Obama and Conservatism

A reader writes:

You wrote:

"Sometimes, punishing a party for its betrayal of core principles is a necessary act of cleansing."

It absolutely is. The Republicans have failed conservative values lately. When they fail so miserably at upholding the values of conservatism, protecting liberty in America, and waging war in our nation's name, they don't deserve to be rewarded with a continuation of power. Rewarding this kind of failure is the antithesis of conservative values, and I hope more conservatives wise up.  Without the pain of failure, there will be no lesson learned.

I should probably add a further elaboration. My own view of conservatism includes the idea that part of the genius of Western democracy has been to construct viable political parties that can give voice to the two deepest themes in Anglo-American political thought: the impulse to control a society and the impulse to leave it be. It is a foolish ideology that believes that only its side of this eternal argument will for ever be relevant to changing and evolving societies. I'm a small government supporter in general, but a conservative will not make this a non-negotiable principle.

There may be times in which historical exigencies demand a bigger government, or a redress of injustice, or a collective endeavor. A true conservative will be open to these possibilities, while remaining always skeptical of them. So it seems to me, for example, that a true conservative would have backed Blair in 1997 and Clinton in 1992. They were necessary balancing administrations to the conservative wave that had preceded them. They helped balance a polity and keep it together.

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A democracy, in the end, needs to bring everyone along. That means switching parties from time to time. As long as it is done either to punish one party's deviation from its core role or to meet certain contingent practicalities, I don't think conservatives should adopt a totalist approach. Take climate change. I have no doubt that some kind of collective action may be necessary to meet our moral obligations to the planet. That may mean higher taxes in some form, or more government action. So be it. A conservative who refuses such reforms on the basis of ideology is not really conservative. It doesn't mean embracing every left-liberal panacea. But it does mean searching for a way forward on the basis of facts and evidence.

The greatest conservatives were not blindly partisan. Churchill was both a Tory and a Liberal and he brought socialists into his war-cabinet. Lincoln was very similar. Reagan brought many Democrats into his vision. Conservatives who may decide that Obama is our best bet for the country and the world are not necessarily betraying conservatism. They may be demonstrating its flexible, pragmatic strength.