In U.S. politics, the label “liberal” tends not to indicate substantive principles; rather, one is “liberal” if one adheres to a large portion of the positions taken by the Democratic Party. That the “liberal” position is almost synonymous with the Democratic Party’s platform is unfortunate: The synonymy implies an intellectual coherence in the Democratic platform where, in point of fact, none exists. Indeed, the platform of the Democratic Party is made up of the contradictory projects of numerous special interests.
Take, for example, women’s rights organizations and proponents of gay rights. The two make frequent alliances under the auspices of the Democratic Party, co-sponsoring events, gathering for dual-purpose rallies and speaking out on each other’s behalf. But think about this for a moment. Presumably, the women’s rights organizations are against the “oppressive” institution of marriage, while the advocates of gay rights are for an institutional recognition of gay marriage. Two men married means twice the patriarchy! Of course, these two special interests may soon find common philosophical ground in the emerging leftist ideology of ends-libertarianism, but that is a topic for another column.
Of importance here is a similar linguistic trend on the other side of the aisle: the increasing equation of the label “conservative” with the platform of the Republican Party. Like the changing understanding of the term “liberal,” this new understanding of “conservative” breaks with the historic conception of conservatism. And because true conservatives value tradition, this is a very troubling development indeed.
The conservative movement in America did not begin in the political realm. Rather, in the years after World War II, a number of writers began an intellectual ferment by reflecting on the nature of man, the value of individuality and community and the uses and abuses of a liberal society. Though it may seem foreign today, the communist concept was deeply seductive for western minds that had abandoned Christian content but maintained categories inherited from the Christian religion. The conservative movement, then, grew out of an intellectual assessment and critique of American society that ultimately preferred it, despite its faults, to a communist vision.
The first time the “conservative” label entered the political mainstream was in 1964 with the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. Goldwater’s resounding defeat boded ill for the concept, but the preference for limited government and family values in the election of 1980 signaled its resurrection. The apotheosis of “conservative” as a desirable label over the last quarter-century paralleled the similar decline of “liberal.” The unfortunate result is that Republicans clamor to acquire a label as much as Democrats try to avoid theirs. Lost in the shuffle is a general understanding of conservatism that would help restore the conservative critique of the Republican as well as the Democratic Party.
Consider a few issues. While conservatives are wary of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, they can also make a strong critique of the nation-building attempt in Iraq. The conservative holds that political institutions are deeper than economic structure, but that culture is even deeper than political institutions. One cannot expect to establish new and progressive political institutions in a country if one cannot change its culture.
Conservatives are thoughtful about the potential for illegal immigration to undermine the rule of law in America, but they are also worried about the effect of nativism on the national self-understanding. The conservative recognizes the unique American tradition of a nation dedicated to a proposition — the equality of all men before God. Americans have always extended opportunity to those who desire it, not because they have a right to this opportunity, but because the extension of opportunity is a charitable act passing on the grace extended first to these Americans’ forefathers.
Finally, while conservatives advocate strongly for limited government, they reject the extreme libertarianism sometimes found in American politics. Indeed, the conservative holds that government, when properly enacted, is not a necessary evil, but a positive good. The conservative insists that government is an organic institution that serves man well because it is a natural outgrowth of his nature.
At this point, some readers may be thinking that this argument has not systematically defined conservatism. That a definition is missing, however, makes a certain degree of sense because conservatism is not a system. Like Christian theology, conservative philosophy often proceeds negatively by rejecting ideologies founded on an incomplete understanding of man. Nor is conservatism merely a way of thinking. Rather, conservatism includes an adherence to the higher things, the selection of human goods from the past for repetition in the future and the cultivation and application of wisdom.
Peter Johnston is a sophomore in Saybrook College.