Is “Conservative” A Meaningless Label Now?
Let me preface this, which isn’t a particularly friendly critique of modern conservatism, by stating unequivocally that I’m a conservative. Unreservedly.
But what exactly does it mean to be a conservative? There are various definitions that people have for what it means to be a conservative. Maybe it’s time to reflect on what it authentic (political) conservatism stands for.
Let’s dive right into the topic.
Most mainstream conservatives organizations and thinkers over the past couple of decades, the “Conservatism Inc.” crowd who populate cable news, think tanks and the other usual places, define conservatism as a philosophy based on a “timeless set of beliefs.” In this view, the goal of conservatism as a political movement is to uphold abstract principles – such as liberty, free-market capitalism, limited government, the Bill of Rights, etc.
Let’s call this view of conservatism as “values conservatism”. Writer Paul Gottfried coined the term in his seminal work Conservatism in America.
One of the prime examples of “Values Conservatism” exists in the form of the Sharon Statement. The Sharon Statement is a 1960 document from the founders of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) organization. This document outlines what the founders of YAF believed to be the founding principles of American political conservatism: freedom, capitalism, limited government, the US Constitution, and anti-communism. The Sharon Statement definitively falls into the category of “Values Conservatism”.
National Review, one of most influential publications in the post-WW2 Conservative movement–takes a similar approach in its view of conservatism. This publication views Conservatism as a philosophy of life. National Review founder Bill Buckley believed that Conservatism is based on “freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of the conscience, the spiritual view of life”.
Ok. If we accept that Conservatism exits to uphold timeless values and ideas, then has the conservative goal succeeded in that goal? Let’s try to figure that question out.
The answer is no. Sure, Republicans and conservatives have won political elections and fundraised loads of money for decades. However, the mainstream conservative movement (in American politics) has failed in conserving the traditional American society.
The conservative movement/the Republican Party – America’s conservative-leaning political party – has completely changed its stance on multiple key topics in a single generation. Most of the “conservative movement” has become pro-gay marriage, pro-drug legalization, and unopposed to premarital sex within my own lifetime.
Imagine telling Americans in the 1950s that no-fault divorce is normal, that marriage is no longer between a man and a woman, and that drug decriminalization is underway. In less than a century, American culture has abandoned traditional positions on cultural/social topics.
If you want to see what conservatism stands for, then just look at some of the exhibitors for the premier conference in the conservative movement: CPAC. To no one’s surprise, CPAC allows groups like the Log Cabin Republicans (a pro-LGBT organization) and Atheists for Liberty to table at its conference. Neither of those organizations are conservative. So, why are these organizations allowed to influence the conservative movement?
Wait a minute? Something is not adding up here. How can the conservative movement claim to be for preserving timeless values but still advocate for the same positions that progressive Democrats championed a decade prior?
The answer: the mainstream conservative movement (as it is currently constituted) does not and will not conserve anything. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but reflection and reality display my assessment to be the correct.
So then, what does an authentic form of conservatism actually do? What should be the goal of American political conservatism?
Revivalism, Or A Real Conservatism
In my opinion, political commentator John Doyle provided the best answer as to the goal of conservatism in his December 2021 speech at Texas Christian University (you can read about that event in this link).
John’s answer is both succinct and profound. In his speech, John stated that the goal of Conservatism is to “preserve the Traditional American Society”.
Conservatism is not about low corporate taxes and maximizing individual autonomy. No, it’s about conserving the American society that has been passed down for over two hundred years.
Well, what is the Traditional American society?
Simply put, America is a Christian nation. The founding stock of America were almost entirely European Christians (i.e. WASPs) who supported a Christian moral framework for society. America’s common law system, major holidays, high percent of self-identifying Christians, and the 300 thousand+ churches all point to this reality.
In short, “preserving the Traditional American Society” refers to conserving the traditional American family (a father, mother, and children together), the English language, Christian religion/morality (e.g. traditional sexual morality, etc.), the Protestant work-ethic, and more.
And yes, the traditional American society is founded on free enterprise and limited government. But our founders were not technocrats or economists. For most of American history, managing the ebb and flow of the economy was not regarded as a primary responsibility of government. Things were at times more volatile then, and both sides of the political aisle took it for granted that there were proper limits to the size and scope of government and that the redistribution of wealth was no proper activity. But as John Adams said, our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
The “conservatives” who have so badly failed to conserve so many of the assets our society rests upon have forgotten Adams’ admonition. Revivalists insist on starting with Adams as a bedrock and then advancing from there.
On a related note, it’s important to point out that mass immigration (both legal and illegal) is counterproductive to preserving the traditional American society. Importing millions of people from the Third world – with different cultures and customs than what is found in America – is not a conservative position. America is a not an idea or an economy. It a place. It is a nation of citizens.