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The Original Construction and Intent

According to Webster,  conservative can be defined as: tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions : traditional

I start with that definition because a few political colleagues have (gently) called me out for flipping back and forth between using the terms “conservative” and “right wing” to describe the faction of the right wing led by Republican, pro-corporate, anti-regulation, small government elites. They point to this faction’s participation in fomenting a backlash against civil rights laws and attacks on Roe v. Wade as indications that they’re radicals, not conservative; not “disposed to maintain[ing] existing views.”

I concede that point and will avoid helping the right build their own brand. But the way I came to “conservative” as a label, while a little esoteric to most folks in the public, is worth consideration.

Movements, both on the right and the left, serve as compass readings on culture and politics in America. When they form, movements may lean in one direction or another, but how we determine which way they are headed is based on our understanding of the truth North of American politics and society. That true North is rooted in history and, political speaking at least, begins with the original construction and intent of the founders when they created the Constitution. That’s what I mean when I use the term conservative.

If the phrase “original construction and intent of the founders” sounds familiar, it may well be you heard it during the GOP presidential primary debates. Perhaps more than any other candidate Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (click here for capsule account of her belief system) used that phrase to signal her status as an unreconstructed conservative. To her evangelical base, the “original construction and intent” is to politics what the Ichthys motif (the fish sign) is to car bumpers. One look (or listen in this case) and you know, she’s one of them.

That original construction and intent lays out “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but as a privilege, not a right. To right wingers, that privilege is earned by exhibiting certain characteristics, whether it’s adherence to a bigoted moral code or the health of one’s finances. That makes them not unlike the founders (who used race, economic status, and gender to determine who got full rights of citizenship), at least in values and belief if not in the specific groups to be excluded.

So, if you think of the New Deal, Roe v. Wade, and the Voting Rights Act as the true North of American contemporary politics then, yes, these pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-regulation (including regulation against discrimination) types are radicals. But, if you put the current political positions of the Republican elite in a broad historical context, they are, complete with their bigotry and small government ethos, true conservatives.

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at scotnakagawa@substack.com. He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

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