What Is Conservatism?
Since Election Day, I have been engaging in conversations about the political state of the country. In the face of the failed prediction of a red tsunami, many (both on the right and the left) are blaming the Republicans themselves for the disappointing results. Specifically, the two main culprits receiving most of the blame are Donald Trump and the right's pro-life stance (i.e., the Roe reversal). They say that in light of the failure of MAGA policies to win voters, it is now time to leave Trump and the MAGA Republicans behind and move on with more successful strategies.
But I am not so convinced.
And now that Trump finally announced his bid to reclaim the White House, things have become even more interesting. With just two short years until the next presidential election, such debates regarding the future of the GOP will expectedly be ramping up into high gear.
In one conversation I had on this issue, the other person, a Democrat, suggested that the right needs to "get back to the fundamentals of the Republican Party." I challenged him by asking what those fundamentals were exactly. I did not get a satisfactory response. He, like even many Republicans, could not articulate a grounded answer. So, it seems, those on the right are in the midst of an apparent political identity crisis. With eyes on 2024, now is a great time for right-wingers to re-evaluate what they consider are the fundamentals of the Republican Party — a sort of reset before diving into a new campaign cycle.
A Note on Political Parties
I think it is first important to consider the nature of political parties. Since a political party is just that — a party — it is subject to change over time. It is not an ideology. Rather, parties embrace ideologies. The particular ideologies a party might support may evolve. For a party — that is, an organized grouping of individuals — may change its stances on things over time, much like any individual person may change his mind over time.
Ideologies, philosophies, etc. are not like that. They are the stances themselves. In other words, communism can never become capitalistic, for the moment it does, it is no longer communism. Atheism can never affirm a deity, for once it does, it is no longer atheism. A square can never look like a circle, nor can red look blue.
So those who claim the Republican Party needs to move on and get back to the fundamentals may validly be suggesting the party ought to change its ideologies (specifically in the direction of liberalism). But I don't think that is what they are meaning when they say it. To "get back" implies recovering something that was lost, as if the stench of MAGA Republicans were a deviation from the party's traditional aroma. And what was that traditional aroma? Historically speaking, it was the party's alignment with American conservatism.
Conservatism Is Not This…
Before diving into the fundamentals of conservatism, it may be useful to recognize what it is not. What I mean is that Republicans should remind themselves what they are opposing in today's political climate. Consider what the left has affected in recent years:
It has affected the whole of education, beginning with schoolchildren being exposed to a radical and aggressive sexual agenda with sexually explicit reading materials and drag queen story hours all the way up to higher education, where radical ideologies have been normative for decades.
It has tainted confidence in the sciences, with recent years revealing scientific "experts" denying basic biological fact by failing to define a woman, promoting blatant medical propaganda, and squashing medical freedom by threatening, punishing, firing, and silencing opposing voices (even when they are respected experts themselves).
It has seeped into church life, exempting no denominational branch — from progressive German Catholic Bishops and confused papal statements and actions to drag queen pastors in the Methodist Church to fervent pro-abortion rhetoric from Presbyterian and United Church of Christ leaders and everything in between.
It has gutted family life with pornography, the delay of marriage, increase of cohabitation, the dangerously low birth rate, the wide acceptance of divorce, the "redefinition" of marriage, and the confused understanding of the marital relationship.
These recent advancements are the direct result of leftist ideology concentrated in the Democrat party. It is unlikely today's Republicans would desire to acquiesce, admit defeat, and get on board with some of these apparently more popular policies. And if that is the case, they must consider whether the MAGA movement is sufficiently opposed to such agenda.
Fundamental Conservative Principles
As for determining principles of the political right in the positive sense, I see one obvious place to begin. Eminent twentieth-century political theorist Russell Kirk has contributed a great deal to the analysis and extrapolation of conservative ideology. However, he defined it not as an ideology, but rather as "a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order." To help understand it, he outlined the core of political conservatism in ten principles. Among these are the belief in a moral order, private property, and voluntarism.
While Kirk's work admittedly does not constitute any codified dogma of the GOP, it is perhaps a good starting point in the aftermath of the midterm elections and Trump's announcement. To be supplemented with it are the writings of those venerable champions of right-wing thought, a sort of bench of conservative "divines" — thinkers like John Locke, Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill, Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley Jr., Thomas Sowell, and others.
Perhaps in reminding themselves of such notable thinkers and bringing their ideas once again to the foreground, conservatives can rediscover their foundational philosophies. Only then can Republicans truly assess whether they must dump Trump in order to "get back" to the fundamentals or whether they have, in fact, been truly upholding them with his advent into politics. From there, the GOP can better determine its course of action and fully articulate a political response to liberalized society moving toward 2024.
My goal here is not to suggest a particular take on whether the Republican Party should abandon Trump and the MAGA movement or lean further into it. However, I do hope that such questions can be framed in a more substantive way and with more useful vocabulary. When people can no longer evaluate the fundamentals of political parties (despite voting or not voting for them), something is lost. By looking at the ideologies of the opposition and the historical notions of conservatism, perhaps Republicans can begin to confidently reconstruct its foundation. What the party does from there is up to its leaders and the voters.
I can only speak for myself when I say that if the political right's message is not a winning one, so be it. "Better to die on your feet" — by staying true to your core values boldly and unwaveringly — "than live on your knees" — by catering to the politically expedient messaging. For such might win elections but it would be devoid of true impact on the course of the nation. In either case, perhaps, in the wake of the elections, the Republican Party can rediscover its ideals rather than start passing blame without true reflection. Such blaming achieves nothing.
Michael Giammarino studied business, humanities, and religion at ORU, Asbury Seminary, and Oxford University. He has written for Relevant Magazine, the Christian Post, and YMI.