The world at large seems to have an inaccurate definition, at best, of the word conservative. They would say conservative means unwilling to change, stodgy, boring, stuck in the past, overly careful. And in the political world, the way the media (aligned with Democrats/ liberals/ progressives/ socialists) defines conservative as racist, bigoted, jingoistic, stingy, as well as unwilling to change, etc.
It’s always better to define your own terms, rather than to have enemies define who you are.
Back in October I wrote a piece called “What We Conserve.” I said then that I’d like to ask presidential candidates, “Are you conservative—and, if so, what is it you want to conserve?” In Saturday’s Republican debate in New Hampshire there was a question that came close, asked of three candidates in different forms. So I’d like to take a look at how they answered, and then compare to the standard I was looking for. (I’m editing Kasich for length, but trying not to cut anything essential to the meaning. You can get the entire transcript here.)
The moderator here is ABC’s David Muir. He asks John Kasich first:
MUIR: We’re going to turn now to what it means to be a conservative, and I want to turn to Governor Kasich.
Governor, while campaigning here in New Hampshire, you were already asked about groans from some conservatives after your endorsements from the New York Times, and the Boston Globe. You said, quote, “What conservatives have to know is they have to say, look isn’t it nice to have a conservative like me liked? And, maybe they ought to think about it because if I get elected president, the Republican party and the definition of conservatism is going to change.”
How would you change conservatism?
KASICH: Well, first of all, look. As the New York Times said, he’s certainly not a moderate, but he can bring people together to solve problems. The fact of the matter is I’ve cut taxes more than anybody in the country this year. I have balanced budgets, the federal budget, the state of Ohio budget…
But, here’s the beauty of it, it’s not just balancing a budget, it’s about jobs….
We have to have economic growth, but once we have economic growth I believe we have to reach out to people who live in the shadows. I believe we need to help the mentally ill, the drug addicted, the working poor. We need to help the developmentally disabled to rise, and we need to help our friends in the minority community develop entrepreneurship.
In other words, in America, conservatism should mean not only that some rise with conservative principles, but everybody has a chance to rise regardless of who they are so they can live their God given purpose. That’s what conservatism should be.
OK, to summarize, conservatism means solving problems, cutting taxes, balancing budgets, jobs, economic growth, and then helping the disadvantaged to rise.
I don’t want to quibble over words, but conservatism might lead to those things, but it isn’t those things without a context of some philosophy.
Next David Muir turns to Donald Trump:
MUIR: Mr. Trump, you’ve heard the argument from many of the candidates on this stage that you’re not a true conservative. Tell the voters watching tonight why you are.
TRUMP: Well, I think I am, and to me, I view the word conservative as a derivative…of the word conserve. We want to conserve our money. We want to conserve our wealth. We want to conserve. We want to be smart. We want to be smart where we go, where we spend, how we spend. We want to conserve our country. We want to save our country. And we have people that have no idea how to do that and they are not doing it, and it’s a very important word and it’s something I believe in very, very strongly.
He does approach this as a word definition question. What we conserve is money, wealth. Conservatives are smart about spending, about economic issues. And we conserve, or save, our country, unlike the incompetents failing to do that now.
So, it’s a conservative approach to money, not defined, and saving our country, not defined. If this were a high school answer, I’d give it a B-. Not completely wrong or irrelevant, but very surface. If this were a college answer, I’d send it back for a rewrite, with some details, and more than just “conserve money and country” without showing anything concrete about what that might mean.
Next David Muir asks Marco Rubio to respond to Trump’s answer, which he uses it to give his own definition:
image from Wikipedia
MUIR: Senator Rubio, you have said yourself that you don’t think Donald Trump is running as a conservative. Did he convince you?
RUBIO: Well, I think conservatism is about three things and Donald touched on one of them, but it’s about three things.
The first is, conservatism is about limited government, especially at the federal level. The federal government is a limited government, limited by the Constitution, which delineates its powers. If it’s not in the Constitution, it does not belong to the federal government. It belongs to states, local communities, and the private sector.
It’s about free enterprise, which is an economic model that allows everyone to rise without pulling anyone down. The reason why free enterprise is the greatest economic model in the history of the world is because it’s the only economic model where you can make poor people richer without making rich people poor.
And it’s about a strong national defense. It’s about believing, unlike Barack Obama, that the world is a safer and a better place when America is the strongest military and the strongest nation on this planet. That’s conservatism.
I didn’t cut any of his words. When you only have a minute or two, you have to be concise, and he was. Three parts: limited government, free enterprise, and strong national defense. That is close to being the complete three-legged stool of conservatism, except that he separates out small government and strong security, along with free enterprise. Those three are considered the basics by many. But small government and strong security both apply to the Political Sphere. So what's missing is the social/civilization sphere—which Rubio in general is strong on. So although his answer misses that, he’s pretty good.
I’m always looking for better, shorter, more direct ways to say things. So I was interested in an interview Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse did on MSNBC with Chuck Todd in late January.
Here's the transcript:
CHUCK TODD: What is a conservative, in your view, today? Define conservatism in the 21st Century, via Ben Sasse.
BEN SASSE: Thanks. That is a great question. America is the most exceptional nation in the history of the world, because the US Constitution is the best political document that’s ever been written. Because it says something different than almost any people and any government has believed in human history. Most governments in the past said might makes right, and the king has all the power, and the people are dependent subjects. And the American founders said, “No. God gives us rights by nature, and government is just our shared project to secure those rights.”
Government is not the author or source of our rights, and you don’t make America great again by giving more power to one guy in Washington, DC. You make America great again by recovering a constitutional republic where Washington is populated by people who are servant leaders, who want to return power to the people and to the communities. Because what’s great in America is the Rotary Club, it’s small businesses, it’s churches, it’s schools, it’s fire departments, and it’s little leagues across this country.
What makes America great is not some guy in Washington who says, “If I had more power I could fix it all unilaterally. That’s not the American tradition.
So, we conserve the Constitution. It’s about government preserving our God-given rights. To recover the Constitution, we need servant leaders. America is great because of good American people and local organizations.
He covers the political and social sphere, but the economic sphere only by inference. Still, in a brief minute he nails it. “Government is just our shared project to secure those rights” is a sentence worth memorizing.
I still take longer than a minute to get the ideas out. But here’s a review of what we conserve in each of the three spheres, from the October piece:
Political: If we’re going to conserve our liberties, that means government does nothing to infringe on our God-given rights….
If you’re listening to candidates, see if they have a commitment to conserving/restoring our Constitution, and can enumerate some of these limited duties of the proper role of government.
Economic: There’s a simple way to prosperity: those who earn wealth get to decide how to spend it.
Government doesn’t have much business being involved in the economy, except to protect our property….
So, a conservative not only wants small, limited government, but limits spending to the proper role of government, leaving the largest portion of income to the people who earn it.
This conservative approach to the economy is the engine behind thriving prosperity and unlimited innovation. A conservative gets out of the way of a productive people, and does nothing more than protect the people’s wealth and their freedom to pursue their work.
Social/Civilization: Civilization requires a people accountable to God. Such people value family, innocent human life, property rights, and truth. Such people respect one another and generally live together in peace despite differences in belief and culture….
A conservative leader recognizes that religion is… an essential institution helping us understand what our rights are, and what our obligations to one another are….
A conservative leader lives a life that shows commitment to family. Such a leader would have no sexual scandals coming up from the near or distant past. Such leaders would be so consistent that all those who know him/her would stand up to defend against such an accusation, because they would know such an accusation is inconceivable.
A conservative leader gives charitably, privately. He/she tithes (ten percent of income) plus more, regardless of income level.
A conservative leader is honest and consistent, so that his word is his bond, and everybody knows it. He doesn’t make behind-the-scenes deals in darkness. He doesn’t engage in crony capitalism, either receiving “bribes” or offering them. He’s not beholden to donors; anyone who would donate to him does it with the clear knowledge that as an elected official he will vote based on principle.
We can sum this up the same way we did in October:
The answer to what we conserve ought to include clear evidence of understanding of the Constitution and its purpose, strong commitment to the free market and property rights, and strong personal religious practice that values family and marriage, innocent life, and truth. And the answer must come naturally, as part of the basic vocabulary, because the person is a natural conservator of freedom, prosperity, and civilization.