For some time now there has been a certain “Woe is me” attitude among American conservatives of almost all stripes. It seems to be rooted in a deep sense that the culture war is already lost and the country is changing too fast in ways we can’t combat. It is true that progressive dominance of the media, the educational system, and our cultural institutions very often makes it appear that this is the case.
But is it? And if we are to judge the success of American conservatism, to what should we compare it?
The most sensible comparison is to the rest of the English-speaking world. We don’t tend to think much about the “English-speaking world,” anymore, notwithstanding Winston Churchill’s several somewhat tedious volumes about it. In this case I’m referring roughly to the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. All of these countries have societies and governments that emerged from the same crucible of English power in the 17th and 18th centuries. So how does American conservatism stack up against that of our siblings with the charming accents?
Pretty well. On issues like free speech, gun rights, religious freedom, taxation, health care, energy, and a host of others, the United States has policies that would be unthinkable in the nations of the other sons and daughters of William Shakespeare. In fact, it is a common leftist talking point that United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have blah, blah, blah. In the American context, in almost every case this is meant to say that we are too conservative.
A lot of this is baked into the mechanics of our system of government, as opposed to the other nations’ parliamentary models. This was on display recently when New Zealand passed new anti-gun measures a mere month after the tragic terrorist attack at Christchurch. The American left marveled. “Why can’t we do that?” they demanded. The answer of course is the Constitution.
Under a parliamentary system, a simple majority in the legislative body can do almost anything it wants, as New Zealand’s did. Under our system, such laws would have to pass two legislative bodies, an executive branch, a judiciary system, and possibly a constitutional amendment process that requires something approaching national consensus. Although our own left and almost everyone in our sibling nations think of this as a flaw, it is in fact a marvelous feature.
But it isn’t merely the rigidity of our government’s self-imposed impotence that explains why America’s laws are so much more deeply conservative than is any other English-speaking nation. After all, even under our system laws can change. The other essential element is the unique nature of the American conservative. There is a symbiosis between government and culture, and ours led to a conservative culture that is far more individualistic than any other.
By American standards, most other English-speaking conservatives are practically socialists. For all the talk of the dangerous, right-wing, mostly international Intellectual Dark Web, Quillette, or Jordan Peterson, by American standards they aren’t conservative. They can’t buy guns, they have socialized medicine, the government controls vast swaths of their news and media, and there is no significant movement to change much of that. This is because other English-speaking conservatives are comfortable with a far greater level of collectivization imposed by the state. It’s kind of a “Let’s all pitch in” attitude instead of the American conservative’s “Stay the H-ll off my lawn” approach.
The American conservative has succeeded in keeping more of her rights not merely because the Constitution is more protective of them, but because she is. And the defense of those is not rooted in fear, but in faith. It is rooted in the sincere belief that all of us get to choose what is best for ourselves.
Fear is a legitimate political tool. It is being employed by almost every version of today’s American conservative. For some it is fear of socialism, for others fear of multiculturalism, for a small but noisy segment it is fear of Donald Trump. For all the blogs and tweets and clicks and takes that we love so dearly, these divisions are likely to stay. So what still unites us as conservatives? Liberty does, as it always has.
John Adams knew this when he wrote these words to his wife in 1775, “Liberty once lost is lost forever. When the People once surrender their share in the Legislature, and their Right of defending the Limitations upon the Government, and of resisting every Encroachment upon them, they can never regain it.” I posit that the encroaching natures of every other English-speaking nation’s governments prove Adams right in this, as in so much else.
It is liberty that must guide a wounded and fractured American conservative movement that holds significant if not decisive power in our government. There need not be unity. We can hate each other, but from all of our perches on the political spectrum our first principle must be individual rights. And we must continue to protect them while so many other nations fail to.
In this regard, it is best not to be too distracted by the global rise of so called right-wing populism. American conservatism, especially in regard to Trump, is related to this rise, but it is not the root of it. Brexit happened before Trump, after all. An anti-globalist, anti-foreign intervention, and anti-immigration wing of the conservative movement has always existed, with figures like Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan leading the way. It is now perhaps ascendant, but it faces the same gridlock of the American system that every other movement does, as we have well seen.
It is natural and healthy for conservatives to argue over where the movement’s energy should be spent, to understand what the greatest threats to liberty are. And it is fine for all of the branches to disagree about that so long as everyone’s ultimate goal is to protect freedom from forces that would replace it with equality of outcomes.
So cheer up, conservatives. It’s going well. There is a lot to be proud of, a lot to cling to, and a lot to fight for. Ronald Reagan said freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction, and that we don’t pass it down to our children through the bloodstream. It must be fought for. We have preserved it for a generation. Twenty-five years from now, provided the earth isn’t destroyed by climate change as some leftists predict, the United States will still be a conservative country.
But we have to teach our kids to fight for it. And what we have to teach them has nothing to do with Trump, populism, norms, or globalism. It has to do with natural rights. It has to do with the idea that the individual matters more than what the state wants to make of him. It has to do with never ceding the power and risk of being free people. More than anything else, and what we must focus on completely, it has to do with liberty.