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Our ideological confusion, always great, is growing still greater as political conservatism becomes redefined as whatever Donald Trump tweets and political liberalism becomes increasingly indistinguishable from radical leftism.

Clarity on ideological matters can usually be enhanced not just by more precisely defining ideological terms and acquiring a better understanding of political theory, but also by examining what movement from the political "center" to the political "right" or "left" produces.

This is not particularly difficult to do for leftism, which can be rather neatly plotted along the leftward side of the continuum by moving in increments from American Progressivism and European social democracy to democratic socialism and Marxism-Leninism. The further left you go the more hostile the view of capitalism and the greater the desire to maximize state power over the individual.

Things are more complicated on the rightward side, however, because the right can't be represented in increments and forks off sharply to reach ideological positions that have virtually nothing in common with each other, despite the shared "right-wing" appellation.

Along these lines, the earliest strain of self-conscious political conservatism, the European conservatism of the 18th and 19th centuries, was genuinely conservative in the sense of wishing to preserve a feudal order increasingly beset by liberalism on one side and socialism on the other. It stood for monarchal authority and distinct class hierarchies, with a fusion of church and state (or at least deference to ecclesiastical authority) buttressed by a rigid set of social customs and mores. Its desire to preserve the status quo in the face of demands for reform helps explain our everyday understanding of the word "conservative."

That kind of conservatism was largely finished off by the Great War, which destroyed what was left of European monarchy and supposedly made the world "safe for democracy."

As what Louis Hartz famously called the "first liberal nation," America never had much of a feudal order or a form of politics supporting it, with the possible exception of a certain agrarian populist conservatism associated with the Confederacy (the part of America that most resembled in its political culture and social arrangements European feudalism).

As the feudal order faded in Europe in the face of the liberal and socialist challenges, "right-wing" by the interwar years came to be defined by the noxious fascism of Nazi Germany, Mussolini's Italy, and a motley crew of related regimes in Eastern Europe.

The fascism that provoked World War II was thus an ideological mishmash of extreme authoritarianism, worship of state power, anti-Semitism and militarism. It was destroyed by World War II in the same sense as monarchal conservatism was by World War I, although whiffs could still be found thereafter in European politics in the Catholic authoritarianism of Franco's Spain and Salazar's Portugal.

Neo-Nazis might show up in small numbers these days in the streets of Charlottesville but they represent a minuscule percentage of the citizenry, lack political influence, and are reflexively condemned across the political spectrum.

With monarchal conservatism long gone and genuine fascism largely irrelevant since Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, what is now called right-wing, at least in American politics, has become synonymous with conservatism and the Republican Party.

But our ideological confusion deepens when recognizing that the conservatism of Herbert Hoover, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan isn't really conservatism at all but the most direct ideological descendant of the classical liberalism upon which the American experiment is based. In most other democracies, with a more developed understanding of political theory, such folks are more accurately called "liberals" or "neoliberals" rather than conservatives.

The essential "liberalism" of what is mistakenly called American conservatism is best captured by George Will, who recently argued that what American conservatives seek to "conserve" is the American founding, with its core values of the rule of law, individual rights, market economics, and self-government limited by a system of checks and balances.

These are the defining historical values of liberalism, and much more the values of a Goldwater or Reagan than an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders.

As such, there can probably be no political movements more dissimilar than classical liberalism (which includes contemporary libertarianism) on the one hand and European fascism on the other (the central project of the former is limiting state power; for the latter, removing all such limits). And the classical liberalism contemporary conservatives seek to protect is the same liberalism that undermined monarchal conservatism in nation after nation in 19th and early 20th century Europe.

In short, "right-wing," referring as it does to ideological movements as incompatible as Nazism, Jeffersonian liberalism and contemporary libertarianism, has become a meaningless label.

Properly understood within the historical ideological spectrum, American conservatism is not conservatism but classical liberalism. And New Deal liberalism isn't liberalism but part of a broader socialist movement which developed historically apart from and in direct opposition to classical liberalism.

American conservatism is "right-wing" only in the sense of opposing the illiberal left.

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 11/25/2019

Print Headline: What is 'right-wing'?

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