that Europeans with their much longer history of ideological conflict would recognize, says Lilla, but rather "go-slow, curb-your-enthusiasm liberals like De Tocqueville."

Rick Santorum is a real conservative, the product of the genuine Catholic conservative tradition he represents. Santorum, like most real conservatives, cannot accept that the American political system is based on the "social contract theory" of John Locke and others in which free and autonomous individuals come together and by ceding powers and authority that belong to them by nature form a nation and a government to watch over them.

Drawing heavily on pre-Vatican II Catholic social thinking that lacks  Catholicism's later emphasis on social justice and individual conscience, Santorum attacks liberal individualism for its blindness to the essentially "social nature" of human beings who liberals see as free and independent.

For conservatives like Santorum, the family is the basic unit of society -- not the individual -- and so a society's political structure must be familial and paternalistic as well. And that means it cannot be democratic, as democracy is typically understood.

In Santorum's view, writes Galston, "individual rights take their place within, and are subordinate to, institutions and practices that promote the common good. In the last analysis, republican government rests more on virtue than on freedom; otherwise put, genuine freedom is oriented toward virtue and especially toward duty and self-sacrifice."

This is a paternalistic and anti-popular worldview that is not likely to score Rick Santorum many points either outside the Republican Party or within it, especially when GOP leaders seem intent on trying to defeat Barack Obama based on making the 2012 election a referendum between "freedom" and "statism."

And so, like most right wing Catholic and Christian fundamentalist theocratic thinkers who want to remain relevant within a liberal, democratic political tradition whose underlying assumptions about individual free will and autonomy they detest, Rick Santorum must engage in elaborate feats of rhetorical legerdemain to redefine "freedom" as the freedom to obey one's church, or to qualify "liberty" as the "ordered  liberty" which liberates moral virtue from sinfulness, or democracy itself as an American People exercising their ancient rights of political sovereignty by subordinating themselves to their God and to the church elders who speak on God's behalf.  

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