What does 'conservative' mean?
Plus HR 1 and the Vatican's statement on same-sex marriage
An article I wrote last week about how conspiracy theories are pushing America towards a totally unnecessary civil war has turned out to be pretty controversial on social media. Over the past few days, I’ve been hit with more accusations than usual that I must be a leftist and/or a Democrat along with the typical moral relativistic examples of “whataboutism.” As such, I thought it would be a good time to consider what the word “conservative” actually means and what it represents.
Over the past few years, and even before Donald Trump burst onto the scene, there was confusion about what “conservative” meant. For many “conservative” was synonymous with “Republican.'“ That used to be more true than it is today, but there was always a segment of the Republican Party that was not conservative. In fact, it’s difficult for us to imagine today, but both parties used to be much more ideologically diverse. Suffice it to say that “conservative” is a description of principle, not of partisanship.
“Conservative” does not mean “pro-Trump.” Donald Trump did many things as president. Some of these things were conservative. Many were not. Some things Trump did were conservative. Many were not.Whatever Donald Trump is, he is not a traditional conservative. In fact he doesn’t seem to be conservative in any sense of the word.
“Conservative” also does not mean “anti-left.” Just opposing the Democrats and the progressive left doesn’t make you conservative any more than singing a hymn makes you a member of the choir. Standing on principle requires that you have principles and not just reflexively oppose whatever the other side does.
If we go to Merriam Webster, we find that the first definition of “conservative” is “believing in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society.”
This is why I wrote, “If you support an armed revolt against the federal government, you are neither a conservative nor a constitutionalist.” The segment of the MAGA movement that favors insurrection rejects established and traditional practices such as the constitutional procedure for transitioning from one president to the next. It is not conservative or constitutional to believe that the vice president has the authority to overrule the Electoral College, to give one example, much less to assault the Capitol and demand that Congress overturn the will of the voters. Even claiming that the president can decree laws from on high using Executive Orders or national emergency declarations or that he cannot be prosecuted is far outside the bounds of traditional constitutional norms.
This is also supported by the Oxford definition of the word, which says that “conservative” means “averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values.” Reinterpreting the Constitution to give the vice president veto power over the voters would be a YUGE innovation and a very dangerous one. My guess is that people who would extend that power to Mike Pence would prefer that Kamala Harris not have it.
Oxford also gives a second definition, saying that “conservative” means “(in a political context) favoring free enterprise, private ownership, and socially traditional ideas.” The modern Republican Party also runs afoul of this definition.
In recent weeks and years, we have seen the party attack free enterprise through its trade restrictions, private ownership with its attacks on private control of social media and Dr. Seuss books, and socially traditional ideas such as the American custom of accepting election results and peacefully transferring power.
One of the most complete definitions of American political conservatism that I’ve found comes from Wikipedia. The online dictionary describes it as a movement that “shows respect for American traditions, republicanism (note the small '“r”), and limited government; supports Judeo-Christian values, moral universalism, and individualism; is pro-capitalist and pro-business while opposing trade unions; advocates for a strong national defense, gun rights, free trade, American exceptionalism, and a defense of tradition and of Western culture from perceived threats posed by communism, socialism, and moral relativism.”
Personally, I am aligned with all the points of this definition, but the modern Republican Party subscribes to no more than about half of them. The GOP departs from republicanism with its newfound (and probably short-lived) belief in unconstrained executive power. Republicans no longer believe in limited government, but like the Democrats, seek constitutional and legal loopholes to accomplish expansions of government power in line with right-wing priorities. The party favors some Judeo-Christian values, such as opposing abortion, but not others, such as welcoming immigrants. The right’s desires for hardline immigration policies also represent a massive expansion of government. Republicans have become more anti-business to the point where Tucker Carlson sounds like Elizabeth Warren and AOC. The GOP wants the government to exert more control over Big Tech and other entities like the NFL, which violates both the limited government and pro-business tenets of the definition. Free trade went out the window even before Trump as the party became more protectionist and grew to love Big Government Trade. Republicans were okay with Trump’s gun controls as well even though his bump stock ban was the largest gun control advance since Bill Clinton’s assault weapons ban. Republican “whataboutism” is a rejection of moral universalism and an embrace of moral relativism.
Most Republican voters have not thought through the logical implications of their beliefs. For most people, especially those active in online politics, it’s a tribal matter. I’m Republican. Trump is a Republican so I love Trump. That makes me and Trump conservative.
As we have seen, it is impossible to be a conservative when you favor overturning the constitutional order and 200 years of tradition. In fact, that is the opposite of conservatism.
That brings us to one of my favorite colloquial definitions of conservatism. William F. Buckley once said, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop,’ at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
That’s where I am. As my former party careens toward authoritarianism, nationalism, isolationism, populism, and sometimes even racism and violence, I’m one of the few conservatives left standing, with my feet planted on the principles of traditional, limited-government conservatism, yelling, “Stop! You’re going in the wrong direction.”
That’s the meaning of “conservative.”
Some have asked why I don’t spend as much time attacking the left these days as I do Republicans. The answer is simply that I think that the Trumpist right is a more immediate and dangerous threat than the left. That is not the same as agreeing with the left on every issue (or even most of them).
For example, I oppose HR 1, but I haven’t written a column about it for a couple of reasons. One is that I’ve been busy and have finite time for writing. We’ve also noticed that we get much better responses from our email subscriptions than from clicks, but we don’t want to flood your inbox so we try to limit what we send to you. Plus, we don’t want to burn ourselves out trying to address every issue and have other obligations.
A second reason that HR 1 is a dead man walking. It isn’t going anywhere. In fact, I don’t think the bill was ever meant to pass. Instead, it’s a statement of progressive goals that is meant to show the Democratic left, “Look, we are trying to do something big.”
It’s exactly like the 50-some-odd votes that House Republicans took to repeal the Affordable Care Act during the Obama Administration. These were also show-votes that the House GOP knew would die a lonely death in the Senate. It was all about showing the base that they had good intentions.
There are three reasons that I’m confident that HR 1 is dead. The names of the first two reasons are Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. The third reason is that the filibuster yet lives and no Republican is going to support HR 1.
I’m not a fan of political theater by either side, but politics is politics. It’s fair to call HR 1 a very bad bill and evidence of bad Democratic aims, but it’s never going to become law. It is not the end of the Republic.
Manchin and Sinema won’t be yelling, “Stop,” but they will be stopping a bad bill. Does that make them conservatives? They don’t meet the full definition of “conservative,” but they are among the most conservative Democrats. Their mere existence undercuts claims that all Democrats are fire-breathing socialists.
The Vatican released a statement prohibiting the blessing of same-sex couples today. This is entirely appropriate.
“The presence in such relationships of positive elements, which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated, cannot justify these relationships and render them legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing since the positive elements exist within the context of a union not ordered to the Creator’s plan,” the statement read.
As same-sex marriage is now legal in 29 countries around the world, including the United States, the pope conservatively faces the rising tide and yells, “Stop!”
In much of the world today, there is a disconnect between civil and religious marriage. While governments have the right to define civil marriage as they want, religious marriage is defined by God and the Bible. Genesis 2:24 originally defined marriage as a between an individual man and an individual woman. Jesus affirmed this in Matthew 19:5. The Bible also condemns homosexual sex in a number of passages including Romans 1:24-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. Whataboutism pointing out that ancient Israelites did not always live up to the one-man-one-woman or the heterosexual ideal does not obviate the underlying biblical truth.
Christians may not be able to uphold the traditional definition of marriage in civil marriages, but they should uphold the biblical definition of marriage in religious marriages. As far as marriage laws in the United States, the battle has been lost and there is no going back, but churches should not fall into the trap of blessing and affirming sinful unions.
The Vatican statement or churches standing on biblical principles will not go over well. There might well be actual attempts to cancel the church or religious media that stands by the biblical principle (as opposed to the faux Outrage du Jour™). However, it’s important to make a distinction between First Amendment concerns and the corporate “woke-ism” that we are likely to see. As I’ve maintained in the past, Amazon and other retailers have every right to not carry books that they find objectionable. The conservative answer to this sort of problem is not to invoke government control over private businesses.
The Bible tells us that its teaching will be rejected by the world (Jude 1:17-20, 2 Peter 3:3-8). We should not be surprised when this happens.
When it does, we should realize that we are not called to enforce a Christian version of Sharia law or “shoot people in the name of Jesus.” Instead, we are told by Paul to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Many Christians have the truth part down (although in reality, many of today’s Christians are blinded to the truth in many areas) but really need to work on the love part. And if we listen to Jesus, we know that the love part is really important.
Kudos to the Vatican for affirming biblical marriage. And for doing so with sensitivity and love.
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"That’s where I am. As my former party careens toward authoritarianism, nationalism, isolationism, populism, and sometimes even racism and violence, I’m one of the few conservatives left standing, with my feet planted on the principles of traditional, limited-government conservatism..."
Well said. You left out just one important "ism" however, fascism. The overt rejection of principled governance in exchange for a cult of personality. All that was needed at that point was an objective to rally white working class grievance. This grievance needn't be rooted in fact, just perception. Examples are: "immigrants are violet predators who will steal your jobs", "the election was stolen", "there were election irregularities", "Covid is a fraud perpetuated by leftists who want to shut-down business and keep Trump from being elected", "Antifa, BLM, and the Democrats were responsible for the Capitol insurrection". Most of these sentiments are parroted by at least 3/4 of the party. There can be no conservatism, constitutional conservatism, or any other flavor of conservatism in a party directed solely for the purpose of driving grievance. The Republicans in one election cycle went from a party with a platform that at least paid some lip service, to a party of pure cultist white grievance with no apparent principals or values, and a platform of Trump, the whole Trump, and nothing but the Trump, so help us God.