The definition of “conservative”

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times makes some interesting points, but …

The bar for this campaign is so low that we celebrate the fact that it might include a serious debate about one of the four great issues of the day, though even that is not clear yet. And even if Ryan’s entry does spark a meaningful debate about one of the great issues facing America — the nexus of debt, taxes and entitlements — there is little sign that we’ll seriously debate our other three major challenges: how to generate growth and upgrade the skills of every American in an age when the merger of globalization and the information technology revolution means every good job requires more education; how to meet our energy and climate challenges; and how to create an immigration policy that will treat those who are here illegally humanely, while opening America to the world’s most talented immigrants, whom we need to remain the world’s most innovative economy.

But what’s even more troubling is that we need more than debates. That’s all we’ve been having. We need deals on all four issues as soon as this election is over, and I just don’t see that happening unless “conservatives” retake the Republican Party from the “radicals” — that is, the Tea Party base. America today desperately needs a serious, thoughtful, credible 21st-century “conservative” opposition to President Obama, and we don’t have that, even though the voices are out there.

Whether you’re (today’s definition of) a liberal or a conservative, or fit neither of those labels, you can probably agree that the terms don’t mean what they used to in the current political landscape. The term “liberal,” as in “classical liberal,” from the 18th century until sometime in the 20th century stood for someone who believed in individual rights given by our Creator, not by government. The Founding Fathers were classical liberals, whether or not they agreed on the size of government as it was in those days.

The term “conservative” in its most basic definition means someone who seeks to conserve what exists today, or in the relatively recent past. (Anyone who says that today’s conservatives seek to restore slavery is an idiot. Yes, that means you, Joe Biden.) What is now Britain’s Conservative Party dates back to 1678, almost 100 years before the colonists decided Great Britain wasn’t so great. The classical liberals believed in individual freedom, including religious freedom, something the Tories opposed.

In 1955, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote that National Review “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no other is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” Buckley was referring to Democratic New Deal supporters and Republican supporters of New Deal Lite, such as Dwight Eisenhower. If Buckley was conservative by this paragraph’s definition, he was seeking to conserve, or preserve, federal government policy before the Great Depression. (Buckley apparently understood well before most that the New Deal didn’t end the Great Depression.)

Friedman appears to believe the Republican Party was so much better in the days between the end of World War II and 1980, when there wasn’t that much difference between parties. The revolution Ronald Reagan helped usher in has made the GOP more conservative. But the Democratic Party was going leftward 15 years before that. Democrats such as John F. Kennedy, Henry “Scoop” Jackson and William Proxmire do not fit in today’s Democratic Party.

If two words could describe today’s conservatives that conservatives agree with, those words probably would be “traditional values” — support of man–woman marriage and children raised by male and female parents who are married to each other, opposition to abortion, easy divorce, same-sex marriage and the coarsening of the culture, etc. (Clearly divorce and single-parent families existed long before the political arguments of today, but the culture didn’t use to celebrate them.) All of that comes first from the Bible, including the “Thou Shalt Not” parts of the Old Testament. You cannot measure the amount of contempt today’s liberals have for those kinds of traditional values.

I’m not sure what Friedman’s definition of “conservative” is from this column. I don’t think that word describes this mishmash of views, whether or not you agree with them:

Imagine if the G.O.P.’s position on debt was set by Senator Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who has challenged the no-tax lunacy of Grover Norquist and served on the Simpson–Bowles commission and voted for its final plan (unlike Ryan). That plan included both increased tax revenues and spending cuts as the only way to fix our long-term fiscal imbalances. …

Imagine if the G.O.P.’s position on immigration followed the lead of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of the News Corporation. Bloomberg and Murdoch recently took to the road to make the economic case for immigration reform. …

Imagine if the G.O.P. position on energy and climate was set by Bob Inglis, a former South Carolina Republican congressman (who was defeated by the Tea Party in 2010). He now runs George Mason University’s Energy and Enterprise Initiative, which is based on the notion that climate change is real, and that the best way to deal with it and our broader energy challenge is with conservative “market-based solutions” that say to the fossil fuel and wind, solar and nuclear industries: “Be accountable for all of your costs,” including the carbon and pollution you put in the air, and then we’ll “let the markets work” and see who wins.

Imagine if G.O.P. education policy was set by former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, without having to cater to radicals, who call for eliminating the Department of Education and view common core standards as some kind of communist conspiracy. Mr. Bush has argued that a conservative approach to education for 21st-century jobs would embrace more effective teacher evaluation and common core standards, but add a bigger element of choice in the form of charter schools and vouchers, the removal of union rules that limit new technology — and combine it all with greater autonomy and accountability for individual principals.

As either a “conservatarian” or, perhaps, a Wall Street Journal Republican (though I’m not a member of the GOP), I agree with a more, shall we say, inclusive immigration approach. The United States is a nation of immigrants, people who came to this country for a better life, not merely to copy the lives they had where they came from. People have come to this country since before it was a country because they sought more opportunity than they had in the old country. It is ridiculous that this country denies those who would make a positive contribution to this country’s economy and culture from coming here.

The rest, however, demonstrates that Friedman doesn’t know what the word “conservative” means, either today or in any other period in our nation’s history.

I doubt you’ll find any definition of “conservative” that includes taking hard-earned money from someone and giving it to someone else, which high taxes and redistribution of income do. (Both of which are supported by the Democratic Party.) Perhaps today’s conservatives would be more accepting of tax increases as a last resort, instead of as a preferred option, or if there was any assurance whatsoever that the government (at any level) would not merely take more tax revenue and find ways to waste it. Obama, remember, believes in redistribution of income even if, as with raising capital gains taxes, it has negative effects on the economy.

There is nothing conservative about control of education at a level above where it should be. (Friedman ignores the fact that the Department of Education didn’t exist before the Carter administration, even though schools certainly did.) The true “conservative” view of education does not include teacher unions. Friedman also ignores the belief of many conservatives that their traditional values are spat upon in schools too.

There are some conservatives, perhaps a majority today, who believe in “market-based solutions.” (However, libertarians are more in favor of “market-based solutions” than conservatives.) But “market-based solutions” sometimes turns out to mean “what I think you should do.” What Friedman proposes in energy is not a market-based solution at all, but something to create $10-per-gallon gasoline and $1,000-per-month residential energy bills to fit his idea of how people should live their lives. (Hint: If more money is coming out of your pocket, don’t support it.) I’d be more interested in Friedman’s views on climate change if he wasn’t contributing to the problem by flying around the world to give speeches to make money. (See Gore, Al.)

What Friedman really means is indicated in his conclusion:

We are not going to make any progress on our biggest problems without a compromise between the center-right and center-left. But, for that, we need the center-right conservatives, not the radicals, to be running the G.O.P., as well as the center-left in the Democratic Party.

Interesting that Friedman is able to cite chapter and verse on everything wrong with the GOP and the tea party (who could be considered the ultimate conservatives since their values date back to the Founding Fathers), and can’t find anything wrong with the Dumocrats, whose last nearly four years in power have made things far worse. That’s proven by his belief that Obama represents the Democrats’ “center-left,” which means he’s been paying no attention to Comrade Obama the past four years.

If Friedman wanted to write a provocative column, he’d write about the zero-sum game politics has become (something that campaign finance reform will not fix), and the disrespect each side of our politics has for the other, and ask where compromise comes out of that. He could start by looking in his own mirror.


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