Liberals, Conservatives And The Radical Right

 Americans’ misuse of language is a major contributor to our broken politics. Over the years, terms that originally conveyed a more-or-less specific meaning have been emptied of content and turned into labels and epithets. 

Take “liberal.” I used to define my own political orientation as that of an “18th Century liberal” –someone whose political philosophy was shaped by the libertarian premise underlying the Constitution and Bill of Rights–in order to distinguish myself from post-FDR liberals who favored a more activist state.

That political philosophy led me to be a Republican, because “18th-Century liberalism” was then a definition of conservatism. The GOP certainly had “fringe” folks who were racist and anti-Semitic, but the mainstream of the party defined conservatism as limited government. (To quote Barry Goldwater, Republicans believed that government didn’t belong in either your boardroom or your bedroom.)

As Danielle Allen explained on a recent podcast, there have always been varieties of liberalisms.

But you have to start, of course, from the core: the commitment to basic human rights. And then, for me, the question is which categories of rights are at the focus of any given liberalism. You have your liberalisms that really focus on things like freedom of expression, or freedom of contract and free market participation. Philosophers will call those the “negative freedoms”—freedom from interference. Then you have varieties of liberalism that focus on the right to participate, to vote, to run for office, to help shape your community. Philosophers call those the “positive liberties.”

As I have grown older, and watched the effects of Neoliberalism–a radical form of 18th-Cantury liberalism focused on minimizing the influence of government through deregulation, privatization and austerity- -I’ve come to appreciate the importance of government in protecting those positive liberties.

As Professor Allen explained, in ancient times, the right to participation was considered a part of the human good.

The actual experience of empowerment is a component of human flourishing. I am making the case that we need to recover that idea. Absent that idea, our politics is paternalistic and technocratic…. I think precisely because it’s paternalistic and technocratic, it works incredibly well for elites. But for those who have been subject to oppression and domination over time, the point to be made—and it doesn’t matter if it’s David Walker, Frederick Douglass or WEB Dubois—is that we will own and direct and steer our own lives. That requires empowerment at a collective level and it’s not just instrumental. It’s not just about self-protection. It’s about full human dignity…

It is really important to recognize that today’s GOP is “none of the above.” Principled conservatives–a/k/a 18th Century liberals–have fled the party, which is now a chaotic alt-right amalgam of racists, conspiracy-theorists and authoritarians,  unimpeded by the few remaining, spineless remnants of the party’s former establishment.

The alt-right, too ,has a “philosophy.” It  draws inspiration from little known figures on the fringes of history. There was Oswald Spengler, for example, an intellectual who celebrated the “heroic” culture of the West.

Spengler asserted that culture was in danger of being overwhelmed from within by lack of confidence and loss of a sense of identity–and from without by the “downtrodden races of the outer ring,” who had begun to move from the periphery to the center, armed with the technologies shared with them by the West owing to what Spengler characterized as misguided liberal values.

Julius Evola celebrated “tradition, hierarchy, inequality, the superiority of the master class” and the natural state of community that liberalism, democracy, and socialism had destroyed with their glorification of reason, which drained the world of meaning. For Evola, race was destiny.

Francis Yockey, a virulent anti-Semite, argued that world domination is the essential drive of western culture, and the people of the West must live up to that destiny or witness their culture lose its “vitality.”  

Alain de Benoist of France inspired the Great Replacement Theory, which holds that immigration represents an “existential threat” to the white community and is part of a conspiracy to water down and eventually replace the white race as the dominant race in western societies.

Samuel Francis was obsessed with the idea that “the civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people.”

Most MAGA Republicans, of course, are unaware of the current party’s “intellectual” roots. They are neither liberal nor conservative–just fearful, angry and destructive.

It’s unfair to conservatives to call today’s GOP “conservative.” It is anything but.


  1. I’ve heard of some of these people, not all, and the ones I do know of I don’t have much regard for…..or even curiosity to dig deeper. I find most of it splitting hairs boring.

    What I consider most is whether a philosophy….or religion …..or whatever someone wants to call it…..promotes inclusivity or exclusivity. I have no truck with exclusivity. Another guiding principle is does it ultimately mean good? For all, not just a few. I can’t think of any religion or philosophy that is both exclusive and means well for all people (unless its BS at its core.)

    From where I sit, the Radicals mean well only for an exclusive set of people. Count me out. Unfortunately, Republicans, at least in the 20th century and beyond, have always enabled the Radicals whether they were conscious of it or not. I’m sure they meant well, but look where we are.

  2. An essential part of my morning is pinion coffee ‘imported’ from New Mexico and read Heather Cox Richardson and Sheila Kennedy. I do not compare. I am enlightened by both perspectives. I grew up in a West Texas Democrat family that means to be anchored by progressive conservatism. I am stimulated on the rare occasion to be at the table of civil discourse among moderate Republican and Democrat informed debate. Utopian? If I dream I seize the moment when it happens. It is a dream I wish for our grandchildren. Thank you, Shiela.

  3. Ms. Allen’s statement; “But you have to start, of course, from the core: the commitment to basic human rights.” is a simplistic definition of democracy which the current GOP has twisted to mean THEIR personal basic human rights. They have drawn into their web of lies, those who have always believed their way is the only way and they have the inalienable right to have their way to “…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” They have bastardized the 1st and 2nd Amendments to switch the entire foundation of the GOP. I watched it happen in the 1980s while working in Mayor Hudnut’s Republican administration in Indianapolis; as a Monitor in the Division of Community Services (a Division of the Mayor’s Office) of multi-service, senior and health centers funded in part by the federal government. The three-day annual Social Services Convention began the day after Reagan was elected president; this threw the entire convention into a panic knowing he would end the much needed federal funding to help those in need…all of those in need throughout the nation. Many of us were up all night trying to find solutions to coming problems taking care of basic needs of all people seeking help. At that time only the Hispano-American Multi-Service Center worked with immigrants, all immigrants; their English as Second Language (ESL) classes taught English to classes of a mix of immigrants. Working with Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) they worked toward being granted citizenship as well as providing food, clothing, housing, jobs and other basic needs as provided in all other centers in Marion County.

    Is providing basic needs for all humans “Liberalism”? And is denying those in need and the majority of average Americans by requiring specific qualifications such as age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion and political affiliation “Conservative”? Being “Liberal” has become a dirty word with more than four letters.

    It’s unfair to conservatives to call today’s GOP “conservative.” It is anything but.

  4. Terry – kudos for stating clearly why clattering over political ideology distracts us from considering individual behavior. People are always in my face over our project, CommonGoodGoverning, occasionally supporting GOP US House candidates in primaries. We have to do that due to gerrymandering. No DEM would have a chance in the general election in these districts. So, there in the primary sit, say, Marjorie Taylor Greene (or her ilk) and Adam Kinzinger (or his ilk) running against each other. Simple for us…wouldn’t the country be better off with Adam in DC?

  5. A saying attributed to Aesop goes “We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great thieves to office.” Not much has changed over the years, has it?

  6. An excellent commentary and call for those that call themselves conservative to be aware of the anti-semitic racist writers in the west. Notably most of these people look at skin color and not the internal quality of a needed diverse population. But what is notable in history is that irs also commonplace for may of those who teach or make racist comments get dismissed. There are those in the MAGA movement that have shown up, but they need to be found called out and removed and separated from that movement. The MAGA movement historically was blue collar working people were bing displaced or left behind by government policies.
    The left has its own radicals that are continuing the destruction of the blue collar worker that is being ignored today. But that isnt just the the white population. Its also the black community that sees its political ties as being abused. They are beginning to understand the massive amiunt of national debt is a problem and that politicians on both sides are betraying them. They see clearly more now than ever the cost of government doing business hits them in the purchase power of their pocketbook.
    The radicals on the left were called out by Elon Musk for getting the cart before the horse. The hindrance of energy independence by the current administration reduced not only the US fossil fuel supply, but reduced world wide the energy supply. This empowered Putin to make a move on Ukraine that was” being corrupted” by western influence.
    Frinds in Switzerland Spain and Germany give clear distrust to the ability ofvyhe current administrations wisdom as its supply from Russia being cut off spiked the price as demand after Covid shutdowns increase.
    What we are now seeing is an expulsion of greenies from government as their policies are causing people to shut down farms and cut down trees as a souce of heat for their families in their homes. Its a matter of survival driven by miscues from geopolitical view no one in the media wants to hear. The Russo- Ukranian Conflict or War better put was caused by weakness in the US policy.
    Conservatives do need the help of those like you Professor Kennedy to be aware of those who need to be separated from their movement and apparently from what Ive read historically these people are being set aside or dismissed. But my question is to those who voted for Biden, didnt you see the anti segregation remarks, the calling black children cock roaches, the comments of a problematic racial jungle?
    His plagarism noted in 1988 and his removal from that race somehow didn’t stick. He is now President with very few ideas of his own and in my humble opinion an international embarrassment for our country as much as or worse than the last President as many claim.
    But what is western culture? Thats the real question. Darwins book is titled Not Only the Origins of Species, but also includes an idea of racist thought in its title “And the Preservation of “the most favored race. The idea of evolution used by Germans in South Africa according to Reverend Dietrich Boenhoeffer does need to be rooted out.

  7. The following excerpt properly summarizes the current state of the U.S. House of Representatives:
    “Most MAGA Republicans, of course, are unaware of the current party’s “intellectual” roots. They are neither liberal nor conservative–just fearful, angry and destructive.”

    And this summary statement gives these people the benefit of the doubt that they actually possess some sort of awareness. For example: The DeSantis exclusivity club is now going after the New University in Florida because it is “woke”. They want to engineer a state university “for conservative families”. Sure. Right. The De Santis crowd are anything but conservative. They embody radical, reactionary narcissism and ideology.

    If that’s where the GOP is headed – along with the MAGA morons in the House – then one of two things will happen. (1) They will burn themselves to a crisp from their own stupidity and self-serving incompetence, or (2)The uninformed voters who put these fools in power will continue to pour fuel on the destruction of democracy and our Constitution.

    Always remember that everything Republicans (Not conservatives) touch is destroyed. All we have to do for proof is examine the events surrounding the 2007-08 economic collapse. I’ll bet even Norris remembers that.

  8. Vernon; neither are they “intellectual” on any level, FIFTEEN VOTES to hand the gavel to McCarthy and all he gained was that gavel. He gave up all of his promised Speaker foundation to the Freedom Caucus who will control him and the House Committees. Stopping a fist fight on the House floor before it could begin between votes should have been allowed to happen; how better to see their true solution to all issues as they carry out their plans to investigate the investigators of their January 6th insurrection which was stopped before it could succeed in its plan to overturn the election results by violence. They are street fighters with a thug mentality and none of us are safe from their “fearful, angry and destructive” basis; there is the possibly of a consolation in that basis for they are not safe from one another within the GOP beyond the House.

  9. My bet is that DeMentis is going after the New School in order to capture more Koch money, including funding for his 2024 run. As usual, our legislature is standing on its head to accommodate his dreams, reversing positions they took defending the New School just a few years ago. It can’t be called conservative, so let’s just call it cynical.

  10. When you are a puppet for the oligarchic donors, it doesn’t require much intellect or understanding of anything intellectual. You do what you’re paid to do.

    Vern likes to call them “reactionary,” but that term fits all politicians in Washington. The alt-right GOPers have a media and a base following them. They must appeal to this crowd. They are actors.

    Behind each political faction in Washington are donors paying to get what they want. The politicians are, thus, reactionary puppets. They each appeal to corporate media outfits that target viewers who support one faction or another.

    None of the modern-day politicians requires intellect or knowledge of their philosophical roots. However, they need to know how to please donors – even the so-called dark money donors.

  11. I have noticed a recent propensity of very conservative people to recently start calling themselves 18th century liberals.

    It’s an interesting attempt at what the Prof mentioned at the beginning – taking advantage of words having a slippery meaning. Grafting the word “liberal” onto a hard-right personality is kind of a cleaver turn of phrase to make someone seem reasonable and the other, plain old “liberals” seem like the unreasonable ones.

  12. Using broad concepts as narrowly defined stereotypes in order to label others seems to be the “sound bites” of today (in most all fields). Could be a lack of a broad education; few challenging personal life experiences; attunement with the loudest voices; excitement experienced by the “drama” of the competition/fight; et cetra. So on it goes. Seems to me rather like the flooding in CA and Pakistan and elsewhere; only not with water (but with emotional engagement).

    Thank you Sheila, for looking at how we each interpret others words, and ideas, by our own understanding of the meaning of the “word” or language. A very thought provoking offering for me.

  13. We use one or two word labels for complex things in order to facilitate communication. Such labels are necessarily imprecise and subject to a variety of interpretations. It is disruptive to our sense of community when such labels are used as epithets and to support tribal thinking. It’s common to substitute name-calling for civil discourse. We should reject that in ourselves as vigorously as we do in others.

  14. Sharon – excellent to point out that ideological labelling is a key root cause of our loss of community, which some believe is what will destroy the American democracy.

  15. Evola, Yockey, Benoist, and Francis may have believed those things, but that dies not mean that
    those things, as you present them, are not full of erroneous assumptions. Benoist’s is, perhaps, the
    easiest to puncture, with the idea of immigration as a “conspiracy,” though I must admit that I do not
    know from which cesspool of idiocy he gregded this up. Immigration, as the way my grandparents got
    here, and, probably, most of yours, had nothing to do with conspiracy, but with a search for a better
    quality of life. My grandparents, all 4 of them, came here in 1906, as part of a massive wave of eastern
    Europeans seeking that life. The earlier mass immigration of Irish people was a result of the potato
    famine on the late 1800’s.
    Yes, a hell of a conspiracy! Naturally, the secret conspirators found a way to devastate the potato
    crop, JUST SO the Irish would come here…yeah, we know that!!

  16. I have always faulted our use of these political terms. The classic political science texts of my younger years were very clear in labeling the spectrum of political views from Reactionary, Conservative, Centrist, Liberal, and Radical.

    Nobody uses the word Reactionary, no matter how far to the right the GOP has gone, and I am sorry – the existence of a Radical left is very small, none of whom have joined the Democratic Party. AOC, who is a rhetorical bomb thrower, supports policies that reflect FDR’s Second Bill of Rights – center left, even on the left end of center left, but not “radical”.

    Even today, even on “liberal” MSNBC, they call any non-MAGA Republican a “moderate”, although those, like Cheney, are far from “center right”. They call Blue Dog Democrats/Third Way/Clintonistas as “moderate” even though they support shrinking government, balanced budgets, and slow social progress (don’t ask, don’t tell anyone?) – AOL is part of the “radical left” of course.

    Refusing to name the change has been like the mythical frog in a pot of water slowly set to boil.
    So now, the water is boiling and we still call the GOP “conservative”. That is an insult to real Conservatives, and dangerous for our country.

    Note to Lester – I agree with you if you can find the Kinzingers. I just fear that there are too many Youngkins, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and too many enablers (Let’s stack the courts with reactionaries, moderate Senator Collins). I prefer to put my effort into electing good Democrats. As soon as the GOP gets a couple of total rejections, and people start to see what infrastructure bills and Chips bills do, the MAGAs will either get pushed out by rational Republicans, or they will go the way of the Whigs and be replaced by a rational center right party.

  17. JoAnn, the same thing happened to those of us attending post secondary schools under the GI Bill when Reagan was elected. I started making a photo copy of my GI Bill request as invariably my first one would be denied. The second one, an exact copy of the first one, would be approved. Those of us going to school became aware the Reagan regime was doing its best to aggravate the veterans and make them drop out of school. We also learned VA employees were being paid bonuses for causing veterans to give up and quit applying for the benefits that we EARNED. I received 45 months (5 school years)of schooling since I am a combat veteran. Those who are not combat vets were only eligible for 36 months of education (4 school years). I was able to attend college, earn my BS and half of my MS on the GI Bill. Without it I don’t know how I would have financed my education. What this did for me was solidify my membership in the Democratic Party as before Reagan I voted for the candidate, not the party. I have not and will not vote for a R ever since Reagan and have become more liberal than ever. I’m essentially a Democratic Socialist just like Bernie. I support capitalism, but only when and if it is highly regulated like it is in the Scandinavian countries. BTW, money is NOT speech and companies are NOT people.

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