The great dilemma of conservatives since Ronald Reagan is to avoiding defining conservatism as it manifested itself 30 years ago. Conservatism cannot become like the Amish or Hasidic Jews who choose an arbitrary period and affix themselves to that as the true expression of their faith. Conservatism is not a religion and there is no assumption that a fixed catechism must be applied without deviation, no matter what the historical era or national challenges.
Conservatism certainly has enduring values and beliefs — the sanctity of the individual, free markets, limited government and the rule of law. But those principles do not translate to a single, rigid policy outcome. “Ronald Reagan never raised taxes so we can’t” is not only historically inaccurate but also confuses a specific idea (less government, lower taxes) with an inflexible policy outcome: Never raise taxes. Ever.
Seen in this light, it is a misnomer that “real” conservatives believe the highest marginal tax rate must be less than 30 percent. Says who? Conservatism is often said to be a “disposition,” not an ideology. Philip Wallach and Justus Myers last year wrote:
Dispositional conservatives can and do disagree about the particulars of nearly every policy and political choice. But they are unified by their orientation to social change: They counsel humility, because people are fallible and the world is complex, and therefore urge a healthy respect for evolved social practices and institutions. Tempered by these insights, conservatives can encourage prudential reform to address our society’s problems in ways that are well suited to our society’s character. . . .Conservatism has the most to offer societies that have much worth conserving yet run the risk of dissipating their inheritance through wrong-headed, sweeping changes or stubborn inaction. In many ways, this is America’s current situation. On the one hand, some progressives champion a vision characterized by government-centered technocratic expertise, arguing that the current system is weighed down by half measures and unnecessary complications. But by doubling down on centralization and technocracy, these progressives would exacerbate the very problems that have made the system ungovernable and make them permanent. On the other hand, some on the right seek to break with the past in a very different manner — repudiating 80 years of institutional development and reinventing America as a nation that rejects a substantive role for regulation or a social safety net. Though they are often labeled as “conservatives,” their ambitions, and especially their rhetoric, emphasize the need for a sharp break with many features of our current governing institutions. Whatever the merits of that position, it represents a clear divergence from the conservative intellectual tradition.
In other words, conservatism is not reactionary, nor does lead to a certain outcome, even when a large number of conservatives are convinced there is only one “conservative” outcome. As Berkowitz noted, “Justice Roberts for the majority and Justice Scalia in dissent agree that the court must exercise restraint to perform its essentially nonpolitical role of adjudicating cases and controversies in accord with the law. They just disagreed in this instance about what that required. Justice Roberts suggested that restraint obliges the court to search assiduously for a reading of the text that leaves the resolution of big social and economic issues to the political branches, whereas Justice Scalia insisted on the imperative to hew to the original understanding of legal texts.”
It is the mistaken notion that conservatism was frozen in a bygone era, that there is a single acceptable policy outcome and that regardless of the changing landscape of America (economic, social, moral, demographic) society must be straitjacketed to adhere to certain results that has gotten conservatism far off track and opened up a gulf between its self-appointed guardians of purity and the American people as a whole.
The essence of conservatism — fluid, uncertain, modest, balanced — is antithetical to the screeching talk-show culture, ideologically rigid blogs and nasty Twitter universe. Thus, those who harken back to traditions of conservatism by evidencing a practical, problem-solving and modest approach to governance are often on defense, fighting the accusation they are “squishes” or don’t want “to fight.” It takes intellectual fortitude and political courage to resist the call to adhere to a reactionary hymnal. But it is those who do — who adapt to a diverse society, who come with a global economy and those left out of it and who offer practical solutions — who are the conservatives most likely to succeed on the political and policy battlefields.