Authority has always held an important place in conservatism, but I’ve always been puzzled by American conservatives and their views on authority. They’re clearly skeptical of government programs, welfare, and bureaucracy and they’re quick to jump on stories about government corruption. Yet when it comes to military and police corruption, all of that goes out the window. Conservative writers are ready to defend these institutions through thick and thin. You could find some exceptions to this narrative, but these are exceptions rather than the rule (1).
I’m reminded of an interesting passage in George Lakoff’s book, Moral Politics How Liberals and Conservatives Think:
There is a language of conservatism, and it’s not just words. The words are familiar enough, but not what they mean. For example, “big government” does not just refer to the size of government or the amount spent by it. One can see the misunderstanding when liberals try to reason with conservatives by pointing out that increasing the amount spent on the military and prisons increases “big government ” Conservatives laugh. The liberals have just misused the term. I have heard a conservative talk of “freedom” and a liberal attempt a rebuttal by pointing out that denying a woman access to abortion limits her “freedom” to choose. Again, the liberal has used a word that has a different meaning in the conservative lexicon…
…Here are some words and phrases used over and over in conservative discourse: character, virtue, discipline, tough it out, get tough, tough love, strong, self-reliance, individual responsibility, backbone, standards, authority, heritage, competition, earn, hard work, enterprise, property rights, reward, freedom, intrusion, interference, meddling, punishment, human nature, traditional, common sense, dependency, self-indulgent, elite, quotas, breakdown, corrupt, decay, rot, degenerate, deviant, lifestyle.
While I’m generally not a fan of psychological explanations for why people hold certain political beliefs, there are some instructive thoughts here. Conservatives view some institutions (the military and law enforcement) as more legitimate authorities than others. There are many words in their collective vocabulary that can positively describe law enforcement, whereas the same can’t be said for bureaucracy.
Police officers often deal with people that would be considered ‘corrupt’ or ‘degenerate’ by most standards, which fits neatly into the conservative narrative on police and authority. Consider this passage from Rachel Lu:
I’m painfully aware that cops do a tough and dangerous job that I probably couldn’t handle. Policemen put themselves on the line for the safety of people they don’t even know. (People like me, and my family.) They spend their lives elbow-deep in violence and vice, so that the rest of us won’t need to.
When it comes to violence, the police are given more leeway because it’s the nature of the job. The police often deal with dangerous people, so it’s only natural that they react violently when their orders aren’t followed. So non-violent, uppity offenders, e.g. black teenage girls, should know better than to disregard an officer’s orders. As David French writes, “This is what happens when a person resists a lawful order from a police officer to move.” Even when the evidence is as clear as day that excessive force was used, most conservatives are willing to give officers the benefit of the doubt.
This distinction is interesting, but hardly legitimate. Nebulous concepts like honor and discipline shouldn’t be used to mark such differences. It can also lead to dangerous precedents. When German nationalists ignored the gangs of Brown Shirts because they were scared of Communism, violence became the new rule in German politics. Of course, our police officers are not Brown Shirts, and our political system isn’t Weimar Republic, but where does it end? If conservatives continue to excuse the hundreds of civilians killed by police officers every year, where does it stop? If we don’t address this problem what becomes of our rule of law? And how does this square into a conservative political philosophy? These are important questions that are unfortunately neglected by the American conservative political class.
1. Of course, you could argue the opposite for liberals. They tend to more skeptical of police and military authority while putting more trust in bureaucracy. They viciously react to police brutality and highlight structural problems in our law enforcement institutions while ignroing other forms of government corruption. Some individuals might indulge in corruption, but it’s simply par for the course.