What Do You Call That Thing? A Rose?
"…I am deterred by the knowledge that conservatives, under the stress of our times, have had to invite all kinds of people into their ranks to help with the job at hand, and…to treat such people not as janissaries, but as equals; and so, empirically, it becomes difficult to see behind the khaki, to know surely whether that is a conservative over there doing what needs to be done, or a radical, or merely a noisemaker, or pyrotechnician."
William F. Buckley, in 1963, as quoted in The Death of Conservatism, Sam Tanenhaus, Random House, 2009.
Buckley's quote could have been written last week rather than 46 years ago! In Sam Tanenhaus' excellent and deeply considered book (above), he differentiates between Classical Conservatism (CC) that seeks to conserve what is important about government and correct what needs correcting, and Movement Conservatism (MC), which ignores everything but its ideology.
In CC, the law of politics is that the majority must be heard and that leaders must lead them pragmatically. That is why pragmatists are seen as "flip-floppers" (a ridiculous phrase that grates on my ears) over the course of a long political career; they understand that they are elected as representatives of the people, and when their constituency changes, they must follow to lead. This is not crass politics, but truly reflects representative government, and has been deeply considered and discussed by scholars since before the American Revolution.
CC also employs the other part of the equation: it demands we assist the lower strata of society who need the kind of social programs often equated with liberal administrations in America. What service does government provide to the rich, after all (although the greed of unregulated corporate management is certainly related to acquisitiveness)? It's this second feature of CC that moderates the first—a majority of a minority of people (whites in the antebellum South) can want to continue such institutions as slavery, but there is no way to pursue such an institution as both a pragmatist and as a social programmer—health care for slaves does not liberate them, and perpetuates their enslavement!
In sharp contrast are the MC adherents. We see them every day on Fox News; hear them on Talk Radio, and at Congressional press conferences. They are wedded to an ideology that demonstrates that they care neither about the economic engine of American society (these were the representatives and commentators who were against the financial bailout despite the absolute need to deploy it to continue to have a functioning society), nor do they care about the public ("No" on any Health Care Reform proposal that increases the budget, the bureaucracy, or contains a "public option").
The MC wants to shrink government, as is the case with Ron Paul and other Libertarians, while remaining oblivious to the fact that government employs millions of people who, in the end, do render important services. Have we asked ourselves what the MCs vision of a small government is? Do you think we have unemployment problems today, or that the States could support the full cost of their operating programs on their budgets, alone? This contrasts the CC, who may not have wanted a government as big as the one they have, but recognize that most of it renders important services. Theirs is the path of improvement, not destruction.
William Buckley's quote reflects the trouble with modern conservatism: that in order to get more people into the fold, they have given full membership to fools and fundamentalists, which is why the level of conservative discourse is so low, and why the breadth of conservative opinion is so narrow. The brains of CC have not found a home among the ideologues of MC.
Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, ably assisted by Bobby Jhindal (as a representative of MC at the gubernatorial level) and the likes of Newt Gingrich's left-behinds in Congress, have emerged as the MC voices of record. Arlen Specter, a CC, woke up one morning and found that he was far more at home in Obama's Democratic Party than he was in Bohner's Republican Party. That leads to the real point of this note on conservatism.
By the standards established herein, I am a conservative of the classical kind. I believe in using the resources of the central government to provide needed services to the American People. I believe that we need to conserve what is right about our governmental practices—both domestically and in the context of foreign policy—and change what is wrong. I believe that the gulf between the rich and the poor needs to be narrowed, and I believe that ideology puts constraints on problem-solving and other creative functions. These could not be further from the beliefs held by Movement Conservatives, and represent a measuring tool by which I can define myself.
Supporting the current administration's agenda is, in some sense, the operational definition of a liberal of whatever stripe. If, by comparison to the fools lording over the GOP's worst nature, I am reclassified as a classical conservative rather than a liberal, so be it. The label means nothing to me.
I believe that President Obama believes exactly the same things as I do, which makes him a classical conservative too. Live with it!