I recently received an e-mail—you may have seen it, too—from a person who has been a prominent spokesman for the GOP and now is a NeverTrumper. He notes that the GOP and American conservatism appear to have arrived at a turning point. Perhaps, he suggests, we should abandon the label “conservative” and reclaim for ourselves the word “liberal.”
Perhaps not. I certainly do not feel up to teaching Rush Limbaugh to call himself a liberal.
But the author of the e-mail has a point. The progressives first rejected the classical liberalism of the American Founders—and then they stole the name for themselves! The Founders focused on the theory and practice of liberty, and theirs is still today the most radical attempt to establish a regime of liberty in the entire history of mankind. The inscription on the Liberty Bell makes their purpose clear: “Proclaim Liberty throughout All the land unto All the Inhabitants Thereof.”
Every policy of modern progressivism—from forcing American citizens to purchase government-approved health insurance to enforcing the dogmas of political correctness in the public square to imposing transgender bathrooms on our schools to advocating voting rights for illegal aliens—is profoundly illiberal. Yet the progressives get away with calling themselves liberals. (How this came about is a fascinating story, one that you probably need to have under your belt to make your way in this time of profound political change. I dedicated the last chapter of my book, Common Sense Nation, to telling that story.)
And it is also true that it was the progressives who chose the conservative label for their political foes, and then proceeded to impose that label on them. FDR, while confiscating the liberal label for progressivism, suggested that the champions of the Constitution call themselves “conservatives”. At first they were reluctant to do so. But because the progressive “liberals” were doing something radically new—fundamentally transforming the nature of American politics by setting out to overthrow the Constitution one step at a time, progressively—the champions of the Constitution were put on the defensive. As defenders of the Constitution they eventually came around to the idea of calling themselves conservatives. So it was that the champions of the radically Liberal American Constitution came to be called “conservatives.”
But “conservatism” is not a perfect fit for the American idea. The Founders certainly did not think of themselves as conservatives, so why should we? The Founders were, after all, revolutionaries. Of course, they were not like the madmen of the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution. They were common sense revolutionaries—and that was the secret of their astonishing success.
If not “conservatism,” what should we call the politics of the American idea? Isn’t the obvious right choice “Americanism”?
The word is no longer in favor, driven to the margins of acceptability by the progressive Left’s rejection of everything traditionally American. But for our purposes that is an advantage. This gives us the perfect opening to reclaim the name for ourselves.
Americanism, as the name of our political movement, naturally has two elements.
First, Americanism is pro-American in the most practical and elemental sense. Americanism champions America’s safety, its prosperity, its uniqueness, its well-being.
Second, Americanism champions the American idea. It is dedicated to the Founders’ ideals, to the Constitution as written, to the study and celebration of the Founders’ gift to us.
This label has the political advantage of highlighting both parts of the progressive agenda. The progressives reject the American idea of the Founders, and—astonishingly—they also reject what is simply good for America. They are for flooding America with illegal aliens, bringing in Muslims while turning a blind eye to the risks of importing terrorism, dragging the economy down with excessive regulations and redistributive policies, submerging America in a welter of globalist entanglements, and on and on.
“Americanism” also has the political advantage of making clear what each side is for: the opposite of pro-American, after all, is anti-American.
If the anti-Americanism of the progressive Left has become so powerful that it can’t be stopped, at least we can know that we chose the right hill on which to make our stand. All that remains is for us to conduct ourselves in such a way that win or lose we deserve to win.