“What are Republicans for?” Joe Biden asked in his press conference this week. “Name me one thing that they’re for.”
Conservatives, sensing their time in the wilderness short, ask themselves, with increasing urgency, the same question: What do we stand for? Fortunately for them, pro-No Joe right now plays as an exceedingly popular political platform not requiring discussion of the fine print beyond that. But the closer the time to govern, the greater the importance for the Right to articulate its vision plainly.
Power for the sake of power, or even merely to forestall the Left’s corrosive agenda, seems more of a raison detour than a raison d’être. The Reagan administration permanently reshaped policy through a precipitous drop in tax rates and inflation, the country through restoring national pride after the indignities of Watergate, Vietnam, and the Iranian hostage crisis, and the world by effectuating the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall and disintegration of the Soviet Union because of a clear, positive vision shared by conservatives. Anti-Left cuts it on talk radio and Twitter but not in the corridors of power.
Conservatives need not go down the New Coke route.
Frank Meyer (this author presently toils on his biography) explicitly set out in 1962’s In Defense of Freedom to articulate why American conservatism, by taking the Constitution rather than a king or a creed as the reference point, placed freedom, albeit an ordered liberty, at the center. In conveying “a standard, not a program,” and by basing American conservatism largely on the American Founding, Meyer depicted his fusionism of libertarianism and traditionalism as timeless but not, alas, placeless. To export this mindset organically grown from American soil made as much sense as American conservatives deferring to the ways of the Hapsburgs (however appealing they may be).
So, the recent appearance of something calling itself national conservatism, both in its challenge to fusionism as the default outlook of American conservatives and in its attempt to internationalize a political philosophy, strikes as counter to conservatism even as many of the principles it articulates at this amorphous, fledgling stage seem derivative from or at least not inconsistent with it. It also confuses in its push for a worldwide nationalist movement. M. Stanton Evans, a Frank Meyer admirer of an earlier age, would certainly find humor in this as he so often did with such seeming oxymorons as “jumbo shrimp” and “Senate Ethics Committee.”
The National Conservatism website claims that “the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.”
Most non-hyphenated, non-modified conservatives regard such issues as border enforcement, a foreign policy based on just national interests, and trade deals that do not empower our primary enemy as not just sensible but priorities. Even Young Americans for Freedom, the activist embodiment of fusionism, asked “Are we financing our own destruction?” in its successful campaign to prevent Firestone from opening a plant behind the Iron Curtain during the 1960s. So, a “new bottles, old wine” element characterizes part of national conservatism.
But that term “nationalism,” unlike patriotism, remains difficult to reconcile with American conservatism, which stresses the primacy not of the nation but of the individual. So, when Woodrow Wilson nationalized the railroads or Franklin Roosevelt restricted the movement of Japanese-Americans and others hailing, directly or through their ancestral lines, from countries we fought, conservatives spoke out in favor of the individual and against those appealing to nationhood. Elsewhere, some may recall, nationalism modifying a political philosophy precipitated, well, terrible things. A bad outcome seems an inevitability for any outlook that values group interest over individual rights.
The people calling themselves “national conservatives,” one not so wildly guesses, do not risk nationalizing industry or something far more unsavory. But words convey meaning even when the people embracing them do not know the meaning and forget the context.
Is there really a need for conservatism to undergo a Madison Avenue–style relaunch? Rebranding, a fetish of the American Left, largely leaves conservatism alone because limited government, lower taxes, personal responsibility, fidelity to the Constitution, and a strong defense possess great appeal.
We witness the final stages of the latest marketing campaign when it comes to “progressive,” a term that, unlike the Model T and Ada Jones, strangely again came into vogue, and did so after prohibition, eugenics, the federal income tax, a war to make the world safe for democracy, and much other nonsense, after falling from fashion 100 years ago. In the meantime, leftists tried on “radical,” “democratic socialist,” “New Left,” and other political cloaks designed to disguise from the public that these zealots embrace the ideas, overreach, and imprudence of their political ancestors. This latest incarnation of “progressive” follows Michael Dukakis, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, and others destroying the “liberal” label. Someday “liberal” again becomes the name of choice. And the pattern repeats.
Harvard professor Steven Pinker calls this phenomenon “the euphemism treadmill,” which refers to the necessity of periodically changing the name covering a dismal thing because the pleasant language inevitably takes on the unpleasant connotations of the thing. In this sense, progressive, liberal, democratic socialist, and the rest mirror the semantic journey of crippled, handicapped, disabled, and differently abled. The thing, not its verbal packaging, proves off-putting.
Conservatives need not go down this New Coke route. The American people periodically take George Gallup’s Pepsi Challenge, and always choose conservatism. On the right, strains emerge: libertarians, paleoconservatives, neoconservatives, compassionate conservatives, Crunchy Cons, NatCons, New Right, Old Right, Christian Right, etc. But the internecine tempest-in-a-teapot debates between the partisans of the various positions almost never, à la the euphemism treadmill of leftist labels, penetrate popular parlance. Conservatism, the word and the meaning, remains popular. It adapts to changing issues. Why change it or add a modifier?
Joe Biden on Wednesday issued the challenge: What does the Right believe?
As recently as a few decades ago, conservatives all read Witness and The Road to Serfdom and Ideas Have Consequences and maybe even Our Enemy, the State. They understood what “don’t immanentize the eschaton” meant. They knew that the difference between hardcore and squish related to where one stood on various issues rather than on specific personalities. Many now do not know Russell Kirk from Russell Stover.
This necessarily nudges conservatism from its moorings and self-described conservatives from actual conservatism, which, contrary to the claims of its current critics, does not remain Saran-wrapped fixated on the Bricker Amendment, the Panama Canal Treaty, and “Who Promoted Peress?” Instead, conservatism continues as a dynamic and adaptable outlook relevant, because of its association with general principle and not specific policy, to changing issues and changing times.
Come back, everyone. The mania of looking to the Left as a sort of reverse role model misleads and causes a few, in small ways, to go native. Watch an installment of Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose on YouTube. Crack open Thomas Fleming’s criminally overlooked The Morality of Everyday Life. Request a 1962 microfilm reel of National Review from your local library to ponder the competing points of Brent Bozell and Frank Meyer debating freedom and virtue. You do not need ancestry.com to conduct your political genealogy.
Conserving conservatism strikes as the challenge of our time in the wilderness. If conservatives cannot conserve their own beliefs, after all, who could trust them to conserve the nation — or anything else for that matter?