Attempting to categorize conservatism in the 21st century runs the risk of plunging into the briar patch of academic labeling or the fever swamp of left-wing vitriol. In the first category, one finds such designations as conservatism, neo-conservatism, and paleo-conservatism, while those things liberals say about conservatives may be relegated to the realm of overheated political rhetoric. But this still leaves those sympathetic to conservatism with the problem of self-definition, especially during a time when tea party enthusiasts have captured so much attention in the context of discussions about conservative views.
The word conservatism itself is usually and rightfully associated with political principles of the Founding Fathers, but the neo-conservative and paleo-conservative forms of conservatism seem puzzling to many. Not helpful on either score. And we have seen that even tea party metaphors can be dismissed with sound bites by liberal smear-aholics.
Here’s where Mark Twain comes to the rescue, especially since he was too busy mocking others to care about what others had to say about him, and his attitude toward politicians of every stripe pretty much says it all: “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Likely his observations of today’s congressional shenanigans would leave him rolling on the ground with laughter—or breaking down in tears. Either way, he would make great fun of it, no doubt with incredulity, skepticism, and no small amount of contempt. But does this make Twain a conservative?
The answer, I believe, is yes, for the following reasons. First, unlike America’s current ruling class, Mark Twain lived a very rich and full life, filled with events that burned the lessons of experience into his soul, all of which reinforced his understanding of the reality principle: that is, the relationship between cause and effect and taking responsibility for one’s actions. For instance, one does not advance to the position of river-boat pilot on the Mighty Mississippi with no more experience than negotiating a rowboat on a stream. His considerable income did not prevent him from losing all of it in failed business ventures; he traveled throughout the world, met thousands of people, was swindled by a few of them, became personally familiar with life’s many vices and tried briefly to give up smoking, drinking, lying and swearing, but couldn’t. The best he managed was to control his drinking and write an essay that was “An Appeal Against Injudicious Swearing,” which is as far as he would go on this very important topic.
In short, does anyone for a moment think that this man would be fooled by starry-eyed appeals for hope and change, to remake America, or to believe anything proclaimed by members of what he regarded as America’s only known criminal class, the U.S. Congress? Not likely.
Indeed, Mark Twain’s famously dyspeptic view of human nature bordered on misanthropy and on occasion was expressed in terms that would make John Calvin blush. His excellent short story, “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” was a brilliant statement on humankind’s self-righteousness and gullibility, and should be required reading for everyone, especially those contemplating a political career. He did not believe it possible that politics could alter fundamental tendencies of human nature, a view that has been a staple of progressive thought since the 19th century.
Further, Mark Twain had contempt for that redemptive embodiment of liberal-progressive thought, from the publication of Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” to (in modern times) Al Gore’s latest fulminations on climate change: the expert. After all, the experts responsible for the country’s current financial meltdown—for $1.5 trillion deficits—belong to the same type who, according to Twain, once figured that “just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upward of 1,300,000 miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod” (“Life on the Mississippi”). No doubt, Twain would be appalled by his country in its current condition, but he would not be surprised; after all, it was designed by that most despicable of creatures, the political expert, those who likely had learned the art of the hoax from Twain’s very own, “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
All of which made Twain, and those who follow him, conservatives; that is, individuals who understand life by actually living it, who are skeptical of human nature and the pretensions of government, and who distrust the flimflammery of self-proclaimed experts. Call them Mark Twain conservatives, after the man who proudly claimed that he was not just “an” American. Like all true conservatives today, he was THE American: Mark Twain.
Dr. Marvin Folkertsma is a professor of political science and fellow for American studies with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. The author of several books, his latest release is a high-energy novel titled “The Thirteenth Commandment.”