Politics & Policy

May I See Your ID?

Mitt Romney (r.) and Paul Ryan (l.) campaign in Marion, Ohio, October 28, 2012. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)
On ‘conservative’ and other contentious identities

Identity is big these days, and probably all days: racial identity, ethnic identity, political identity, etc. Tribalism. It seems to be baked into the human cake.

Only the consciously, persistently religious, or spiritual, transcend it, I suppose. (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female . . .” “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.”)

Last week, a White House official asked a reporter, “What’s your ethnicity?” In this country, I think, you’re entitled to say, “American” (even though this is properly a nationality, rather than an ethnicity). We are a great mutt of a nation — a glorious mongrel. Long may it be.

“Conservative” is very important to people, many of them. There are always people who regard themselves as true conservatives, while anyone who differs from them is unfit for the designation.

Words shift — their meanings shift — and “conservative” has undergone a considerable shift lately. May I tell you a story, not really related to politics? (I will return to politics in a moment.)

I have a friend, Pat Gigliotti, who grew up in Kansas City. (An Irish nun could not pronounce his given name, Pasquale, so he became “Pat.”) Certain mothers forbade their daughters to date Pat because he wasn’t “white” — he was Italian American. Later on, he lived in Southern California and was called an “Anglo.” Go figure.

As Pat says, “I can’t tell whether that’s a promotion or a demotion.”

He also points out that others in the area are called “Latinos.” Yet an Italian, Rudolph Valentino, was the original “Latin lover.” Again, go figure.

Back to politics. In the mid-1990s, I had a talk with Bill Kristol, who was the editor of The Weekly Standard, where I was then working. It concerned political labels, specifically “liberal” and “conservative.” He was steeped in political philosophy (Ph.D., Harvard). But he said, in essence, You can’t afford to be too philosophical or particular about these things. You have to use words as they are commonly understood in your time and place. And times and places will vary.

To be sure. In Australia, the Liberal party is the right-leaning party, the party of John Howard & Co. Doing some speaking in Greece once, I was knocked in the local press as a “hyper-liberal” and “neo-liberal.” That was a novel experience.

Back home, by the Left, I was often called a right-winger, a fascist, and worse — even the N-word (“Nazi”). Every conservative has experienced that, I think.

Hayek wrote an essay called “Why I Am Not a Conservative” (1960). Tough luck, Fred: You may have an idea of what you are, and what you represent, but sometimes others define you — they tell you what you are, they label you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Today, there are people — many people — who define conservatism as Fox News, talk radio, and Trump rallies, period. If this definition takes hold — and it probably already has — there is little that anyone else can do about it.

(Some of my favorite people appear on Fox News, incidentally, and are found on talk radio, too. Some may even attend a Trump rally or two.)

Bill Buckley gave talks around the country for more than 50 years. During Q&A periods, the most frequently asked question, he said, was, What is a conservative? What is conservatism? Bill — even Bill! — always had trouble answering. Conservatism, traditionally, has not been doctrinaire. It speaks more to a mindset, or a disposition, or a sensibility.

George Will, of course, has titled his new book “The Conservative Sensibility.” In a podcast with me, he offered one definition of a conservative — an American conservative, that is. (Europe is a different story, or at least has been, until now.)

You have to ask, Will said, “What do conservatives want to conserve?” And his answer is the American Founding. The Founders believed in natural rights, and held that the duty of government was to protect and preserve those rights.

Today, said Will, “the conservative agenda, the conservative mission, is to restore the vision of the Founders by rolling back the very forthright and very successful progressive revolution against it.”

Everyone has his own idea of conservatism and conservatives. I have a friend and colleague who says, “George Will is not a conservative.” I have another friend and colleague who says, “George Will is the most conservative person I’ve ever met.” Those poles could not be farther apart.

I was on a panel last year with people who regard themselves as true conservatives — arbiters of conservatism. John McCain was not a conservative, they said, and neither is Mitt Romney. Donald Trump, yes. Sean Hannity, yes. Those others, no. (Part of this is emotional.)

How about the case of Paul Ryan? A curious case indeed. For years, he was a conservative pin-up, the Great Conservative Hope. I well remember the summer of 2012 (not that long ago). Romney had to pick Ryan as his running-mate, according to “true conservatives” — otherwise, Romney would be . . . well, untrue.

The “true conservatives,” by the way, were big on the Tea Party. Remember them? They agitated for fiscal discipline and constitutional propriety. That seems a thousand years ago.

Romney in fact picked Ryan — and two seconds later, Ryan’s name was mud among the True Conservatives. Today he is slammed as a pagan or heretic who worships the market or something (and Trump slammed him as “a f***ing Boy Scout”).

About economics: The “national conservatism” conference, recently held at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington (!), voted in favor of an industrial policy — of having an industrial policy. In this country. The United States.

Some of us conservatives signed up for Buckley, Reagan, and Friedman, way back — not for this Musso stuff.

The great Rush Limbaugh, on his radio show, rebuked a caller who wanted fiscal conservatism. “Nobody is a fiscal conservative anymore,” Rush said. “All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it’s been around.”


Was it all a lie, then, this pre-Trump conservatism? The conservatism of multiple generations? Should National Review publish an apology issue and then fold up shop?

I am not a libertarian, but I am an appreciator of libertarianism — and I heard it slammed the other day, hard, by some folks on the right. They laughed it out of school, as though it had nothing to contribute, nothing to teach us, at all.

Not very long ago, Milton Friedman was revered on the right. At conservative gatherings — I saw this — he was treated with trembling awe. I wonder: How would he be treated today? How welcome would he be?

Bill Buckley subtitled a collection of his — Happy Days Were Here Again (1993) — “Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist.” Would he be laughed out of his own movement? Heaven forbid.

I, personally, have always distinguished “conservatism” from “rightism.” When I speak of the “Right,” or “rightism,” I am usually speaking of European nationalism and populism (and worse). As Professor Robert P. George says, the traditional role of the American conservative — and he is one — has been to defend the liberal tradition. (By this he means the classical-liberal tradition, not, say, Mother Jones.)

This tradition has many enemies — on the left, of course, but not only.

Let me call a roll: Farage, the Le Pens, Orbán, Salvini, the AfD, the “Freedom” party, the (Swedish) Democrats . . . On the right, including in America, there are many people who regard these guys as true conservatives, real conservatives. Okay. What about the rest of us, who oppose this illiberal array? Can we be conservatives too?

I don’t think so. That’s asking the word “conservative” to do too much work. That’s stretching it too thin. Something’s gotta give. If you ask “yellow” to apply to green, orange, and red, too, the word “yellow” ceases to be very useful.

For a long while, we had a staffer at NR who was very right-wing. Proudly, happily so. She read and liked a publication that she described, correctly and approvingly, as “right-wing” — not “conservative,” but “right-wing.” I appreciated her honesty, and I appreciated her.

There were American conservatisms before Reagan conservatism — my favorite flavor — needless to say. I have always been mindful of this. About 15 years ago, Michael K. Deaver, the ex–Reagan aide, asked me to contribute to a book he was editing — a collection of essays, to be called “Why I Am a Conservative.” I wrote mine, but, not wanting to hog the mantle of “conservative,” I said that I was a Reagan conservative (and explained why).

When the book came out, the title had changed — to “Why I Am a Reagan Conservative.” Did Deaver change it because of my essay? I never asked him (but I suspect so).

Back in Michigan, where I grew up, I knew some real conservatives — I mean the Old Right. The pre-Reagan Right. Pre-Goldwater, too. They believed that FDR had engineered Pearl Harbor, or allowed it to happen, so as to entrap the U.S. in war. Many millions believed this at one time.

Every four years, Pat Buchanan ran for president — from 1992 to 2000. He ran as a champion of the Old Right — that pre-Reagan, pre-Goldwater Right — advocating isolationism, protectionism, nationalism, etc. (Among other things, Pat is one of the most wonderful rhetoricians of all time, by the way: “We’re gonna fight until hell freezes over. Then we’re gonna fight on the ice.” He would deliver this line with a great, wonderful grin.)

When Trump won in 2016, Tim Alberta interviewed Pat for Politico. The headline quoted the man himself — Buchanan himself: “‘The Ideas Made It, But I Didn’t.’”

Today, the accepted definition of “conservatism” is more Buchananite than Reaganite, I believe. Think of the issue of immigration alone. When was the last time you heard a pro-immigrant peep out of the Right? Reagan was always celebrating them, rightly or wrongly.

For many, “conservative” simply means support of Trump — and non-support equals not-conservative.

I will tell you a secret, which is not very secret: A lot of people on the right are “always where they need to be.” If the Zeitgeist is Trumpite — if that’s what it takes to be “in” rather than “out” — that’s where they will be. If it returns to Reaganism, they’ll be there too: in and warm, not cold and out.

This is very human (confined to no ideology). I am even willing to believe that it has a biological basis, as our bio-evo friends would tell us.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece called “What Is Conservatism?” It was prompted by a woman in New Mexico, who asked me just that, in a Q&A after a speech. I told her I had long abstained from the definitional wars. And that I was loath to be a “Commissar of Conservatism,” as I call them — an arbiter, ruling people in and out.

Plus, a lot of people simply state their own views — whatever they happen to be that day — and pronounce them “conservatism.”

I did not cop out entirely, however, and spat out a few words to the lady and the audience at large. In the piece I later wrote, I basically repeated those words, saying that I would give my best sense of conservatism in our time and place — specifically, America in 2015. Here goes (or here went):

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.

Is that conservative? The answer depends on the answerer. I think of an ancient phrase: “Call me what you want, but don’t call me late for dinner.” I have always said — another ancient phrase! — “The best thing Reagan ever did for me was give me something to call myself: ‘Reaganite.’” People may not understand the term, especially at this remove, but I do, which is a solace, oddly enough.

I am aware — keenly so — that liberals lost their word, long ago. I’m talking about the word “liberal.” And I’m talking about people such as Friedrich Hayek. They lost the word to progressives, statists, leftists. According to conservative lore — and I believe this is true — the New York Times once referred to Angela Davis, the vice-presidential nominee of the CPUSA, as “ultra-liberal.”

Could conservatives lose their word, too? I mean, conservatives of the classical-liberal or Reagan stripe? Could they lose it to the nationalists, populists, and — I have just learned this word (I have to keep up) — integralists? I don’t know.

But I know that ideas and principles and values are more important than labels. People will shift labels on you, and you may do some shifting of labels yourself (shiftily). But ideas, principles, and values — they abide.

Everyone likes the warmth of a tribe. “Tribe feel good,” our distant ancestors might have said. But if you find yourself outside, don’t be too worried. A particular identity, no matter how longstanding and cherished, is not the be-all, end-all — and identity politics can be some of the worst politics around.

If you need to choose an identity, or embrace one, “individual” would be okay, and “child of God.” Hard to improve on.

And remember the old line — my final ancient saying of the day: “One with God is a majority.”