From the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the self-regarding thugs of ancient Rome to the glorified warlords of medieval and absolutist Europe, in nearly every urbanized society throughout human history, there have been people who have tried to constitute themselves as an aristocracy. These people and their allies are the conservatives.
The tactics of conservatism vary widely by place and time. But the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use "social issues" as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality. Economic inequality and regressive taxation, while certainly welcomed by the aristocracy, are best understood as a means to their actual goal, which is simply to be aristocrats.
More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them. Of course this notion sounds bizarre to modern ears, but it is perfectly overt in the writings of leading conservative theorists such as Burke. Democracy, for them, is not about the mechanisms of voting and office-holding. In fact conservatives hold a wide variety of opinions about such secondary formal matters. For conservatives, rather, democracy is a psychological condition. People who believe that the aristocracy rightfully dominates society because of its intrinsic superiority are conservatives; democrats, by contrast, believe that they are of equal social worth. Conservatism is the antithesis of democracy. This has been true for thousands of years.
The defenders of aristocracy represent aristocracy as a natural phenomenon, but in reality it is the most artificial thing on earth. Although one of the goals of every aristocracy is to make its preferred social order seem permanent and timeless, in reality conservatism must be reinvented in every generation. This is true for many reasons, including internal conflicts among the aristocrats; institutional shifts due to climate, markets, or warfare; and ideological gains and losses in the perpetual struggle against democracy.
In some societies the aristocracy is rigid, closed, and stratified, while in others it is more of an aspiration among various fluid and factionalized groups. The situation in the United States right now is toward the latter end of the spectrum. A main goal in life of all aristocrats, however, is to pass on their positions of privilege to their children, and many of the aspiring aristocrats of the United States are appointing their children to positions in government and in the archipelago of think tanks that promote conservative theories.
Insightful stuff. I've touched on some similar themes before ("Attack of the Plutocrats," "The Social Contract," "The Five Circles of Conservative Hell," "We Cheat the Other Guy and Pass the Savings to You") and will likely explore them further. Reasonable, self-described conservatives who believe in the social contract and competent governance do exist, but they sure as hell aren't running the Republican Party (nor the Democratic Blue Dog Caucus). Aristocrats and authoritarian conservatives have never been fans of the whole "democracy" thing. They're wielding a great deal of power right now, and they're doing so recklessly, even nihilistically.
As Bill Moyers has said, "plutocracy and democracy don't mix." I'm increasingly coming to think that plutocracy - or plutonomy - is the biggest issue of our time in America, affecting almost everything else: taxes, health care, the social safety net, infrastructure spending, education, climate change, scientific research, the arts and humanities, the surveillence state, indefinite detention, and endless wars. It greatly affects our news coverage as well, which makes Blue Gal's big cause, media reform, awfully important.
Also - isn't it striking that many of the people currently hollering about the Constitution the loudest are so hostile to the Enlightenment values at its core?
On a lighter note, I also can't help but think of some classic cinema:
"I dunno, must be a king."
"He hasn't got shit all over him."