We can spend all day discussing the esoteric aspects of the political school of thought generally referred to as “conservatism,” including its origins with Edmund Burke and its steady propagation and promotion in the past hundred years by the likes of Hayek, Friedman, Buckley, Goldwater and, most famously, the great Ronald Reagan, who personified conservatism and perfected its practical application in the political sphere. The fodder for conversation might as well be Mount Everest, but there will be no ascent today – only a comfortable amble on a grassy hillside where we can pause momentarily to reflect on a political movement that appears to have reached what I consider to be a “crossroads moment.” But more of that at another time.
As a rule, a thing or idea is defined by its form and substance – the sum of its characteristics and attributes. But it can also be defined in some respects by what it is not. It has been said that you can tell a lot about a man by noting who his enemies are and this homespun wisdom is the essence of what theological scholars call “apophatic” analysis.
That said, we know that contemporary conservatism is not contemporary liberalism: it is not the willful and ecstatic embrace of a statism that calls for ever expanding government and ever diminishing liberty. It is not a policy of higher taxes and a spider’s web of regulations that strangle commerce and free enterprise. It is not the wholesale abandonment of the cultural and civil norms that have long comprised the mortar holding this society together. It is not higher taxes and lower prosperity. It is not the subjugation of the individual to the glory of the state.
Very well then: let us discuss the “cataphatic” aspect of conservatism: what is the essence of that which Ronald Reagan embraced and embodied throughout the course of his political life?
A conservative believes in the primacy of the individual person over the hegemony of the state. He unhesitatingly recites Jefferson’s immortal declaration:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The conservative embraces these noble and self-evident truths and fearlessly proclaims them to the world. He is not afraid of fellow conservatives whose individual expression of these truths differ from his own – much less fearful of those who stand in stark opposition to all these truths as an enemy of individual liberty. A conservative does not cower in a corner with hands over his ears or shut out those who would challenge his core beliefs – rather, he bravely stands his ground and challenges those who challenge liberty to meet on an open field of open debate so that the truth may prevail: as experience has shown over and over again, only liberals fear open debate.
Simply stated, conservatism is a path that encompasses both thought and action, word and deed. It is the sum and substance not only of what we think and believe but also of what we say and do. It is the expression of who we are and the manifestation of how we perceive the world around us. While conservatism encompasses timeless and axiomatic principles founded on empirical observation and eternal verities, the myriad details of its expression are not bound in dogmatic concrete: unlike liberals whose practical worship of “groupthink” impel them to cleave to a collectivist party platform like actors to a script, conservatives think for themselves and respect that process in other conservatives.
The conservative not only boldly and unflinchingly declares the substance of his belief, but embodies that belief in his everyday commerce with others – and in so doing, expresses in both words and actions a variation of Reagan’s famous Eleventh Commandment: THOU SHALT NOT SPEAK ILL OF A FELLOW CONSERVATIVE.
I can only wonder how many who call themselves “conservative” have sinned against this commandment. Some do so in bondage to a Jacobin perception of conservatism that embraces a “code of conduct” where transgressors – whatever their transgressions – are given the Hester Prynne bum’s rush to the showers. Then again, at least the Jacobins believe in something – even if their belief has all the logic and proportion of a fun-house mirror.
Others who claim to be conservative do so with all the sincerity of bank robbers wearing Ronald Reagan Halloween masks. For them, “the conservative movement” is not so much a glidepath to restore individual liberty as a handy mechanism for playing the patriotic segment of the electorate like a harp from hell in a cynical ploy to wrest the reins of power to their side of aisle. They believe in nothing but the acquisition of political power. They may be “conservatives” in the barest and meanest definition of the word, but their words and actions speak less of Ronald Reagan and more of Niccolo Machiavelli.
I suppose I could go on for another thousand words and furnish the reader with examples of Jacobins and Machiavellians gone wild, but to what avail? For the new arrivals, enter the word Jacobin into the search box on this site and educate yourselves.
For the regulars and those who know me: the essence of conservatism transcends the muck and mire of local, state and federal politics. Conservatives understand this and know what comes next.
Those who are not conservatives will be left scratching their heads.