Defining American Conservatism
The meaning of conservatism has long been a matter of dispute among conservatives. The election of Donald Trump has raised that dispute to a fever pitch. Consequently, this might be a good time to bring some precision to this debate.
In its broadest and most basic sense, conservatism is an attitude of opposition to drastic change. It is the political expression of caution or of the underappreciated virtue of prudence. Drastic, hasty change is likely to have unintended consequences, even terrible ones. Let us learn from the past and make change carefully, says the sober-minded and careful conservative.
No doubt there is a version of conservatism in this sense for every society and every time, with tenets specific to each one's history and circumstances. For example, English conservatives today might want to preserve the monarchy, the Church of England as the established church, and the British aristocracy. In the same way, it makes sense to label as "conservative" those Iranians who opposed the revolution that changed Iran from a monarchy to a radical Islamist theocracy or those Russians who long for the return of the Soviet Union, but to call them conservative is not to suggest that their views are similar to those of an American dedicated to the principles of the American Founders.
But if we narrow our focus by pairing American conservatism with progressivism, the way opens to a definition of American conservatism that is sharp and precise.
We need to start by understanding that the progressives reject the Founders' vision of America. They especially reject the constitutional safeguards of individual liberty. That is because the progressives want to use the power of government to transform America according to their (constantly changing) vision of an ideal America. (Once upon a time, it was an America with socialized medicine. Now it is an America with socialized medicine, open borders, and transgender bathrooms.) Their desire to change America by means of government power is what makes the Constitution a problem for them. The Constitution puts the people in charge of the government; the progressives' goal is a government in charge of the people so they can, as Obama says, "fundamentally transform" America. America needs to be fundamentally transformed because, as the progressives are eager to tell you, America never was great.
Progressives have dominated American politics for about a century. (The 16th and 17th Amendments to the Constitution were both ratified in 1913. These amendments mark the end of limited federal government and the founding of the progressive federal Leviathan of our day.) Consequently, American conservatism has over time organized itself in opposition to the progressive agenda. More and more, American conservatism has come to mean conserving the Constitution and the Founders' idea of America from the progressive onslaught.
The progressive century in America started at about the same time as the Russian revolution of 1917. The Russians carried out the bloody revolution that was Marx's dream – his apocalyptic vision of a violent revolution that would sweep away the social order he hated. His muddled "scientific" economics was his rationale for the revolution that was his real passion. But the progressives made a pragmatic decision not to follow Marx on how they were going to implement utopia. They decided that the better way was little by little – progressively. As much as Bill Ayers loves the idea of a bloody revolution, he ended up working to overthrow the system he despises as a professor of education.
History has shown that the progressives made the smarter choice. The USSR found its way to the dustbin of history, brought down by its own evil and absurdity. But the progressives have been going from strength to strength in America for over a century, and the ascension of Obama convinced them that ultimate victory was within their grasp. That is why they are so upset over Trump's election.
The idea of a "living Constitution" is the progressives' greatest innovation. Of course, what it really means is a dead Constitution. Thanks to the acceptance of the living Constitution, there is no longer even a need to amend the Constitution to advance the progressive agenda. The Supreme Court, as in the Obamacare ruling, uses corkscrew logic to rewrite the Constitution, Congress legislates ignoring the Constitution (Obamacare, again), and certainly this president has been unconstrained by the Constitution, even going so far as to say repeatedly that doing x would be unconstitutional – and then going ahead and doing x anyway.
So, at its core, American conservatism is and must be all about restoring the Founders' idea of America and preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States.
Robert Curry is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books. You can preview the book here.