The Modal Conservative

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The Modal Conservative

by Ryan McMaken

Murray Rothbard identified a subspecies of libertarian that he liked to call the "modal libertarian." Rothbard had generally encountered these people in his experiences with the Libertarian Party during the 1970′s and ’80′s. He regarded them as such: “an adolescent rebel against everyone around him: first, against his parents, second against his family, third against his neighbors, and finally against society itself. He is especially opposed to institutions of social and cultural authority: in particular against the bourgeoisie from whom he stemmed, against bourgeois norms and conventions, and against such institutions of social authority as churches.” Needless to say, Rothbard took a rather dim view of this type, and was especially contemptuous of the modal’s unwillingness to read anything other than the "approved" literature of their little libertarian circle (like the latest book extolling the virtues of snorting cocaine or directing porn videos). And, when they weren’t busy reading the same five authors over and over again, they were engaging in debates to determine who was the most "pure" libertarian so that any "dissidents" could be thrown out into the darkness to join their statist brethren.

As disturbing and annoying as these patterns of behavior are, they pale in comparison to the new species of conservative that this war has given birth to: the modal conservative. This kind of conservative unfortunately shares many patterns of behavior with the modal libertarian, but in a Bizarro World kind of way. For those of you unfamiliar with the Bizarro World made famous by the Superman comics, it is described like this: “A planet where alarm clocks dictate when to go to sleep, ugliness is beautiful and the world’s greatest hero is a chalk- faced duplicate of Superman.” You get the idea. The modal conservative works just like the modal libertarian, but everything is somehow turned upside down. If we give Rothbard’s treatment of the modal libertarians the "Bizarro Treatment," we end up with something like this: "a middle-aged conformist demanding the same of everyone around him: first, from his parents, second from his family, third from his neighbors, and finally from society itself. He is especially supportive of institutions of political and military authority: in particular the Cold War military establishment that he grew up with, jingoist norms and conventions, and he is always in favor of such institutions of political authority as the CIA and other federal police.”

You can see the chilling similarities, yet where the modal libertarians are more or less content to stick to their basement bedrooms (except when some new "civil rights" issue arises in which case they’re all about making life miserable for those "religious fanatics" that dare to pray in public), the modal conservative sits up nights and worries that someone somewhere out there might not be "loving his country" the way he thinks they should. He will combat this, not by deserting the government schools as a modal libertarian might, but by passing legislation to teach children "patriotism" and a proper love of one’s governmental betters. He also might get himself on the local textbook committee to ensure that no book ever suggests that the United States government has ever done anything wrong in its entire history. Your average modal conservative might be found any given day installing a flag pole in his front yard, watching lots and lots of TV news (but rarely reading), quoting tired historical platitudes that he learned in eighth grade history class (e.g., "If we hadn’t nuked Hiroshima, we’d all be speaking Japanese!"), or beating up some "hippie" for refusing to stand up during the national anthem at a sports event.

Like the modal libertarian, these modal conservatives tend to get all their information from the same five people, who in this case are "conservative pundits." And, should they ever read a book (they sometimes make it halfway in), it will surely be by either Rush Limbaugh (whom they consider to be some kind of intellectual), Sean Hannity, Michael Savage or some other AV club geek turned radio personality who now makes a living out of being "politically incorrect."

These modal subgroups also tend to define themselves more by the ideas they hate than by the ideas they actually have. In the case of the libertarian variety, the modals hate people who they consider to be "statists" including but not limited to: government employees (whether local, state, or federal), Democrats, Republicans, socialists, yuppies, people with children, many heterosexuals, some homosexuals, Christians, and Starbucks Coffee patrons. Modal conservatives on the other hand, have unbounded disdain for people they call "liberals" who include: Democrats, federal employees (except military personnel and Republican presidents), socialists, hippies, young people, intellectuals, Catholics (especially clergy), people without children, many homosexuals, some heterosexuals, lawyers, and independent coffee house patrons. (Note the overlap.) Both types of modals consider any of the "enemy groups" as not simply believers in bad ideas, but as generally bad people, and in the case of the conservative variety, nothing can compare to the evil of one who is "unpatriotic," as such people must be brought up immediately on charges of treason. Or worse.

Unfortunately, in both cases, the modals end up giving their respective movements a bad name. For example, there are conservatives out there like Paul Craig Roberts and Robert Novak who have nothing in common with your average modal conservative, and yes, there are even some wise non-modals at National Review (although I won’t risk a lynching by mentioning them here). Unlike their libertarian counterparts, however, there actually seem to be millions of modal conservatives who buy virtually everything that they are spoon fed by the FOX news channel and the daily spread of war propaganda in the local newspapers. This makes them particularly hard to combat.

Unfortunately, there is no way to predict how long these conservative modals will continue to reproduce themselves, or how long they will continue to slavishly vote Republican and endure more taxes and less freedom in the name of being "patriotic." One can only hope that the "young people" they so despise will breed them out, but by then, we will surely have some new anti-intellectual brain-dead subspecies with which to contend.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] writes from Colorado. His personal web site can be found here.

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