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 ideas, but an “impulse” that expresses itself “only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

We have a courageous captain who is boldly steering us through the storm, and the crew is cheerful and confident … yet nobody seems concerned that the map and compass were just washed overboard.

For decades we built a movement on organic American conservatism, the common sense that told us our beliefs are both true and effective. We didn’t need to read Kirk to value our traditions or study Hayek to know big government harms more than it helps. Fair enough. This approach worked well … until the cultural, economic, and political disasters of the last few years left many so desperate for change that they’ve become vulnerable to the appeal of well-marketed liberalism disguised as practical solutions.

“This isn’t about liberal versus conservative,” a colleague in the conservative media told me during the Republican primary.

But it’s always been about that – the struggle between those who believe in the perfectibility of society through plans and controls and those who believe in the prosperity of man through liberty and order. We’ve been having this fight under one label or another since antiquity, and like the devil, its impact doesn’t depend upon whether anyone believes the fight matters.

“We don’t need high-minded ideas; we need practical solutions,” seems the sentiment from some conservatives these days.

Alas, ideas are the most practical things of all, for poorly performing schools, stagnant wages, and the breakdown of the family all stem from bad ideas that eventually became bad laws. The fight to change those things must start on the battlefield of ideas, as well, yet clearly our movement has failed to teach conservatism, we have failed to learn it, and contrary to our party’s electoral success, our movement isn’t growing.

So what’s an American conservative to do?

First and foremost, we should remember the proverb, “Physician, heal thyself.” We must examine ourselves, learn what our movement has forgotten or lost, and reinvigorate our ranks with knowledge of and commitment to authentic conservatism. Only then can we explain our beliefs and expand our movement.

For our small part, during the coming weeks we’ll discuss the many conservative principles, processes, and policies that have arisen over the centuries and how they apply to our present issues. We’ll discuss not only “what” conservatives think, but “how” we arrived at that conclusion, and how to apply it forward.

In the end, perhaps we’ll be more aware of the dangers that loom over our horizon. From the conservative’s perspective, not only our future, but the present … and even the past … depend upon our ability to do so.