03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's In A Name? Defining The Modern Conservative

Last time I wrote in this space, I posted an article called "Why Do Conservatives Hate America?" As it turns out, polemic is not my strong suit. But the flaw was not necessarily in the premise.
When posing the question of whether or not conservatives "hate America," getting past the obvious irony, the answer (with a few notable exceptions) is fairly clearly "no." A better question, then - is conservatism good for America?

And here, the answer depends largely on what you mean by conservativism - and what you mean by "good for America."

Nations exist to provide a social framework within which citizens can operate (codifying social norms into accepted law), and to promote the general welfare of those citizens. There are certain objective standards by which you can measure how well a nation is doing in meeting the needs and goals of its populace - e.g. life expectancy, infrastructure, economic opportunity, deficit reduction, capacity for self-defense, and so on. It stands to reason, then, that policies that generate advances in those objective metrics can be considered "good for America."

So what, then, is conservatism?

Historically, American conservatives have stood for the Jeffersonian principle that the government which governs best, governs least. This overarching philosophy guided and informed principled conservative opposition to intrusions of government into private life; the civil libertarian fighting for free speech or privacy rights embodies this philosophy. With the advent of "movement conservatism," the American conservative mind has become associated with a wider variety of issues across the social, economic, and philosophical spectrum. Generally and historically, conservatism is regarded as a defender of tradition, of capitalism, and of individual freedom and inalienable human rights.

These are not bad things. Indeed, with the possible exception of tradition, they are cornerstones of American thinking. So what, then, is the problem with conservatism - if any?

The problem that conservatives face is not one of principles but one of nomenclature. Conservatives themselves don't know what they stand for any more - or more accurately, a great many groups are claiming the conservative mantel without claiming the historical weight of conservative philosopy.

Perhaps this contradiction is best summed up by reading Conservapedia, the self-styled "conservative" encyclopedia. The entry on conservatism quotes Ronald Reagon in stating that "The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom . . .." This is a reasonable reading of conservatism. It then goes on to list these principles that conservatives should support:

Classroom prayer
Prohibition of abortion
Traditional marriage, not same-sex marriage
Respect for differences between men and women, boys and girls
Laws against pornography
The Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms
Economic allocative efficiency (as opposed to popular equity)
The death penalty
Parental control of education
Private medical care and retirement plans
Canceling failed social support programs
No world government
Enforcement of current laws regarding immigration
Respect for our military ... past and present
Rejection of junk science such as evolutionism and global warming
Low taxes, especially for families
Federalism (less power for the federal government and more for local and state governments)
A strong national defense

(Full list reprinted to avoid cherry picking quotes)

While protections for individual rights and reduced government input (the right to bear arms, parental control over education, private medical care) are strongly conservative in nature, reconciling sweeping legislative interference in the private lives of citizens (anti-marriage laws, anti-pornography laws, institution of prayer in the school room) with a desire for reduced government control over people's private lives is incoherent, at best. And the rejection of evolution is a purely fundamentalist Christian throwback - indeed, conservatism at its best is associated with rational analysis of the world around us, the very foundation of scientific thinking.

In the early 80s, these contradictions were subsumed under the aegis of the Republican party, and managed by ascribing each segment of the coalition a different "flavor" of conservatism - social, fiscal/libertarian, and defense. With the charismatic Reagan at the helm, this was a winning coalition that set the agenda for decades, each "leg" of the metaphorical stool agreeing to set aside their differences in pursuit of common goals and, eventually, achieving a fair portion of them.

It is this success, and this politically astute merging of disparate interest groups under the banner of conservatism, that has led to the current woes facing the conservative movement.

Having achieved many of the goals that united the Reagan Coalition - winning the cold war, welfare reform, tax decreases, a reduced role in the UN - the conservative movement began to seek new targets, many with less commonality between the three nominally conservative branches. Defense conservatives pushed for, and got, extensive international military interventions and nationalist immigration policies; social conservatives - defined to an ever increasing extent by the highly-energized fundamentalist Christian sector - pushed for ever more intrusive legislation prohibiting various social behaviors ranging from homosexual marriage and abortion to drug consumption and religious (Christian) expression. And the fiscal/libertarian segment, suffering for years under the Bush deficit spending and wild expansion of government powers, was ostracized or kept in line until the election of Barack Obama offered the entire Republican coalition the sudden gift of one more common goal - opposition.

The contradictions between the three conservative flavors have become ever more apparent as each jockeys for top spot in the Republican party, epitomized by such inchoate slogans as "keep your government hands off my Medicare!" Perhaps more telling, we're seeing each segment try to claim the mantle of the "true conservatives," even going so far as to run insurgents against Republican candidates in an attempt to gain ideological purity (as in the special election currently running in NY-23). But it is hard to find ideological purity without ideological consistency, and Americans are not stupid. If you tell us that you don't want government to get involved in our private lives, and then try to cram government into our lives to tell us what to do, we'll notice. And we'll vote accordingly (see 2008, election: Barack Obama).

So where does conservatism go from here? A smart Obama governing team will take advantage of these schisms to pry apart the Republican party, still the primary host for right-leaning thought in the United States. Initiatives such as a strong regimen of banking regulations could foster even deeper divides, as fiscal libertarians run full-steam into the economic populism and "anti-elitism" of the social conservative sector. Third parties - the Conservative Party, the Libertarian Party, and even a reborn Whig Party- are salivating over the recruiting prospects facing them in the near term. And Republicans themselves, frustrated with the direction the nation has taken and confused at voters rejection of their core values, are tearing into each other with ever more venom, and pushing the party as a whole even further from mainstream thought

Despite this, I find it unlikely that a third party will replace the Republicans in the near future. The Republican party possesses a nationwide mechanism for campaign management, messaging, and all-important fundraising. In this age of mega-million dollar elections, that's an advantage that would be foolish to throw away. Additionally, the Republican party is not bereft of intellectual leadership; as just a couple of examples among several, David Brooks and Ross Douthat point the way to a modernized conservatism that is sensitive to tradition and true to its values, all while approaching problems with an eye towards pragmatism, that greatest of American values, over purity. A rationalist conservatism that embraces the scientific prowess that drives this nations economic engine, while standing firm on the civil liberties of individuals and government intervention, could make strong gains in the center.

In a nation trying to find the sweet spot between too much and too little government, this old-fashioned style of American conservative voice can play a valuable role, not only in keeping Democratic excesses in check but also in proposing its own intellectual solutions to the nations pressing problems and advance those metrics by which the success of a nation may be measured. For now, though, a Republican Party built on the back of conflicting semi-conservative groups is in for a rough ride towards this potential new era of conservative thinking.