‘Conservatism’ defined

Daniel Larison seems bothered by the fact that conservatism might be defined by what its title-bearers actually support, not what they purport to support. I react to this in the same way that I do when Sullivan does this, which is basically not understanding why Larison (and Sullivan) are determined to define conservatism with values (‘smaller’ government, less federal control, lower taxes, judicious foreign policy) that have absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the current iteration of conservatism in America. Larison writes:

Yes, the turn against Bush after 2006 was self-serving: movement conservatives were trying to extricate the movement from its deep complicity in the failures of the Bush administration. Naturally, many movement conservatives gave this an ideological spin, which doesn’t mean that their support for or acquiescence to earlier Bush administration policies proves the conservatism of those policies. The self-serving narrative was a way of claiming that movement conservatives had somehow managed to remain principled and conservative while the Republicans they supported had gone astray. It’s closer to the truth to say that the Bush administration pushed through un-conservative policies, and most movement conservatives weren’t terribly concerned about the substance of the policies so much as they were interested in keeping their side in power and winning elections.

If we take conservative arguments about the size and role of government even remotely seriously, a large increase in the government’s unfunded liabilities to expand a federal entitlement is not a conservative policy. If there is any substance to conservative complaints about cronyism and collusion between government and corporations, engaging in a “massive giveaway” to certain corporations is hardly a redeeming feature of the policy. A major intrusion of the federal government into an area previously reserved to the states and localities is obviously not a conservative policy. Among other things, it offends against principles of local control and subsidiarity. I suppose one could claim that support for centralized regulation and fiscally irresponsible corporatism are conservative, but I think one would be hard-pressed to find many self-styled conservatives eager to identify themselves with either of these things.

There’s another graf after that one, too. I was going to pen type a more expansive response to these thoughts, but the first commenter pretty much covers it:

If there is to be a contest between you, Daniel, and the Steinglasses of the world over what meaning should be given to the word “conservative,” I sincerely hope you win. But the reality is that a lot of people who identify themselves as conservatives are proudly standing for exactly the kind of crony-capitalism and “big government conservatism” (generous social welfare programs for me, but not for thee) that GWB allegedly made unpopular. They’re not helping your cause.


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