When Fiction Pulls Back the Curtain on American Conservatism

Two Novels That Interrogate the Principle of the Few Over the Many

By  Colette Shade

Whether you like it or not (and if you’re reading this, the answer is probably “not”), America is a deeply conservative country.

I’m not referring to policy polls, party registration, or even the fact that Donald Trump is our president. Rather, I am referring to the material realities of daily life in America: the $2 a day on which our poorest citizens live, the for-profit healthcare system and the 45,000 Americans who die because of it every year, the veneration of the U.S. military at sporting events (and even at the putatively liberal Oscars), the fear of a violent black underclass that’s used to justify the imprisonment of millions of mostly poor people, the bipartisan obsession with “competition” and “innovation,” and the corporate exploitation of the natural world that imperils all life on earth.

“Conservatism is the theoretical voice of animus against the agency of the subordinate classes,” Corey Robin writes in his 2011 book The Reactionary Mind, a history of conservative ideology from Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre to Donald Trump. “It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity.”

By Robin’s definition, America has been conservative since 1606, when King James I chartered the Virginia Company to form a colony in North America, and England’s wealthy second sons jumped at the chance to recreate the brick manors and rigid castes of their homeland along the malarial shores of the Chesapeake Bay. It remained conservative when the Virginia Slave Codes were passed in 1705, consolidating the power of slave owners over their human property. When the U.S. Constitution established the Senate, the Electoral College and the Three-Fifths Clause—all of which gave disproportionate governing power to wealthy, rural slave owners—that was conservative too. After all, conservatism is by its very nature unpopular; it’s the rule of an elite minority over the inferior majority, and the belief that this order is natural.

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The cumulative effect of these policies is one in which a smaller and smaller number of people has more and more power over the lives of everyone else.”

At times, conservatism has been forced into retreat; most recently in the mid-20th century, with the creation of a progressive tax code and a minimal program of social insurance, and the federal government’s intervention to force civil rights legislation upon an unwilling South. Conservatism as a force was not defeated; just relatively dormant, occasionally emerging to mutilate insubordinate black people, to attack anti-segregation protesters with fire hoses, and to form think tanks to figure how to reverse gains by unions, the civil rights movement, the LGBTQ rights movement, and the women’s movement.

It did not have to wait long to return to power. The election of Ronald Reagan brought two regressive tax cuts, the historic breaking of the PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike (which marked the decline of labor power in America), and an escalation of the War on Drugs that was essentially a war on America’s largely black and brown poor.

Bill Clinton, the next Democratic president, escalated this trend. He increased mass incarceration, plunged millions of people (mostly black and brown women and children) into severe poverty by cutting cash welfare, and deregulated the banking and telecom industries.

George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan, conducted a war of aggression in Iraq, approved the torture of scores of people, permitted domestic spying on an unprecedented scale, presided over a massive upward redistribution of wealth, escalated the racist War on Drugs, established U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to harass and deport immigrants, and bungled the governmental response to Hurricane Katrina, killing between 1,200 and 1,800 mostly black and brown poor people and displacing hundreds of thousands more.

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It seemed, in 2008, that the election of Barack Obama would provide another break with our country’s long history of brutal domination by the strong over the weak, and toward a more just and democratic future. But, like Clinton, Obama consistently tacked to the right of his campaign promises. He was inaugurated during the greatest failure of the financial sector since the Great Depression, and yet he filled his administration with people from that same sector. He protected the financial institutions who sold subprime mortgages (“ghetto loans” for “mud people” in the words of one Wells Fargo loan officer) instead of the people losing their homes, a policy approach which led to an enormous destruction of black wealth. And Obama never went after the architects of the war or the torture program or the warrantless wiretapping or any of the other crimes of the Bush Administration, authorizing hundreds of drone strikes instead.

The cumulative effect of these policies is one in which a smaller and smaller number of people has more and more power over the lives of everyone else. It is a monopoly on freedom by the most powerful, which is the same thing that’s been happening to some degree or another in this country since 1606.

There has been much ink spilt about whether or not President Donald Trump is really a conservative. The National Review itself filled an entire issue in January 2016 with missives from the so-called “Never Trumpers,” a Republican faction, who, as implied, do not support the president. But the Never Trumpers are a minority, and the president is actually quite popular amongst Republicans.

“If you look at respectable conservatism since the French Revolution, you’ll find many of the elements that we see in Trumpism: an embrace of violence and an apocalyptic rhetoric of friends and enemies; hostility to existing institutions, conventions, customs, traditions, established elites and the law; and populist appeals to the force of the multitude and the mass,” Corey Robin told The Washington Post in 2017. “One feature of conservatism across time has been the embrace of great, exceptional men, who rise above the fray, turning a gray modernity into sharper, severer, more dramatic contrasts of black and white.”

Given this state of political affairs, it seems strange that conservative characters are seldom given serious treatment in contemporary American literary fiction. Even less often is this ideology depicted through its true believers and enforcers: the wealthy and the upper-middle class.

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One rare exception is C.E. Morgan’s prizewinning 2016 novel The Sport of Kings, in which Henry Forge—the conservative, racist heir to a large slaveholding fortune—is a main protagonist. Henry grows up in Kentucky in the 1940s and 50s, learning from his Latin-quoting father (a descendent of Virginians, natch) that the white male aristocrat’s correct and orderly position is to dominate all inferior beings—wives, children, employees, black people, the poor, all the animals, and all the land. Henry enters manhood after he becomes complicit in a lynching committed by his father, who teaches him it is his right—nay, his duty—to deploy violence in service of order.

Henry defies his father’s wishes and uses his large inheritance to set up a thoroughbred operation on the family’s land. He yearns to breed a Triple Crown-winning racehorse, to multiply his greatness, to be sorted by that great conservative threshing floor of sport and physical force. Might, after all, makes right, and the ruling class must be continually tested to maintain its vigor and fitness to rule.

“‘Henrietta,’” Henry tells his daughter in the 1980s. “‘Sometimes what looks like a big risk is actually controlled usage. Orient all your internal resources to amplify your external resources. You walk the tipping point between disaster and perfection.’”

Later in The Sport of Kings, we see what life is like for people at the bottom of the American great chain of being. Allmon Shaughnessey, the descendant of an enslaved man who escaped from the Forge family’s plantation, lives with his single mother Marie in a polluted Cincinnati neighborhood in the shadow of the Procter & Gamble plant.

[It] runs day and night churning kernolate, chloride, silicate, sulfate, and, once upon a time, pork fat. The gray fumes rise and draw down the sky to a low lid the color of aluminum, so that even on the clearest day the Mill Creek runs gray beneath it. Cars tunnel through the smog-drift in the late afternoon; in pairs they descend over the viaduct and pass through the graceless valley on their way to the suburbs, leaving only fumes which rise and, look, the sun is setting now, rosy fingertips sliding down dirty glass. In the valley, asthma is rampant, and Allmon will suffer from it when he’s young, his body twisted by crowing fits as he takes his evening strolls with Marie down Hamilton Avenue.

In the world conservatism has created, the right of property ownership has superseded even the right to clean air and bodily autonomy for those without means.

Marie develops lupus, but continues to work because the United States disability system is a dystopian nightmare with years-long case backlogs. Her hours are cut at her medical billing job. The family manages to eke out an existence with TANF and food stamps, but Marie abruptly loses her benefits when she forgets to declare her car as an asset (a fictional elaboration of a common scenario), plunging the family into extreme poverty. Allmon is forced to take a job as a runner for a local drug dealer, which he uses to keep the family fed and housed, and to pay for his uninsured mother to see a specialist.

Eventually, his mother dies from her condition, like 45,000 real Americans do every year.

“I got money, so in this great nation that means I deserve to live,” Allmon reflects later as an adult, suffering from lupus himself.

As Nancy MacLean writes in her 2017 book Democracy in Chains, this is a rightly ordered society for believers of the far-right ideology she calls “property supremacy.” The weak and foolish deserve to die, and serve as a warning for others. Such a brutal ideology is incomprehensible to most people. But it’s one that shapes our country, so it is in our interest to comprehend it.

In the world conservatism has created, the right of property ownership has superseded even the right to clean air and bodily autonomy for those without means.”

Evan S. Connell’s 1969 novel Mr. Bridge offers another excellent depiction of a conservative patriarch, this time of the upper-middle class rather than a descendant of the landed gentry. Mr. Bridge follows the life of the titular Walter Bridge, an attorney and family man who lives in Kansas City’s affluent Country Club District from the 1920s through the 1940s. He has a wife, three children, and a black domestic servant. He belongs to the Kansas City Country Club. He’s the type of person who can afford a Cadillac but worries that buying one might be tasteless.

Like most people, Walter’s political beliefs are not at the forefront of his identity, however much they unconsciously shape his behavior. He is chiefly concerned with the minutiae of his day-to-day life: parties at the country club, the behavior of his children, hot stock tips. From the start he is revealed to be so emotionally repressed that he can’t even tell his wife how much he loves her. Connell’s use of close third is helpful here, as it grants the reader the ability to see things that Walter is unable to see, or say, himself.

When Walter learns that his black auto mechanic has been involved in a knife fight, it confirms his suspicions about black criminality.

“These people!” Mr. Bridge said, shaking his head. “Time and time again. If it isn’t a knife it’s a razor.”

Like many members of the upper middle class, his fear of black criminality results in an obsession with home security:

Each night before going to bed he locked the downstairs windows and doors. Robberies in Mission HIlls were rare, and a watchman patrolled the neighborhood; even so, there was always the possibility. Through the years he had tried to impress upon the children the necessity of locking up, because one day they would have homes of their own, yet he was not sure they had taken the lesson seriously.

Later the couple reads a story about a lynching in a national news magazine. Walter gets angry because he believes the publication of the lynched man’s mutilated corpse is “unnecessary,” and concludes that the victim must have done something to provoke his fate, because “there are many fine people in the South.” This remark is strikingly similar to one made by the president last summer, after the murder of Heather Heyer at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville: “You had some very fine people on both sides.”

It is shocking the first time a Jewish character is introduced, because the language seems at first to come from Connell himself:

A squat, bald Jew dressed in an expensive blue pinstripe suit skipped out of a doorway with an umbrella hooked over his arm. The suit was an attempt at good taste, but it failed because it was obvious. He carried a copy of the Wall Street Journal but he held it so that it could be noticed. On his plump, pink, manicured little finger sparkled a diamond ring. Whatever his business, he was shallowly successful, and the business probably was marginal. Whatever he did, he was not to be trusted. He was shrewd. He was repugnant. He was an opportunist.

Of course, these are the thoughts in Walter’s head, not Connell’s. But for a moment, the reader must reckon with this description, presented as fact; they are forced to inhabit an anti-Semitic mind. Walter’s views do not “evolve” toward liberalism or even acceptance. Rather, they harden into a private sympathy for the Nazis—a not uncommon trajectory for an interwar conservative.

The reader is similarly subjected to Walter’s thoughts about New Year’s Eve, which quickly veer into a harangue about unions, communists, and the New Deal, before returning to the issue at hand.

Now another year was ending. The year had been good and he regretted the end of it, but he felt pleased that it was concluding without sickness in the family and with indications that the worst of the Depression might be over . . .

Roosevelt, of course, was a poor choice, a man who already had damaged the structure of the economy, very possibly the worst president since Ulysses Grant. And if the voters responsible for him had not yet acknowledged their mistake they would be forced to soon enough. The unions were out of hand, Communists had gotten desks in the Labor Department, and there was the threat of increased taxes. These things were the result of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the implications were serious. Mr. Bridge considered the future of the country and often discussed it. He found other men as angered and frustrated a he was himself, all of them helpless to alter this current of socialism. However, if one could imagine that Roosevelt and his left-wing advisers did not exist, or believe they would be thrown out of office at the next election, or at least come to their senses and modify their programs—well, then, life could not be much better . . .

At midnight on New Year’s Eve at the country club a champagne glass shattered in the fireplace and the orchestra played “Auld Lang Syne.” Mr. Bridge lifted his glass in response to the toasts and remarked, as he brushed a sprinkle of confetti out of his hair, “Happy Days!”

Looking back from the vantage point of 2018, a few minor aspects of Mr. Bridge seem dated — but only because the book chronicles life in a particular time and place. India is a housewife, which at the time was the norm for any woman of the upper-middle class. Racially-restrictive covenants like those of the Bridges’ Country Club District were legally struck down in 1948 and 1968, which meant that black people and Jewish people were at least legally allowed to buy houses there.

But most of the judgements and anxieties of the book’s protagonist translate well to a contemporary context. One could easily imagine Walter Bridge fretting over MS-13 and sanctuary cities, “urban” crime, gender-neutral bathrooms, safe spaces, and the scourge of “cultural marxism”—an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory which posits that the Frankfurt School plotted to institute communism by promoting gender nonconformity, racial mixing, and cultural relativism.

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The Sport of Kings and Mr. Bridge represent valuable attempts to use fiction to peer behind the facade of American conservatism. Of course, anyone whose life has been constrained by prejudice, poverty, or the prison-industrial complex already knows a thing or two about what conservatism really means, and might understandably wish to avoid pondering it in fiction.

But for those who’ve been spared conservatism’s most violent effects, these novels represent a unique opportunity. Conservatism is a dangerously robust and frighteningly coherent ideology of the rule of the few over the many. And fiction, as a form, gives the reader the unique ability to inhabit—and thus understand—viewpoints other than our own. It can also help readers understand their own complicity in upholding these systems of power.

But understanding, of course, should not be equated with acceptance: Consider Humbert Humbert and Raskolnikov, two of the most famous protagonists in fiction. Even the most  generous interpretations of these characters wouldn’t condone child rape or murder. And it is unlikely that their creators were suggesting that readers ought to find some kind of middle ground on these issues.

Rather, the best fiction embraces the moral totality of human existence—the range of good and bad actions of which people are capable—and suggests that there is some value in understanding all of it, including the bad. After all, if we hope to do the right thing, we must first understand what we’re up against.

Colette Shade
Colette Shade
Colette Shade is a writer living in Baltimore. Follow her on Twitter at @msshade.





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