After the most recent and disappointing budget deal, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) asked his fellow Republicans on Twitter: “Are we to be conservative all the time, or only when we’re in the minority?” His point is well taken. Republicans did not do well by their stated principles. But Paul’s comment, specifically the use of the word “conservative,” points to a deeper problem.
In one sense he is right; Republicans do not appear very conservative right now. In another he is wrong; they were not conservative when they were a minority either. The fact is, none of us is conservative today and we need to come to grips with this.
Regular readers of American Greatness know the uselessness of the word “conservative” is a common theme here. We tend to agree that “conservatism” today is intellectually bankrupt, ineffectual, and misguided. In fact, it is a large reason, if not the reason, for American Greatness. The editors made this clear in their “Declaration of Independence from the Conservative Movement.” Mike Sabo hammers the theme often and to great effect (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here among other places). Managing Editor Ben Boychuk has made the point in his regular column in the Sacramento Bee.
But while these arguments are good and well made, they differ from what I have to say here. It is not just that modern conservatives are weak, ineffectual, and misguided (though they are). To be conservative implies that one looks to history, not the future, as the firmest foundation upon which to stand in political life. It implies one is skeptical that change is always for the better and instead values the known quantity of tradition. While people differ about what they see conservatism to be conserving, conservatism implies that what one wishes to conserve is already in hand in some manner as part of the status quo. Progress is too forward looking for conservatives and revolution too uncertain. The word “conservative” is thus meaningless today because being conservative is impossible. As things stand, the status quo is progressive, which is not conservative, and the reaction to the status quo is revolutionary, which is also not conservative.
I am not the first to make this point. Larry Arnn hinted at it last year at CPAC when he compared American conservatism to a fight to restore something that is in crisis. In other words, American conservatism, if it is American, must be revolutionary. When it isn’t marked by this revolutionary spirit, the kind of conservatism we get, as Julie Ponzi noted in her piece “Making Politics Possible Again,” is just a sort of low-grade progressivism:
Today’s conservatism indeed resembles the leftism of yesterday. It seems more dedicated to conserving the status quo or a kind of decorum than to conserving the American way of life. It seems dedicated to the preservation of even a status quo that took us (without consent) away from our original design of government. “Conservative” is then a muddle and a puzzle, and not even a very appealing word in the American context.
In essence, “conservatives” today are really attempting to preserve the progressive march of history.
Obviously, some well-meaning people still call themselves “conservatives,” but in so doing they reveal a certain naiveté about their method of approaching politics. As Frank Cannon pointed out recently,
progressives have successfully captured the vast majority of our nation’s institutions, distorting them to serve their own ends. Although many of these institutions—academia, the media, entertainment, legal and judicial—once stood above politics in serving all Americans, most have now surrendered to progressives’ relentless push to turn every area of civil society into a propaganda arm for their politics.
Everything I have seen supports this claim.
All of the institutions required for self-government have already been lost to progressivism. Our schools have been taken over by “critical pedagogy,” pushing a neo-Marxist, New Left view of the world and of God. Almost every government action is taken or influenced by a permanent, unelected administrative state. Most people in our government, elected or unelected, despise their deplorable countrymen. They have accepted the progressive view that the modern world is so complex that men are no longer capable of self-government. Expertise determines who rules, not consent. Our churches are largely full of social justice warriors, obsessed with “racial justice” and blessing abortion clinics. Heck, the Boy Scouts even accepts girls now.
What’s more, nearly every graduate of so-called higher education for the last 20 years has undoubtedly been conditioned to accept all of these things not only as normal but as a requirement of justice. Identity politics rules in the minds of almost all young people. In my experience, if you ask anyone under 35 today if we can view each other apart from our racial identity and sex (and sexual desire)—say, as individual human beings—they will look at you as if you are from another planet. Questioning expertise is akin to heresy. The idea that “all men are created equal” or that “governments are instituted among men to secure rights” is foreign to them. This problem is compounded by the twisted meaning of “equal” and “rights” in contemporary language. Most people have no notion of government by consent or separation of powers to preserve liberty. In short, there is hardly anything left of a republican regime to conserve in America today.
Other “conservatives” are not naïve to this. They know they are progressives. Like Woodrow Wilson, who acknowledged that he, as a progressive, was not substantially different from socialists except as a matter of pace, modern “conservatives” are just more timid and cautious progressives. As D.C. McAllister explains, the persistence of the NeverTrump movement exposes “certain established ‘conservatives’ as the progressive lightweights they’ve always been.”
President Trump seems to understand this. In a rather profound moment that horrified many “true conservatives” in 2016, he declared “this is the Republican Party; it’s not called the conservative party.” Elsewhere, he suggested if,
the United States of America is a land of laws, and Americans value the rule of law above all. Why…has our Congress allowed the president and the executive branch to take on near-dictatorial power? How is it that we have a president who will not enforce some laws and who encourages faceless, nameless bureaucrats to manage public lands as if the millions of acres were owned by agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Energy?
In other words, America really isn’t a republican regime anymore. Our task now is to restore a regime that is not operative. It is a big and hard task, but we the people can do it. As President Trump put it, “To change these circumstances,” we must “bring to Washington a president who will rein in the federal government and get Congress to do its job.” Recognizing our circumstances and predicament is essential to this task. Thankfully we have a president today who is fearlessly attempting to “cut back that vast hedge” that is suffocating the form and purpose of our government.
But doing this—fighting the administrative state in Washington and the leftists in the broader culture war—is not conservative. It is revolutionary. And it is deeply American. It always has been and it always will be.
Some call it “counter-revolutionary,” and in a sense this is correct. If one understands that sometime between 1870 and 1920 an influx of postmodern German idealism invaded American political-thought and led to a second American revolution, this makes sense. That invasion was a revolution, too. The original American regime was replaced by another regime in which the material, form, and purpose of government was at odds with a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Whether a third, still more radical and anti-American regime won out in the 1960s with the march of the New Left is an interesting question, but for practical political purposes it is irrelevant. American government has not been republican government for a long time. To restore our liberty, America today needs a reactionary, counterrevolution. Today we need to counter the bad revolution in American political thought that took us away from the permanent principles of our original American Revolution.
But in another sense, American republican government is simply revolutionary, always. Lincoln once argued there is an “eternal struggle between…two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world.” He said,
[These] two principles…have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
The administrative state and the tyranny of the upside down world of the Left stem from the same tyrannical impulse Lincoln references. Such tyranny has been the standard governing principle of most regimes for most of human history; it rules over many men today; and it will rule over most men again in the future. The ongoing war against it is the true revolution and the true American spirit. It is terrifying and dangerous, but it is also exhilarating and, above all, worth it.
When we speak of enjoying “the benign influence of good laws under a free government” it sounds deceptively peaceful. But, of course, such opportunities are born of revolution and with backbone and they require “our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.” Now, as before, it requires two great things: divine providence and “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
There is no way to be a “conservative” in our present circumstances if conserving the status quo means conserving principles that violate our inherent rights as Americans and as a free people. Would be “conservatives” are thus left with what I am sure is an uncomfortable choice for them. It is the same choice for all of us: acquiesce to the supposed progressive march of history, or risk it all and stand and fight to restore republican government and American greatness.