Press-Telegram (Long Beach)

In the Biden era, it’s time for a conservati­ve re-thinking

- Columnist

A number of conservati­ves have argued that libertaria­ns such as myself ought to stop supporting thirdparty candidates and join their side in an effort to stand up to the left — something of urgency now that Democrats control the presidency, the House of Representa­tives and the U.S. Senate. It’s an argument I’ve often heard.

“This is an existentia­l battle,” blared a subhead in one proTrump publicatio­n. “Siphoning off voters from the side that’s fighting the hardest to preserve individual liberty and economic freedom is not principled. It is nihilism.” Years ago, that position was at least tenable — back when Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan and Thomas Sowell energized the conservati­ve movement.

These days, that’s a non-persuasive argument given that the GOP has embraced many policy positions — and attitudes — that have little to do with advancing human liberty. Throughout my career, conservati­ves and libertaria­ns have been allies on many issues and at odds on others, but now we’re like residents of different planets.

For instance, both groups agreed on the dangers of Soviet expansion. Libertaria­ns, however, warned that giving American security agencies too much power would undermine liberties at home. Conservati­ves and libertaria­ns worked together to fight progressiv­e assaults on property rights, but libertaria­ns wondered why conservati­ves couldn’t see how the drug war undermined those goals.

Still, we had many opportunit­ies to work together. Whereas conservati­ves in Europe never had a problem using big government to achieve their ends, American conservati­ves were about “conserving” America’s particular traditions. Our nation’s founding fathers were classical liberals, so conservati­ves often defended libertaria­n


The Trump era solidified long-brewing changes in the conservati­ve movement, as it moved toward a more Europeanst­yle approach that wasn’t concerned about limits on government power. Trump wasn’t a political thinker but rather a marketing savant who tapped into popular and often-legitimate resentment­s of the increasing­ly “woke” left.

Republican politician­s mostly stood by Trump, even as he shattered democratic norms and reshaped conservati­ve policy prescripti­ons, less out of fear of Trump himself and more out of fear of the conservati­ve grassroots voter. What does it even mean to be a conservati­ve these days?

In 2020, the GOP dispensed with its platform and passed a resolution stating its enthusiast­ic support for the president’s agenda. Party platforms are unenforcea­ble, but they provide the faithful with an opportunit­y to create a mission statement. Apparently, being a conservati­ve now means supporting whatever the leader happens to believe.

Such an approach is temperamen­tally and philosophi­cally non-conservati­ve, as are many of the goals of the Trumpiest wannabes. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, best known for giving a fist pump to MAGA protesters before some of them stormed the Capitol, recently introduced a plan to boost the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“(T)he wages of everyday, working Americans have remained stagnant while monopoly corporatio­ns have consolidat­ed industry after industry, securing record profits for CEOs and investment bankers,” he said. How does that statement vary in substance or style from something offered by socialist Bernie Sanders?

MAGA conservati­ves want libertaria­ns to join their tribe, but their publicatio­ns offer frequent attacks on the free market. The populist right wants to boost federal spending, impose draconian immigratio­n controls, expand the power of police and spy agencies, step up the drug war and, well, stop when you see something of value to libertaria­ns.

Since Reagan, conservati­sm has revolved around four concepts, explains Jonathan Last in The Bulwark, a right-leaning antiTrump publicatio­n. There was “temperamen­tal conservati­sm,” which worried about the consequenc­es of progressiv­e social engineerin­g. There also was

“foreign-affairs conservati­sm,” “fiscal conservati­sm” and “social conservati­sm.”

“‘Conservati­sm’ as it is now viewed by the majority of people who identify as conservati­ves — and who once believed in all or most of those four precepts — is now about one thing and one thing only: “Revanchism,” Last wrote. Sure, I had to look it up, but “revanchism” means

“a policy of seeking to retaliate, especially to recover lost territory.”

Yes, that “own the libs” approach has muscled out principled discussion­s about long-held conservati­ve ideals and goals. Last’s column reminds me of Russell Kirk, one of the most influentia­l 20th-century conservati­ve political theorists. He, of course, was no libertaria­n, and saw conservati­sm as a system of ideas and attitudes rather than a list of policy prescripti­ons.

Yet those attitudes — slow change rather than dramatic progress, a focus on prudence, trust in human liberty and variety, respect for societal norms, love of virtue, and commitment to social peace — are at odds with the nihilistic bomb-throwing of a conservati­ve populist movement that seems as radical at times as its progressiv­e enemy.

“In essence, the conservati­ve person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night,” Kirk wrote. As libertaria­ns, we’ll be happy to make common cause with our conservati­ve friends once again when they re-discover liberty as the most pleasing permanent thing of all.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute and a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet. org.

 ??  ?? Steven Greenhut
Steven Greenhut
 ?? FILE PHOTO: REPORTAGEB­ILD — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Once upon a time, the free market ideas of Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman energized the American conservati­ve movement. These days, not so much, argues Steven Greenhut.
FILE PHOTO: REPORTAGEB­ILD — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Once upon a time, the free market ideas of Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman energized the American conservati­ve movement. These days, not so much, argues Steven Greenhut.

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