What Kind of Conservative are you?

This discussion has been brewing for decades, and I certainly do not believe it is going to be settled any time soon. The discussion of what it means to be a “true conservative” is hard to avoid. On a daily basis, media pundits, political strategists, and op-ed columnists pontificate about how” big of a tent” the once-conservative Republican party ought to have. In my own circles I hear very valid questions being asked as to whether or not a “true conservative” can be pro-choice, or can oppose the war in Iraq, or can say a good thing about George W. Bush, etc. On one hand, the Libertarian-leaning folks have decided that “true conservatism” means fiscal prudence, deregulation, and military isolationism. The moderates and centrists have decided that “big government conservatism” is not an oxymoron, and spend the bulk of their time pushing the right to the middle, where they believe they will have a better chance of winning elections. The discussion is intellectually stimulating, yet exhausting on a practical level. I want to answer the question as to what kind of conservative I am.

I am a “National Review kind of conservative”, which is another way of saying that I am a real conservative. I do not believe conservatism exists outside the ideological tenets of conserving the principles of limited government and personal responsibility. I do not believe there is such a thing as “dovish conservatism” – the kind that took lightly the Communist threat of the cold war, or the Islamic threat of the 21st century. I do not believe there is such a thing as “big government conservatism” (ala David Brooks and David Gergen). Conservatives believe in the dignity of the individual, the depravity of human nature, and the need for checks and balances on power. A conservative believes passionately in the need for fiscal restraint, the capability of the free market, and the moral imperative that an incentive system and price system be allowed to flourish. I am a conservative who sees the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” portion of the Declaration of Independence as non-negotiable.

I have always been fond of Reagan’s triad model of conservatism, wherein the stool is held up by the three legs of values, national defense, and free markets. Bill Buckley is the leading intellectual voice in this three-pronged ideology of the last fifty years. I accept wholeheartedly that there are people who sit on a one-legged stool, and others that sit on a two-legged stool. I do hope they will vote for the right people, and I do hope that they will join us conservatives in the crucial causes of our day. But they are not conservatives. A conservative sits on a stable stool, and it has three legs to it. There is no reason to assert that the need for standards of orthodoxy disallows discussion on controversial issues. Reasonable men can sometimes disagree on non-essential issues. The legalization of drugs (which I support), the war in Iraq (which I support), gay marriage (which I do not support), a legal and accommodative immigration policy (which I support) are all excellent examples of major issues in which genuine conservatives will often disagree. Bill Buckley and Ronald Reagan famously argued over the United States relationship to the Panama Canal in the late 1970’s. But theirs was a dispute of application, not principle.

I suggest to my “center-right” friends, and to my fellow conservative ideologues, that what is needed today in this discussion is a sort of “political orthodoxy”, wherein the essential elements of our political philosophy are not challenged or threatened. The American Revolution was, above all else, a war over ideas. Those ideas are the ones that conservatives ought to be fighting for today. The leaders and spokesmen of our cause need to pass the basic standards of orthodoxy that define the idea that all men are created equal, and endowed with certain inalienable rights. They ought to presuppose a basic distrust of government, at least in its track record of efficiency, if not its very predetermined tendency to abuse power and tyrannize people. Conservatives ought to conserve civility, and yet fight vigilantly for the principles we believe in. Those principles are not up for debate.

Now let the other debating continue.