A number of years ago, someone I worked with asked me to describe libertarianism. There are a host of answers to that question, most of them pretty good. I replied with one I find more polemically effective than the rest…possibly because I concocted it: “A libertarian is a conservative who remembers what conservatism used to be.”
My interlocutor was somewhat puzzled by my response. We had a brief conversation, which ended with a promise to get together over lunch. The rest of the tale has no particular significance.
Today we have the swelling of a community of conviction whose members call themselves Constitutional conservatives. Their creed and that of the libertarian are very near to one another. But in 1900, they wouldn’t have needed the qualifier Constitutional…and there would have been no need for the term libertarian at all. The American Constitutional ethos — a Supreme Law; sharply limited government with well-defined powers; established inviolable rights; minimum intrusions upon the freedom and property of the individual – was perfectly aligned with what conservatives believed.
But go back to 1775 and the lexicon changes again. At that time, conservatives were British Empire loyalists who thought the very idea of separating the colonies from the “land of liberties” – yes, that’s what England was called, then – was heretical madness. So what if George II wanted to tax our tea or reserve our tallest pine trees for his ships’ masts? You don’t abandon your mother! Conservatives were agreed on that.
A word whose meaning has gone through such convulsive changes can cause a bit of confusion. But political labels are like that.
“What is conservative?” columnist Bret Stephens asked in Tuesday’s New York Times.
“It is,” he posits, “above all, the conviction that abrupt and profound changes to established laws and common expectations are utterly destructive to respect for the law and the institutions established to uphold it — especially when those changes are instigated from above, with neither democratic consent nor broad consensus.”
That’s not conservatism as I used the word to my co-worker, many moons ago. It does, however, express what many would call a “conservative attitude.” Most people who think of themselves as conservative do exhibit unease about abrupt changes – in anything. But the attitude is not coextensive with the political positions generally identified with conservatives. Some of those positions, if effectuated, would involve abrupt changes from the way things are today.
Later on, Bedford presents a capsule sketch of U. S. Senatorial candidate J. D. Vance:
[Vance is] a man who doesn’t “care if Google is a private company, because they have too much power; and if you want to have a country where people can live their lives freely, you have to be concerned about power — whether it’s concentrated in the government or concentrated in big corporations.”
He thinks our corporate overlords would happily satiate us with whirling gizmos and gadgets while capturing our culture and selling us out to China. This places him directly at odds with tired, established Republicanism, which would prefer to slander the ghost of Ronald Reagan while they simp for corporations that work to undermine our national economy, our traditions, our families, and even our children’s sexuality.
Vance is also a man who doesn’t “really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another,” and thinks “it’s ridiculous that we are focused on” their border over our own.
Far more than Ukraine, he cares “about the fact that in [his] community right now, the leading cause of death among 18- to 45-year-olds is Mexican fentanyl.” This places him directly at odds with all of established Washington, where $5 billion for our country’s border security is too much to ask, but politicians crow about sending six times that amount to defend the sacred territorial integrity of another’s.
Vance’s ideas all depart dramatically from today’s status quo. But they are in close harmony with the conservative of 1900: Grover Cleveland’s sort of conservatism, leavened with a measure of Teddy Roosevelt’s “trust busting” and his fierce “no hyphens” Americanism. They are at the core of Constitutional conservatism.
Establishment GOPers are “Don’t rock the boat” types. That “boat” has no rudder or tiller; it doesn’t need one, as it’s never unmoored from the dock. It’s just a commitment to keeping the peace with their opponents on the other side of the aisle. It’s an attitudinal conservatism of sorts: what it seeks to conserve are the privileges and perquisites of the Republican elite and its corporate backers. The gravy train must be kept running smoothly, lest the gravy spill out. Small wonder that the Republican Establishment reviles J. D. Vance!
It would seem that what Bret Stephens finds beyond his ken is mainly what our great-grandparents would have advocated without a qualm.
All establishments are resistant to change. That is Orwell’s sort of conservatism: “The aim of the High is to remain where they are.” There is nothing of substance in it. However, the entrenched positions of our political Establishmentarians give them great power to impede and resist any changes that would negatively affect them personally. They use that power without blushing.
Constitutional conservatives, populists, and libertarians are a threat to the Establishment, which can hold them at bay only by playing to a divide et impera strategy. If the three groups can be kept from coalescing, the threat will remain minimal. That strategy has two tactical requirements:
- Exacerbate any perceived differences among the groups;
- Prevent the rise of a charismatic leader, capable of rallying them into alliance.
But the differences among the groups have grown less substantial as the predations of the Establishment have grown greater. And Donald Trump, though not ideal in any of the groups’ views, was such a leader. Perhaps the plainspoken J. D. Vance will prove to be one as well. If Christopher Bedford’s observations are accurate, there’s a crosshairs on him already.
November draws near. Stay tuned – and alert.