What Does It Mean to Be Conservative?
I am in Austin, TX, to have a conversation with conservatives about conservatism and public policy. I am calling this conversation the “Resurgent Gathering” as conservatives spend two days exploring how to spark a conservative resurgence in the country. What does it mean, in the 21st century, to be a conservative? In the age of political cults of personality, some would argue that it means standing with President Trump at all costs. But just 17 years ago, many of those same people said the same about George W. Bush.
One of President Bush’s former advisers claimed the president had said conservatism was whatever he wanted it to be. Media defenders of his profligate domestic spending coined the phrase “big government conservatism.” They claimed President Bush would use the government for conservative ends. Instead, government dependency grew, the national debt grew, and the government bailed out both banks and General Motors.
Conservatives are having the same arguments again with President Trump. We are on the verge of the one-year deficit reaching $1 trillion after Republicans railed against Barack Obama’s out of control spending. The President is upending free markets by not just imposing tariffs, but also $12 billion in government subsidies for farmers. But concurrently, President Trump is rolling back big government mandates on fuel standards, regulations that cripple big and small industries alike, cutting taxes and putting constitutionally conservative jurists on the federal bench.
Like with President Bush, President Trump is accomplishing a number of good things. But government is still growing. The national debt is still rising. Annual deficits are still rising. More people are turning to Washington for solutions instead of their local communities.
Here in Texas, I want to have conversations with conservatives on the re-incursion of Republican Party politics into an ideology. It should be a no brainer that Republicans stand with their party leader. But should not conservatives, as an ideological movement, be willing to stand up and battle for ideas — not just to “own the left,” as Republican activists these days say?
Personally, I am a conservative because I am a Christian. I believe every man is a sinner, so I want as few in charge of me as possible. I also believe we should be looking for solutions to education, healthcare and economic development in our local communities. The federal government should, at most, kill bad guys and keep taxes low. But there is vast diversity within the conservative movement and there always has been. Some are more focused on fiscal conservatism. Some are focused on social policy. Some have religious faith as a foundational value within conservatism. Some are atheists.
By and large, however, conservatives agree on the basics. Government that does the least does the best. The individual is of greater value to society than the collective mob. As an individual succeeds, the nation as a whole succeeds. Power in the hands of a few is bad and collectivism is a disaster. Power in an abstract, distant government should be more limited than the powers of the representatives closest to the people. Power in the hands of the unelected is bad and should be given sparingly. Free markets coupled with free people will benefit us all better than a government picking winners and losers.
The question then becomes how conservatives take these commonly agreed upon principles and apply them to the 21st century. Thirty years after Ronald Reagan left office, both Republicans and conservatives, who may be allies but should not be treated as synonyms, are still talking about many of the same policy issues. But what about the internet? What role, if any, should the federal government play in the regulation of corporations like Google and Facebook? How do conservatives foster environmental stewardship without government command and control policies? How can conservatives continue to influence the Republican Party without just serving as yes men for policies that might violate our shared ideological convictions? These are questions that need to be explored as conservatives continue to be torn between consistency of ideas and support for a president who frequently deviates from those ideas, but still fights the government leviathan.
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