Why conservatives look hypocritical: authoritarianism, Platonism and the fixity of morals

Introduction

On the face of it, the United States Supreme Court rulings defending Masterpiece Cakeshop’s right to refuse service to a gay couple and the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban seem to be based on contradictory interpretations of free religious expression. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that conservative Christians had the right to free exercise and expression of their religion; in Trump v Hawai‘i, the Court ruled that Trump was entitled to exclude people from majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States because of a different religious tradition. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out the seeming contradiction between the Court’s defence of Masterpiece Cakeshop and Trump’s Muslim ban. While I agree with her that it makes no sense to favour one form of religious expression over another, I also believe that the argument she put forward will have little to no effect on the Trump devotees and Christian fundamentalists for whom these rulings are manna from heaven. Conservatives do see these seemingly contradictory rulings as consistent, but this consistency is not based on freedom of expression in and of itself. Rather, it is an ideological consistency: these rulings uphold the primacy of a certain brand of authoritarian American conservatism that is steeped in white, Christian, heteronormative supremacy. It is an illiberal ideology that establishes a clear hierarchy of values within American society. Within this school of thought, the material consequences of the rulings don’t matter; rather, it is the position these people hold within their ideological framework that matters. Like Sotomayor, I agree that the consequences should matter, but this is not how people like Neil Gorsuch or Clarence Thomas think. Understanding this kind of thinking and how it informs conservative jurisprudence is particularly important given that Trump will have another chance to appoint a Supreme Court justice following Anthony Kennedy’s recently announced retirement.

When the free market of ideas is anything but

Let’s talk a little more about what it means for a society to be illiberal. Illiberal societies restrict, or try to restrict, the beliefs, thoughts and behaviour of their subjects. In short, illiberal societies are authoritarian. This is independent of left- and right-wing social and economic ideologies; traditionalist conservative societies and leftist people’s republics can all exhibit authoritarian tendencies. They can be superficially egalitarian or intensely anti-egalitarian. They can have planned economies or loosely regulated capitalist ones. American conservatism—first associated with the Democrats before the ideological shifts of the 20th century that turned the Republicans into the party of naked white supremacy—has a strong illiberal strain that dates back to the era of Jim Crow segregation and ‘separate but equal’. The same applies to Russia and the other former Soviet states, China, Nazi Germany, North Korea, Turkey under Erdogan and Orbán’s Hungary, though the levels of severity vary by country and by time period. That said, however, I will focus primarily on the American Republican Party for expediency’s sake.

Despite these superficial differences, authoritarian societies and the ideologies that drive them share some common features. In authoritarian schools of thought, concepts of morality and right action are fixed entities exist outside the confines of space and time, and are unaffected by the vagaries of shifting social roles or political realities. People, too, belong to fixed classes: bourgeois or proletarians, men or women, the elect and the damned. This fixity can go by many names depending on the specific ideology to which an authoritarian adheres—Platonic ideals, God’s plan, the divine right of kings, Allah’s will, proletarian identity, revolutionary spirit—but the principle can apply to all of them. Many of these ideologies draw directly from Plato’s ideas about reality. Plato hypothesised that everything that existed was based on immutable, perfect forms that existed independently from the reality that we perceive with our senses.

We must conceive three kinds of things: first, those which undergo generation; secondly, those in which generation takes place, and thirdly, the model in whose likeness the generated things are born. And we may compare the receiving principle to a mother, and the model to a father, and their product to a child. […] There is first the unchanging Form, uncreated and indestructible, […] invisible and imperceptible by any sense, and which can be contemplated only by pure thought. (Plato, in Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, p. 21.)

Though these forms are independent of what we can perceive empirically, they also define our reality. Furthermore, Plato thought that anything that deviated from this ideal was a corrupted version of these transcendent, perfect forms. When strict Platonism or ideas based on it are used to create a political philosophy, the consequences are unfree, closed societies that ostracise and punish those who hold dissenting views. In Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper eviscerates Platonism and its intellectual contributions to illiberal ideologies. Popper says the following about Plato and his views on the ideal state and its relationship to the eternal world of forms, which went on to influence Christian doctrine and other Western philosophies that tend towards authoritarianism or absolutism:

Plato believed in the possibility of arresting all political change. […] He tries to realize it by establishing a state that is free from the evils of all other states, because it does not change. It is the best, the arrested state (p. 16).

The things in flux, the degenerate and decaying things, are (like the state) the offspring, the children, as it were, of perfect things. And like children, they are copies of their original progenitors. The father or original of a thing in flux is what Plato calls its ‘Form’ or its ‘Pattern’ or its ‘Idea’. As before, we must insist that the Form or Idea, in spite of its name, is no ‘idea in our mind’; it is not a phantasm, nor a dream, but a real thing. It is, indeed, more real than all the ordinary things which are in flux, and which, in spite of their apparent solidity, are doomed to decay; for the Form or Idea is a thing that is perfect, and does not perish (p. 20).

Modern-day authoritarians, especially right-wing authoritarians, believe that society should either remain the way it was during an idealised period in time, or should return to the status quo ante if society has changed significantly since that period. People whose thoughts or actions stray from those Platonic ideals are excluded from these societies through social exclusion or government fiat. There is no such thing as legitimate dissent. Dissenters are not merely wrong; they are agents of Satan and the united forces of Hell, bourgeois counterrevolutionaries, the Jews, or immoral degenerates who wish to vitiate the Aryan purity of a given western fascist state. Under authoritarian ideologies, people are granted unequal levels of agency and social participation; people who can reasonably adhere to a given unfree society’s dictates or can go through the motions are accorded more status than those who cannot or will not. For example, in Christian fundamentalism, there is no such thing as a legitimate LGBTQ person. Everyone is really straight or gender-normative; they’ve simply chosen to be different, or have been deceived by Satan to believe that they are different. Either way, they are violating God’s ideal template for heteronormative relationships or gender-conforming self-concepts. A conservative philosophy professor and writer, Kelley Ross, refers directly to Platonism as a rationale for his political beliefs. Other authoritarians and conservatives may not refer directly to Plato, but they still share in his intellectual heritage every time they refer to ‘God’s divine plan’ or anything similar. Authoritarian ideologies are therefore closed systems that do not admit alternative points of view. If there is already a fixed view of what moral or ethical behaviour constitutes, then anything that strays outside that view is intrinsically immoral or unethical, regardless of its actual effects on other people. I am not a hard consequentialist and consider intent important when weighing others’ actions, but that is different from the idea that concepts of moral behaviour are hermetically sealed and should not be subject to dissent or argument.

Ignore what the ‘intellectual dark web’ and its loosely organised members say about the marketplace of ideas. They’re being disingenuous. The conservative ideologies they promote or appease seal themselves off from debate, because the very premise of these schools of thought is that co-existence with others is fundamentally impossible unless they change their behaviour and beliefs to match those of the dominant group or groups, because any deviation from the standard is a corruption of their preferred Platonic ideal of what society should look like. Co-existence with the ruling class in an authoritarian state requires that those people unfortunate enough to be considered subalterns within that society genuflect to those rulers. For example, in a fundamentalist Christian theocracy, everyone would have the ‘right’ to express devotion to Jesus or risk being imprisoned, socially ostracised, beheaded or burnt as a witch. There is no such thing as equal co-existence under authoritarian rule. When I speak in favour of marriage equality, trans inclusion or other policies that authoritarian conservatives deplore, this does not mean that I am also arguing for their own establishments to adhere to my own ideology. I am not asking for conservative churches to marry queer couples, change their teachings on LGBTQ people, or ordain transgender clergy. I am not telling them to change their beliefs. Christian theocrats, in contrast, believe that there should be no civil recognition of any relationship that does not adhere strictly to their interpretation of what true Christianity looks like. They do want me to change my beliefs. My participation in civil society as myself is anathema to them; for me to be acceptable, I have to change the way I behave and think. For them, God’s divine authority supersedes civil rights or pluralism. This is the difference between liberalism and authoritarianism. I am not being authoritarian for advocating for my full inclusion in society.

The Republican Party has declared its fealty to Donald Trump, no matter what he says or does. This is in part because Trump is a means to an end. Trump may not actually share any of the actual values that conservative ideologues espouse, but he is a tool to allow them to re-fashion society in their own image. As long as he is useful, they will continue to appease him. As Trump himself has said, ‘I could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and I wouldn’t lose any voters.’ The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, is focused on one thing: power. He doesn’t care about the consequences his actions have on individual people; his goal is to ensure that the Republican party maintains total control over all three branches of the United States federal government. The tendency towards Platonism within the Republican party is enough of a motivator to ensure that they will try to keep power at all costs. After all, allowing the Democrats to have any influence will corrupt American society and cause it to drift further from what they have determined it should be. McConnell, along with Trump and the various personages of the Religious Right, exemplify the stranglehold authoritarian ideology has on his party.

To fight extremist Republicans like Trump, Pence, Sessions and McConnell, it is vital for policy analysts and researchers to understand precisely why they seem so intransigent, even when the actual policies that Republican politicians promote are often out of step with the preferences of American voters, regardless of registered political party. Authoritarian Platonists will not be moved by appeals to rationality, progress, decency or logic. They should be voted out of office. Removing them from power is the only way to stop them.

References

  • Popper, K. The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato.

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