The conservative tendency to label opponents as “unAmerican” or “unpatriotic” has always gotten me a little … angry, shall we say? I’ll even admit I’ve taken it personally. Who gave them or anyone else the right to define what is American and what is not? And what is unpatriotic about opposing a war that in the long term will weaken our country militarily, economically, politically and morally, as the invasion of Iraq has done?
More recently, though, I’ve come to realize that I owe conservatives an apology of sorts. I had long thought that there was something calculated in their approach, that flinging words such as “unAmerican” at their rivals was a conscious and well-thought-out attack strategy, along the lines of Newt Gingrich’s infamous GOPAC memo. I was wrong about that.
Instead, I’ve come to understand that the attack on loyalty is instinctive, and in that sense sincere and genuine. It’s an inherent attitude that helps to define conservatives as conservative, and to define other people as not conservative. Put bluntly, conservatives put a higher value on unquestioned loyalty to country, party, cause and group than nonconservatives do. That is not meant in this context as a criticism, merely as an observation.
Listen to the debate between the Powell wing and the Limbaugh wing of the GOP, for example, and you hear eerily familiar rhetoric and all-too-familiar modes of attack. Once again, you see the same insistence on loyalty to the group, and the same discomfort with dissent or difference.
Instead of claiming that liberals aren’t real Americans, the conservatives claim that moderates aren’t real Republicans. Moderates are described as traitors to the party and the cause, and they are told, in effect, to love the party or leave it. As RNC Chairman Michael Steele said recently, moderates are welcome in the party, but only if they accept the fact they’ll have no influence.
“Understand that when you come into someone’s house, you’re not looking to change it,” he said. “You come in because that’s the place you want to be.”
Over at Redstate.com, Erick Erickson offers an interesting variation on the theme, and in fact takes it to a whole ‘nother level. He equates the disloyalty of Republicans who dare to criticize party leaders such as Rush Limbaugh to the disloyalty shown by Peter to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Yes, he really does.
“Peter denied Christ three times,” Erickson writes. “Our goal should be to not deny Christ and also to not deny the valuable members of our own movement.”
I acknowledge that’s an extreme example. I acknowledge as well that such attitudes are found among liberals as well, if to a lesser degree. Overall, however, the conservative emphasis on group loyalty and the liberal acceptance of dissent help to define the two camps at least as clearly as their positions on taxes or regulation.