We’ve heard a lot of talk during the Republican primaries about what exactly it means to be called a “conservative.” Mitt Romney has accused Former Speaker Newt Gingrich of being “unreliable” in following conservative principles, while Newt has swung back with the trusted “Massachusetts Moderate” label. Meanwhile, Former Senator Rick Santorum upped the conservative ante by comparing both of them to President Barack Obama, a charge which is meant to resonate with the “play to the base” strategy that comes with primary season.
Certainly, some of this rhetoric can be dismissed as “politics as usual.” Yet, this election has actually gone a bit deeper into the Republican psyche; weird things start happening when Gingrich is drawing lines between real and fake capitalists. After all, this is supposed to be the party of small government, minimal regulation, and low taxes, right? And isn't this the party which stands against President Obama’s intimate, managerial approach to government?
Not quite. It’s becoming quite hard to decide what exactly it means to be a conservative anymore. The natural definition – that is, a conservative is “one who conserves” – doesn’t really do much good for us. Consider, for instance, if I were to be a conservative for the institution of slavery or, say, European feudalism. Most of us would agree that these are accidents of history which were unjust in their time and have been rightfully abolished in the modern world. Indeed, if “conservativism” is simply the effort to preserve institutional peculiarities which grow out of a backward view of the world, then it ought to be opposed at every turn. An awareness of this fact, combined with confusion about what the word should actually mean, has led to a sort of institutional flip-flop: Instead of conservativism defining what it is to be a Republican, the Republican party now defines what it means to be a conservative.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. If we admit to the above, we grant a decisive victory to the administrative monster of Progressivism; we will “conserve” only what is politically expedient or convenient. Once principle is abandoned, the mighty “I deserve” of democracy becomes the only rule of politics.
It is because of this that someone like Rep. Ron Paul is so important. In one sense, he’s a political mess: old, excitable, and unfocused in debates. Yet in another sense, he’s the best thing to happen to Republicans in a long, long time. And it’s because of answers like this.
Amidst the rambling and general confusion of points, he reaches something very interesting. He tells us that being a “conservative” means “limited government.” Easy enough. He follows that, however, by extending the question: How do we decide what “limited government” is? After all, President Obama is in favor of “big government,” but that doesn’t tell us a great deal about his guiding philosophy (if he has one). So Paul answers this question: “We have a pretty good guide” in the Constitution. He returns to the founding documents.
This seems like a simple point, but experience teaches us otherwise. Alexis de Tocqueville calls America’s re-constitution – that is, the move from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution – their “supreme moment” in history (Democracy in America, Vol. 1, Part I, Ch. 8). After all, it’s not easy being constitutional: See how few countries have had real, lasting constitutions or even how quickly people today are to dismiss our Constitution as antiquated or inapplicable. Yet, Americans were able to do it, and that is why being an “American conservative” is different from being a conservative of the English fiefdom or of Confederate slavery. Our true “conservativism” is a complete philosophical reflection, not a display of force. And since we declared our Constitution to be the only just securer of those rights to which we all pledge ourselves as human beings – why presidents swear an oath to it upon entering office – it alone is the thing worth preserving.
Perhaps now we can see why it means little to be a “Reagan” or “Bush” conservative – it says nothing of principle. It seems, at least to me, that our country would be much better served by a “Lincoln,” “Coolidge,” or “Taft” conservative, though they are names much less common to the discourse. This absence, this historical negligence on behalf of Republicans, is precisely why Ron Paul is so vital to the party: His campaign is among the last public ties to traditional, philosophical “Americanism.” Without the constant presence of this “rootedness,” the conservative becomes a slave to vague terms like “limited government,” “less regulation,” and “low taxes.”
But one hopes, ultimately, that we know to ask for something for more. The American conservative is a defender of historical truth, not peculiarity. Thus, while he may amend the Constitution, he will never disregard it; and he knows that the rights in the Declaration of Independence were not guidelines or flourishes, but facts. And as he so dedicates himself, he shares in sentiment what Lincoln voiced almost 150 years ago: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Photo Credit: Jayel Aheram