Politics & Policy

What Is Conservatism?

(Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library)
A stab by a non-arbiter

Last week, I gave a talk at the Rio Grande Foundation, the conservative think tank in Albuquerque (a point of light, as the first Bush would say). During the Q&A, a friendly woman said, “What is conservatism? Can you define conservatism?”

I said that I have long opted out of the definitional wars. There are always people who try to define conservatism — who set themselves up as arbiters. They rule people out of conservatism, and rule people in. I call them Commissars of Conservatism. I sometimes call them Commissars of the Corner!

(The Corner is National Review’s group blog, and the commissars are some of the more, um, self-confident contributors.)

I suppose I could get away with being, or pretending to be, an arbiter or even a commissar of conservatism, owing to my position: senior editor of National Review. In some quarters, NR is thought of as the flagship journal of American conservatism. But I eschew arbitration (most of the time).

Consider the issue of immigration for a moment. The editors of the Wall Street Journal are pretty loose about immigration. Indeed, in 1984 — the high noon of Reaganism — they proposed a five-word constitutional amendment: “There shall be open borders.” The editors of National Review, by contrast, are restrictionist (though not restrictionist enough for some on the right).

Which is conservative? The Wall Street Journal editorial page or NR?

NR is a drug-legalizing magazine. NR is the “flagship conservative journal.” Does that mean that Bill Bennett, Ronald Reagan, et al. are not conservative, because they disagree with NR about drugs? Virtually all conservatives are anti-legalization, right?

You see what I mean. You see the problem.

In the past, there were actually moderate and liberal Republicans. One such — probably a moderate — was Senator Richard Schweiker, whom Reagan designated as his running mate in 1976. (It was a gimmick before the convention, a last-minute gambit.) When Reagan became president in 1981, he appointed Schweiker his secretary of health and human services.

Margaret Heckler was a moderate Republican from Massachusetts. Or was she a liberal? Anyway, she, too, served as Reagan’s HHS secretary, and later ambassador to Ireland.

There were House members like Silvio Conte and Jim Leach. There were senators like the Oregonians, Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood. There were many stripes of Republican, in every region of the country.

Today, there are virtually no moderate or liberal Republicans. Yet the Right has never been more interested in hunting heretics. John McCain, Mitt Romney, John Boehner, Jeb Bush — men such as they have to stand in for moderates and liberals, since there are no real ones anymore in the party. They have to be targets of attack.

Paul Ryan used to be a prince of conservatism, a prince of the Right, until he veered an inch or two away from whatever the Right’s orthodoxy was that day. Then he was “Paul Ryano.” (We used to apply “RINO” — Republican in Name Only — to pols such as the Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter. Now it is applied to Ryan and anyone else who incurs the displeasure of the commissars, however temporarily.)

Not a day goes by when I myself am not accused by someone on the right — through social media — of being a moderate or a liberal or a traitor to conservatism. The Left attacks me for being Attila the Hun. Some on the right attack me for not being Attila the Hun. (In truth, I am Attila, trust me.)

What I am, really, is a Reaganite. I once said, the greatest thing Ronald Reagan ever did for me was give me something to call myself. In fact, let me quote from an essay I wrote at the time of Reagan’s passing, “A Name of My Own”:

Of all the things Ronald Reagan did for me, maybe the best was that he gave me something to call myself. I am a Reaganite. It can be difficult to answer when someone says, “What are you, politically?” The word “conservative” is subject to a thousand interpretations. You don’t want to launch into a lecture about the Scottish Enlightenment, the strange journey of the word “liberal,” the advent of Frank Meyer, etc. So, instead you can say — if it’s true — “I’m a Reaganite.”

Of course, the more distant we get from Reagan, the less comprehensible the term “Reaganite” will be. In fact, maybe it’s too obscure for some now. But I’m loath to cast about for a different term at this date!

A man in Albuquerque said, “Why do we have to call ourselves conservatives? We’re liberals, right?” I said that to Bill Kristol, a long time ago. Hang on, let me dig out another essay and quote from it — “A World of Labels” (2012):

Sometime in the mid-Nineties, I grumbled to Bill Kristol about being stuck with “conservative.” He said, in essence, “Get over it. You have to accept labels as they are used and understood in your own time and place.” In 1960, Hayek wrote an essay called “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Well, tough luck, Friedrich: Today you would for sure be a conservative or right-winger, whether you liked it or not. The world doesn’t give you a choice.

In Australia, the conservatives, or the Reaganites, or the Thatcherites, are known as the Liberals. They belong to the Liberal party. But that usage died in America probably in the 1930s.

Ponder this for a second: People on the left want Social Security to be frozen in aspic, basically. People on the right want it to be reformed, so it will be viable for future generations. The former are known as “progressives” — the latter as “conservatives.”

I noticed something in 2000, when George W. Bush was running for president. (I’ll pause to let the Right boo and hiss.) (I won’t pause for the Left, because they’re not reading.) W. was running in favor of reforming everything: Social Security, Medicare, education, the military, you name it. His Democratic opponent, Al Gore, was running essentially to preserve the status quo. Bush, of course, was known as the conservative.

#share#You know who’s a conservative? David Cameron, the prime minister of Britain. Edmund Burke, patron saint of conservatism, would adore him. Cameron is steady, pragmatic, incremental, prudent, and all the rest of it. We Reaganites, and Thatcherites, are impatient for more, and faster. We say that Cameron is not conservative enough. Actually, he’s very conservative. It’s we who are not.

Many years ago, when the Web really got going, we had debates over who was a journalist. Bob Novak said, “If you call yourself one, you are one.” That settled the question for me. Novak had standing to say what he did, because he had been prominent in journalism — print and television — for decades.

If you call yourself a conservative, are you one? There may be something to that. I’m for a biggish tent, when it comes to conservatism — and Republicanism — but not for too big a tent. Otherwise, terms, philosophies, and parties have no meaning.

At last I’m coming to the point of this article — which is to give you my sense of what conservatism is, in our time and place. In the America of today. I’ll rattle off what I rattled off in Albuquerque.

I believe that to be a conservative is to be for limited government. Personal freedom. The rule of law. The Constitution, and adherence to it. Federalism. Equality under the law. Equality of opportunity. Relatively light taxation. Relatively light regulation. Free enterprise. Property rights. Free trade. Civil society. The right to work. A strong defense. National security. National sovereignty. Human rights. A sound, non-flaky educational curriculum. School choice. A sensible stewardship over the land, as opposed to extreme environmentalism. Pluralism. Colorblindness. Toleration. E pluribus unum. Patriotism. Our Judeo-Christian heritage. Western civilization.

I want to throw in, too, the right to life. (I have said, over the years, “Show me where a man stands on abortion and Israel, and you have shown me all I need to know.”)

Now, it could be that I have simply declared what I believe in and called it “conservatism.” And I have no doubt that I’ve forgotten a few important things, as my critics on the right will no doubt tell me. (“Proof that Nordlinger is a Communist is that …”)

I also bear in mind something that Reagan often said: “If we agree 75 percent of the time, you’re my 75 percent friend, not my 25 percent enemy.”

Last summer, Mona Charen and I talked to Roger Scruton in a podcast. Scruton is the great British philosopher and great conservative. I told him about our intra-Right wars here in America. And I said that, if I allowed anyone to be a commissar, it would be he. He said,

“I would be very lax in my duties. My view is that the most important thing for conservatives is to be in alliance with each other, not to have witch hunts over small points of doctrine, not to identify heresies and persecute them and so on.

“I think that, in the end, there is something that unites all conservatives, which is that they are pursuing something they love. My view is that the Left is united by hatred, but we are united by love: love of our country, love of institutions, love of the law, love of family, and so on. And what makes us conservatives is the desire to protect those things, and we’re up against people who want to destroy them, and it’s very simple.”


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