In the 1990s, everyone said the same thing about American conservatism: “For decades, the conservative movement was held together by anti-Communism. All the disparate elements were connected by anti-Communism. What connects them now?”
The same question may be posed today. I think of two immediate answers. First, to be a conservative is to be anti-Left, as George Will says. That’s not nothing (as he also says). In fact, that’s a big thing. And the second answer? By and large, we are anti-abortion. That’s also a big thing. A momentous thing.
And beyond those . . .?
Returning to Will, he says that to be a conservative — an American conservative — is to defend the Founding. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, in particular. The first of those documents contains what some think of as the “American idea”: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with . . .”
Now, hang on a minute. Increasingly, I meet young people who call themselves “integralists” or “post-liberals.” They believe that the American Founding was a tragic mistake. They favor some sort of church-state government, though some are too shy to be explicit about their heart’s desire. (I suspect they will get bolder — more candid — which is welcome.) They are more Franco than Jefferson, more Orbán than Reagan — more Pat Buchanan than Will or Charles Krauthammer.
There has long been a distinction between American conservatism and European rightism. More Americans favor the latter than I once would have guessed.
Conservatives — or people identifying as “conservative” — differ sharply on economics. Some are for free enterprise, free trade — a free economy generally. The American Enterprise Institute still has the E-word — “enterprise” — as its middle name. It is not embarrassed, so far as I know. Other conservatives are much more statist, and anti-trade. Some say “Wall Street” with the same sneer as the Left.
Related to this is the size of government — “the size and scope of government,” as we used to say. How big should the federal government be and what are its proper responsibilities? How far, and how wide, should its reach be?
This past summer, a caller to Rush Limbaugh mentioned our $1 trillion budget deficit. “Trump doesn’t really care about that,” the caller said. “He’s not really a fiscal conservative.” The Great One — El Rushbo — said, “Nobody is a fiscal conservative anymore. All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it’s been around.”
I recall the fight between the Bob Dole conservatives and the Jack Kemp conservatives. (Amazingly, those two men joined to form the 1996 GOP ticket.) Kemp & Co. said the Dole-ites were green-eyeshade Republicans with no imagination. They were like dentists, specializing in root canal. Dole & Co. said that the Kempites were irresponsible children who would bankrupt the country.
(Personally, I saw both points of view, though I leaned Kemp.)
Today, some of my colleagues want what they call a “workers’ party.” For a symbol, I would suggest a hammer and sickle, but that has been taken. (The hammer stands for labor — manufacturing, for example — and the sickle for Great Patriot Farmers.) The old Daily Worker is no longer in circulation, so that name is available.
In foreign policy, of course, we are all over the map. Some conservatives still press for American engagement in the world and American leadership in the world. We think it is in the U.S. interest, and good for the world, to boot. Think of what has happened in Syria in recent days: the green light to the Turks; the slaughter of our onetime Kurdish allies; the freeing of ISIS prisoners. American leadership, or American abdication, makes a difference.
Other conservatives long for “normalcy,” in Warren G. Harding’s word. They think America has borne too great a burden, paid too great a price. Though they might not put it this way, they want America to be “another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.” (I have quoted Bush the Elder’s criticism of Michael Dukakis, in 1988.)
We have very different ideas of immigrants and refugees. (I addressed the issue of refugees in a post two weeks ago, here.) All of us, I believe, are against illegal immigration, and for measures to eliminate or reduce illegal immigration — from “e-verify” to a Wall. But we differ strongly on legal immigration: the value of it, the place of it in the American story, its role in American greatness.
“Make America Great Again.” What is meant by “great”? There is no consensus on that question.
There is no consensus on patriotism either. (I addressed that here.) Many on the right are calling themselves “nationalists.” Trump told a rally in Texas, “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word! Use that word!” The Trump Right has revived an old word, an old epithet: “cosmopolitan.” They also deploy “globalist.” And, naturally, they have revived “America First.”
Can any Reaganite have partnership with any of that?
As we have seen, there are still times when the Right unites: in defense of Brett Kavanaugh, for example. Against the NBA, when it kowtows to China (but not against Trump, when he congratulates the Party on its 70 years of dictatorship, or when he asks the Party to investigate his domestic political rivals). We can jump on Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old autistic girl from Sweden who is the symbol of global-warming activism.
These are moments of unity. They come and go. What stays? Abortion does (though there are people on the right who are comfortable with legal abortion). And, again, we are broadly anti-Left. The Right is anti-Left by definition.
All of us are against political correctness. All of us are against the nuttiness — the nasty nuttiness — that rules many American campuses.
This nuttiness is extending to the mainstream of the Democratic party, as we see in the Democrats’ presidential politics. Elizabeth Warren may well be that party’s nominee. Kamala Harris, another senator-candidate, gave her “pronouns” the other night.
What else? What else might fall under the rubric “anti-Left”? We are for judicial restraint (though rare is the person who won’t accept some activism when it favors his side). We are for energy exploration, including fracking. That is big. Important. Not very long ago, we could have said that we defended the FBI and the CIA against their defamers. Oops. We were for character in office — for “family values” and “virtue.” Oops again. Then there is Putin and the Kremlin . . .
Maybe it will be enough to be anti-abortion. Maybe it will be enough to be anti-Left (while making exceptions for “Chairman Kim” and others). Maybe those things will be enough to keep conservatives together, in some roomy tent — a very roomy tent. I don’t know. I worry that America’s political options will come down to a pink-hued statism and populism and a brown-hued statism and populism.
The thing about big government and populism — they’re popular.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve come to believe that the constituency for freedom is pretty small. Everyone wants freedom for himself, of course. But lots of people, I’m afraid, would like to bring others to heel. Freedom for me, not for thee. Do it my way. Heads I win, tails you lose.
This is an age-old human problem, puzzled over by wiser heads than mine — some of them wigged — and I’m done typing for now.