Before delving into matters of principle and consistency a decent respect to the opinion of the reader warrants some effort to define “conservatism” and what it means to be a Conservative. After all, the word means different and often contradictory things in various cultures, societies and political systems throughout the world.
Fortunately, we need only concern ourselves with the meaning of the word in the present day United States of America and we have the help of Russell Kirk in fleshing out the operative definition. Kirk believed that Conservatism isn’t so much a check-list of beliefs and behaviors that circumscribes those in “the club” as it is a state of mind and, ultimately, a way of life.
That said, just as any material object such as a chair has characteristics and attributes that enable us to better comprehend what it is and what it does, an intangible object such as “conservatism” likewise has characteristics and attributes that enable us to better understand what it means.
Using Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles as a general guide and the conservative principles of Ronald Reagan as a sort of lens to focus on the details, we can flesh out a brief, bullet-point precis that outlines the fundamental principles of contemporary American Conservatism.
In general, contemporary American Conservatives believe:
- There certain verities that are axiomatic, from which emanate an enduring moral order that governs the affairs of civil society;
- Custom, convention and continuity form the keystone of a stable family, society or nation and with few exceptions, revolutionary change is generally deleterious;
- Human nature is both imperfect and immutable and although equal in a moral, spiritual and legal sense, human beings are and always will be unequal in every other respect;
- As a matter of historical fact, voluntary community, personal liberty and economic freedom form the foundation of a stable, peaceful and prosperous society;
- The rule of law is crucial to restraining human passions and the tendency of humans to abuse power.
A little less generally, contemporary American Conservatives believe:
- Our nation is a republic governed by the rule of law and founded on the self-evident truths that all people are created equal and endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;
- The fundamental purpose of government is to secure and protect the inalienable rights of its citizens;
- The size and scope of government ought to encompass those powers and responsibilities specifically enumerated in the charter that created it;
- The moral and legal order that pervades our civil society is ultimately founded in the Judeo-Christian ethos and cannot be separated from it without damaging or even destroying the civil society.
In a nutshell, American Conservatives believe that a government which governs best is one that minimizes the scope of its activities and maximizes the personal liberty and economic freedom of its citizens.
I have often heard it said that a reputation is based on what one does when everyone is watching while character is based on what one does when no one is watching. In this sense, “character” is synonymous with “integrity and a man of character acts with consistency according to the values, beliefs and principles he claims to hold. A man who professes to be a “principled” and “consistent” Conservative is a man who incorporates the fundamental principles of Conservatism into his personal, professional and political life and comports himself with regularity on the basis of those principles.
A “principled” and “consistent” Conservative is one who, not surprisingly, does not succumb to the siren song of expediency. This is not to say there will be no errors, lapses in judgment or even spectacular falls from grace and only a child or a Jacobin would hold a Conservative up to a standard of perfection that few if any imperfect humans are capable of ever achieving.
Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to hold accountable a candidate for office who claims for himself the mantle of a “principled” and “consistent” Conservative by raising a pertinent and germane question:
In the course of your professional or political career have your beliefs and actions consistently reflected a commitment to Conservative principles?
The candidate who cannot honestly answer YES to this question or whose professional or political record say NO is neither principled nor consistent and, in all likelihood is not even a Conservative.