Who is a conservative? Burke or Buckley? Is Bill Kristol a conservative or Victor Davis Hanson? David Cameron or Peter Hitchens? Or are they all conservatives? Will Narendra Modi of India be considered a conservative? Is Vladimir Putin’s vision of a society conservative, or Rodrigo Duterte’s forceful authoritarian law and order imposition against deviant drug addicts a conservative approach? In that case what is conservative? How can it be defined and charted for this new young century?
For those of you paying attention, two of my colleagues recently started this topical and timely debate. Ben Sixsmith, critiquing Noah Rothman’s Commentary piece, stated that #NeverTrumpers are pseudo-conservatives. Mitch Blatt countered that they are indeed conservatives, because there isn’t any fixed definition of conservatism.
For a non-European/non-American reader of politics, the arguments of both sides might seem odd. Both are correct, both are circular and axiomatic. Both, in some ways, logically contradictory. And both, never tries to define what it tries to critique. Without summarising the aforementioned pieces, (readers can read them, in their due time) let me highlight the contradictions.
First of all, Mitch is correct in pointing out, that conservatism is not a defined and codified doctrine, and it is foolish to expect Burkeian conservatism would be applicable in current century. Theories, doctrines and ideologies evolve. Conservatism did as well. Even a strict interpretation of Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” would suggest that Burke argues freedom loving conservative forces would muster and pull together to defeat radicalism. France was not in England, nonetheless Burke’s Whiggish bravado is noticeable. Historians would state, that Burke himself led to Buckley and Neo-conservatism. If fighting for liberty and Judeo-Christian values remain one of the core ethos of conservatism, then paraphrasing Peter Hitchens, at the sound of the bugle onservatives would instinctively rally around the tattered colours, wherever there is radical tyranny. That’s one aspect of it.
The contradictory aspect, as Ben hinted, is that conservatives believe in society and societal differences. Conservatism by definition calls for prudence, responsibility and restraint. That by definition limits any true-blue conservative from being a radical. On a macro-level, that would mean, in sum, every society would be unique, would have a strong rule of law, would oppose deviance in any form, whichever form they would define, and would conserve resources. Contrast that with neo-conservatism, whether in Post-Bush 43 US or post-Cameron UK, and almost all of those ideas fall flat. If conservatism becomes internationalist, then how different is it from Trotskyism, or liberalism? Who defines what society would or should be ruled according to which values? Will Angela Merkel (who calls herself conservative, by the way) decide what Modi or Putin, finds suitable for Indian, or Russian society? Where does that lead us? How will the theological difference between an Israeli conservative and a Russian conservative, both following Judeo-Christian values, at least nominally, be decided and in whose favour? Who judges anyway and on what merit?
Not to mention, that any internationalism by definition is radical. Spreading ideology is value promotion. That’s not going to war to defend liberty. The onus shifts. Needless to say, that is neither prudent, responsible, or restrained. And any values promotion risks being hijacked by extremists, or lead to imperialist grandeur of some form.
Ultimately, these are the theoretical differences, which neither Burke nor Buckley wrote about, and that is where the problem lies. We don’t have a modern definition of conservatism, nor do we know how to cope with the current challenges. Lacking that, everyone claims to be a conservative, and everyone cannot be, just like everyone used to claim to be a Marxist, just with different ideological puritanism, and we all know how that worked out.
If the optics of deciding what conservatism is changed, it points to to radically different and alternative versions, both completely rational but opposite. If the metric is small coherent society, prudence and restraint, then that leads to small isolated societies, with unique individualism. That, in hard times and differing interests might lead to nativism, and even worse, tribalism and war. On the other hand, if the metric is internationalism, and economic liberty and right to property, that leads to a whole new set of questions, as to whose values are superior, and who should spread it, and what should be done when faced by resistance. That will inevitably lead to war as well. In sum, conservatism is a spectrum, with potentials of conflict on both extremes, and there’s no right balance defined yet.
That is why this debate is needed, to find the right balance for our trying times. In a world, where radical utopianism and values promotion have led to conflicts just as many times as nativism and tribalism, an ideology, which relies on society, self-responsibility, restraint and prudence is sorely needed. One can only hope, this debate might lead to that soul searching.