The proprietor of this fine website establishment, one S. T. Karnick, refers to himself as a classical liberal, and he strongly rejects the moniker of conservative. Since not long after Ronald Reagan got elected I’ve called myself a conservative and have been perfectly happy for others to see me as such. That is, until I met Sam K.
Previously, I had figured I was a conservative because I wanted to conserve those timeless values found in America’s founding documents. But those weren’t exactly conservative at the time, which I think is why it was called a Revolution.
I was kind of surprised at the vehemence with which he refuses the label of conservative, and we have had many conversations in which he helped me understand why. At this point I would tend to see myself as a classical liberal as well, but I’m not as averse as Sam to the conservative label. As one who fervently believes in the political and social values that informed the founding of America, classical liberal would certainly be the more accurate term. But what to make of the conservative label? At this point in history, what do we seek to conserve?
Jonah Goldberg, at NRO’s “The Corner,” made an interesting statement that prompted this piece:
[O]ne point I would make is that just as a conservatism unwilling to conserve classical liberalism isn’t worth conserving . . . .
I found this a very odd formulation, especially with Sam’s perspective rolling around in my head. Are we not trying to conserve something that doesn’t actually even exist at this time? What there is to conserve today is the massive welfare state of modern liberalism, with all its attendant assumptions about the efficacy of government. So in the modern context what there is to be conserved is the existing vision of the state as the omnipresent overseer of all our needs and wants.
Nothing much has changed for the left since the 1930s, and they fight like mad to “conserve” their gains and agenda. After all, Barack Obama is giving us the New New Deal. Radical. Revolutionary. Hardly. It’s what Sam calls New Age Conservatism.
Classical liberalism, on the other hand, would be a radical (and welcome!) change from the current political, economic, and social climate. As Goldberg basically says, conservatism should be classical liberalism.
So why not just call ourselves classical liberals? If we apply these words in our current circumstances and time in history, conservatives aren’t really looking to conserve much at all. For America to return to its roots, its founding values, would in fact be revolutionary, and that is exactly what most “conservatives” want. These modern-day conservatives want serious reform, not the current system.
Modern liberals, who are astoundingly illiberal, are the real conservatives.
We might be at an auspicious time for such a name change. Sam Tanenhaus, author of a wonderful book about Whittaker Chambers but an employee of The New York Times, recently declared, “Conservatism is Dead.” As far as the right is concerned, he’s correct: the real action on the right is among classical liberals.
This will undoubtedly be a hard sell. At the University Bookman, several distinguished commentators wrote up their reactions to the Tenenhause piece. I found one very interesting comment by Austin Bramwell that applies to this debate:
Yet it is rather late in the day—one may say “revanchist”—to be objecting to the name that the movement happens to have adopted for itself back in the mid-1950s. Until a consensus unites behind a less misleading term, the movement’s ideology will continue to be known as “conservatism.”
I would suggest that a less misleading term, and in fact a perfectly accurate one would be, you guessed it, classical liberalism.
So let’s just unite in a consensus for that, shall we?
—Mike D’Virgilio is the founder and executive director of The Culture Project.