Streetcar Line

Embracing the Oogedy-Boogedy

A defense of full-fledged conservatism.

By 12.11.08

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All around Washington, and perhaps all around the country, groups of politically inclined people are having conversations about how to revitalize the conservative movement, or how to rebuild the Republican Party (a different thing entirely), or both. But the usual suspects are out there in the meantime using newsprint and megaphones to pound home their message that conservatives and Republicans should either abandon fiscal conservatism/small-government predilections or abandon "social issues" that in the words of the obnoxious Kathleen Parker make its adherents into an "oogedy-boogedy" caucus.

The groups having the conversations are acting constructively. The others can stuff it.

The usual suspects pushing for conservatives to drop essential and longstanding tenets of conservatism are asking conservatives to stop being conservatives. That's like asking Catholics to stop being Catholics, or like demanding that Red Sox fans start wearing Orioles uniforms.

Forget it.

Wait. What's that? Oh, I see…. The usual suspects protest that they have our best interests at heart. They say their advice is for our own good, because if we want to win in this brave new political world, we'll need to adjust. Adjust our thinking. Adjust our beliefs. Adjust our values.

No way.

If this were a football game, it would be all about winning. But this isn't a game. It's our country. We care about politics not because we care first about winning, but because we believe in certain principles. Of course we want the principles to be implemented -- yes, we want them to win -- but it's the winning that must be in service of the principles, not vice versa.

Winning without the principles is an oxymoron. It's like congratulating an Auburn fan in the name of Bear Bryant. Without the principles, we haven't won. It's that simple.

Limited government isn't a means, it's an end. Or, rather, it's part and parcel of the end of maximum liberty under law that is rooted in the Judeo-Christian moral and ethical tradition. We believe that if government isn't limited, it is dangerous.

Likewise, protection of parental authority and of the nuclear family isn't just a nostalgic or emotional tic; it's bedrock of a free society because -- among many other blessings -- it provides the stability and order without which freedom quickly devolves into anarchy.

Therefore, all of this supposedly wise tactical advice to the effect that we should abandon, or significantly play down, any of the main principles that animate us is neither wise nor tactically clever, nor even realistic. It assumes that conservatives could be successful acting as if we're something that we're not. But in the long run, inauthenticity never works. Integrity is more powerful.

This leads us back to the groups having the constructive discussions despite the usual suspects in the establishment media. The conversations are about how to persuade more people that our principles are worthy ones and that, if implemented, those principles will provide the form of government best able to maintain a prosperous, just, and fundamentally decent society.

Somewhere along the line, conservatism (as understood in the modern context; although more rightly called "classical liberalism") lost a significant amount of its political salability. The question isn't how to change conservatism, but how to sell it better -- how to explain it better, how to communicate it more effectively, how to enthuse more people with it and about it, how to get it to command the majorities it needs in order to be implemented.

Sure, we need new ideas. New "programs," creative approaches to governing, ways to tackle new problems that didn't exist in 1787 when Madison helped birth the Constitution or in 1987 when Reagan helped drive the nails into the coffin of the Evil Empire. But that doesn't mean we need new principles. Principles are not programmatic. Programs involve the application of principles to concrete situations. But the principles, if they are sound ones, remain the same from age to age and program to program. And if a program would change a sound principle, then the program isn't worth pursuing.

What are some of those principles? Well, with James Madison, we believe in republican remedies for the diseases of republican government, that free governments are best secured where they allow for a multiplicity of interests, that ambition must be allowed to counteract ambition, and "that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights." With Grover Cleveland, we believe that "When more of the people's sustenance is exacted through the form of taxation than is necessary to meet the just obligations of government and expenses of its economical administration, such exaction becomes ruthless extortion and a violation of the fundamental principles of free government."

With Richard Weaver, we believe that ideas have consequences; that life and the world are to be cherished; that some ideas and values transcend others; that excellence and heroism should be recognized and honored; that while equality before the law is necessary and moral, equality of condition is impossible and a "disorganizing heresy." And with Willmoore Kendall (and with Madison), we believe that the most basic American political tradition is that of the representative assembly deliberating under God, and that the ultimate guarantor of our rights is no list of rights committed to paper but rather the constitutional processes of deliberative government itself.

With Ronald Reagan, we believe that peace is achieved through strength, and that the United States is an inherently moral actor on the world's stage.

And also with Ronald Reagan, we believe that because we are Americans, "we have every right to dream heroic dreams." And to make those dreams come true.

Those are some of our principles. Programmatically, to put those principles into action, we believe in low and fair taxation, in government limited in its ends and size, in balanced budgets, in a strong but not bloated military, in parental/family choice and control in education, in strong police forces and court systems under strict civilian elected authority, in free enterprise within a system of readily understandable rules, in the sanctity of contracts, in judges with self-restraint and respect for the actual text of our Constitution and laws, and in sound money.

The great thing about it is, majorities (or strong pluralities) of Americans instinctively believe these things. The trick isn't to, well, to trick them, but to remind them that what they already believe (if they stop and think about it) is worth believing and adhering to.

Prediction: In coming months, because of so many conversations about how to revive our political prospects -- technologically, tonally, verbally, organizationally, and temperamentally -- we all will see noticeable improvements in conservative messages and messengers. And, because Republicans cannot win without conservatives, you will see these improvements among Republicans, including sometimes clueless Republican elected officials, as well.

And we'll do it without abrogating in any way, shape or form our commitment to limited government and time-tested values.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.