This column is not about Milo, although his star going supernova certainly inspired its timing. It’s about us.
Over the past couple of decades, it’s become painfully obvious that despite all the books we’ve sold and conferences we’ve sold out, most Americans still cannot define what “conservatism” actually is.
Case in point, I was on CSPAN for an hour prior to the election, and an articulate and intelligent caller said he’d never heard someone talk like me before about the issues facing the country. So he asked me why I’m a conservative.
Here is the answer I gave him:
I’m a conservative because I believe in conserving things. Those things that have proven throughout history to be what’s best for the human condition this side of eternity. Those things which are based in the ‘Laws of Nature and Nature’s God’ as our founding document puts it. The Declaration of Independence, which is the mission statement for America. And these things are what’s best for all of us regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity, because we’re all made in the image of the same God — from whom our rights come
However, over the past couple of years, it’s become painfully obvious that despite all the books we’ve sold and conferences we’ve sold out, many people calling themselves conservatives don’t know what “conservatism” means, either. This is why we fall for the likes of provocateurs with troubled souls or flat-out charlatans provided they produce anti-Left click bait. Conservatism is merely defined by opposition to the Left these days, simply because conservatism itself is undefined these days.
If you grabbed 10 self-proclaimed conservatives at CPAC this weekend and asked them to define conservatism, would you get basically the same definition (specific wording aside)?
You may not even get a definition at all in some cases. You’d get a list of principles or issue preferences instead. But don’t we have to know what a word actually means before we can correctly use it in a sentence?
And now we’re even putting modifiers in front of the word: Christian conservative, social conservative, fiscal conservative, libertarian conservative, etc. As if it’s possible to conserve some things that are good for people while not conserving the others.
Like we can have limited government without a moral people capable of self-control. Or we can have a moral people capable of self-control, while also having a big government deciding right and wrong for us by incentivizing certain behaviors over others.
Conservatism is not a smorgasbord with an a la carte menu, where we can pick and choose the things we like and then indulge away. It’s an all-encompassing worldview that sees history holistically, because people are holistic as well. We are body, mind, and soul — not naturalistic accidents or a random set of impulses.
Now, this is usually where those who disagree with me while calling themselves conservatives bristle and respond with something like this, “Where do you get off imposing your definition of conservatism on the rest of us?”
If that’s you, you’re proving my point. I didn’t list a priority of issues or principles in giving my definition, but acknowledged there is absolute and transcendent truth out there I have to humble myself before and abide by. For it will be true even if I don’t, and when you break the natural law it ends up breaking you.
Therefore, you may not like my definition, but it’s not my definition. It’s my best recognition of what the definition actually is.
That doesn’t mean someone else can’t word it better or more completely than I have clumsily attempted to articulate here. But the essence of the definition doesn’t change because it cannot. Any more than someone may define gravity better and more completely than Newton did, but the essence of gravity itself remains the same. For such truths are predefined for us; it’s simply up to us to discover them.
Of course, in any given era conservatism can be applied selectively based on the priorities of the time. For example, Reagan is considered by many our greatest conservative president despite his 1986 amnesty that backfired, or the massive deficits he ran up at the time (with plenty of help from the Democrats in Congress).
However, the existential crisis facing the country at the time was the Soviet Union. An “evil empire” that every day for a generation threatened to undo our way of life, and therefore make our domestic disputes irrelevant if they were successful. Reagan’s leadership played a vital role in tearing down that Red Curtain, thus conserving our way of life. And for that he unquestionably is a conservative hero.
Therefore, it is healthy and productive for our movement to debate and discuss with one another the most prudent way to apply what we believe. On such matters, reasonable and principled people may disagree and do so vehemently, even.
But what is not healthy or productive for our movement is to not agree on what we believe or to not even know. In fact, if that’s where we are, then we’re really not a movement at all.