What are they thinking?

There are a couple of questions about conservatives that leave liberals scratching their heads and driving partisanship deeper into their collective psyche. Namely, why are the wealthy so single-mindedly pressing government for more when they already have so much, and how is it that ordinary Americans who support them actually believe there is any benefit for them to do so?

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You have to hand it to conservatives; they have managed to gain enough political sway to effectively hamstring the federal government. Their control of the House of Representatives has produced 56 public laws so far this year and 65 last year, making them "the least productive in history." The Senate has fared even worse as the minority's right to filibuster or delay has made that body even more unproductive. The collective stance of conservative opposition to anything other than tax reduction or downsizing of government programs has had the added effect of discrediting the president to the point now where he appears as feckless as they have claimed him to be, all the while they are claiming him to be an autocrat.

Their representation on the Supreme Court has codified the rights of corporations, diminished workers' rights and partially dismantled civil rights legislation with an open invitation to bring lawsuits to further disenfranchise women, minorities and other folks. They have enough support in the media so that intelligent discussion takes place in dark corners, not in the mainstream, but the conservative memes of threats to security, international cowardice and public waste all come through loud and clear. Their attack on the electoral process is so thorough that it will undoubtedly hold a place in history as a premier case study in political manipulation. Their use of the American Legislative Exchange Council is a brilliant means of impacting their ideological views all the way down to the local level by providing state legislators "sample" drafts of legislation for restricting voting, abortion rights, environmental efforts and the like.

If public opinion polls mean anything, the upcoming elections will further hamstring elected officials because the public has somehow come to understand that Democrats simply haven't done enough and bear responsibility for the economic insecurity that is widespread.

So how is it that the wealthiest among us are still pressing for change? Is it that they are ideologues simply opposed to big government? That can't be, since they are smart people and know they have benefited enormously from the various advantages that go along with being a world power. And being a world power requires a large military, and a large military requires big government.

Is it that they are greedy, exploitative, self-absorbed or indifferent to the plight of the average American? Perhaps, but you have to know that business people are quite aware that if you squeeze the masses hard enough, they won't be able to buy your widgets, and in the long run that imperils those who squeeze. Of course, there may well be a few myopic people who view public problems as someone else's concern (which means they are greedy and self-absorbed).

Is there a sense of entitlement, cynicism toward their fellow man, lust for power or class consciousness that makes them feel they not only deserve what they have garnered but that it should be accompanied by respect and approbation? Sure, why not? To a limited extent it makes sense: Because the wealthy tend to be the hardest-working among us, they tend to remove themselves to deal exclusively with their own kind, and that insularity creates a reinforcing mindset of self-importance.

However, whichever way you choose to mix and match these characteristics, it does not make for a flattering picture nor does it fit with anything other than a delusional idea of self-determination. It is not a consistent ideology. It does not address the very commanding facts that government has provided so many benefits to them and their kind that their naive idea of libertarian freedom just doesn't mesh with reality in mass society. It must be a mask for darker motivations. But, who knows? They don't share their inner thoughts with the public. So it is a head scratcher.

What is even more perplexing are the ordinary folk who buy the ideological implications of the conservative movement. Smaller government, less taxes, unvarnished freedoms, reduction of all forms of social welfare and a frontier attitude about self-protection are all well and good, but the practical consequences are the loss of lots of things they take for granted: roads, bridges, schools, food inspection, drug testing, worker safety, income protection, environmental controls, airport safety, shipping administration, courts and judicial proceedings, police, firefighters, sewage cleanup, parks, recreational areas — the list is exhausting.

One can only conclude that these people are dealing in myths, myths that are propagated by and reinforced by an industry of storytellers where the idea of connecting the dots of real-world circumstance is so far removed from consideration that the dots simply don't exist. You can claim that they are fools to buy this nonsense, but these fools are voters and they are quite capable of making themselves felt. They have become the foot soldiers of economic elites who need myths to insure that order is maintained.

One has only to school oneself in the laundry list of "reforms" that have taken place since 1971 when Lewis Powell — prominent corporate attorney, president of the American Bar Association and future Supreme Court justice — wrote an infamous memorandum in which he asserted that business must understand it needed political power and "that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination." Since that time, business representation grew in Washington from 171 companies to 2,445 a decade later, and the advantages of tax breaks, loopholes, subsidies and favored treatment have become their way of life.

Included in these changes were attacks on organized labor and a "hollowing out" of the middle class (read that to mean flat or declining real income) that has persisted for the past 40 years. But the ordinary folk who support the conservative cause don't see that. Their experience is that government has wasted money and oppressed them. There is literally no connection made to the elites who heavily influence the mechanisms of government.

So we are left to scratch our heads in bewilderment. It is hard to know how to address these people with rational argument. The reasoning we deal with has to do with the common weal, our fellow man, collective effort, regulated capitalism, sustainable incomes, the benefits of government and recognition of what government can do and does do. They cannot hear us because our words are only understood in an alternate universe.

Russell is managing director of Cove Hill Advisory Services.