Author: J. Pepper Bryars

Author. Columnist.

How would you define conservatism?

A recent survey from Gallup found that the United States remains an overwhelmingly conservative country, with conservatives outnumbering liberals in 44 states, tied in just two, and lagging in only four. Although the gap has narrowed in some regions, conservatives still enjoy at least a 20-point advantage in 13 states (Alabama is fifth, where we outnumber liberals by a whopping 30 points). With so many Americans calling themselves conservative, one would assume its definition would be simple to explain. One would be wrong. Conservatism, as a word, doesn’t fully describe the many aspects of our philosophy. Some of its principles and processes aren’t “conservative” at all, just as modern liberalism is often quite illiberal. That makes defining conservatism incredibly difficult. So much so that, as pointed out in the National Review, when its founder William F. Buckley was asked to define the term for a book titled What is Conservatism?, the usually confident and always prolific writer produced an essay sheepishly titled “Notes toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism; Reluctantly and Apologetically Given by William F. Buckley.” If Buckley couldn’t do it, then nobody can ... yet others have tried. “What is conservatism?” Abraham Lincoln asked. “Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried.” Yes, but conservatism also seeks variety, preferring creativity to centralization, and there’s nothing old and tried about what happens within a vibrant free market. Just ask the buggy whip industry. Conservatism also “understands the important role that traditions, institutions, habits,…

It’s time we had a long talk about conservatism

For an American conservative, it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. Our party is in power. Republicans hold the White House, both chambers of Congress, and a majority of state legislatures and governorships. You could walk from the Florida Keys to northern Minnesota without touching a single “blue” county, and we finally have a president boldly implementing at least some of our agenda: securing our border, utilizing our natural resources, and putting “America First.” Meanwhile, our opposition remains disoriented and in denial, staggering from one angry group to another, and further alienating a majority of the country. Our Grand Old Party’s elephant stands triumphant over the Democrat’s donkey like Muhammad Ali once stood over a knocked out Sonny Liston … and the bell has rung. On the other hand, our philosophy seems adrift. Conservatives have seen our already difficult to define beliefs stretched during the past year so that they may better fit a single individual, as if conservatism were a suit of clothes rather than a way of thinking. We’ve seen many of our movement’s opinion leaders suddenly embrace failed Democrat policies like central planning and protectionism. We’ve been told that our “purist” approach is an obstacle to “getting things done,” and our younger members are questioning our values after watching their elders fall silent on issues of morality and character. Amidst this clamor, conservatism is at real risk for becoming what the late Lionel Trilling once accused it of being: not a coherent set of…

Conservatives must scrutinize Bill Pryor’s record

President Donald Trump is very close to announcing his choice to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court. “I think in my mind I know who it is,” he recently said. If we’re to believe knowledgeable court watchers or aspiring Trump whisperers, we know who it is, too: Mobile native Judge Bill Pryor. Pryor comes highly recommended from all corners of the conservative movement, from the editors at the National Review to firebrand radio host and legal expert Mark Levin. Another Mobilian and frequent conservative writer on these pages, Quin Hillyer, says Pryor would be an “excellent” choice. I’ve read and watched Pryor for years, as well, and have become reasonably confident that he’d be a safe bet to fill Scalia’s robes. But trusting our side’s experts and being reasonably assured simply isn’t enough. There’s too much at stake, and we’ve been burned far too many times. Conservatives must be absolutely certain, and that’s why we must scrutinize Pryor’s record as if we’ve just met the man. Pryor, of course, was Alabama’s attorney general from 1997-2004 and enjoyed a reputation as a capable politician and a pretty good AG. He was placed on the U.S. 11th Circuit of Appeals by President George W. Bush, and during the decade since he’s become known as a very conservative judge, much like the late justice he may replace. Conservative legal scholars tell us that Pryor strongly believes in judicial restraint, and holds that political questions must be left to the…

We grade our students, teachers, and schools, but what about our parents?

Earlier this month we learned that dozens of our state’s public schools received a “failing” grade from the Alabama Department of Education, and the list is long and diverse. It stretches from the nearly 100-year old Theodore High School in south Mobile County to the relatively brand-new Columbia High School in Huntsville, and includes schools whose graduates (or drop-outs, rather) will impact nearly every community in our state. Regardless of where you live, or whether you have children in these specific schools, this news should alarm everyone, especially since state law only requires schools that are utterly abysmal to be placed on the list. “The failing school list is just the six percent that are the lowest performing in the state,” said Michael Sentence, the state’s new school superintendent. He added that “the number of schools that are significantly academically challenged is much larger.” Things could not only be worse, they probably are worse. We just don’t know by how much, officially speaking. Lawmakers should, at the very least, require the state to publish a second list comprised of those “academically challenged” schools that Sentence referenced, if only to give our communities a more accurate understanding of the situation. Otherwise some may live under the misunderstanding that if their school isn’t on the state’s official “failing” list then it’s doing just fine. But since we’re on the topic of grading those involved in our public education system, perhaps we need to think about expanding the pool of subjects a little.…

Calling the balls and strikes on Trump’s appointments (Part Three)

Earlier this week President-elect Donald Trump’s most conservative challenger during the primary, Sen. Ted Cruz, praised his former opponent’s cabinet picks, signaling growing approval from the detractors on the right. “This is a serious cabinet, a cabinet of highly qualified individuals and it is a cabinet of strong conservatives,” Cruz said. “The president elect should be commended for bringing together a team of all stars and I think that bodes really well for the commitment to carry through on the promises we made.” What a difference a year makes. During the primary Cruz and others (including yours truly) repeatedly reminded voters of Trump’s lengthy record of supporting liberal candidates and causes – and opposing conservative ones. We justifiably feared Trump was simply using the backlash against illegal immigration as camouflage to conceal the liberal that hid beneath, and worried that his administration would be packed with big government types from both parties. That hasn’t come to pass, at least not entirely. I’m still a little worried (his economic policies sound very pre-Great Depressionish, and his picks for the transportation and treasury secretaries aren’t good), but this is a nearly solid team of conservatives. My last two columns called the balls and strikes on the first 11 cabinet nominees (if you’re keeping score: two homeruns, a triple, three doubles, two singles, a foul ball, and two strikes). Today we’ll pitch to the remaining lineup of big names. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was picked to be our ambassador to the United…

Calling the balls and strikes on Trump’s appointments (Part Two)

Republicans have been loudly cheering President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet picks, and there has certainly been much to cheer about: we have several solid conservatives, some true warriors, and a couple of promising regulation-busters. But before we get carried away by the prospect of having our government run by people other than the likes of John Kerry and Eric Holder, we should be mindful of one of the conservative movement’s most easily overlooked principles: doubt. As was explained in my last column, even though Trump has a couple of homeruns (vice president, attorney general), and a few hits (secretaries of education; commerce, defense, and health and human services), we’ve had talented cabinets before. The last Republican administration was led by accomplished outsiders and experienced governors, but it eventually evolved into a creature of the establishment. Limited government? It grew by an entire department. Free markets? It bailed out reckless banks, poorly-run car companies, and dabbled in Keynesianism. School choice? It allowed Sen. Ted Kennedy to write its education reform bill. The list goes on. So, yes, I have doubts, and they grew after Trump struck out with his treasury and transportation picks. While much of the lineup still looks good, conservatives must keep the pressure on the president-elect’s administration to follow-through. That said, picking up where I left off last week, Trump’s next announcement was the selection of Dr. Ben Carson to be his Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs. I like Dr. Carson, but sometimes he leaves me wondering about…

Calling the balls and strikes on Trump’s appointments (Part One)

One of the conservative movement’s primary concerns about President-elect Donald Trump is that he doesn’t seem to be guided by a clear, definable political philosophy. Some of the things he says are truly conservative, while others seem aligned with big government liberalism. “At this point, who cares?” he once remarked after conservatives questioned his adherence to our principles. Now, at this point, everyone should care, because this is when philosophy becomes policy, and the devil is always in the details. Personnel is policy, as the saying goes, so who Trump appoints to his cabinet is currently our only indicator of how he’ll actually govern. So how’s he doing? Calling the balls and strikes from a conservative standpoint, it’s really a mixed bag. Starting from the earliest to the most recent picks, we must begin with any president’s first presidential decision – his choice for running mate. Vice President-elect Mike Pence is a conservative’s conservative with a stellar reputation within the movement and a rock-solid record. He wasn’t even on many short lists of potential picks because most thought he was too conservative for Trump’s taste. The result: Home run. Next comes Trump’s choice for U.S. Attorney General – our own Sen. Jeff Sessions. My admiration for the man is well documented, but so is his record on law and order. Trump couldn’t have chosen better. Another home run. Trump then nominated Betsy DeVos for education secretary. She’s an advocate for school choice and charter schools, but has also been closely…

Stand with Sessions … because he’d stand with you

Senator Jeff Sessions is a good man who would be a great U.S. Attorney General, but I didn’t reach that conclusion by only examining his years on the judiciary committee, or his tenure as Alabama’s attorney general, or his record as a federal prosecutor. Those are all stellar qualifications, but I have the added benefit of remembering the time he helped a troubled family – one without wealth, connections, or experience – successfully navigate the justice system, with firmness yet with compassion. I was only in the fifth grade in 1985 when one of my brothers was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison for smuggling cocaine from Alabama to Michigan, but I remember nearly everything about the ordeal. I remember how it transformed my brother from a carefree, often reckless kid into a panicked and desperate man. He saw a once bright future collapse into the darkness of a prison cell because of a stupid, irreversible mistake. I remember how it wrecked my father, both emotionally and financially. His son was locked up 1,000 miles away with all sorts of violent criminals, and all he could do was listen to his frightened voice on the telephone. Those long distance charges sometimes reached $1,000 a month, nearly my father’s take-home pay from the fire department at the time. I remember listening to my mother speak, often plead, with an endless cast of characters from our justice system: local police detectives, state and federal agents, my brother’s public defenders, multiple…

Trump’s political appointments are more consequential than most think

Republicans have been rightfully jubilant since last week’s victory, but the next few months will likely determine whether President-elect Donald Trump’s administration will govern from the right, from the center, or from somewhere out in left field. That’s because long after the arena speeches are delivered and the proposals are written, it’ll fall to the 2.6-plus million members of the executive branch to actually implement Trump’s vision – from the macro, like understanding how his election should alter their organization’s overall approach to governing; to the micro, like whether they should proceed with controversial initiatives that began under his predecessor. Nearly all of those federal employees are highly professional patriots who are well versed in handling the changes that come with presidential transitions, but it’s naive to believe that one man in the West Wing – even one who isn’t shy about using his pen and his phone – can effectively guide the government in a new direction all by himself. Thankfully, the president-elect won’t be. Helping him will be 4,000 political appointees ranging from the headline-grabbing cabinet secretaries to the little known worker bees toiling within their departments and agencies, ensuring changes are made and new policies are pursued. The most senior appointees will be chosen in the next couple of weeks, with the bulk being named within the first six months of his administration, hopefully. That may sound like a small army of loyalists ready to help the president steer the ship of state, but it’s actually only…

Jeff Sessions should back a “general amnesty” for #NeverTrumpers

Senator Jeff Sessions is in a unique political position. He is the most respected, influential, and likeable elected official within the conservative movement – a movement that just saw many of its lifelong members declare that they’d never vote for President-elect Donald Trump or who eventually did so but rather reluctantly. He is also the most respected, influential, and likeable elected official within Trump’s inner circle, having been the first significant politician to endorse his unlikely candidacy and the only senator who did so during the primary season. Sessions is beloved by us all, and that’s why there’s no man better positioned – or with a better disposition – than our state’s junior senator to unite the two camps, or as Trump put it early Wednesday morning, to help “bind the wounds of division,” particularly within the Republican Party and especially within the conservative movement. We’ve endured a bloody civil war within the party for more than a year. Lifelong political compatriots have fought hard against each other. Many friendships were heavily bruised, and some may have been irretrievably lost. And now, in imitation of the wisdom shown at Appomattox Court House, a “general amnesty” needs to be granted to all combatants, especially the conservatives with whom we’ve built this movement, this party, and our future. Trump’s poignant and humble victory speech set the tone. “I say it is time for us to come together as one united people,” the president-elect said, adding that, “those who have chosen not to…