By Rachel Blum
If any of you have done phone banking on a student action team, you know that polite responses are rare. The last thing anyone seems to want to hear during an election season is another political person asking for their vote. In November 2008, when I was working with an SAT for Bob Schafer (a conservative Republican in Colorado) and McCain/Palin, I was well-prepared for the typical cold-call brush-offs. What I wasn’t prepared for was the anger I heard from many registered Republicans.
One older gentleman was particularly vitriolic. “Why the [expletive] would I vote for McCain? He’s hardly Republican. Bush was hardly Republican. All you republicans do is increase spending and feed big business and [expletive] things up. You should feel ashamed to call yourselves conservative.”
While I would’ve preferred him to express himself more politely, I couldn’t help but agree with the guy. I was thrilled to be campaigning for Bob Schafer, a true conservative, but I had a strange knot in my stomach every time I tried to make myself believe that McCain was either a statesman or a real conservative. The lesser of two evils, I told myself.
At the end of the day, both Schafer and McCain, the conservative and the Republican, lost. Most analysts lumped all such losses together and plastered it with the label “the downfall of the Republican party.” This seeming disintegration has a deeper cause than the Republican Party, though. The issue goes beyond our platform and to our core beliefs: what does it mean to be conservative? Why are we conservatives? Are Republicans necessarily conservatives?
I said earlier that Bob Schafer was a true conservative. Let me explain what this critically important (but oft forgotten) distinction entails. To be a conservative means to conserve (protect, preserve, or keep safe) something that we consider objectively good and valuable. Starting with the British statesman Edmund Burke in the 1790s, conservatism has referred to a disposition or way of seeing and interacting in the world that recognizes several things:
1) Belief in a transcendent moral order: that there is an objective good that is not man made, and that there are laws of right and wrong which men cannot change.
2) Respect for the past: conservatives realize that man, made in God’s image but also fallen, can neither perfect himself nor society. That is God’s work. Conservatives thus aren’t lured by empty promises of “hope,” “change,” “peace to end all peace,” or by the arrogant belief that we know better than our parents, grandparents, the founders, or other wise men. Conservatives respect the wisdom that has been passed down to them by those with a greater wealth of experience, and seek to preserve traditional institutions such as the church, the family, marriage, good education, and political liberty.
3) Giving priority to permanent things: while many conservatives have wonderful work ethics and find themselves well off, conservatives are not one-in-the-same as blue-blood Republicans. Conservatives know that it is useless to gain the whole world and lose one’s soul. When confronted with a choice between material gain and a moral victory, conservatives always choose the latter, because it is truly permanent. These true conservatives are referred to as “moral” or “traditional” conservatives, not necessarily as fiscal conservatives.
4) Federalism: conservatives are suspicious of totalizing or gigantic entities, be they big government, big business, or big labor. Conservatives believe that the best decisions are at the local level by the people who know situations best (parents, communities, churches, and states). Conservatives also believe that the institution of private property is pivotal to helping each family be self sustaining, and they thus resist the encroachment of the government on property through eminent domain and taxation.
These four principles: a transcendent moral order, respect for the past, priority to permanent things, and subscription to federalism are a brief synopsis of the core beliefs that animate a conservative outlook on life. Bob Schafer was a conservative because he believed in transcendent morality. He didn’t trumpet radical promises of hope, change, and perfection. He knew that money isn’t everything. He stood for the family, lower taxes, and home education. He was a conservative because he believed that truly good things existed, and that it was his duty to conserve these things.
Many in the Republican party no longer remember or subscribe to these principles. Objective morality? Tradition? Money isn’t everything? Small government? That’s an easy way to keep from getting elected, they scoff. What really matters is making alliances with big business, building a big military, and offering a few tax cuts here and there. While these material trappings are attractive, they aren’t the precious, foundational values that sustain a country or a culture. Contrast Schafer with someone like Scott Brown, while fiscally smarter than Obama, isn’t much more conservative morally.
The 2008 Republican debacle was certainly discouraging. Before we start defending Republicans wholesale, or feel that the cause is lost, let us remember our cause. We are conservatives before we are Republicans, and our mission is to protect and defend the fundamental values which have guided generations towards greatness and faith. Our job now is to help the Republican party remember its roots.