AFTER CONSERVATIVES LOST the 2008 elections, they began to fear that their ideas no longer had political appeal. Events soon showed their worries to be excessive. Their concern, nonetheless, offers an occasion to reflect on what American conservatism should defend. The ebb and flow of politics may, soon enough, lead again to undue apprehension or imprudent action. Self-proclaimed conservative--and liberal--pundits will, in any event, continue to tell conservatives, often foolishly, what their principles should compel them to believe and do. Above all, the long-term prognosis may not be good unless conservatism is correctly understood. Political health is not automatic; it requires judgment and choice.
Conservatism has become the name in the United States for the political opinions that defend liberty, good character, strong families, the importance of religion, economic growth, limited government, and vigorous national defense. The question of its future is significant, therefore, not primarily as the issue of one movement versus another--"conservatives" vs. "liberals"--but because at its best it seeks to conserve our county's core principles, practices, and institutions. These principles should be common ground between conservatives and liberals, not the monopoly of one. Indeed, the most common name for our core is not conservatism, but liberal democracy. Nonetheless, today's liberals depart from basic liberal democratic standards more often, more profoundly, and at deeper level, than do today's conservatives.
I intend to sketch the elements of conservatism that appeal to individuals, as we view ourselves in terms of our own freedom or liberty. Reminding individuals to consider themselves first of all as individuals, and not in group, class, racial, professional, or gender terms, is the heart of conservatism's strength and renewal. Its core is to be true to America's original liberty. That such an appeal is important for the common good of the country is simply more important than its utility for the preexisting members of a movement or party.
Such an appeal, however, is also likely to be vital to the health of Republicans, because arguments that appeal chiefly to group identities favor Democrats. Of course, there are good reasons to want two strong parties even if one is largely a satellite of the other, and even if the primary party's ideas are not very good. It is useful if a relatively safe and sane group is available to pick up the pieces when the primary party disgusts the electorate through scandal, mismanagement, and policy excess. Best would be two organized representatives of essentially the same conservative standards. A party manager, however, must concern himself with recruiting candidates and funds, and with pursuing tactical advantage. These measures are easier for parties that stand for something, but they differ from principled action itself.
Although there are good reasons to appeal to conservatives in terms of liberty, there are also characteristic objections to that appeal. Some are visible in the tensions within the conservative movement, Some stem from the views of today's liberals. Some are visible if one looks honestly at liberal democracy itself. In reminding us of the principles of liberal democracy, or conservative liberalism, I also mean to discuss these objections.
Conservatism, tradition, and liberty
CONSERVATISM CONSERVES, OR secures. Presumably, this means to conserve or secure what is good, because what could be desirable about conserving what is harmful? Yet, conservatism does more than secure what is externally good, because conservatism suggests that something desirable exists merely in conserving the old as old, the familiar as familiar. Conservatism is traditionalism, and it tries to secure that which is established.
Such traditionalism is what people have in mind when they are thinking of conservatives' objections to the French Revolution, Roosevelt's New Deal, or contemporary irreligion. …