This is not a hit piece on Donald Trump. Now that his supposed inevitability as the Republican nominee for President has been stymied by a powerful Ted Cruz win in Iowa however, it’s time for some serious talk about conservative philosophy and what we should expect from candidates who call themselves one.
The term conservative can be confusing because it’s meaning changes depending on where you are and in what time period. If you were a European conservative during times of monarchy, aristocracy or feudalism, you were a defender of such power structures and fought against changes to them.
American conservatism is more closely attuned to the classic liberalism principles of civil liberty, political and economic freedom, which our founding doctrines were built around and which conservatives today are struggling to protect.
Ironically though, because our way of government has strayed so far from classic liberalism, today it’s the so called “progressives” who want to preserve the quasi socialist mess we now find ourselves in and the conservatives who are calling for radical change. That is a different discussion for another day however.
It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact definition of conservatism because it isn’t a single thing. As Jonah Goldberg states in this National Review piece,
“…as I have argued before, I think it’s (conservatism) a contradictory thing, a bundle of principles married to a prudential and humble appreciation of the complexity of life and the sanctity of successful human institutions.
He then goes on to quote his friend and author Yuval Levin who says,
“To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.”
Both these definitions are spot on. I would only add that to be a political conservative means to put the dignity and freedom of the individual above all else.
Thus a conservative government should be organized around the principle of human flourishing; where individuals can thrive by honing their unique skills and talents to pursue happiness as they see fit and are given the freedom to succeed as well as fail. The government’s job is limited to keeping its people safe from foreign and domestic attacks, enforcing the rule of law, protecting individual liberty, private property and the natural God given rights of its citizens.
So then, what should we look for in a conservative candidate? Many things, but I believe understanding and believing in American Exceptionalism is most important. How a person feels about this defines their political philosophy, unknowingly or not.
Our Constitution is based on the principle that people get their rights from God, not government, that we the people rule that government, not the other way around. This was and still is exceptional because no other country on earth but America so strongly weaves those principles in to their governing systems. At least we used to.
Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse had some very astute words on all of this during an interview with Chuck Todd on MSNBC.
TODD: “Let me ask you this because you really are considered as somebody, one of the rising stars in the conservative movement. But I think this presidential primary is exposed a difference of opinion of what conservatism even means right now. And you have a version that Trump has, you have a version that Cruz has, and, I would argue you have a separate version that say a Jeb Bush and John Kasich have. Let me ask you, because a lot of people are looking to you as one of these future leaders of the conservative movement, what is a conservative in your view today? Define conservatism in the 21st century the events via Ben Sasse.”
SASSE: “That is a great question. America is the most exceptional nation in the history of the world because the US Constitution is the best political document that’s ever been written. Because it says something different than almost any people in any government has believed in human history. Most governments in the past said might makes right and the King has all the power and the people are dependent subjects. And the American founders said no. God gives us rights by nature and government is just our shared project to secure those rights.
Government is not the author or source of our rights and you don’t make America great again by giving more power to one guy in Washington, DC. You make America great again by recovering a constitutional republic where Washington is populated by people who are servant leaders, who want to return power to the people and to the communities. Because looks what is great in America is the Rotary Club, it’s small businesses, it’s churches, it’s schools, it’s fire departments and it’s Little Leagues across this country. What makes America great is not some guy in Washington who says “if I had more power I could fix it all unilaterally.” That’s not the American tradition.”
KINGS NEED NOT APPLY
Sasse’s line is worth repeating, “You don’t make America great again by giving more power to one guy in Washington, DC.”
Right! We shouldn’t want a Peronist style rainmaker claiming to undo our 100-year in the making dysfunctional political swampland overnight. The amount of power required for such a person is anathema to our system of divided government and should be a non-starter for conservatives.
We need someone who is in awe of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights and who thinks the people who created them knew what they were doing. A person who understands that while a foundation can be laid out to help right the American ship, getting her there will not happen under their watch, nor should it be desired.
A FAUSTIAN BARGAIN
Just as important is a candidate who can communicate to the American people why and how a government of limited power is of benefit to them. That dangling goodies of cradle to grave security is a Faustian bargain that robs individuals of their power, their dignity, and ability to think and do for themselves; that corrodes the soul and creates a dependent, immoral society that fights with each other for more and more government crumbs.
In the words of my favorite Downton Abbey character Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith)
“For years I’ve watched governments take control of our lives, and their argument is always the same—fewer costs, greater efficiency. But the result is the same, too. Less control by the people, more control by the state, until the individual’s own wishes count for nothing. That is what I consider my duty to resist. . . .”
So tell me , what is your definition of conservatism and do you feel America would be better off with more or less of it? Differing opinions are welcome, but please be respectful.