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american political traditionIn his novel Coningsby, the great British Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli noted that the first thing a conservative must ask himself is what it is he means to conserve.

Observing many of the men and women in our current political arena who call themselves “conservative,” it is not clear to what sort of political philosophy they are referring. Some appear to be opposed to virtually all government programs, what we would traditionally call anarchy. Others seem opposed to almost any form of taxation, not the “taxation without representation” which stimulated the American Revolution.

Others seem to promote American intervention in a variety of foreign trouble spots and promote a philosophy of spreading democracy to parts of the world which have never known representative government, different from more limited ideas of self-defense. Another group, while proclaiming a commitment to “limited government,” would have government deeply involved in our personal and our family lives, mandating properly approved behavior. In the name of “conservatism,” we see candidates for our highest office taking positions on such subjects as climate change, evolution and sexual orientation.

Those who initiated the modern conservative movement in the years after World War II would hardly recognize some of things which are promoted as conservatism today. To them, what conservatism meant was conserving the American political tradition.

In other societies, people who call themselves conservative are engaged in conserving far different traditions, monarchy in the United Kingdom, for example. To see how far contemporary “conservatives” have strayed from that understanding it is important to briefly look at some elements of the American political tradition and the thinking of the Founding Fathers.

founding-fathers-declaration-of-independenceThe Founding Fathers were not utopians. They understood man’s imperfect nature and attempted to form a government which was consistent with—and not contrary to—that nature.

Alexander Hamilton pointed out that, “Here we have already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses, and evils incident to society in every shape. Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”

The Founding Fathers understood very well that freedom was not man’s natural state. Their entire political philosophy was based on a fear of excessive government power and the need to limit that power and strictly control it. But they also understood the necessity of government.

In The Federalist Papers, James Madison declared that,

It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

The framers of the Constitution believed that, given man’s nature, government was necessary. But, also given man’s nature, it had to be limited. John Adams expressed the view that, “Whoever would found a state and make proper laws for the government of it must presume that all men are bad by nature.”

As if speaking to those who place ultimate faith in egalitarian democracy, Adams attempted to learn something from the pages of past history:

We may appeal to every page of history we have hitherto turned over, for proofs irrefragable, that the people, when they have been unchecked, have been as unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous and cruel as any king or senate possessed of uncontrollable power…. All projects of government, formed upon a supposition of continual vigilance, sagacity and virtue, firmness of the people when possessed of the exercise of supreme power, are cheats and delusions…. The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratic council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor. Equally bloody, arbitrary, cruel, and in every respect diabolical.

The Founding Fathers spent much of their lives studying history, carefully considering the rise and fall of Athens and the Roman Republic. Most of those now seeking the presidency have spent little time studying history and trying to understand the nature of the political philosophy of their own country. Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Hamilton and the others dared to challenge the British Empire, the most powerful of that era. If they did not succeed, which was a real possibility, they would have been executed. They risked everything to create a free society which they hoped would extend into the future.

political-campaign-fundraising-levinsonToday’s office seekers spend most of their time raising money from special interest groups and consulting pollsters about what positions to take on various issues. They risk nothing and, all too often, permit naked ambition to propel them. Is it any wonder that most American have such low regard for most of those holding political office and pursuing it?

In today’s increasingly heated political arena we hear a great deal about walls being built across the Mexican border, about how Obamacare is virtually the same thing as “slavery,” and how America has become a replica of Nazi Germany. Government de-funding of Planned Parenthood, however worthy a goal in itself, has replaced a concern about our crumbling infrastructure and declining schools and middle-class jobs, as a subject of discussion.

In the Republican presidential race, name-calling and insults have taken center-stage. If anyone thinks this represents any form of legitimate conservative discourse, they are seriously mistaken. Tearing our government down and viewing the opposition party as virtual enemy agents is hardly a formula designed to bring Americans together to confront the many challenges, foreign and domestic, which confront us.

And the idea that men and women with no experience in government are the best people to put in charge of our increasingly complex civic enterprise is many things, none of them conservative. We need steady leadership that understands where the levers of power are and how to use them. The world around us has become an increasingly perilous place. To keep our country safe and secure, amateurs and fantasists are hardly what any traditional conservative would recommend.

The conservative political tradition is an honorable and thoughtful one, imbued with an understanding of man’s nature, the necessity for limits on government power, and a respect for differences of opinion. That tradition is now in danger of disappearing as many who proclaim themselves “conservative” today have replaced it with something far different. What they have embraced, in fact, cannot be called a political philosophy at all.

If there was ever a time when we needed the re-emergence of America’s traditional conservative worldview, and temperament, that time is now. Those who desire to be genuine conservatives must answer Disraeli’s question—and decide what it is they genuinely seek to conserve.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation (November 2015).

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3 replies to this post
  1. I believe it was Madison who refused to fund starving French Huguenots down the Ohio River at Marietta who sought succor from the general gov’t, declaring, quite correctly, that it was not within it’s Constitutional obligation to do so.

  2. Indeed, all true… and sad news today that they cut two serious candidates (Paul and Kasich) from next debate, plus Fiorina (all-schtick). So we have Trump (schtick+ demagoguery), Carson (all-schtick), Cruz (all-demagoguery), Bush (serious), and Christie (demagoguery+ partly serious). Oh yeah, plus the Harvard frat boy…

  3. Although I have seen that some of your other articles are fairly conservative, this one seems to portray oddities about conservatism. You state that the Founding Fathers desired a limited government based upon economic liberty, but then assert such things as the Federal government controlling health care as a legitimate role, thereby abandoning the American Political Tradition.

    Conservatism goes beyond a simple conservation of past traditions, it is principally about conserving right over wrong. A true conservative should of course be concerned with not only defunding the abortion industry, but banning it, since it denies a human being of the right to life. This is by far more important for true conservatives than government intervention into the free economy through public infrastructure and education, both of which have been liberally dominated for the past 100 years. Thus a decline in both regards can only be attributed to state failure and its ineffective high expenditure of money, rather than a free enterprise system with low taxes based upon economic liberty. Moreover, any conservative is going to defend basic natural morality, even as liberals claim it is an intrusion into their personal lives and Family lives, which the latter is an oddity because modern leftist are focused upon state individualism, such as the state defining Marriage according to changing perceptions of individual desires, while conservatives defend the Family and its values such as its understanding of what Marriage naturally is and its summative purpose. Conservatives believe in the reality of universal morality as opposed to the moral relativism and I can do as I please, devoid of individual responsibility, mentality.

    It would appear to me that your article undermines true conservatives in favor of supposed moderation which is in actuality complete liberalism and its definition of No-Consequence Freedom, as opposed to the rationality of freedom pertaining to the economic sphere. And of course a conservative is going to take a side on such matters as climate change, evolution, a country’s borders, and sexual orientation according to conservative principles and world view. The last concern is a moral concern with its abandonment of universal right and wrong actions of rationally capable human beings and in its place imposing and promoting a relativized base animalistic inclination toward individual desire without a larger thought for negative societal and individual effects of a sexually liberal culture devoid of personal responsibility. Conservatism values Love, Marriage, and Family instead of lust, self, and state. Not to mention, your comment on no government is not coming from conservatives, but rather libertarians because conservatism is based upon limited government. Conservatism and Liberalism are polarized ends and if America abandons its traditions that made it great then conservatives have to reestablish their core principles which is a smaller federal government in the economy because it destroys free-enterprise and economic liberty and the government upholding basic morality.

    In actuality, it would be more likely to say that modern liberals have abandoned classical liberal ideas of free enterprise and have shifted far to the left into state socialist controls in the highest levels of government and shaping modern culture according to its secularized individualism. Saying the only way to be conservative is to be a liberal is not conservative, but rather relative modern liberalism.

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