Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What is "Conservatism"? [UPDATED]

[Updated and bumped to the top]

I probably shouldn't go there, but ...

The fallout from the GOP nomination battle - and the reaction of the pundit class to the ultimate failure of Mitt Romney as the "conservative" choice vs. the success of the allegedly "not conservative" John McCain - has me asking this question:

What is "conservatism", and who gets to decide who and what qualifies as "conservative"?

One of the most interesting occurrences of the last few years has been the number of "excommunications" from the conservative fold. Most famously, David Frum (a pro-abort whose own conservative credentials are therefore somewhat questionable) excommunicated columnist Robert Novak from the conservative club in this notorious National Review piece. Novak, in turn, has questioned both Mike Huckabee's and John McCain's conservatism. Rush Limbaugh opined that Sam Brownback - one of the more conservative candidates running for the GOP nomination in this election cycle - was "not a thoroughbred conservative". And National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez declared that John McCain is "not one of us".

Interestingly, not one of these high-profile excommunications involved the issues about which I believe conservatives should be most concerned: the dreaded social issues involving the family and the "culture war" pitting the culture of life vs. the culture of death. My own baseline definition of conservatism (by no means an all-encompassing definition) is that conservatism, at its heart and as its primary end, must seek to preserve, protect, and promote the traditional family, which is the basic unit of society. Here is a better formulation of this particular priority:
• Protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death;

• Recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family – as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage – and its defense from attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union which in reality harm it and contribute to its destabilization, obscuring its particular character and its irreplaceable social role;

• The protection of the rights of parents to educate their children
But that's just the baseline, and it doesn't even touch on actual policy. Any other suggestions? What else makes up "conservatism" or makes one a "conservative"?

Some very good and interesting contributions in the comments, which raise another couple of questions: Is conservatism primarily a set of principles that guide our policy preferences? Or can conservatism be broken down into a set of policy prescriptions that one must adhere to in order to call onself "conservative"?

Previous Pro Ecclesia posts on this subject:
Cranky Conservative: "No, YOU Chill Out"

More on McCain from National Review

Turn Off Talk Radio ...

Deal Hudson: "Are Conservatives Turning People Off?"

Conservatives Suspicious of McCain Lectured on "Unity" by Someone Who Said She "Would Vote for Joe Lieberman Over Sam Brownback"

Regular Guy Paul: "What I Need From McCain"

Conservatives in the "Wilderness"

Rod Dreher on the "Changing of the Conservative Guard"

Robert Novak: "Is McCain a Conservative?" (Confirms Story on McCain and Alito)

Joseph Bottum on "McCain and Social Conservatives"

Santorum Attacks McCain's Conservative Credentials

"Not One of Us"

Wall Street Journal: Huckabee Would Make GOP More Like Europe's Christian Democrats

Bob Novak on Huckabee: "The False Conservative"

Tertium Quid on Michael Gerson's New Book Heroic Conservatism

GOP Candidates Snub Social Conservatives

Rush Limbaugh Says Brownback "Not a Thoroughbred Conservative"



At 2/12/2008 10:36 PM, Blogger Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

I've been noticing this as well, candidates claiming to be "conservative," while the meaning of the word has been entirely cut loose from any consensus on its meaning.

The baseline you've offered, which you well know I agree with, has been largely forgotten -- or willfully disgarded -- by a shocking number of Republican leaders and activists.

As to what else should constitute conservatism, I offered the following list to a similar question at Illinois Review:

Beliefs which must not be compromised:

1. Human life is precious, and begins at conception. Abortion must be abolished, as must euthanasia, and embryo-destructive stem cell research.

2. The family is the central building-block of society. Gay "marriage", too-easy divorce, and other proposals that would undermine the family must be opposed and rolled back. Government must respect the proper role of parents in the education and rearing of their children.

3. Especially at the state and local level, the people may choose to make government their agent for the purpose of extending charitable support for those less fortunate, but government should approach such functions with the humble realization that it is not the best agency for such work, and should apply the standard that it is not the number of people receiving aid, but the number of people who no longer require assistance that is truly indicative of success. Too, the best way to stimulate both economic activity and encourage the populace to give more to private charities is to reduce tax rates.

4. The free market is the best way to choose which scarce resources will go to which consumers. Government involvement should be as limited as possible, with an eye towards supporting and stabilizing the market, but the state should never be choosing winners and losers in the marketplace, artificially protecting some from competition.

5. Government should live within its means, not spending more than it takes in, nor attempting to provide services it cannot afford. Such extravagance depresses markets, causes inflation, and discourages both thrift and industry.

6. Government should be restricted to those functions which the people cannot do for themselves, such as police, judicial, fire protection, national security, coining money, etc.

7. Foreign policy should be focused on the protection of American interests, but not to the extent of making over other nations in our image, or to suit ourselves. That said, the United States should never support despots or dictators who oppress their own people, even if that seems to be in our interests in the short term.

8. Only the federal government will keep America secure and safe. The borders must be enforced to prevent unauthorized entry. Those who succeed in entering illegally should be deported whenever the opportunity presents itself.

9. Military deployments should be, as Caspar Weinberger described, only done with a clear and unambiguous national interest in mind, with clearly defined achievable goals and a well-understood exit strategy. Congress should declare war prior to the invasion of a sovereign nation.

10. The Constitution is clear and means what it says, and should be respected; this particularly includes the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 9th and 10th amendments.

All of these ideas are under heavy attack nationwide and particularly in Illinois. I have little interest in labels, but I don't believe that one can truly be conservative without subscribing to all these principles.

Without exception, the Republican Party should be standing up for all these ideals.

At 2/12/2008 10:50 PM, Anonymous paul zummo said...

When all else fails, it doesn't hurt to go with Kirk's six tenets:

* belief in a transcendant order or natural law
* antagonism to uniformity through egalitarian or utilitarian goals
* importance of social hierarchy rather than a classless societey
* primacy of property rights to freedom
* faith in prescription and distrust of ideal reconstructions of society
* reluctance to accept change or hasty innovation

These are all very general, but I think that's the point. Conservatism cannot be truly be defined by specific policies. Some would argue - I guess I would argue - that conservatism is less an ideology than a set of principles.

Then of course there is my whole exhaustive exploration of the topic of American conservatism. You can start here and work yuor way backwards.

At 2/12/2008 11:09 PM, Anonymous BillyHW said...

A conservative is someone who suspects that maybe the 19th Amendment wasn't such a good idea after all, but is far too polite to mention it in conversation when there is company over.

At 2/12/2008 11:20 PM, Anonymous paul zummo said...

Okay, I laughed out loud at billyhw's comment. Nice way to end the night.

Although, speaking of women and politics, kudos to the crankywife, who still hasn't made it home yet. She was an election judge with the envious duty of driving the precinct results over to the Board of Election, and with the polls being kept open until 9:30, she will truly by a crankywife tonight.

At 2/13/2008 1:46 AM, Blogger Bender said...

One does not define conservativism, either in its historical traditional sense or in its modern sense (which is really classical liberalism) or in its neo sense, by listing a lot of issues and policies.

One is a conservative for many of the same reasons that one might be Catholic. That is not to say that all authentic Catholics must be politically conservative, but if you answer the question of why one is Catholic, in addition to being "a Catholic," then you can better understand and answer the question of what makes one a conservative. Is one Catholic merely because he was born into it? because he wants to be a member of the Catholic club? because he likes Catholic liturgy and music? Or is it something else? Is it something having to do with one's sincere understanding of truth, including an understanding of the truth of the human person?

On the other hand, modern liberalism is little concerned with truth, believing it to be relative, and is instead more focused on power, especially power between groups (classes).

At 2/13/2008 2:41 AM, Blogger Michelle said...

I think Paul nailed it.

I think it's also perfectly acceptable to define conservatism with concrete examples of policy, and I might say, superior than trying to define it in the abstract.

Very Catholic, I might add.

At 2/13/2008 10:09 AM, Blogger Darwin said...

The difficulty, I think, is that there are so many different things one can mean by "conservative".

I think Paul has provided a pretty good list of what a conservative approach to American politics ought to be, and Jay provided some good bullets for a conservative Catholic/Christian approach to family issues.

One additional, though not unimportant, meaning to the word is simply: Being hesitant to change things quickly and having respect for the past.

As such, a conservative Roman would have been quite suspicious of Christianity in 300 A.D. "That's not the way our ancestors did it."

In a stable and Christian society, having this sort of tempermental conservatism is generally a good idea. It gets trickier, however, when we've been off the tracks for fifty years. I think natural law tends to make things a bit self correcting, but one of the difficulties we're starting to see, I think, is that for many people certain elements of a stable Christian society are no longer within living or even generational memory. And so we see people holding to "the way my grandparents did things" about issues which fifty years ago were not conservative.

So at certain times, when things are sufficiently off the tracks, this kind of tempermental conservatism may find itself in conflict with principled conservatism, simply because things have not been run in a conservative fashion for a long time.

At 2/13/2008 10:38 AM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

"... and Jay provided some good bullets for a conservative Catholic/Christian approach to family issues"

Actually, there's nothing exclusively Catholic or Christian about that approach. It's grounded in Natural Law (and therefore fits right in with Kirk's tenets of conservatism).

Here's what the Holy Father said immediately after laying out those bullet points:

"These principles are not truths of faith, even though they receive further light and confirmation from faith; they are inscribed in human nature itself and therefore they are common to all humanity. The Church’s action in promoting them is therefore not confessional in character, but is addressed to all people, prescinding from any religious affiliation they may have. On the contrary, such action is all the more necessary the more these principles are denied or misunderstood, because this constitutes an offence against the truth of the human person, a grave wound inflicted onto justice itself."

At 2/13/2008 11:19 AM, Blogger Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

Bender, I disagree. I am Catholic because I am persuaded that the teachings of Catholicism, and the Church's claims for itself, are true.

But it's easily possible to list the dogmas of Catholicism, and assert that to be fully Catholic, one must assent to them.

Likewise with conservatism.

At 2/13/2008 11:28 AM, Blogger Darwin said...


I take your point about Natural Law. I guess I was labelling them as specifically Christian principles because the "Protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death;" has historically not been an absolute value of many non-Christian culture, which have been fairly comfortable with infanticide, suicide and honor killing in certain circumstances.

I agree that one can derive this without revelation, but I'm not sure that a tempermental conservative in many cultures would recognize that as a root principle.

At 2/13/2008 12:02 PM, Blogger Bender said...

Bender, I disagree. I am Catholic because I am persuaded that the teachings of Catholicism, and the Church's claims for itself, are true.

Then you do agree with me. Conservatives, of whatever stripe, are conservative because they are concerned with and persuaded by truth. It is a philosophical reason that they are conservative. Conservatives are persuaded about the truth of the human person, including his inherent dignity and liberty, and the truth that man did not create his own rights, rights were not given to him by government, but that all rights are endowed upon him by his Creator. All conservative philosophy originates from this foundational idea, and all "true" conservatives subscribe to such philosophy.

On the other hand, modern liberals are mostly unconcerned with truth, at least, truth in its objective sense. They believe truth to be subjective or even largely opinion, differing for each person or each situation, especially in the area of morality. Being unhinged from objective truth, liberals are more result oriented, and see things are more of a power struggle between competing self-interested classes or groups.

Now, if being a conservative is the same as being one who is a member of the conservative club, and that club has decided its qualifications arbitrarily, entirely detached from reason (i.e. truth), well then, you can go have your silly little club and call it whatever you want.

As for me, I don't care what folks want to label me. I am concerned with truth, and in the political realm, that means following the truth to wherever it goes as applied to a given issue.

The problem is, although conservatism is concerned with truth, not relativism (as with modern liberalism), the term "conservative" has become relative. For example, many folks would consider the modern conservative to be, in historical terms, a classical liberal.

At 2/13/2008 1:59 PM, Anonymous paul zummo said...

the term "conservative" has become relative. For example, many folks would consider the modern conservative to be, in historical terms, a classical liberal.

Right on. This gets to the heart of what I was writing about in my series that I linked to above. American conservatism means something different than conservatism elsewhere, though there are of course common threads.

At 2/13/2008 2:39 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

"American conservatism means something different than conservatism elsewhere..."

True, but I thought we were discussing American conservatism, particularly about labeling political candidates "conservative" or "not conservative".

At 2/13/2008 3:01 PM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

I wouldn't limit it to just "American conservatism", although that is what is most pressing to us at the moment.

I am more interested in conservatism in all of its incarnations, and wondering if there is at least some unifying principle that unites all conservatives. Is there one thing (or a set of things) that makes ALL conservatives "conservative"?

At 2/13/2008 4:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am an American conservative. I believe in the principles enunciated by the Founding Fathers. I am also much taken by the thought of Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke was a friend of America and opposed the British policies that led to the American Revolution. Burke was a bitter opponent of the French Revolution. The differences between the American Revolution and the French Revolution define my conservatism.

At 2/13/2008 5:51 PM, Blogger Big Daddy Jeff said...

Good site! I've never been here before but found it from the Cranky Conservative. After way too many years of Jesuit education, I don't have much interest in Catholicism anymore. But conservatism is always a topic that interests me and this is a good one!

I agree with much of what's been said. It is a different take to ground a conservative philosophy on the protection of life and the family. But it does make some sense. Especially for those of us who value the protection of the unborn. However, even though I'm a social conservative first and foremost, I'm also slightly uncomfortable with this notion. I have a libertarian streak as well and they are often at odds in such scenarios.

As Paul says, in a conservative outlook, it's not for the government to choose winners and losers. And yet we must recognize that if there are to be losers in such a marketplace, then it is inevitable that the family structure will be hurt too. Divorce, crime, drugs, etc often follow poverty and naturally they do attack the family.

Now I must say that I don't think govt is the best unit to battle these side-effects. However, if we say conservatism requires govt to promote the family, then we probably would also have to call for more direct intervention in response if we are to be consistent. And then we are choosing winners and losers in a way afterall. So I do see where you're coming from, but I wonder if it's a risky thought in that there might be some contradiction here. In many ways, the government can indeed protect and promote the family. But in others, if we want limited government, we must accept it can only do so much and people/families will fall through the cracks.

A secondary point in that I don't see any mention of "law and order" here. As a social conservative, an aggressive law and order campaign is at the top of my priority list. It's one area where I do want a much stronger government. And the beauty of it is that conservatives know that the 2nd amendment serves as the perfect check on that power. Plus the majority of this power is held at the municipal level. One of our main tenets usually is that power is best held at the local level. So individuals are thus also greatly empowered. It is one area where we can accept a more active government knowing that in the end we will actually have more freedom.

So in conclusion I guess I'm saying that upon looking at the history of American conservatism, a vigorous emphasis on law and order (including yes the death penalty - I know, I know, sorry folks! ;-)) seems to be a very vibrant part of our tradition.


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