Conservatism: Restoring it in the Age of Obama

Conservatism’s not simply found in policy, but in championing a brighter future

By Adrian Murray

Texas Insider Report: AUSTIN, Texas – In the wake of the recent national election debacle, “Conservatives” today define themselves – and, by projection, politicians – based on their positions on issues.  While that may seem intuitive, it’s a poor way to gauge the conservatism of politicians, since the world is not black and white, but much more nuanced. Rather than defining conservatism in terms of policy issues & principles (since we can’t even agree amongst ourselves,) we should be promoting conservatism for what it actually is, and what it will achieve, which is … a society based on tradition and faith, the right of individuals to live their lives without government interference and with a recognition that an ever-changing society must first anchor itself in the customs and values which will ensure the future success, and well-being of its citizens.

As Ronald Reagan knew well better than anyone before or since, the guiding light of conservatism is not simply found in policy, but in championing a brighter future by nurturing and protecting the nation’s traditions, family, faith & culture.

A past vote or position is not necessarily indicative of the future.  What ends up happening because of these narrow viewpoints is that only candidates with the blankest of slates can make it through the nominating process because no one with vast government experience can pass the rigid tests demanded by movement conservatives today.

In the wake of the recent national election debacle, in which a demonstrably inept and woefully inadequate president was handily re-elected, the finger pointing and blame games are going full throttle.  For weeks now we have heard pundits pontificate that Republicans did not sufficiently pander to (take your pick): Hispanics, blacks, gays, youth, women, Jews, Muslims or Muppets.  Those making such pronouncements apparently are unaware that pandering is not a strategy.

The GOP went down that road at its convention in Florida, which resembled a virtual minstrel show with its three day line-up of Hispanic speakers, black speakers, female speakers, Hispanic female speakers, black female speakers, and assorted other black guys, white guys and Asians.  They even rolled out a Sikh high priest to deliver the invocation on day two.

Still, Republicans left Tampa with the image of a party of, by and for old white people.

A foreshadowing of the plight the party would face in the general election could be seen in the early stages of the primaries this year.  Once the field of Republican stallions plus one filly had taken their places in the starting gates, voters began coalescing around one candidate or another, declaring their choice to be the “true conservative” and explaining, sometimes hotly, sometimes reasonably, that the rest of the field was “just not conservative enough.”

For some, Michelle Bachmann embodied the conservative ideal.  For others, it was Herman Cain.  For some, Rick Santorum defined conservatism, while for still others Newt Gingrich was the standard bearer.  Rick Perry, for a brief moment, was the shining knight, while to others Ron Paul hung the moon.

The battle had been joined to prove to voters who was the most “conservative” candidate in the race.

The dilemma quickly became obvious.  No one, neither candidates nor voters, seemed capable of defining conservatism.

Keyboard warriors attacked each other unrelentingly, decrying each candidate’s lack of conservative credentials and touting the sterling record of their own choice.  By turn, each candidate was a conservative hero or a moderate villain.  The end result of this, since no one seemed able to agree exactly what defined a conservative, was a field of candidates constantly shifting shape to fit the political whims of the electorate.

It wasn’t the candidates who were fickle and inconsistent.  It was the Republican voters. Get 10 Republicans in a room and ask them to define conservatism, and you’ll get 10 different answers.

Republicans – and conservatives in general – have forgotten what conservatism is, and therefore how to convey its message.  Libertarians, by contrast, have it fairly easy.  To effectively represent the Libertarian Party, one must memorize ten or twelve talking points involving war, the Federal Reserve, fiat currency, drugs, foreign relations and the Constitution.  The one who can articulate those positions the most clearly wins the nomination.

So how does one go about a general election campaign, attempting to rally voters to enthusiastically support a cause if one cannot properly express what that cause is?

Open up a thesaurus and look up conservative.  Roget’s brings up hits like antediluvian, backwards, bitter-ender, extreme right-winger, fuddy-duddy, has-been, regressive, clinging to obsolete ideas, unprogressive.  Now look up progressive.  You’ll see words like advanced, broad-minded, tolerant, favoring social progress, fashionable, dynamic, modernistic, reformer.

If you were twenty-one, which would you rather be?  More important still, where does conservatism fit into a rapidly changing nation and world?

Russell Kirk is considered by many to be the chief proponent of the post-World War II conservative movement in America.  His 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, reached back to Edmund Burke and drew from conservative thinkers, both politicians and philosophers, throughout the following centuries to define the conservative message.

We must keep in mind that although today we look back upon the 1950s with some nostalgia for what appears from this distance to be a conservative time, in reality the first half of the last century was vastly more radical than today, with the political, social and economic scene dominated by progressives, radicals, unions, Marxists and Communists.  Conservatism had by and large been discredited.  It was men like Kirk and his associate William F. Buckley who bucked the trend and helped popularize the political and social philosophies which eventually led to the Reagan Revolution.

It can happen again if we understand how it happened before.  (Next time, we don’t answer the door when the Straussians come knocking.)

Kirk viewed conservatism ultimately as a protector and champion of tradition, faith, family and culture, a definition not found in Roget.  He did not view change as ominous or negative, but an inevitability that would succeed and prosper when applied with political prudence and a respect for tradition and custom.

Much had changed with the world since the days of Burke, but the general principles remained constant and relevant.  Conservatism offered a welcome alternative to anarchy when the tantrums of the left threatened the social order in the 1960s.  It was, in fact, the excesses of the left in those years that helped create the conservative majorities that fueled the economic expansion in the closing decades of the last century.

It was a lack of understanding of what created the conservative juggernaut in the first place that led George W. Bush to pledge his own brand of “compassionate conservatism.”  The notion that conservatism in and of itself is not compassionate has led to our situation today in which the excessive liberalism of the professional left is considered compassionate while the ideology of the right has been portrayed as cruel, uncaring, oppressive and downright mean.

Ronald Reagan, because he deeply believed in the ultimate good of conservatism expressed by Kirk and Buckley, was able to communicate that to the American people and, despite an unrelentingly hostile press, the middle class prospered and more Americans were lifted out of poverty than ever benefited from any of the failed Great Society programs.

Conservatism, when properly applied and communicated, works.

Although The Conservative Mind has been widely credited as sparking the conservative resurgence in America, it is not really a political book, nor is it about economics.  Kirk was more interested in establishing the moral clarity of conservatism, making a case for the heritage of personal liberty, freedom and societal progress emanating from its Burkean foundations.

Kirk was not anti-liberal and, in fact, saw the positive aspects of classic liberalism, contrasted with what he called “the menace of democratic despotism and economic collectivism.”  By understanding and articulating that message, the  conservative movement successfully thwarted that menace, which has again reared its ugly head and we are called upon to thwart it once more.

But, misunderstanding conservatism leads to electoral failure.

This past campaign saw Barack Obama do his own defining of conservatism, saying Romney wanted to take America back to the social conditions of the 1950’s and the economic conditions of the 1920’s.  Romney, who seems a good, decent and capable man, could not adequately respond because, decent or not, he does not understand conservatism and has no instinct for what it means other than adopting certain policy positions in order to be accepted by the rank and file.

The wild excesses of the left which we are witnessing today – the unbridled giveaways, the lavish spending, the Bacchanalian disrespect for morality and social order – will eventually burn out.  Every binge must come to an end.  The partiers will wake up one day hung-over, penniless and disillusioned.  Secular social upheavals like the one under way always end badly as it is contrary to human nature not to seek strength and guidance in a superior being.  This has been proven over and over throughout history.

Secularism leads to excess which leads to implosion which leads to a restoration of faith.  The cornerstone of conservatism is, of course, religious faith.  It is the glue that holds society together and without it society always eventually dissolves.  As Kirk put it, “When religious faith decays, culture must decline, though often seeming to flourish for a space after the religion which has nourished it has sunk into disbelief.”

So, rather than defining conservatism in terms of policy issues and principles (since we can’t even agree amongst ourselves,) we should be promoting conservatism for what it actually is and what it will achieve; a society based on

  • Tradition and faith
  • The right of individuals to live their lives without government interference, and
  • With a recognition that an ever-changing society must first anchor itself in the customs and values which will ensure the future success, and well-being of its citizens. 

Conservatism is not regressive, oppressive or backward thinking.  Conservatism preserves all that is good to ensure the certainty of a better tomorrow.  Conservatism is more than just hope.

Conservatism is wisdom.

Adrian J. Murray is president of Painless Performance Products in Fort Worth, Texas, and past President of the Fort Worth 9-12 Project.

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