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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Hijacking the Conservative Movement

by Joe Sobran
November 2006

Nowadays, in startling contrast to my youth, it's
very fashionable to claim to be a conservative. Back in
the Sixties, conservatism was still rather a fugitive
thing, and the fashion was liberalism or even radicalism.
By the late Eighties, "liberal" had become "the L-word,"
and liberals were looking for a less alarming euphemism,
such as "progressive." As I say, the change is startling.

But have things really changed that much? Or is the
change really superficial? I'm afraid the latter is the
case. The airwaves are clogged with the clamorous voices
of talk radio, or "squawk radio," as I like to call it --
people claiming to be conservative, though they don't
sound much like the great conservatives I grew up
admiring: Bill Buckley, Frank Meyer, James Burnham,
Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, and Barry Goldwater, to
name a few.

In fact many of today's so-called conservatives seem
to me to be liberals without knowing it, no matter how
much they say they detest liberalism. Rush Limbaugh, to
name only the most audible of them, seems to have no real
philosophy, no awareness of conservative literature
outside journalism. His premises are hard to distinguish
from liberalism's. Apparently he equates favoring war
with conservatism. He likes big government just fine, as
long as it's shooting something. He says the Republican
Party will save Social Security and Medicare, huge
liberal programs which a real conservative thinks
shouldn't have existed in the first place. Sometimes,
after listening to him for a half hour, I want to beg
him, "Rush, how about equal time for =real=

Well, just what is "real" conservatism? This is an
old question, much debated. Dictionaries define it in
such terms as "preference for tradition" and "resistance
to change," but these are too general to take us very
far. After all, nearly everyone wants to preserve some
tradition and opposes some kinds of change, and people we
call conservatives often want to do away with certain
traditions and bring about important changes.

And all of life is in flux at all times. You can
never conserve everything. We are forced to face the
question of which things we should conserve, which we
should discard or even destroy, and which we should let
pass away. When a house catches fire, we may have to
decide very quickly what we can rescue from the flames
and abandon all the rest.

And conservatism isn't just passivity. It's active
maintenance. An old house needs repair and painting, a
garden needs weeding, trees and shrubs need pruning. To
conserve is to renew. Conservatism can't mean neglect.

And conservatism varies from place to place, from
people to people. The great Russian novelist Alexander
Solzhenitsyn, even under the Soviet regime, wanted to
preserve tsarism and the Russian Orthodox Church. Islam
is in many ways deeply conservative, but we have also
seen it take radical and revolutionary forms. Mormonism
was once seen as radical, but today it seems a very
conservative religion. The same might be said of
Christianity in various forms. And as G.K. Chesterton
says, "It is futile to discuss reform without reference
to form."

The word "conservatism" came into general use after
the French Revolution of 1789, its first and most
eloquent spokesman being Edmund Burke in his Reflections
on the Revolution in France
. Burke argued for the
traditional liberties of the English against the
"abstract" Rights of Man advocated by the
revolutionaries, predicting correctly that such abstract
rights, with no force of custom behind them, would perish
in a reign of terror. The revolutionaries, he said, were
so obsessed with man's rights that they had forgotten
man's nature.

History has vindicated Burke's warning, but many
have doubted that his kind of conservatism fully applies
to America. We don't have the sort of history England and
France had, a feudal ancien regime with a social
hierarchy and inherited status. It is even argued that
our only tradition is a liberal one, of legal equality
for everyone. After all, we are not divided into peasants
versus noblemen, or anything of the sort. We even take
pride in our social fluidity and more or less equal

This brings us to a paradox. The most eloquent of
our own Founding Fathers was Thomas Jefferson, who
welcomed the French Revolution and had no use for Burke.
Yet most American conservatives look to Jefferson as
their intellectual patriarch, he who wrote the
Declaration of Independence and proclaimed that "all men
are created equal."

Today "conservatism" has become a confusing term. It
can refer to a Jeffersonian vision of limited government
and strict construction of the U.S. Constitution, or it
can be equated with President Bush's militarism and what
has been called his "big-government conservatism." And of
course the title is also claimed by "neoconservatives"
who share Bush's enthusiasm for war and are, when it
comes to social policy, more like liberals than
Jeffersonian conservatives.

Both Bush and the "neocons" favor an undefined war
and speak of a "global democratic revolution." But what
is conservative about war and revolution? It has often
been pointed out that this sort of talk is more akin to
Leon Trotsky than to Edmund Burke. Bush even speaks of
eliminating tyranny from the face of the Earth -- a neat
trick, if you can do it.

Here I think we should keep in mind Burke's
distinction between "the abstract rights of man" and
man's actual nature. Conservatives tend to believe in
Original Sin, or something like it, that will forever
prevent man from achieving perfection. This attitude
produces a disposition that tends to be both skeptical
and tolerant, deeply dubious about overhauling society.
Societies and traditions can't be built from scratch; as
Burke said, we must build out of existing materials --
that is, real human beings and their habits, rooted in

Liberals, on the other hand, speak freely of
"ideals," imagined perfections that we can achieve if
only we have the will. "I have a dream," as Martin Luther
King said. Hence liberals typically talk of abolishing
evils -- "eliminating poverty," "eradicating racism,"
"doing away with prejudice," "ending exploitation," and
so forth. This usually means strenuous government action,
massive coercion and bureaucracy, because these things
don't just evaporate of themselves.

Conservatives don't speak much of "ideals." They
think, more modestly, in terms of norms, which are never
perfectly realized, but only approximated by sinful man.
Consider homosexuality. Whereas the liberal wants to
impose "gay rights," by law and coercion, the
conservative sees homosexuality as a defect, which to
some extent can and must be tolerated, because it can't
be "eradicated," but it can't rationally be exalted to
the plane of normality; and he knows that all talk of
"same-sex marriage" is nonsense, like trying to breed
calves from a pair of bulls. But to the liberal, the only
issue is equal rights; human nature and normality have
nothing to say to him. What the conservative sees as
life's mysteries, the liberal sees as mere irrationality.

One word is notably absent from the liberal
vocabulary: "enough." For the liberal, there is hardly
such a thing as "too much" government. There is no point
at which liberals say, "Well, we've done it. We've
realized our dreams. We have all the government we need,
and we should stop now." No, they always want more
government. There is no such thing as enough

Again, Chesterton sums up liberalism in a phrase:
"the modern and morbid habit of always sacrificing the
normal to the abnormal." We see this again in the grisly
business of abortion. To the typical conservative it is
an ugly thing, something that may not be entirely
"eliminated" but must be contained, condemned, and above
all must never be accepted as normal. But to the typical
liberal it is a right -- even "a fundamental human and
constitutional right"!

The Role of Lincoln

Consider Abraham Lincoln, claimed by both liberals
and conservatives. Most Americans consider him our
greatest president -- a view I emphatically reject. But
both sides have a point in claiming him. In some respects
he was rather conservative -- for example, in his
willingness to compromise on slavery before the Civil
War. He doubted that he had the constitutional authority
to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which he finally
justified only as a wartime measure, applying only to the
seceding states.

But he finally became an all-out abolitionist, and
he had a radical dream of colonizing all free blacks
outside the United States; in his 1862 State of the Union
message, he called for a constitutional amendment
authorizing such colonization! In addition, Lincoln was a
high-handed centralizer of power, who suspended habeas
corpus and crushed freedom of speech and press throughout
the North. Like most liberals, he talked of freedom -- "a
new birth of freedom," in fact -- but the reality was
power. Under the Constitution, he insisted, no state
could withdraw from the Union for any reason. This was a
view Jefferson did not share. The United States had begun
in secession. Lincoln himself had once called secession
"a most sacred right, which we believe is to liberate

A more recent conservative, Willmoore Kendall, who
died in 1967, argued that American conservatism is rooted
in its own constitutional tradition, best understood in
the light of The Federalist Papers, where the limits of
the Federal Government are clearly set forth. As far as I
can tell, Lincoln was entirely ignorant of The Federalist Papers,
as well as of the Articles of Confederation -- a
point I'll return to.

An even more recent conservative, Michael Oakeshott,
who died in 1990, was English rather than American, but
he had much to teach us. Oakeshott, like Burke, decried
"rationalism in politics" -- by which he chiefly meant
what we call liberalism. He observed that some people
(liberals) see government as "a vast reservoir of power,"
to be mobilized for whatever purposes they imagine would
benefit mankind. By contrast, Oakeshott argued, the
conservative sees governing as "a specific and limited
activity," chiefly concerned with civility and the rule
of law, not with "dreams" and "projects." I consider
Oakeshott the most eloquent expositor of conservatism and
the conservative temperament since Burke.

I have already said that Lincoln was poorly
acquainted with the Founding Fathers. By contrast,
Jefferson Davis was thoroughly familiar with them, and in
his history of the Confederacy (too little read nowadays)
he makes a powerful, I would say irrefutable, case that
every state has a constitutional right to withdraw -- to
secede -- from the Union.

In the North, secession is still seen as a regional
"Southern" issue, inseparable from, and therefore
discredited by, slavery. But this is not so at all. At
various times, Northern states had threatened to secede
for various reasons. On one occasion, Thomas Jefferson
said they should be allowed to "go in peace." After all,
the whole point of the Declaration of Independence was
that these "are, and of Right ought to be, Free and
Independent States." Not, as Lincoln later said, a single
"new nation," but (to quote Willmoore Kendall) "a baker's
dozen of new sovereignties."

And the Articles of Confederation reinforced the
point right at the beginning: "Each state retains its
sovereignty, freedom, and independence." And at the end
of the Revolutionary War, the British specifically
recognized the sovereignty of all 13 states! This is
flatly contrary to Lincoln's claim that the states had
never been sovereign.

But didn't the Constitution transfer sovereignty
from the states to the Federal Government, outlawing
secession? Not at all. The Constitution says nothing of
the kind. And as Davis wrote, sovereignty cannot be
surrendered by mere implication. In fact, several states
ratified the Constitution on the express condition that
they reserved the right to "resume" the powers they were
"delegating" -- that is, secede. And if one state could
secede, so could the others. A "state" was not a mere
province or subdivision of a larger entity; it was
sovereign by definition.

Claiming sovereignty for the Federal Government,
Lincoln felt justified in violating the Constitution in
order to "save the Union" -- by which he meant "saving"
Federal sovereignty. One of the best-kept secrets of
American history is that many if not most Northerners
thought the Southern states had the right to secede. This
is why Lincoln shut down hundreds of newspapers and
arrested thousands of critics of his war. He had to wage
a propaganda war against the North itself.

Were you told this in your history classes? Neither
was I. We are still being told that Lincoln's cause was
the cause of liberty; just as we are told that he was the
friend of the black man, though he wanted the freed
slaves to be sent abroad, leaving an all-white America.
Lincoln had a dream too, but it wasn't Martin Luther

Lincoln achieved what the Princeton historian James
MacPherson calls "the Second American Revolution," giving
the Federal Government virtually full authority over the
internal affairs of the states. Columbia's George
Fletcher credits him with creating "a new Constitution."
A third historian, Garry Wills of Northwestern
University, says he "changed America," transforming our
understanding of the Constitution.

Mind you, these are not Lincoln's critics -- they
are his champions! Do they listen to themselves? They are
saying exactly what Jefferson Davis said: that Lincoln
was abandoning the original Constitution! But they think
this is a high compliment. Lincoln himself claimed he was
"saving" the old Constitution. His admirers, without
realizing it, are telling us a very different story.

Peaceful secession was a state's ultimate
constitutional defense against Federal tyranny. Without
it, the Federal Government has been able to claim new
powers for itself while stripping the states of their
powers. Lincoln neither foresaw nor intended this when he
crushed secession. But today the states are helpless
when, for example, the Federal Courts suddenly declare
that no state may constitutionally protect unborn
children from violent death in the womb. If even one
state had been able to secede, the U.S. Supreme Court
would never have dared provoke it to do so by issuing
such an outrageous ruling, with no support in the

But Lincoln has been deified as surely as any Roman
emperor. Today he is widely ranked as one of our
"greatest presidents," along with another bold usurper of
power, Franklin Roosevelt. And as I say, even
conservatives, so called, join in his praise. President
Bush and his supporters invoke both Lincoln and Roosevelt
to justify the war in Iraq and any powers he chooses to
claim in its prosecution. In the old days, Americans told
the government what our rights were; now it tells us. And
we meekly obey.

If Bush and his right-wing supporters are
conservatives, what on earth would a liberal be like? In
these last six years, the Federal Government has vastly
increased in power, with a corresponding diminution of
our freedoms. Every American child is now born $150,000
in debt -- his estimated share of the national debt,
which he had no say in incurring. And of course the
figure will be much higher when he is old enough to vote.

Meanwhile, he will go to a school, where he will be
taught that he enjoys "self-government," thanks to great
men like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Bush.

What passes for "conservatism" now is a very far cry
indeed from even the limited-government conservatism of
Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan just a generation ago.
It is merely a variant of the liberalism it pretends to

How do these pseudoconservatives differ from
liberals? Chiefly, for some reason, in their reflexive
enthusiasm for war. Ponder that. War is the most
destructive and least conservative of all human
activities. It is big government par excellence; it
breeds tyranny and, often, revolution. Yet most Americans
now identify it with conservatism!

I am very much afraid that the next generation will
have forgotten what real conservatism means: moral
stability, piety, private property, and of course the
rule of law (as distinct from the mad multiplication of

But genuine conservatism will reassert itself, even
if it has to find another name and new spokesmen. If the
Bushes and Limbaughs have usurped and discredited the
word "conservatism" for the time being, we must try to
take it back. If we can't, we'll just have to find a
label they can't steal.

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