A Mild Defense of Conservatism

Just a brief note here, before we get started–I think there’s more to say, but I’m feeling particularly lazy, and I don’t feel like doing the research a real piece on this subject would require. I’ll just stipulate that there are plenty of articles among the intellectual Conservative movement (by which I mean National Review, Weekly Standard, and recently, the New York Times and the Washington Post) bemoaning the fact that the President of the United States, a Republican, seems to be on the path towards destroying conservatism.

Editor’s Note: Mr. Hardy told us he was not sure when he should capitalize “Conservative.” We recommended that he alternate between a big-“C” and a little-“C” so he would always be half right. 

For many (read: all) of my contemporaries, some (read: a handful) of whom I admire a great deal, this is a Good Thing. conservatism brought us the War on Drugs and mass incarceration; Conservatism destroyed the environment; conservatism dragged us into imperialistic nation-building.

To that, I offer the following mild, empty-throated response: Conservatism didn’t do any of those things, Republicans did, and progressives shouldn’t reflexively ignore the strengths and values of conservatism just because some jackholes have misused it over the decades, because Progressives and Conservatives want the same thing. 

Conserve What?

When you talk to conservative thinkers (and here I’m not only thinking of Twitter heroes like Rick Wilson, Evan McMullin, or Greg Doucette, but also longtime figures in mainstream intellectual Conservatism: French, Douthat, Warren, Kristol, Gerson), there’s an implicit question: What are you conserving? Understanding that I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, the answer is usually, in no particular order:

  • The Constitution
  • Rule of Law
  • Small Government

Now, I’ve got this hangup, where I’m very reluctant to assign inherent values to any particular ideology. An “-ism” isn’t good or bad, in my view, based on any natural quality, but in its implementation. I disagree with some of the tenets of socialism, for example, but I’m not opposed to it on an inherent basis; rather, I’m opposed to it because everywhere it’s been tried, the results have been disastrous (this gets a little bit fuzzier when it’s something like totalitarianism or fascism, but as a general rule, it works).

My opinion on conservatism is the same. I don’t see how there can be anything wrong with someone wanting less government. I’m certain there are a number or progressives–

Editor’s Note: The phrase “a number of” is expressly forbidden in the Georgia Wonk Editorial Style Guide (which is available for purchase, but only if you know who to ask) because of its annoying vagueness. Three is a number. So is 90 quadrillion. At the Georgia Wonk, we demand specificity, and Mr. Hardy was disciplined severely for this lapse. 

–who would enjoy a staff cut at the NSA, for example. Same thing with the rule of law, and the Constitution. Progressives don’t have a problem with the law, they have a problem with the law being misused. “Real” Conservatives would share the same stance. When you talk to conservatives, you hear them describe the War on Drugs or mass surveillance with a Bernie Sanders-like intensity–that’s because prisons are expensive, and because warrantless wiretaps violate the Fourth Amendment.

Conservatives want a clean environment just like progressives do. It’s just that they truly believe it’s easier to do that on a small-scale, state and local level (I think they’re wrong, but every conservative I’ve talked to about this has generally been of the view that “If I can be convinced that Washington can do a better job regulating water quality in Deer Tick, Minnesota than the City Council, then let them do it”).

I really believe that Conservatives and Progressives want the world to look the same in ten, twenty, fifty years: a multi-ethnic nation with strong protection for civil-liberties, engaged state and local communities, and a government held accountable by its people. The disagreement is not on ends, but on means, and when you agree on where you’re going, you can make compromises on how to get there.

Meanwhile, Trump

The President is a Republican, but he is not a conservative. I know that to be true because our President has no ideology of any kind, Conservative or otherwise. To the extent that we can continue to believe that his campaign persona (a roughneck populist with an aim towards developing a robust welfare state around an ethno-Christian electoral base and an animus towards immigrants and Muslims) was any reflection of his actual desires, he was more like Bernie Sanders than anyone else; promising to preserve Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, advocating universal healthcare, railing against big banks and  nation building…he was everything the modern conservative isn’t. He wanted to spend. He wanted to give goodies away.

Now, obviously, he hasn’t done any of that, but that’s largely, I think, a product of him not being intelligent enough to have done much of anything. But the reason modern intellectual Conservatives are so nervous right now is only partly due to the fact that the mounting scandals surrounding the presidency are distracting from a tax cutting, health care reforming agenda.

The conservative movement has been the vehicle for nationalists and racists before, as I’ll get into in a second, but modern intellectual Conservatives like to think of themselves as beyond that. They see Trump’s appeal to the alt-right and various and sundry scumbags as indecent, vaguely crude, tacky, like a belch at a cocktail party. Bannon and Navarro, with their antiquated notions on trade and foreign relations, are not the people that Reagan conservatives would have wanted (one would assume).

Bottom line–the smart folks writing the magazines don’t like Trump for a lot of reasons. Chief among them is that they see their agenda threatened.

The Past Is Not Another Country

Now, there’s a reflex, among the progressives, to distrust Conservatives as a whole. And that has little to do with Trump, but rather the historical implementation of conservatism. The Constitution and the Law have been used as cudgels to brutalize minorities, to strip families apart, to destroy lives. In the name of “shrinking government” and “cutting waste,” welfare has been gutted, services have been cut, and struggling people have suffered. It’s not surprising to me at all that progressives should be suspicious of anyone who claims to hold to those values. Paul Ryan, the grinning face of vampiric, poisonous Conservatism, is one of the great threats to the tenuous future of this Republic, to say nothing of Mike Pence or reanimated goblin Jeff Sessions. If those guys get their hands on the reins of power, people will suffer. A tax plan that Paul Ryan would endorse would funnel enormous amounts of money to the top of the income ladder. A criminal justice reform with Sessions’ greasy fingerprints would make today’s carceral state look like a day camp.

But again, I would simply offer these words: there is a difference between conservatives and Republicans. For example, there’s a Republican in the Oval Office, but he isn’t a Conservative. That’s important, because I truly think conservatives and progressives want the world to look the same. Republicans, modern Republicans, don’t.

That’s something worth remembering, when it comes time to decide who our friends are.

Categories: Commentary


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