What does it mean to be conservative? Conservatism as a political philosophy is rooted in the “test of time.” The best guide for present action is past experience. Its core principle is that the best political system is one that reflects human nature, and the best resource for understanding human nature is the record of history. Put your trust not in what “should work” according to an abstract theory, but first and foremost in what “has worked” in real life. So conservatism is not against progress; rather, conservatism is against naïve idealism. A conservative is open to new ideas, but those new ideas need to be justified in the light of the accumulated wisdom of the centuries. Conservatism is “Just the facts, ma’am.” It’s “That’s all fine in theory, but how does it work in practice?” It’s “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Conservatism has a rich intellectual heritage, chronicled in Russell Kirk’s now-classic “The Conservative Mind.” That heritage lives on in the work of people applying lessons from history to contemporary dilemmas, discovering and preserving the best of the past for the benefit of the future. It is in this full-blooded sense of conservatism that I am proud to call myself a conservative. And it is this sense of conservatism that I find strangely absent in today’s so-called “conservative” GOP.
The Trump nomination is the final nail in the coffin of the “Republicans = conservatives, Democrats = progressives” narrative. Based on what we know of America’s history, Donald Trump’s history, and the history of people-who-have-no-idea-what-they’re-doing, I can’t think of a good reason why a conservative would want to support Trump. And yet voters and Republican Party leaders—self-identified conservatives—have fallen in line behind him.
This isn’t brand new, either. I’ve become increasingly disappointed in how not-conservative Republican leaders are. If conservatism is a preference for hard data and historical evidence rather than speculation and utopianism, then conservatives should be on the front lines when it comes to care for the environment, confronting and correcting the tragic history of racism in America, considering constructive ways to address the root causes of global terrorism, and being honest rather than paranoid about refugees and immigrants. Of course many conservatives are, but these don’t seem to be the priorities of today’s Republican Party.
For years, liberals have accused the Republican Party of being so tied up with corporations and big business that Republican appeals to “conservative values” are hollow shibboleths. I’ve given Republicans the benefit of the doubt and defended them when I could. But now I’m not so sure. Political philosophy is not the same thing as party identification. Conservatism is worth defending, but is Republicanism?