Some time ago, I was driving with my dad and he said “Dallas you aren’t really that much of a conservative. You don’t like President Trump and you oppose the death penalty.” Both of which are true, and both of which put me at odds with the present conservative orthodoxy.
This is a question I occasionally ask myself. What actually makes me conservative? With regards to people, I don’t like President Trump, who is, for the time being, the leader of the “conservative” party in America. I also have unmitigated scorn for many members of the religious right who use Christianity as a vehicle for political power, and most of the right-wing media complex, which is rife with dishonest and corrupt grifters.
On issues, I am radically pro-trade and soft on crime. I have no strong convictions about racial politics, as I would rather stab myself with a fork than wander into that arena, and I’d call myself moderate on LGBT issues, whatever that means. I have no strong feelings about guns, and my support for a right to bear arms mostly comes from the circles I run in and a general libertarian sentiment than any strong convictions about firearms. But my most offensive heresy is with regards to immigration, the issue the Republican party seems to revolve around, as I have much more in common with Beto O’Rourke with regards to immigration than Donald Trump. (I’ve been working on a write-up of Beto’s immigration plan that should drop soon, in short it’s very good.)
So what makes a soft-on-crime “globalist” who’s fairly moderate on most social issues and at odds with much of the conservative “establishment” (for lack of a better word), call himself a conservative? Am I a conservative just because I like tax cuts, tradition, and I don’t like abortion and progressivism?
The easy answer is that conservative might not be the best way to describe me, at least on policy. A better term might be a right-wing neoliberal or a classical liberal. The problem is no one outside of the political world knows what those labels mean, and to those in the political world, they mean wildly different things. I could call myself a libertarian, but that’s an imprecise label too which carries baggage of its own.
However, that obscures the question of why I embrace the label of conservative. My Twitter bio says conservative. My tagline on this blog says conservative. If you ask me my political beliefs, I would say “conservative.”
The problems of modern conservatism do not need to be detailed. Hacks and grifters pervert principle, the Republican party seems to be moving away from classical liberalism and free markets in favor of populism, and most infuriating for me, people like Jerry Falwell Jr. have turned the Gospel into a tool for political power and relevancy. Recently, GOP leadership has turned on Justin Amash, one of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives, and someone who actually embodies the Founder’s vision for a legislator, for having the temerity to speak out against President Trump. However, it is the fact that modern conservatism is in many ways so problematic that I cannot abandon it.
This is because conservative is more than a party, a set of leaders, or even a collection of policies. It is an intellectual and ideological tradition, which in many ways transcends politics. I got into politics reading Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year!) The list of books I need to read (a list that never seems to get shorter) includes more Hayek, Edmund Burke, Barry Goldwater, and the like. My politics come from them, and that puts me into the conservative tradition.
What exactly is that tradition? Simply put, it is a humble respect for the past. In my context, that means a deep appreciation for the wisdom of the Founders, the lessons of the ancients, the authority of tradition, and the truth of Scripture (not in that order). That is not to say all non-conservatives are in revolt against Scripture, the Founders, tradition, and history. But it is to say that I believe the road to human flourishing is found by looking backward. That is also not to say the past is better than the present, or even that those who come before us fully realized the ideas they were articulating. But it is to say that those ideas were good.
“All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights” is the right foundation on which to build a government, even if Jefferson’s notion of who had those rights was too narrow. I believe the best protector of liberty is not democracy, but virtue, an idea that comes from the classics, and what is good and right exists independent of the popular will. Rights cannot exist separate from duties, another idea we get from the ancient republicans. I reject the twin evils of relativism, which says nothing is truly just, true, or good; and materialism, which says the universe can be understood through merely quantitative or scientific means. Lastly, the idea we can go through life defining good as we go along and rejecting the guidance of religion or tradition is the height of foolishness. Those are deeply conservative fundamental principles, ones that form the bedrock of my moral and political beliefs.
Stuck in that tradition, I have no choice but to embrace the name conservative. Those abstract ideals carry with them commitments – to virtue and to liberty, which create practical concerns. Those practical obligations force compromise with those who either don’t know or don’t care about the tradition. Travelers if you will. Those who might be converted into this conservative mindset, they must be brought into the light. Those who do not care, or make a mockery of, those principles, they must be fought, so this conservative vision can be brought into its fulfillment.