The headlines after last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference seemed to describe less a celebration of our party’s complete electoral domination and more a wake for our movement.
“RIP, movement conservatism,” declared the American Thinker.
“How Donald Trump killed movement conservatism,” wrote Truthout.
“Trump’s takeover of conservatism is complete,” opined a Washington Post columnist.
The rash of obituaries didn’t end with the conference, either. Headlines following the president’s first address to a joint session of Congress continued the trend.
“Trump’s speech to Congress killed conservatism,” wrote one Mediaite contributor, and the bells continue to toll with each passing day.
These types of political eulogies are nothing new, though. Similar headlines ran when Senator Barry Goldwater lost in 1964, when then-Governor Ronald Reagan lost his primary fight in 1976, and also in 1992 and 2006. Four years ago Reuters even asked “Is conservatism going extinct?” and in 2008 The New Republic happily confirmed that, yes, “Conservatism is dead.”
Ding-dong, the liberals cheered … then their party went on to lose more than 1,000 elected offices during the next eight years.
Who won those seats? For the most part, conservatives.
Truth is, our movement was far from dead in 1964 and it’s far from dead now. Quite the opposite. Still, these doom-and-gloom articles do illustrate how some people consistently confuse things like principles and policies with mere people. To paraphrase the protagonist in “V for Vendetta” the conservative movement is more than just flesh. It is an idea … and ideas are bulletproof.
It is silly to think that conservatism is dead simply because a majority of Congress may embrace President Donald Trump’s trillion dollar boondoggle of an infrastructure plan. Since when have politicians hated to spend other people’s money? Moreover, since when have stalwart conservative institutions and lifelong advocates called for such nonsense?
The answer to both questions is the same: hardly ever. Whenever someone does, it’s tantamount to a self-excommunication from our ranks, at least on that particular issue.
It is impossible for a single person, or even an entire era, however unstable, to wipe away the centuries of political evolution that has led to the modern conservative movement, a movement of mutually-supportive and often contradictory ideas, interwoven and at times distinct, part of a monolith yet wholly independent.
Rather than look to an individual to faithfully represent this complex arrangement, perhaps it’s better to visualize something else that has survived several millennia of change and remained largely intact – the pyramid.
At its base is the foundation, and like all foundations, it’s hidden. This is our view of human nature as imperfect, and upon this our entire philosophy is built.
The rest of the conservative pyramid would be divided into three levels, the bottom of which would be conservative principles – notions like limited government, tradition, and doubt. These are many and permanent, and resemble more of a mixture of thoughts than entirely separate ideas. These guide us.
The middle layer would be conservative processes like federalism, constitutionalism, and capitalism. These are few, mutually supportive, and fairly stable. We work through these established frameworks.
The top layer is the conservative policies that most people use to define our movement, issues like school choice, the repeal of Roe v. Wade, lower taxes, etc.. These are unlimited in number, related in nature, and, hopefully, temporary because we aim to win the argument and settle the matter.
So how does this pyramid translate into a governing process? Conservatism generally feeds all of this into a loop: first, a problem is observed, conservative principles then guide our discussion, conservative processes help develop a solution, and finally conservative policies are produced. But since we know that whatever solution devised will surely be imperfect, we then look for another problem to reveal itself, and the process begins again.
While the president and some of his advisors are clearly not from the conservative movement, the complex political philosophy just described can no more be killed by his administration than human nature itself, or tradition, or liberty, or any number of ideas that spring from those concepts.
So, to borrow from Mark Twain, reports of conservatism’s death have indeed been greatly exaggerated