What is a “conservative,” anyway?

Do we really know, anymore?

It’s a question that seems germaine today, as the Republican Caucus votes to strip Liz Cheney of her position as the House Republican Conference Chair. I’m not sure that I have an answer that would satisfy anyone, least of all conservatives writ large, but I’m going to weigh in, in my own way, as the Republican intramural food fight on the right plays out in semi-public.

Office of Congresswoman Liz Cheney, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My more conservative brothers and sisters are sure to take me to task, insofar as I’m not a conservative, some of whom are sure to point out that a liberal (like me) can’t possibly understand conservatism.

Many of these same folks will be at it tomorrow, shamelessly categorizing liberals as liberal socialists hell-bent on destroying our democratic institutions. It is America, after all and credentials seem to matter less, these days, than how loud we’re prepared to shout.

I’m not going to shout, but I am (probably) going to say some things that will make self-aware conservatives blush…the ones endowed with at least a nodding familiarity with history, anyway. Sometimes, clarity is best served from the outside looking in.

A Look Backward

In 1964 pornography case Jacobellis Vs. Ohio, Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward famously stated:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_know_it_when_I_see_itand perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

This Justice’s punt on defining (in this case, obscenity or pornography) could be said to argue against the whole point of my post here, but I tend to think it doesn’t. In fact, it points out something I’ve witnessed many times, over the course of my life. The contextual framework for ideas often colors even if it doesn’t absolutely determine the definition of anything not firmly grounded in strict determinism based on purely empirical measures.

The term “conservative” clearly falls within the category of things that may prove fungible over time, as contemporary thought is seasoned by the passage of time and daily events affecting how we see matters political, philosophical and spiritual.

There is, however, a definition for conservatism. As long-time readers of this blog know, I when it comes to definitions, I default to Merriam-Webster, and found definitions 2 and 3 relevant. They are quoted below.

2. a. a disposition in politics to preserve what is established.

2. b. a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change specifically : such a philosophy calling for lower taxes, limited government regulation of business and investing, a strong national defense, and individual financial responsibility for personal needs (such as retirement income or health-care coverage)

3. the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change

The common thread to the above is a preference for an inclination to look backward for answers, rather than forward into the unknown. There’s just one problem.

Back to the Future?

That’s kind of not how they’re behaving, these days. What’s also striking is just how far from their supposedly honored past the Republican Party has strayed. Following is the summarized 1956 Republican Party platform on which Dwight D. Eisenhower ran.

Two things leap to the front from the foregoing platform as contrasted with Republicans of today. The first is disconnect between Republicans’ reverence for our traditions and historical roots, and how much the “old” Republican principles as articulated in Eisenhower’s platform seem to be at odds with the new Republican party.

Historians will note that (possibly) the Goldwater backlash and the emergence of the John Birch Society that followed more accurately reflects the true nature of the GOP. If so, it would go a long way toward explaining Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist and  the #MAGA crowd of today. In that model, Trump did not alter the tradition-reverent Republican Party so much as recognize they never had any. Who then, is (are) to be the architect(s) of a new Republican philosophy, to whatever extent one can be said to exist?

So maybe it's really all about context?

What do Republicans stand for these days and what have Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell articulated that can make sense of Liz Cheney’s ouster as Republican Chair of the House Republicans? Who are they now and what do they stand for? And in the absence of an articulated platform, are we to judge what they stand for by their actions? hard to imagine any Republican or indeed any American citizen of conscience supporting them. In the lead-up to the January capital rumble, 147 Republicans voted against certifying the results of the Electoral College, despite no evidence that the election was “stolen,” as the former president suggested.

Since then, Republicans have been busy around the country proposing legislation that would make it harder to vote, especially for our brothers and sisters of color despite (again) no evidence of widespread voter election fraud.

From the outside looking in (I haven’t been a Republican or a self-described conservative for years) it’s becoming increasingly difficult to arrive at any other conclusion than Republicans (and conservatives) are out of arguments. In the absence of any, they have concluded that the only course of action open to them is a combination of:

  1. Outright lies
  2. Distraction
  3. Culture wars
  4. Incipient racism/religious intolerance

The foregoing failing, 1/6/2021 has shown us they’re willing to abrogate democracy in the name of power. If that doesn’t convince the sane to do everything in our collective power to stop them, then they’ve already one. Which is it? (You tell me.)