This originally appeared in the August 28, 2006 issue of The American Conservative
The headlines blared the results of an election that 0.0001 percent of Americans paid any attention to while it was going on: Mexico Conservative Scrapes Election Win.
Now, the use of conservative here suggests that there is some universal understanding of the term. But what could it be?
When Russian and East European politics turned against market reforms, it was said that the conservatives were coming back. So it is in China when the Communist Party affirms its control — though this case is complicated because apparently the Communists are more pro-market than the democratic reformers. In the U.S., it means something else.
So what is a conservative in Mexico? This country was host to the first communist revolution in world history (1910). Recently, it has undergone some praiseworthy market reforms. Perhaps to be a conservative, then, means to restore the old socialist luster? It’s plausible.
But no: the press was perfectly clear on what the term means in this context. Yes, the winning candidate, Felipe Calderon, favors the business class — which is fine by me. Yes, he seems to like the idea of free trade — which is also great. He is a drug warrior — which is a very bad position but consistent with the U.S. definition of conservative. But mostly, what conservative means in this context is that he is a loyal retainer of the ruling party in the United States. In other words, what the press means by Mexican conservative is more or less the same as the way the term is used in the U.S. It means loyalty to the Republican Party state.
Many conservatives of a certain bent will object that this is not the true meaning of the word, and they will cite Richard Weaver, Frank Meyer, and the Old Right. But the truth is that the use of the word conservative to mean what used to be called liberal is a postwar innovation of Russell Kirk’s. It has no roots deeper in American history.
If there are conservatives who believe in true liberty today, they were called liberals in earlier times. And any socialists today who call themselves liberals have simply stolen the term and converted it to mean its opposite.
The reality is that today there are ever fewer conservatives alive who believe in true liberty as the old school believed in it. They have been ideologically compromised beyond repair. They have been so seduced by the Bush administration that they have become champions of an egregious war, ghastly bureaucracies like the Department of Homeland Security, and utterly unprincipled on the question of government growth.
Granted, the corruption of conservatism dates way back — to the Reagan administration, to the Nixon administration, and even to the advent of the Cold War, when conservatives signed on to become cheerleaders of the national security state.
But it’s never been as bad as it is today. They sometimes invoke the names of genuinely radical thinkers such as F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. But their real heroes are talk-radio blabsters, television entertainers, and sexpot pundit quipsters. They have little intellectual curiosity at all.
In many ways, today’s conservatives are party men and women not unlike those we saw in totalitarian countries, people who spout the line and slay the enemy without a thought as to the principles involved. Yes, they hate the Left. But only because the Left is the other.
This is why they fail to see that the Left has been making a lot more sense on policy issues in recent years. It is correct on civil liberties, on issues of war and peace, and on the critical issue of religious liberty. By correct I mean that in these areas the Left is saying precisely what the liberals of old used to say: as much as possible, society ought to be left to manage itself without the coercive intervention of the state.
Many of us had profound hopes at the end of the Cold War that the conservative movement in this country would give up its warmongering and attachment to party politics and follow the path of pure principle. For a while, while Clinton was office, this seemed to be happening. How well I can recall the years from 1992 to 1996, when the Republican Party was against government expansion and Clintonian foreign intervention.
But it was a brief moment. We might say that time revealed the truth. To be a conservative in this country means to hold a deep and implacable attachment to the regime insofar as it is run by the Republican Party. Note that I’m not saying that this is a corruption of the term conservative or a misunderstanding. This is what the word means in reality, and there is nothing that can be done about it.
I think there are intellectual reasons for this. A crude form of Hobbesianism has corrupted every conservative thinker in this country. They sincerely believe that it is not liberty that gave rise to civilization but state-generated law, without which society would crumble. So when push comes to shove, they defend the state, no matter how bloody it becomes.
Do you protest? Have I misstated your own political views? You truly love liberty and hate the state and all its works? Good. Bail out of conservatism. Call yourself a libertarian, a liberal, an anarchist, an independent, a revolutionary, a Jeffersonian radical. Or make up your own name. But please, wake up and smell the massivo espresso: when it comes to mindless party loyalty, conservatism today is as bad as communism ever was.