Politics & Policy

‘Conservative’: A Term Up for Grabs

John C. Calhoun (left) and Ronald Reagan (National Portrait Gallery; National Archives)
To die, and not to die, for a word

Editor’s Note: The below is an expanded version of a piece published in the current issue of National Review.

Twenty-five years ago, I met Scott Morris, when we both worked at The Weekly Standard. He asked, “What kind of conservative are you? What is the basis of your conservatism?” I attempted a couple of answers, which did not satisfy him. Scott was an intellectual, who had studied philosophy, including over in Oxford.

Finally, I said to him, “Look, Scott, I’m a simple fellow: I just hate the Reds. Hate, hate, hate the Reds.” He laughed and laughed, and let me off the hook, for a while.

I had made a serious point, however. George F. Will says that the first thing a conservative is, is anti-Left.

His friend William F. Buckley Jr. traveled the country for more than 50 years, giving talks. Most of these talks had Q&A periods. The most frequent question he got was, “What is a conservative? Can you define ‘conservatism’?” WFB always had trouble with this, believe it or not. He often said that conservatism was more of a mindset, or disposition, than a doctrine or program.

George Will has titled his most recent book “The Conservative Sensibility.” He also asks a basic, mandatory question: “What are conservatives trying to conserve?” His answer, for American conservatives, is: our Founding.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men . . .”

Ah, “secure”! That is the most important word in the Declaration, says Will. First come rights — our natural rights — and then comes government. It is the job of government to secure our rights.

George Will is not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, because no one is. (Neither is the Founding.) I know people on the right who insist that Will is not a conservative at all. I know others who think that Will is the living, breathing embodiment of conservatism. “Your mileage may vary,” as I see on social media.

Conservatism has long been a house of many mansions, and maybe too many. There are devotees of Russell Kirk and devotees of Milton Friedman. Devotees of John C. Calhoun and devotees of Ronald Reagan. There are people on the right who despise Lincoln and Churchill (chiefly on grounds that they were warmongers).

“Fusionism” is great, so far as it goes — but what if there are elements simply too disparate to fuse? Chocolate and peanut butter is one thing, but chocolate and eels?

Another phrase you see on social media is “doing a lot of work”: Such-and-such a word is “doing a lot of work in that sentence.” I wonder whether the word “conservative” is being asked to do too much work — or to spread itself too thin.

There are American admirers of European politicians such as Viktor Orbán, Matteo Salvini, and Marine Le Pen. These admirers generally regard themselves as conservative. So do many people who oppose the type of politician in question. The same word can’t cover both camps, can it?

If the word “yellow” is made to apply to yellow, orange, red, and green, it ceases to be very meaningful.

Some admirers of Orbán et al. modify “conservative” with “national”: They are “national conservatives.” In recent years, the word “nationalist” has made a comeback, along with — this really is a golden oldie (or not so golden) — “cosmopolitan.” To a Houston rally in October 2018, President Trump said, “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word! Use that word!”

Back in the 1990s, when I was making some fuss over words, Bill Kristol told me, “You have to use words as they are understood in your time and place.” This is true (whether we like it or not). In Australia, the right-leaning party is the Liberal Party. In 1932, President Hoover and his men were aghast that FDR and his men were calling themselves “liberals,” because they themselves were liberals, in their own minds!

This morning, I read an article about Saudi Arabia, which referred to Saudi society as “conservative.” You mean like school choice and conscience rights? No, like monarchy and Wahhabism.

Over the last several years, I’ve noticed that certain people on the American right are pulling a neat trick: That which two seconds ago was understood by one and all to be “conservative,” they are calling “libertarian.” International trade, for example, or even limited government.

WFB once observed, “Within every conservative is a streak of libertarianism.” Sure — along with streaks of traditionalism and other things. A conservative should contain multitudes, or at least decent-sized groups.

In 1993, WFB subtitled a collection of his “Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist.” (The title of that collection is “Happy Days Were Here Again.”) George Will refers to himself as a “soft libertarian” — thinking that the harder variety veers too much toward anarchism.

Last week on Twitter, I saw this bit of mockery: “Republicans still cling to their ‘muh free markets’ dogmas.” (“Muh” is a sneering way of saying “my.”) I have three quick responses: (1) Who are these clingers? I’d like to congratulate and thank them. (2) A conservative should not, and really does not, have dogmas. (3) Muh free markets have done a lot more good for humanity than yuh five-year plans, industrial policies, and other government schemes.

I always said that the best thing Ronald Reagan ever did for me was give me something to call myself: a “Reaganite.” This is more specific than “conservative,” a term that should not be monopolized. I am a free-marketeer, a hawk, and a social conservative — all tempered with prudence, of course (that outstanding conservative quality).

The problem with “Reaganite,” however, is that Reagan and his era grow ever more distant, and people understandably forget, or never knew, what it all meant.

Anyway, I have a story to relate.

About 15 years ago, Michael Deaver, the ex–Reagan aide, asked a bunch of us to contribute to a book to be called “Why I Am a Conservative.” In my contribution, I explained that I was a Reagan conservative (and why), acknowledging that there were other conservatives, of much different stripes. I mean, what would Wendell Berry think?

When the book came out, it was titled “Why I Am a Reagan Conservative.” Because of my essay? I never asked.

We are in a confusing time, with the term “conservative” up for grabs. A great many people on the right consider Donald Trump a conservative and Mitt Romney not. Lou Dobbs a conservative and David French not.

French has been a Reagan conservative since he was 14, poor man. He has not evolved, in an age of rampant evolution. Last year, when he was under attack by “integralists” and other ists, French made a striking observation: “This is not an intramural dispute.” This is not a family quarrel. We are talking about different worldviews, different principles, different ideals.

Even the basic terms “Left” and “Right” have become confusing, don’t you think? I mean, what is Putin? Left or Right? He is a former KGB colonel who runs Russia like a mafia capo. Most of the Putin admirers I know are on the right, thinking that Putin is a defender of Christian values who projects a proper national “strength.”

You are never supposed to let others define you, but sometimes they do — or they at least name you. In 1960, Friedrich Hayek, the great economist, wrote an essay called “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” (Same title as Deaver’s original title, with a “Not”!) Well, tough luck, Fred. You were born in Vienna in 1899. Of course you don’t consider yourself a conservative. But if others do, in their own time and place, you have little recourse.

In the language game, or labeling game, majority rules (fairly or not).

Some friends of mine — long identified, and self-identified, as conservatives — have given up the word “conservative”: some with a heavy heart, some with a shrug. If conservatism means Fox News, talk radio, and Trump rallies — and for millions upon millions, it does — they are ruled out.

I always try to find out what people mean by “conservative,” and by “liberal,” for that matter. We have to have a shared vocabulary, before conversation can proceed.

Over the years, I have discovered something: People on the right tend to take their own views, whatever they are — and equate that with conservatism. They are true conservatives, and all other claimants are heretics.

I cherish something that Hernando de Soto once told me, and often reflect on it. I asked the great economist — a classical liberal, like Hayek (his friend) — how to rescue the word “capitalism” from the bad odor that anti-capitalists attach to it. “Never go die for a word,” de Soto said. He does a lot of globe-trotting. And wherever he happens to be in the world, he finds out the words that local people use — and follows suit. In the Arab world, for example, everyone knows about “expropriation,” and hates it. This gives de Soto a ready audience for his message on property rights.

Personally, I would not die for the word “conservative” — but I would fight for it a bit, not wanting to cede it to Orbanites and others of an illiberal bent.

Before closing this little meditation (lament?), I will return to the question of “mindset,” or “disposition,” or “sensibility.” Oakeshott wrote a famous passage about conservatism, saying that to be a conservative is “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

You may wish to know — it may hearten you to know — that we had an intern at National Review last summer who knew that passage by heart. He is not even a native English-speaker. He is French and Moroccan. He is also a keen student, and keen admirer, of Lincoln. So — to adapt a line from Caddyshack — we got that going for us.


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