Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said, “In its most important aspects, the Constitution tells the current society that it cannot do [whatever] it wants to do.” Conservatives let the dead rule the living. (More)

A Different World, Part I – “Giving the Dead Their Vote”

This week Morning Feature explores the conservative mindset. For all their rhetoric about individualism and freedom, conservatism is at its core authoritarian. Today we explore the conservative penchant for claiming the authority of the dead. Tomorrow we’ll revisit the conservative moral equation and see why It’s Okay If You’re One Of Us is not hypocritical in their framework. Saturday we’ll discuss how better understanding the conservative worldview and moral equation helps us be better Fred Whisperers.

We progressives often say conservatives are irrational and immoral. And they are, as seen from a progressive worldview and evaluated with a progressive moral equation. But rationality and morality are not objective, and conservatives have a very different worldview and moral equation. Within their frames they are rational, moral heroes fighting to save society … and we are irrational degenerates bent on destroying it.

In order to convince Fred – our archetypal median voter – to be more progressive, we must advocate for our progressive worldview and moral equation, and understand the conservative alternatives well enough to draw sticky contrasts.

Tradition: “democracy extended through time.”

Justice Scalia’s “original intent” approach – that the Constitution “tells the current society that it cannot do [whatever] it wants to do” – did not emerge in a vacuum. It is favored by political conservatives, for reasons we’ll explore below. But it also has roots in Justice Scalia’s Catholic background and that church’s teaching on tradition. That word has a specific meaning in Catholic theology: moral guidance passed down through generations. In Catholic teaching, tradition stands co-equal with scripture.

For progressives, Scalia’s statement and the concept of tradition seems at odds with the principles of democracy and advancing knowledge. Racism was accepted as a scientific fact from the 18th to the 20th centuries, but that science has since been disproved. The American Psychological Association listed homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973, but science now shows it is a natural variation within our and many other species. And scientists are revisiting long-accepted claims about differences between the sexes, claims that have been used to justify male privilege and the second-class treatment of women. Shouldn’t a democratic society embrace these discoveries and cast off discredited traditions?

Not necessarily, according to G.K. Chesterton. Consider his words in Orthodoxy:

But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. […] If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.

In the conservative worldview, “original intent” is like Catholic tradition: “democracy extended through time.” As conservatives see it, it’s a matter of….

Giving the dead their vote.

Except of course it isn’t. As I’ve noted often, all “original intent” arguments are flawed, even those of progressives. There was no singular “original intent,” because there was no single Original Intender. The Constitution was drafted by a committee, and they did not share a single intent. Some wanted a society very like the 18th century British. Others wanted no part of aristocracy. Some wanted to preserve the wealth and privilege of the wealthy and privileged. Others argued for egalitarian ideals. Not all agreed on every compromise, and the Constitution reflects their many unresolved disputes.

So when conservatives argue “original intent,” they’re not really “giving the dead their vote.” Instead, they claim extra votes for themselves: the votes of dead people who seem to agree with them. Those “dead voters” are not here to participate in the debate or object to conservatives’ claims about them. Maybe they believed what conservatives claim, and maybe not. You can cherry-pick most human lives for words or deeds that “prove” almost any projected opinion.

More importantly, those “dead voters” might change their minds if they were here today. They may be “conservative” now, but most of those “dead voters” were radical in their own lifetimes. Why presume the “dead voters” would be any less open to new ideas if they were alive today?

And that’s the point.

As progressives, we recognize that “dead voters” might change their minds, and cite that as a reason not to let the dead rule the living. But conservatism is about preserving a mythical, idealized past, one that privileges today’s conservatives. The whole point of “giving the dead their vote” is that they can’t change their minds. In the conservative worldview, the votes of the dead are cast forever and the majority of those votes – at least as conservatives count them – align exactly with what conservatives want today.

That last part is key. Conservatives aren’t about “process.” They’re about getting what they want. And in the conservative moral equation, as we’ll see tomorrow, that is not “hypocrisy.” It’s simply following their – different – First Moral Principles.


Happy Thursday!