Hey Jonah and Ben, What IS A "Conservative?"

Regarding Donald Trump’s domination of the GOP presidential contest, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg has recently remarked: “Well, if this is the conservative movement now, I guess you’re going to have to count me out.”

In response, Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro has noted that Goldberg and other “establishment Republicans” are, at the very least, inconsistent on this score, for they have had no use for conservative “litmus tests” when it has come to their candidates of choice: John McCain, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, etc. Such candidates are no less lacking in conservative bona fides as is Trump, Shapiro notes, and yet not only has Goldberg and his Republican ilk supported them; in some instances, as with Romney, Goldberg specifically advocated on behalf of Romney precisely because he was not a conservative!

Shapiro further contends that Trump is “the political love child of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, a combination of the non-conservative ‘victory mentality’ [exemplified by Goldberg’s support of Romney in 2012] and the arrogance of a dictatorial left many conservatives want to see countered with fire.”

So, over the last couple of elections, Republicans threw “conservative principles” to the wind and nominated “non-conservative” candidates, like Romney and McCain, just in order to secure victory (which never arrived).  This established the precedent that has allowed a “non-conservative” like Trump to soar.

Shapiro is correct that Goldberg and the like are patently selective, even cynical, in their application of “conservative” standards.  As I’ve recently shown in a series of articles, while Trump is no conservative, neither are any of his competitors in the presidential race—least of all those candidates, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, for whom the Goldbergs of the world have been rooting.

But, nonetheless, Shapiro’s analysis is flawed.

As for those “conservative litmus tests” to which he refers, I’d like to know what they would be if Shapiro were in charge of designing them. In other words, I’d like to know what, in Shapiro’s judgment, is a conservative?

Notice, Shapiro, rightly, identifies Romney, McCain, Kasich, and McConnell as “conservatism-less” Republicans. Yet he does not include, say, George W. Bush or Dick Cheney within this rogues’ gallery. The suggestion seems to be that it was only within the last seven years or so that Republicans began jettisoning conservatism.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Some questions for Ben (and Jonah and…whomever):

Must conservatives acquiesce in “gay marriage” just because the Supreme Court declares it Constitutional?  For that matter, must a conservative support “civil unions” for homosexuals?

Must conservatives endorse preferential treatment policies—usually known as “affirmative action” (when “conservatives” like Jeb Bush aren’t pretending to oppose it while repackaging it with a different label in order to perpetuate it)?

Must conservatives support “comprehensive immigration reform”—amnesty—for millions and millions of illegal, and mostly Third World, aliens?

Must conservatives support immigration at all?

Must conservatives denounce all displays of the Confederate flag and demonize the likes of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson?

Must conservatives lavish praise upon the likes of such hard leftists as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela?

Must conservatives endorse socialized medicine/healthcare—i.e. Medicaid and Medicare?

Must conservatives favor an omnipotent “federal” government, a government with the power and authority to deploy the resources in time, energy, money, and blood of American citizens to the end of ridding the world of evil?  In short, must conservatives believe in using the United States military as an agent for democratizing non-democratic countries throughout the Middle East (and beyond?)?

Must conservatives be “pro-choice” with respect to abortion when it comes to rape, incest, and the mother’s life?

Must conservatives believe in “human rights?”

Must conservatives believe in “democracy?”

Must conservatives support vast surveillance programs courtesy of such federal agencies as the NSA?

Must conservatives favor an income tax?

Must conservatives favor such redistributive policies as public education, social security, and the like?

This list of questions is hardly exhaustive. Yet it is sufficiently impressionistic to make the main point that while Ben Shapiro, like radio, television, and print personalities in the “conservative” media generally, haven’t any difficulty in throwing the term “conservative” around, given the wide range of contexts, persons, and positions to which they have and haven’t affixed this label, the unprejudiced observer can only be left thinking one of two things:

(1)Conservatism may be meaningful, but the Shapiros of the world are ignorant as to its meaning; or (2) The Shapiros are ignorant as to what “conservatism” means because the latter isn’t meaningful at all.

I’m going with (1): Conservatism is meaningful.

Ideas of conservatism can be gotten easily enough from the writings of its “patron saint,” Edmund Burke—of whose mind today’s “conservatives” indicate scarcely the slightest awareness.  David Hume, John Calhoun, and John Adams are other figures from the past who lend insight into conservative thought.

More recently, such 20th century intellects as Michael Oakeshott and the inimitable Russell Kirk have provided us with much guidance in navigating the contours of conservative thought.

Yet if I were a betting man, I’d bet the bank that neither Jonah nor Ben have any of these intellectuals in mind when they speak of “conservatism.”  For that matter, dollars to donuts says that they don’t have these men in mind ever.

There’s a reason for this:

The conservative movement isn’t conservative at all.

It is neoconservative.

And between conservatism and neoconservatism there is all of the philosophical difference.

“Conservatism” doubtless has greater marketing value than “neoconservatism.” If, though, we’re going to be intellectually honest, then we have to recognize Shapiro’s and Goldberg’s movement for what it is.

“Neoconservatism” is no slur.  Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neoconservatism, certainly didn’t think that it was.

In his, The Neoconservative Persuasion, Kristol informs us of neoconservatives’ support of “the welfare state.” Neoconservatives support “social security, unemployment insurance, some form of national health insurance, some kind of family assistance plan, etc.,” and they will not hesitate “to interfere with the market for overriding social purposes”—even if this requires “‘rigging’” instead of imposing upon it “direct bureaucratic controls.”

Neoconservatives don’t want to “destroy the welfare state, but…rather, reconstruct it along more economical and humane lines.”

Regarding foreign policy, the United States, Kristol insists, does indeed have a duty to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Kristol is blunt: “Neocons,” he remarks, and “traditional conservatives” are different.

While traditional conservatives tend to admire such “conservative worthies” as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater, these men are “politely overlooked” by neoconservatives.  Rather, the latter are disposed to lionize Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and Ronald Reagan.

In Neoconservatism: Why We Need It, Douglas Murray seconds Kristol’s thoughts when he enthusiastically writes that “socially, economically, and philosophically,” neoconservatism differs in kind from traditional conservatism.  Murray even goes so far as to describe neoconservatism as “revolutionary conservatism” (incidentally, a contradiction in terms).

Neoconservatives are distinguished first and foremost on account of their robust, activist foreign policy vision. For all of neoconservatives’ preaching to Republican voters against being “one issue” voters when it comes to, say, abortion, they are one-issue voters themselves—even if their issue is not the other guy’s issue.

Paraphrasing the French historian Julian Vaisse, Elliot Abrams, a neoconservative, writes that neoconservatives want, first and foremost, a “foreign policy” that is “both muscular in promoting American interests and moralistic in promoting freedom.”

Abrams also notes that the original home of neoconservatives is the Democratic Party.  Opposed as these Democrats were to both the realpolitik of Nixon and Kissinger as well as the McGovern wing of their own party, neoconservatives descended upon the GOP.

To repeat, today’s “conservative movement” and the Republican Party that it dominates is, largely, a neoconservative movement.

Going into this next election, we should begin to recognize realities for what they are.