Just say NO to provincial conservatism

Emily Esfahani Smith Managing Editor, Defining Ideas
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Where is William F. Buckley Jr. when you need him?

In 1962, as the conservative movement in America was trying to raise itself from the dead, there arose a menace that threatened to not only render it foolish, but discredit it altogether: the John Birch Society, which had been founded only a few years earlier. In those years, the John Birch Society became a “cause célèbre,” as Buckley once wrote, for claiming among other things that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a secret communist agent. Buckley’s common-sense conservatism would not stand for this. In that year, he penned a National Review editorial that excoriated the John Birch Society for its conspiratorial positions that were “far removed from common sense.” With the stroke of a pen, he purged these radicals from the conservative movement, and made conservatism relevant in a time when some were declaring liberalism to be the only viable tradition.

Today, too, as we hear cries of conservatism’s death, conservative leaders need Buckley’s moral courage as they separate the wheat from the chaff of the conservative movement. While there are energetic and vibrant elements of contemporary conservatism, there are also the wigged-out elements, more agitated than prudent, that will run conservatism till the wheels come off, and leave plenty of fodder for the rascally left — and liberal media — to exploit. In other words, if we don’t deal with our own conspiratorial mischief-makers and short-sighted ideologues, nobody will be talking about the death of conservatism. They will be talking about its suicide.

Two issues illustrate how these mischief-makers and ideologues can discredit conservatism.

The first is that of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, which is still a hot issue — and embarrassingly so. Public Policy Polling released a figure just yesterday saying that 51% of Republican primary voters do not believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States. This is in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary, which includes, but is not limited to: 1) the state of Hawaii testifying to the fact that Obama was born there; 2) Obama releasing his certificate of live birth; and 3) several high-level officials saying that they have seen Obama’s original certificate. To Buckley, aggregating the facts and analyzing them were the bedrock of common-sense conservatism. Can it really be the case that most conservative primary voters are so “far removed from common sense”? Already, the media has taken this story and run with it, trying to paint conservatives in general as conspiracy theorists, since to these hammers, everything is a nail.

The facts being what they are, conservatives should put to rest the “controversy” of where Obama was born, and focus on the meaty issues of the deficit and health care. Even Justin Bieber, Canada’s falsetto choir boy, is talking health care.

Certain vocal conservatives have also shown themselves to be short-sighted ideologues when it comes to the issue of log-cabin Republicans — otherwise known as gay conservatives. By now, readers here know that certain social conservative groups boycotted CPAC due to the participation of GOProud, a gay conservative group. But one CPAC boycotter went further. In a column for Townhall.com, Star Parker explained that she chose not to attend CPAC this year — even though she has attended the event in the past — because “the idea of a ‘gay conservative’ is an oxymoron. ‘Gay’ is everything that ‘conservative’ is not.” The gay worldview, Parker thinks, “is man-centered rather than God-centered. It is a world view that rejects eternal truths passed on from the beginning of time.” And she adds, “Although the world view that ‘gay conservatives’ choose to invent may diverge from the world view of liberals, their common ground is they make it all up…These eternal truths provide the light in the fog that keeps us from crashing on the rocky shores where our base instincts lead us.”

Does Parker have eyes into the minds of all those who call themselves gay conservatives? Does she know that they don’t believe in lasting and eternal truths? I’d like to see the empirical evidence that brings her to these wild and incoherent assertions, which lead her to say, “’Gay’ is liberal, not conservative, regardless of what their stand may be on government spending or taxes.” The last time I checked, the Tea Party defines itself precisely in terms of its stances on government spending and taxes. If gay conservatives do too, that should be a cause for celebration, not angst — the more the merrier, so to speak.

And here’s another fallacy of Parker’s argument. American conservatism is not a creed, as Parker suggests in her talk about “world views.” Nobody understood that better than Buckley. There are many different types of conservatives whose “worldviews” not only vary, but may in fact contradict each other: libertarians, social conservatives, traditionalists, neoconservatives, paleo-conservatives, etc. Back in the day, Buckley allowed these contradictions within conservatism to resolve themselves within the pages of his magazine. If the traditionalist’s and libertarian’s arguments were grounded in fact and reason, but at odds with each other, he didn’t shun them, as Parker does the gay conservatives, he welcomed them. Such is the power of confident, common-sense conservatism. It does no one any good to just take their ball, and quit and pout.

I say no to provincial conservatism and take a hard line against those conservatives that would have us all run with blinders on. Conservative thought is worth more than that.

Emily Esfahani Smith, the managing editor of the Hoover Institution journal Defining Ideas, is an editor at the blog Ricochet.com and a senior editor at Smith and Kraus, the largest publisher of trade theater books in the USA.