(Part II) Conservative or Republican?


The political philosophy called “liberal” originated in 19th century Britain, with thinkers like John Stuart Mill; it stood for individual human flourishing free from undue constraints — especially imposed by the state. Then the word “liberal” got hijacked, in America, to mean virtually the opposite — social engineering by big government.

Conservatives opposed this; that’s what the Republican party basically represented. (Indeed, its philosophy was classical liberalism.) But now, just like the word “liberal” got perverted, so too “conservative.” David Brooks says that “Today, you can be a conservative or a Republican, but not both.”


In a recent column, he approaches the matter from first principles. Thomas Hobbes posited the idea of the social contract. Free people get together and agree to exchange some of their liberty — basically, the liberty to prey upon others — for freedom from predation. It’s not a literal contract, but an implicit one; it’s why we have governments and obey their laws.

But, says Brooks, individuals do not come to this self-formed. Instead we are shaped by family, religion, local community, local culture, arts, schools, literature, manners, etc. All of which he calls collectively a “sacred space,”  which traditional conservatism venerated (to promote the kind of human flourishing Mill sought). In contrast, ideologies like communism, fascism, socialism, and (American) liberalism all, to a greater or lesser degree, sought to supplant those “sacred space” societal structures with the state.

But today, says Brooks, “the primary threat to the sacred order is no longer the state. It is a radical individualism that leads to vicious tribalism.” It’s the “evil twin” of community feeling. Grounded not in the positive, cooperative, humanistic vibe that community feeling should ideally propagate but, rather, in “hatred, us/them thinking, conspiracy-mongering and distrust.”

This ain’t your daddy’s conservatism (that I identified with for 50+ years). Brooks calls it “an assault on the sacred order that conservatives hold dear — the habits and institutions that cultivate sympathy, honesty, faithfulness and friendship.”

A previous Brooks column spotlighted just what this means in practice. Conservatives always used to argue that statism tended “to become brutalist and inhumane . . . caus[ing] horrific suffering because in the mind of the statists, the abstract rule is more important than the human in front of them. The person must be crushed for the sake of the abstraction.”

That’s a good description of a communist system. Likewise Trump administration immigration policies. This so-called “conservative” regime has “become exactly the kind of monster that conservatism has always warned against,” writes Brooks.

Separating children from asylum-seeking parents is an inhuman moral obscenity.* Mocking the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty and in the Declaration of Independence. These latter-day “conservatives” have lost the thread of what America means; of what conservatism means; what it’s all about; what it is for.

It goes beyond even what Brooks talked about. It’s across the board — from fiscal irresponsibility to trade war to undermining our institutions of rule of law, cozying up to dictators, excusing personal vileness, and abetting racism. And all of it shot through with pervasive lying. Trumpism is a grotesque perversion of what conservatism used to be.

But in truth philosophy or principles have nothing to do with this. It’s tribal behavior run amok. These Republican so-called “conservatives” back their tribe; nothing else matters. Not truth, not principle, not basic human decency. It’s Lord of the Flies time. “Conservative” is just a word, a label, a tribal signifier like a team name emblazoned on their jerseys.

Or their red hats, displaying just as big a lie.

* Ordered by a court to reunite those families, the administration is charging them for the airfare to do so.


5 Responses to “(Part II) Conservative or Republican?”

  1. Lee Says:

    Perhaps it is a shocker to those who get their news from the conservative media but “family, religion, local community, local culture, arts, schools, literature, manners, etc.” are venerated by liberals too. In fact, it easily could be argued that those group-oriented, strong-social-contract, “kumbaya” liberals are more into these groups than the rugged individualism, “selfish is good” conservatives are!

    What differs between conservatives and liberals is what to do in those situations and scenarios where the venerated institutions don’t cover all the bases. Liberals note that despite the strength of the venerated institutions, many seniors were living in abject poverty, and came up with social security and medicare. Liberals noted that even many non-seniors aren’t getting basic medical care and came up with Obamacare (though I would have preferred Medicare for all). Liberals came up with the forty-hour work week. Liberals note that despite these venerated institutions, too much racism still exists in our society and are working to make sure that people of all colors get equal opportunity.

    Like liberals, conservatives also use government to try to get what the venerated institutions aren’t delivering. When too much democracy occurs, some conservatives resort to using government for voter suppression techniques. When too much capitalism occurs, some conservatives use government to stop economic migrants from competing against them. When companies are having trouble competing via the production of better goods and services, some conservatives use government to steer corporate welfare to their cronies. When a woman needs to make one of the most personal decisions of her life, in consultation with her family, religion, and her own personal values, some conservatives feel the need to dictate that from government.

    Both liberals and conservatives like it best when our natural institutions of family, religion, etc. can take care of things. In both cases, it is only when these institutions aren’t quite doing the job that government is invoked.

  2. Lee Says:

    By the way, all the points I make in my response pre-date Trump. Yes, there is a historical version of “conservative” that supports the ideals that you espouse well in your blog but, in practice, they haven’t seen much light of day since Dwight D. Eisenhower.

  3. Lee Says:

    An article dated yesterday by Roger Scruton, “What Trump Doesn’t Get About Conservatism” in The New York Times says:

    Those first words of the United States Constitution [“We, the people”] do not refer to all people everywhere. They refer to the people who reside here [in the USA], in this place and under this rule of law, and who are the guardians and beneficiaries of a shared political inheritance. Grasping that point is the first principle of conservatism.

    I’d appreciate your thoughts on that. Is that the first principle of conservatism?

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    Certainly not. It’s that government should not mess with people absent a very good reason that makes our collective lives better.

  5. Lee Says:

    I am glad that xenophobia is not the first principle of conservatism.

    Progressives also believe “that government should not mess with people absent a very good reason that makes our collective lives better.” I would say that the difference between conservatives and progressives is how they balance the significance of a problem with the burden of the government intervention. Lack of healthcare, unrelenting poverty, and racism are problems considered significant enough by progressives to warrant non-trivial government intervention.

    We all wish that the invisible hand of the free market would solve these problems but, as we wait for that, life is too solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short for too many people.

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