Conservatives, Progressives, and the Freedom Question

Into my mail box the other day fell the last issue of the Weekly Standard. Not that you likely care, gentle reader, in that TWS’s diminished supply of readers, gentle or otherwise, polished off a literate conservative magazine of considerable public worth. I take up the topic anyway on account of its relevance to who we are and how we vote. My thesis: We’re still figuring it out, amid pain and high cost. As we go into the new year, no resolution seems likely. I see opportunity, nonetheless. Let us consider.

Back to the Weekly Standard, of which I am — was — a charter subscriber. How come a magazine dedicated to entrenching the conservative vision went kersplat? The magazine business has been a major victim of the internet, but this particular magazine’s big problem was that there isn’t any unified conservative vision these days. Witness the stew our non-conservative president cooks up on a daily basis — some days doing conservative things (e.g., easing federal regulation, appointing conservative judges) and other days doing non-conservative things, certainly by pre-Trump standards (e.g., proclaiming himself “a tariff man,” and acting like it; disabling the U.S. presence in the Middle East). The Standard’s editors were free with their criticism of Trump. That inspired Trumpians to fling criticisms back at the editors.

Things were simpler in ye olden tyme. If you were conservative half a century ago you were for Barry Goldwater, and that was it (and still kind of is, in a sweet, nostalgic sense). You read Bill Buckley in National Review, and you understood why Joe McCarthy had acted the way he had even if you didn’t like him — a preview, possibly, of what it means to “understand” Donald Trump and yet avert your eyes whenever he tweets.

No, it’s not much like the old days despite the survival of the old labels, conservative and liberal, whose relevance to our present perplexities is less plain than formerly. A conservative wants, supposedly, to conserve. But conserve what, and how? That would be, or should be, the operative question. Trump voters, and certainly the man himself, seem more intent on kicking over the furniture than on refurbishing the upholstery.

Meantime, liberals, led by Bernie Sanders and the suddenly, and unaccountably, famous Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, are morphing into “progressives.” Progressives? That’s a good one. It’s “progress” when you strangle economic growth with new, unaffordable programs, (e.g., “Medicare for all,” the $15 minimum wage)? The old conservatism, à la Goldwater, Buckley, and Ronald Reagan, saw Big Government as obstructing the right to be free, and thus to prosper in accordance with one’s own hopes and dreams. That was what we wanted to conserve — an environment of freedom. And for a while we mostly did: conspicuously by helping human nature, and maybe the Lord Himself, engineer the downfall of oppression in Russia.

We’re fighting it out now to see who ends up on top in our new age — self-styled conservatives, unsure exactly what they want to conserve; or self-styled liberals, mainly sure for the moment they’re against everything Donald Trump ever thought about doing, much less did.

A certain weariness descends. We’ve been over this ground before. Here we are again. Thus the frustration both of Trumpians and of voters who can’t speak the Trump name without expectorating. We need, I submit, to keep our eyes on the comparative inconsequentiality both of Donald Trump and of Nancy Pelosi.

What are we trying to do here, folks, as a country, as a society? Do we want to be free, or what? And if “what,” then to what end? America’s wrangling, raucous conservatives would be well-advised, starting now, to lay aside the purity tests and the back-biting — characteristics of any turbulent time — and come up with a common program that restores human freedom to its pedestal and inspires us to desire with great desire its conservation, its long continuance among us.

The Ocasio-Cortezes, like the wilier Pelosis, can spell “freedom,” and that’s about it. Their focus on government as all-purpose therapist, as toll collector on the economic highway, wouldn’t be something, would it, that Americans in general care to “conserve”? We’re sure to find that out soon, among numerous other interesting things.

William Murchison is writing a book on moral reconstruction in the 21st century.

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