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The next conservatism

Commentary | First column of a twelve part series on "the next conservatism".

This is the first of a series of columns I intend to write on "the next conservatism." In them, I will lay out where I think conservatism needs to go after the end of President George W. Bush's second term. Some people may wonder about the theme, "the next conservatism." Isn't conservatism always the same? Don't we call ourselves conservatives because we believe in what Russell Kirk called "the permanent things," truths that hold for all time?

Of course we do. We believe that truth comes from God, who does not change. We hold certain beliefs, such as the impossibility of perfecting man or human society, that define conservatism in any period. In fundamentals, what was true for Russell Kirk was also true for Edmund Burke. We are not relativists. We do not hold that there is or can be a different "truth" for each time, place or person, depending on what is "true for them."

Yet it is also true that conservatism changes over time. Sometimes, that is because ideologies that are not really conservative try to disguise themselves with the conservative label (real conservatism is not an ideology at all). But more often, it is because new events face conservatives with new challenges. While our basic beliefs do not change, the circumstances to which we must apply those beliefs do. Burke and Churchill were both conservatives, but in the face of the French Revolution Burke stressed the importance of hierarchy and order, while under the threat of Nazism Churchill spoke of defending liberty. Their views were not contradictory, but the situations they faced were different.

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If we look at the American conservative movement since World War II, we see that it has undergone a number of changes. In the early 1950s, conservatism was defined by Senator Robert A. Taft. It meant a non-interventionist foreign policy ((which has been mislabeled "isolationism"), a small federal government of limited powers, states' rights and scrupulous observance of the law (Taft opposed the Nuremburg Trials on the grounds that American law did not accept ex post facto justice). I continue to believe that much of what Senator Taft stood for was correct.

However, with the coming of the Cold War American conservatism headed in a somewhat different direction. Led by William F. Buckley and other thinkers associated with National Review, conservatives accepted the need for a large proactive military and extensive foreign alliances in order to counter the threat of Soviet Communism. At the same time, conservatism adopted the economics previously known as liberalism: the belief that free markets and free trade are the best paths to national prosperity. Traditionally, conservatives had been for high tariffs. To some extent, in the late 1950s and the 1960s American conservatives also moved away from states' rights and strict construction and toward accepting a more active role for the federal government, especially in enforcing civil rights.

With the end of the Cold War around 1990, American conservatism changed again. Traditional conservatism was eclipsed by so-called neo-conservatism, which envisioned some form of American world empire in which America would bring "democratic capitalism" to every country on earth, whether they wanted it or not. This was really Wilsonianism, which traditionally was considered the opposite of conservatism.

That is where conservatism has been. Where does it need to go? I think new developments and new challenges will bring forth a "next conservatism" after President Bush leaves the White House. What that next conservatism might look like will be the subject of my upcoming columns.


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