Try to come up with a definition of “conservative” that satisfies everyone who considers him or herself to be a conservative and your brain will melt. That happens because conservatives don’t rally around a single cause. Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, wrote a fairly deep article last year entitled “Fifty Shades of Red” that expounds on many of the differences in the “conservative movement.”
Progressives, Berkowitz opines, don’t have that problem. They unite in “the pursuit of an increasingly egalitarian society through ever more comprehensive government regulation and redistribution.” If you think about it, that’s the definition of socialism.
Conservatives on the other hand have splintered goals that can be loosely incorporated within two camps. One camp believes conservatism should focus on individual freedom. The other camp believes in conserving our traditions.
Donald Trump was elected in no small part by working class people who had given up on government because they felt that the government was contemptuous of their concern about the lack of good jobs, the influx of illegal immigrants, foolish wars, and an expanding culture of political correctness – all issues that damage their personal freedom. Thousands upon thousands of those people registered and voted for the first time because at last they had a candidate who actually listened to them and cared about what they cared about.
Never-Trumpers, on the other hand, didn’t like Trump because he was not a traditional candidate. He did not fit the traditional mold, and therefore they felt his commitment to American traditions was suspect.
Now here is where my brain starts to hurt. Those who are focused on their personal freedoms depend on our constitutional law and the traditions of our founding fathers to defend those freedoms. Traditionalists think that one can go too far with individual freedom by failing to honor the very traditions that preserve those freedoms. Traditionalists rail against the “radical remedies” employed by those in the “individual freedom camp” who are disgusted with the hidebound intransigence of the “traditionalist camp.”
Neither side thinks they are the bad guys. They often think the “other” side are the bad guys. And we have enough Individualist and Traditionalist conservative Republicans in Congress who are at odds with each other that even when Republicans are in the majority, they can’t get anything done. Democrats don’t have that problem. They are focused on a single goal, and they are united in reaching it. Recently, that unity seems to be splintering over methodology and tactics. But that’s been the problem with Republicans for more than 30 years. (Some Republicans are not conservative by any stretch, but this article is about conservatives not RINOs.)
Ronald Reagan was the last Republican leader to be able to pull conservatives together, Berkowitz says, “Ronald Reagan was an exception among spokesmen for conservatism; he disarmingly harmonized dedication to individual liberty and limited government with respect for traditional morality and biblical faith.” That statement requires some thought. Individual liberty and limited government are not antithetical to traditional morality and biblical faith. In fact, traditional morality and biblical faith are the solid ground upon which our individual liberty and limited government are founded. Either Berkowitz is wrong in how he characterizes conservatives, or he is saying something we aren’t hearing.
I don’t think he is wrong because later in the article he says, “To pursue happiness… individuals, families, and communities require a limited government capable of protecting a robust civil society and a broad private sphere where citizens are largely left alone to govern themselves and advance their material and moral interests as they define them.” Then he adds, “At the same time, democratic self-government and free markets rest on citizens well-endowed with self-restraint, industriousness, perseverance, tolerance, prudence, and a host of other virtues cultivated best by family, faith, and community.”
Here is the take-away: Individualists and Traditionalists need each other. We want much the same core things. Our problems come in the disagreements over how to go about reaching the goal of preserving our American way of life. Our real enemies, the progressives and socialists who aim to destroy the traditional freedoms we want to preserve, have no such handicap.
Steve “Doc” Troxel, Ph.D.