Fighting Reactionary Politics

Real conservatives, real liberals, and real radicals must work together

By Tony Palmeri

Note: What follows below is my cover story for the April, 2005 edition of the Valley Scene. The editor solicited comments on the piece from activists of a variety of political persuasions before the story went to print. In boxes within the text below are comments from Reverend Roger Bertschausen of the Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, DePere businessman Paul Linzmeyer, and Shannon Lee Wyman Kenevan who directs Appleton's Harmony Cafe. Others who would like to comment on the story should email me at This piece will also be discussed at a meeting of the Fox Valley Justice Coalition on May 3, 2005 at the Harmony Cafe (124 N. Oneida St., Appleton) from 5:30 - 7:00 p.m. --Tony

Click Here For News About A Meeting Related To This Essay

In a radio broadcast of October 26, 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt said this: "A radical is a man with both feet firmly planted in the air. A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs, who, however, has never learned to walk forward. A reactionary is a somnambulist walking backwards. A liberal is a man who uses his legs and his hands at the behest ... of his head." As flippant as those remarks may seem, they represent one of the few times in our history that an American leader actually tried to define the meaning of common political labels. Clearly FDR defined the labels in such a way as to build up his own liberal leanings while knocking down his conservative critics, marginalizing the radicals, and mocking the reactionaries. But at least his remarks provoked Americans to think about political philosophy.

Today's politicians use labels almost exclusively to build themselves up and knock down their opponents. Rather than encourage us to think, modern political labeling seeks to shut down our brains; to create a breed of babbling buffoons conditioned to endorse blindly the "conservative" or the "liberal" without a shred of comprehension or even care about what those once honorable terms could or should mean. Every Republican presidential nominee since Barry Goldwater in 1964 has promoted a "conservative" program while attacking the "liberalism" of his opponent. Every Democratic presidential nominee since Jimmy Carter in 1976 has run away from the term "liberal" while often arguing that he is actually more conservative than the Republican. Both Republicans and Democrats swear off the term "radical" while the term "reactionary" has all but disappeared from mainstream public discourse.

Disastrous consequences follow the reduction of political language to build-up and knock down labels. So-called "conservatives" and "liberals" attack each other viciously and mindlessly in political campaigns, talk radio, TV chat shows, blog wars, and in the print media, while "radicals" become convenient whipping boys for both. Meanwhile the real enemies of American democracy-the reactionaries-dominate public policy in Washington and in most American cities, safely entrenched in structures of power that TRUE conservatives, liberals, and radicals should be appalled by and united against.

There is a time and a place in a democracy for debate and disagreement. There is also a time and a place for coming together across the ideological lines that separate us, rolling up our sleeves, and working together to fix what's wrong. I would say that our nation is at one of these latter points. We face a myriad of challenges right now. Together, we can meet the challenges that confront us.

Rev. Roger Bertschausen
Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist
Fellowship - Appleton, WI
(920) 731-0849

In the American political tradition, true conservatives, liberals, and radicals share some fundamental goals: the advancement of freedom and small-d democracy at home and a foreign policy best described by Jefferson in his First Inaugural address as "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." Sharing these goals meant that true conservatives, liberals, and radicals had to be united against reactionary politics. But in today's political climate, aided and abetted by an until now unheard of concentration of corporate wealth and power, we've lost our radical, conservative, and liberal leanings. It's true that Jefferson and other founders owned slaves and hardly lived up to the sterling ideals associated with their names. But at least they left a written legacy of democratic values that future generations could rally around in struggles to protect and expand rights and freedoms. Today's "leaders" will leave a legacy future generations will recognize as rooted in maintaining power at all costs, dogged refusal to reform a dysfunctional electoral system that is an international embarrassment, and a complete failure to demand high-level accountability on everything from the torture at Abu Ghraib to outrageous budgeting practices.

The purpose of this essay is to begin a conversation about what it means to be "reactionary," "conservative," "liberal," and "radical." I'll profile each term individually, focusing on (1) the typical argument made from the perspective, (2) the view of human beings that is the foundation of the perspective and (3) the role of government envisioned by the perspective. If you are completely indoctrinated by the mainstream media and politicians' use of these terms (i.e. you think Rush Limbaugh is a conservative and Alan Colmes a liberal), then you will have no value for this piece and should probably stop reading now. However, if you agree with me that it's time to place some integrity back in our language and our politics, then read on and join me in developing ways that true conservatives, true liberals, and true radicals can work together to end the reactionary politics that dominates our local city halls, the state capitols, and especially the centers of power in DC.

The Reactionary: "America, Love it or Leave It"

King George III

The United States came into being in 1787 following a seven year revolutionary war against the tyrant King George III and four years of an unwieldy Articles of Confederation. The reactionary mindset is one that yearns to return to the rule of tyrants.

Reactionaries typically argue from authority. We should do something because "the King says so." Most Americans have no difficulty recognizing the absurdity of this kind of argument when it takes place in a foreign dictatorship, but often cannot see equal absurdity here on the home front. Think of how many people you know who believe that it's okay for the country to go to war "if the President says we should." The willingness of a person to grant the president immense power without even feeling the need for Congress or citizens to ask any critical questions is probably the best definition of reactionary thinking.

Reactionary thinking is not necessarily more pronounced among older people. A recent study by the Knight Foundation revealed that half of high school students now believe that government should approve newspaper stories before they are published. A third of the students said the First Amendment goes "too far" in the rights it guarantees, and only 83% of the students believed Americans ought to be able to express unpopular views-97 percent of teachers and 99 percent of principals thought that expressing unpopular views should be protected.

The reactionary faith in the rule of authorities is rooted in a view of human beings that holds them to be essentially irrational. Since people are irrational and cannot make decisions for themselves, a "strong leader" must be in place to ensure order. Reactionaries have contempt for the idea that average, everyday people can run their own lives or plan the communities in which they live. Thus for the reactionary, the main function of government is to rule, marginalize or eliminate dissent, and to rule efficiently.

The ease with which we can accept centralization of power in a Director of Homeland Security, a Director of National Intelligence, or the Presidency all in the name of "safety"; the manner in which the establishment political parties exploit national security issues merely for partisan purposes; the creation of a massive federal education bureaucracy to control local education decisions; tolerance of "reinventing government" schemes that give even more power to faceless bureaucrats; the uncritical acceptance of corporate power; at the state level, tax "freeze" schemes endorsed by Republicans and Democrats that wrest control from local officials and citizens; locally, the impatience that elected and appointed officials show for citizens who question municipal and county corporate welfare development projects; the tolerance of police state institutions like the Metropolitan Enforcement Group in the name of fighting a "war on drugs"; these and many, many other facts of modern life are part of the reactionary time that we live in. They are often called "conservative" or "liberal" policies but have NOTHING to do with real conservatism or liberalism.

The Conservative: "A Government of Laws, Not of Men"

In his important work The Ethics of Rhetoric (1953), the late Richard Weaver identified Abe Lincoln as a genuine conservative. Facing on his right the reactionary southern aristocracy committed to slavery expansion, and on his left the radical abolitionist movement seeking immediate liberation of the slave, Lincoln sought a solution based on application of constitutional principles. According to Weaver, "The essence of Lincoln's doctrine was not the seeking of a middle, but reform according to definition."

Real conservative argument, unlike the win-at-all costs, poll tested, hyper partisan hackery that we hear coming out of Madison and Washington and from so-called "conservative" pundits, proceeds from traditional constitutional principles. A real American conservative never loses sight of the fact that American government is premised on the principles of limited powers and checks and balances. That a "conservative" could support a federal takeover of education, or increased police state powers in legislation like the PATRIOT Act, or a president's ability to wage a preemptive war with only a congressional rubber stamp or less, or a state control of local officials' ability to raise taxes, is ludicrous.

The Wisconsin that I once knew is no more. Our state's reputation for clean, open, responsible, and progressive government has been badly tarnished and we must act now if we hope to salvage some remnant of what we once had. In this article, author Tony Palmeri hits on several points that drew the founders of the People's Legislature together.

We were very frustrated by the contentiousness and lack of vision of state and federal legislators. It is clear that special and corporate interests are dictating state and national policy, to the detriment of most of our citizens. Tony offers a solution to resolving this crisis that has stood the test of time. By focusing on what unites us rather than spending a lot of time discussing what
divides us, we can restore our democracy.

That is what drove several of us to found the People's Legislature. The idea is simple: What issues would the Legislature take up if the members represented their voting constituents? Would it be healthcare reform, education, affordable access to the UW system, environmental sustainability, economic reform, etc.?

Instead, special interests help politicians craft legislation which oftentimes have misleading titles and are filled with ideology. For too long, the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the Wisconsin Realtors Association, the 803 registered lobbyists representing the highway contractors, the utilities, the insurance industry, banks, the National Rifle Association and other special interest groups have been dictating state and federal legislation. For too long, in this pay-to-play system, these special interests have had more influence on politicians than do voters.

At the first People's Legislature meeting on January 04, 2005, more than 1,100 people gathered together, taking the first step toward creating a reform agenda, and approved four resolutions:

  • Comprehensive campaign finance reform that
    includes public financing of state election campaigns,
    and full disclosure of political contributions that restores
    the state's ban on corporate campaign contributions
  • Independent ethics enforcement by combining the
    state Elections Board and Ethics Board into a single
    enforcement agency under the direction of a politically
    independent board
  • Competitive elections through reform of legislative
    redistricting modeled after the system used in Iowa
  • Preservation of local fiscal control to prevent
    arbitrary and centralized budget limits on local units of

If you feel your voice is not being heard at the Capitol, and you believe political leaders are ignoring the will of the people, then we want you to be part of the People's Legislature. Come join us in taking back Wisconsin!
w w
Paul Linzmeyer
DePere Businessman
Activist for NEW regional economy
Co-founder, People's Legislature

The real conservative's beliefs in limited government and checks and balances are rooted in a philosophy of humans that sees them as competitive by nature. Left unchecked, the human tendency is to grab power and rule as a tyrant. As noted by James Madison, "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." For the real conservative, the genius of the United States constitution is its careful balance of the powers of the federal government with those of the states.
So-called modern "conservatives" claim to be against a big federal government and for "states' rights." Washington Post pundit E.J. Dionne exposes the hypocrisy in this claim: "The doctrine of states' rights, so often invoked as a principle, is almost always a pretext to deny the federal government authority to do things that conservatives dislike. These include expanding claims to individual rights, increasing protections for the environment, and regulating business. How do I know this? Because when states have the temerity to try doing the things I just listed, conservatives are quick to use federal power to stop them from exercising their right to act. Big government in Washington is bad, in other words, unless it can be used to quash progressive state action." In other words, the co-called "conservatives" are in reality pursuing a reactionary agenda that seeks not to limit federal power, but to use it as a ruler to spank unwieldy states.

For the real conservative, the role of government is to enforce the laws, guard against attacks on our constitutionally protected freedoms, and otherwise get out of the way. The allegedly most "conservative" president of our time, George W. Bush, has pursued an agenda having almost nothing to do with these roles. Writing in the December 2003 issue of The American Conservative, former Reagan assistant and Cato Institute Senior Fellow Doug Bandow made the "real conservative" case against Bush: "This president deserves to be criticized. Sharply. By anyone who believes in limited, constitutional government . . . the Bush administration, backed by the Republican-controlled Congress, has been promoting larger government at almost every turn. Its spending policies have been irresponsible, and its trade strategies have been destructive. The president has been quite willing to sell out the national interest for perceived political gain, whether the votes sought are from seniors or farmers. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 encouraged the administration to push into law civil-liberties restrictions that should worry anyone, whether they are wielded by a Bush or a Clinton administration."

The Liberal: "The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number"

The preamble to the US Constitution says that the purpose of the document is "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." We know that for the real conservative, the best way to do these things is to simply pay strict allegiance to each article of the Constitution and the Amendments.

What happens when existing conditions are hardly conducive to securing the "general welfare," and a mere application of the Constitution not only fails to improve conditions but perhaps makes the situation worse? At that point the real liberal argues not that the Constitution should be ignored, but that conditions dictate passing legislation based on expanding our conception of what constitutes establishing justice or promoting the general welfare. Indeed the Democratic Party platform of 1936, written against the backdrop of a nation still mired in depression and with FDR's recovery programs being struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, said "If these problems cannot be effectively solved within the Constitution, we shall seek such clarifying amendment as will assure the power to enact those laws, adequately to regulate commerce, protect public health and safety, and safeguard economic security."

Thus the liberal argument for social change starts not with the Constitution or some abstract principle, but with the real, existing conditions of the population. The liberal argument is rooted in a belief that human beings are mutable, meaning that their behavior is a direct result of the conditions in which they live. Consequently, it becomes the responsibility of government to intervene and produce the best possible conditions for the greatest number of people.

Real liberalism necessarily requires a redistribution of wealth, since as a matter of common sense it costs money to improve social, economic, and other conditions. Today's so-called liberals are not calling for wealth redistribution, and are just as likely as the so-called conservatives to call for more corporate tax breaks, easing environmental regulations in the name of "development," and selling out constituencies (e.g. the poor, students, children) who do not have powerful and well-connected lobbies backing them up in the halls of power.

The Radical: "Power to the People"

Mark Twain once wrote that "the radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them." Twain understood that the radical serves a vital function in American life: she exposes injustice and reminds us that average, ordinary people are capable of quite extraordinary achievements when they are united and organized. Typically the radical is him or herself one of the organizers. Equally important, the radical refuses to be silent and gets issues "on the table" that would otherwise be ignored.

The 19th century abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was one of America's foremost radicals. In 1831, he published the first issue of the Liberator. He wrote passionately of the approach he would take regarding slavery: "On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; -- but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD."

Like the conservative, the radical argues from principle. But whereas conservative principles are rooted in traditional texts like the Constitution, the radical's principles come from "self-evident truths" and the innate wisdom and morality of individual human beings. The radical's arguments are rooted in a view of human beings that sees them as essentially rational and fully capable of managing their own affairs.

This article presents an interesting theoretical model for something I am seeing on a daily basis - masses of people are increasingly finding a few "hot button" issues with which to polarize themselves, while ignoring all the common ground and common interest they share. When people actually start having real conversations, truly listening to others who may have different beliefs, it seems they find a big area of common interest.

We are spending 90% of our time focusing on the 10% of things with which we disagree. I think when it gets down to it, most of us want a government that spends its money wisely, politicians who are honest servants, a society where we care for one another, quality education, a healthy environment, a community free of prejudice and discrimination, etc. 90% of our time should
be spent furthering the causes of the 90% of the things we agree upon.

This is one of the reasons Harmony Cafe has taken a lead in forming the Justice Coalition. As stated in the Justice Coalition's mission, "We include people working from a variety of justice perspectives such as social justice, environmental justice, economic justice, political justice, educational justice and religious justice. The Justice Coalition is nonpartisan and welcomes differing perspectives, ideas, beliefs and approaches among its members."

I have no false expectations that an avid hunter and a vegan animal rights activist will see eye to eye on all justice issues. But, at the same time, I believe with respect to particular issues, such as environmental justice, they may find considerable common ground working to limit pollution, protecting wilderness areas, etc. That is the hope of the Justice Coalition, to bring people together to find common ground while still respecting our differences.

Shannon Lee Wyman Kenevan
Director, Harmony Cafe
Co-founder, Justice Coalition

For the radical, government must be pressured, persistently and passionately. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave us the great radical rallying cry: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

Next time someone urges you to be fearful of radicals, remind them that virtually every social good we now say we believe in-equal pay for equal work, racial and gender equality, universal suffrage, and safe working conditions to name just a few-began as radical ideas that "establishment" leaders argued were not consistent with existing laws and customs.

Argue from


"The King Says"


"The Law Says"


"Conditions Dictate"


"Justice Says"

Humans are
Government must
Get out of way
Be pressured

Conclusion: Where do we go from here?

In this essay I have tried to argue that in the American political tradition, real conservatism, liberalism, and radicalism represent three different approaches toward building a just society. Rather than attack each other, representatives of each approach need to work together to confront the common enemy of reactionary politics.

What happens when liberals, conservatives, and radicals fail to unite in opposition to reactionary politics? Consider this passage from C. Vann Woodward's classic work on racism in the post-Civil War South, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, describing conditions as they existed in the late 19th century: "The South's adoption of extreme racism was due not so much to a conversion as it was to a relaxation of the opposition. All the elements of fear, jealousy, proscription, hatred, and fanaticism had long been present, as they are present in various degrees of intensity in any society. What enabled them to rise to dominance was not so much cleverness or ingenuity as it was a general discrediting of the numerous forces that had hitherto kept them in check. The restraining forces included not only Northern liberal opinion in the press, the courts, and the government, but also internal checks imposed by the prestige and influence of the Southern conservatives, as well as the idealism and zest of the Southern radicals."

In place of Jim Crow, today's reactionary system is controlled by monied lobbies and well-connected insiders for whom government is merely a tool with which to facilitate their own narrow interests. Wisconsin Chief Justice Edward Ryan in 1873 warned us of this brand of reactionary threat: "For the first time really in our politics, money is taking the field as an organized power. It is unscrupulous, arrogant and overbearing. The question will arise, and arise in your day, though perhaps not fully in mine, which shall rule -- wealth or man; which shall lead -- money or intellect; who shall fill public stations -- educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?''

I call on all real conservatives, real liberals, and real radicals to stop fighting each other and get down to the business of taking our country back from the heirs of George III.

Tony Palmeri ( is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.