Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?

Here is the text of my remarks at last week’s “Conservatism on Tap” in Washington D.C. I had an additional set of concluding thoughts that were hand-written; I’ll post my conclusion when I’ve had an opportunity to type them.

“Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?

It is doubtless odd to pose as a question – “Is there a Conservative Tradition in America” – what should otherwise seem to require a declarative. For the past 30 years, reaching back to the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, if not even longer – at least since the ascent of Barry Goldwater – conservatism has been a powerful force in American politics, transforming a landscape that once seemed destined to be the domain of liberals forever. Conservatives have reshaped the Republican party and the national political scene, with its Presidents winning in five of the last eight elections in considerable part due to the conservative ascendancy in suburban and Middle America, and conservatives have held considerable sway in Congress during that time, even at a time – since 2008 – when they were no longer in the majority in either House.

Conservatives have shown themselves to be able organizers, spawning countless journals and presses, creating a new type of media form – “fair and balanced” – staking out considerable ground in journalism, setting up think tanks and institutes, even increasingly assertive on otherwise liberal college campuses while at the same time starting from scratch new academic institutions that aim to compete with the dominant liberal academic orthodoxy. We are surrounded by evidence of the Conservative Tradition in America, and in spite of premature declarations of its demise – such as that of Sam Tanenhaus in his book The Death of Conservatism – the patient seems to have revived strongly in recent months, flexing muscles in elections throughout the country through the remarkable phenomenon of the “Tea Party” movement. It seems that if we were to look with eyes that can see, it would seem obvious that the answer to the question of tonight’s talk is clearly and resoundingly YES.

Yet, by another measure the answer is anything but obvious. Americans have largely come to accept a certain definition of conservatism that largely goes without examination in the media and everyday discussion. While difficult to define, contemporary American conservatism seems to be shaped by a certain set of core commitments. While not exhaustive, among those characteristics one could confidently list: 1. Commitment to limited government as laid out by the Founders in the Constitution; 2. Support for Free Markets; 3. Strong National defense; 4. Individual responsibility and a suspicion toward collectivism; and 5. Defense of traditional values, particularly support for family. I’m sure there are many other characteristics we could agree upon, but these are several that seem to be core devotions of modern conservatism, and nearly anyone with passing knowledge of American politics could look at this list and agree that this would seem to reflect Conservative values.

Herein lies the problem and the question: with the likely exception of #5 on my list – “defense of traditional values, particularly support of the family” – every characteristic that I’ve listed is actually a species of liberalism. I don’t mean that they are liberal in the way that we typically use the word to describe people like Nancy Pelosi or Michael Dukakis; rather, I mean liberal in its classical conception, that political philosophy that arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with its deepest origins in the Social Contract theory of Thomas Hobbes, further refined by John Locke, amended by Adam Smith and Montesquieu, and put into effect by our Founders, especially in those two founding documents The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To be clear – there is a species of conservatism within this tradition, to be sure – about which I’ll say more – but at the outset it needs to be acknowledged that we are speaking here of the difference between conservative liberals and progressive liberals, and not typically non- or anti-liberal conservatives and liberals per se.

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