Conservatism is dead; Long live conservatism?
By Selwyn Duke
It seems like just yesterday that many were reading liberalism's epitaph. After the Reagan years, Republican Revolution of 1994, the retreat of the gun-control hordes after Al Gore's 2000 defeat and George W. Bush's two successful presidential runs, many thought conservatism was carrying the day.
Ah, if only.
We might ask: With conservatives like President Bush and many of the other Republicans, who needs liberals?
While the media has successfully portrayed the Republicans as the party of snake handlers and moonshine, the difference between image and reality is profound. Bush has just spun the odometer, proposing the nation's first ever $3 trillion budget. On matters pertaining to the very survival of our culture – the primacy of English, multiculturalism, the denuding of our public square of historically present Christian symbols and sentiments – Republicans are found wanting. As for illegal immigration, both the president and presumptive Republican nominee support a form of amnesty.
Yet many would paint America as under the sway of rightist politics, and some of the reasons for this are obvious. Some liberals know that the best way to ensure constant movement toward the left is by portraying the status quo as dangerously far right. If you repeatedly warn that we teeter on the brink of rightist hegemony, people will assume that to achieve "balance" we must tack further left toward your mythical center. Then we have conservatives influenced by the natural desire to view the world as the happy place they'd like to inhabit. Ingenuous sorts, they confuse Republican with conservative, party with principles, and electoral wars with the cultural one. But there's another factor: One can confuse conservative with correct.
When is the right not right, you ask? When it has been defined by the left.
The definition of "conservative" is fluid, changing from time to time and place to place. Some "conservatives" embrace an ideology prescribing limited government – one remaining within the boundaries established by the Constitution – and low taxation. They favor nationalism over internationalism; prefer markets mostly unfettered by regulation; eschew multiculturalism, feminism and radical environmentalism; and take pride in our history and traditions.
But there have been other kinds of conservatives. In the Soviet Union, a conservative was quite the opposite, a communist. Then, when Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn was assassinated in 2002, BBC News ran the headline, "Dutch far-right leader shot dead." "Far-right" indeed. Fortuyn was quite liberal by our standards; he was a pro-abortion, openly-homosexual ex-sociology professor branded a rightist mainly because he wished to stem Muslim immigration into Holland. Moreover, his fear was that zealous Muslims posed a threat to the nation's liberal social structure.
So here's the question: What definition of conservative would a communist or European statist conform to? Answer: That which states, "One who favors maintenance of the status quo." This brings us to a central point:
As society is successfully transformed by those who detest the status quo, the status quo changes. This means that the great defender ideology of the status quo, conservatism, will change with it.
"Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision, instead we are always changing the vision." -- G.K. Chesterton
Both liberals and conservatives have shape-shifting visions. This is because the definitions of conservative and liberal are determined by the "position" of the given society ‘s political spectrum. Shift that spectrum left or right by altering the collective ideology of a nation, and the definitions of those two words will change commensurate with the degree of that shift. This is why a Pim Fortuyn is viewed as conservative in Western Europe. In a land of Lilliputians, even Robert Reich seems like a giant.
This isn't to say there is no difference between liberal and conservative visions. Liberals construct their vision based on opposition to the conservative one; conservatives' vision is a product of the now accepted, decades-old vision of the left. Thus, liberals promote today's liberal vision; conservatives defend yesterday's liberal vision.
"The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected." -- G.K. Chesterton
Perhaps one reason we're losing the culture war is that it's easier to convince people to try new liberal mistakes than retain old liberal mistakes that have been tried and found wanting. Regardless, we will continue losing unless we change our thinking radically.
Wars are not won by being defensive. Yet conservatives are seldom anything but, because they've been trained to mistake defense for offense. When 13 states voted to ban faux marriage in 2004, some proclaimed it a great victory for conservatism. But it only was so if the conservatism you subscribe to merely involves maintenance of a liberal status quo, for it was asuccessful defensive action, not an offensive one. Who was proposing the societal change to which the vote was a response? The left was. What kind of change was it? One that would move us in the liberal direction.
So it is always. We play defense when, instead of striving to eliminate hate-crime laws, we merely fight proposals to make "transgendered" a protected category; when we accept the Federal Department of Education and simply use it to effect "conservative" education reform (read: No Child Left Behind Act); when we simply try to ensure that the separation of church and state ruling is applied in "conservative" ways; when we combat the tax-and-spend crowd by not taxing but then spending; and when we preach against illegal immigration while accepting a culture-rending legal immigration regime.
In contrast, the left is as steadfastly offensive as it is dreadfully offensive. If its minions' scheme to legally redefine marriage fails today, they'll try again tomorrow. If a socialized medicine plan doesn't pass congressional muster, it will reappear five or ten years hence. If a new tax is too rich for present tastes, they'll wait for a more gluttonous palate. Or they'll sneak a different new tax into an innocuous sounding bill or accept a slight increase to an old tax, then another, and another, and another . . . . They simply have to wait for the political spectrum to shift a bit further left.
This brings me to another important point. We often talk of compromise, but does compromising with those who always advance but never retreat constitute fairness? The left proposes policy, "settles" for a half-measure, and we leave the table thinking it an equitable outcome. The problem is that since virtually all the changes suggested are liberal in nature, constant compromise and granting of concessions guarantees constant movement toward the left. So we see erstwhile secure territory that is now under attack and revel in victory when we repel a few of the enemy's charges. But we don't realize that we are defining victory as a reduction in the rate of loss of our heartland, while the enemy defines it as the expansion of its empire. We compromise our way to tyranny.
It's like a young boxer who never throws punches and, consequently, becomes quite adept at blocking vicious blows – and inured to taking them. He emerges from the ring with a twinkle in black and blue eyes, flashes a smile revealing two lost teeth, proudly shows off bruised forearms and says, "Look, Dad! I blocked ninety-percent of the punches today! This is my greatest victory ever!"
Yes, perhaps it's a figurative victory insofar as exhibition of defensive skill goes. As for real victory, thus engaging opponents time and again doesn't even bring the Pyrrhic variety. It only guarantees slow, torturous losses, perpetual injury, and one day, perhaps, a knock-out.
This places the current presidential race in perspective. When some Republicans lament the absence of good "conservative" primary contenders, they often act as if our statist front-runners are visited upon us by an invisible hand, as if their ascendancy was despite the culture and not because of it. In reality, these politicians are merely products of a society that has long been in the grip of Gramschian operatives in academia, the media and Hollywood, leftists who have been crafting their message, scheming, indoctrinating, and socially re-engineering the public for decades.
Besides, can we really say those candidates aren't conservative? With the political spectrum having shifted so far left, perhaps people such as Bush, McCain and Huckabee really are today's conservatives, defenders of a statist status quo.
Perhaps, just maybe, we (me, and you if you're in my camp) are something else.
After all, I criticized Mitt Romney for forcing Massachusettsans to buy health insurance, but a recent poll indicates that a majority of Republicans support such coercion. And if some of these people are "conservatives," I'm certainly am not one.
I'm a revolutionary.
I don't want to preserve the status quo, I want to overthrow it. I want to pull the statist weeds up by the roots and burn them in freedom's fire, just like our Founding Fathers did. Do you think they were conservatives? Conservatives don't start revolutions; they simply make sure their shackles are made no heavier.
Political victory rests on cultural victory, and changing the culture starts with changing our mentality. We have only two choices: We can be revolutionary.
Or we can be wrong.