In the aftermath of the 2008 Republican electoral bloodbath, many are discussing what direction the party should take to recapture its vitality and viability. Liberals — as if they have the best interests of the GOP at heart — and so-called elitist, Northeastern Republicans seem to agree the party should tack center. I disagree.
Traditional conservatism and its advocates invariably get bad raps. They’re painted as uncompromising, uncompassionate extremists who won’t adjust to the realities of the 21st century.
But those familiar with modern history understand that these intramural debates have been going on for decades. I remember my father complaining about Rockefeller Republicans in the early ’60s, so the schism had to have begun much earlier than that.
From what I can gather, the David Brooks and David Frum wing of the conservative movement wants conservatism to grow, sort of like liberals want the Constitution to be a “living document.” Big government — at least, an active, energetic government — is here to stay, and we better get on board. Our debate with liberals must be one of minor degree rather than kind. We should accept, rather than resist or attempt to roll back, the leviathan and instead address how best to direct it, lest we relegate ourselves to political irrelevance.
We traditionalists should acknowledge that in one sense, the Davids have a point. After all, it was no less a traditionalist than Mark Steyn, if I may categorize him as such, who recently lamented that “settled democratic societies rarely vote to ‘go left.’ Yet oddly enough that’s where they’ve all gone.”
I think Steyn is merely expressing the paradox that democratic societies are difficult to sustain in the spirit of the oft-stated axiom — attributed to a half-dozen people — that a “democracy” would last until people figured out they could vote themselves money from the public treasury. Benjamin Franklin offered a similar admonition when a woman asked him to describe the form of government the Framers had just crafted: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
This, I think, gets to the very heart of the rub between the traditionalists and the Davids. The Framers designed a scheme of limited government because they believed that such was the best — or the least worst — avenue to maximizing individual liberty. They believed that though man has a yearning to be free, his fallen human condition militates against freedom for society as a whole, absent mechanisms in place to check the natural and clearly established historical tendency of man toward absolutism.
Traditionalists see themselves as guardians of our unique Constitution, which secures liberty as a byproduct of pitting levels and branches of government against one another.
They believe that unless we rededicate ourselves, intellectually and emotionally, to our founding ideal of individual liberty — as opposed to succumbing to the insidious, intoxicating, cowardly promise of government-provided security at all levels of our existence — we can kiss liberty — and the United States of America as we have known it — goodbye.
Part of the problem is that we have enjoyed such unparalleled freedoms and prosperity that we have been lulled into the false notion that they will continue in perpetuity, even as we betray, to ever-greater extremes, our founding principles. But traditionalists understand that there is a tipping point beyond which this incessant socialist piggybacking on our capitalistic economic system and these ever-deepening encroachments on our scheme of government (for example, through judicial activism) will finally bring us to our knees.
Traditionalists don’t oppose this or that “high-minded” plan aimed at delivering security (e.g., health care) or prosperity (e.g., direct transfer payments from producers to nonproducers) because they don’t want more people to be prosperous but because they do and because they cherish freedom. We know that socialism never works and always results in less prosperity, on top of its obvious freedom-stripping inevitabilities.
The nontraditionalists don’t seem to share our recognition of the ephemeral nature of liberty — as if all of human history weren’t enough proof. They don’t appreciate that by joining liberals intellectually on their turf by simply quibbling over what percentage of abject socialism we’ll permit, we are ultimately signing our own national death warrant.
As quaint as it sounds, someone has to advocate a return to first principles. We don’t have to concede that America cannot reverse its path toward European socialism. But we will have conceded if we merely try to outdo liberals on their terrain by being “compassionate conservatives.”
Our charge is to make the case for liberty and that traditionalism is inherently compassionate. If we don’t have the courage to confront the seductive promises of socialism and demonization by the politically correct and pseudo-compassionate, we will surely fail in our duty to bequeath the blessings of liberty to our posterity.