The first Republican debate and the onset of the 2016 presidential race have presented an opportune time for Americans to ask themselves serious questions about conservatism and its role in American politics. Several candidates have already discussed their views on conservatism at length, and almost all of the Republicans present conservatism as the core of their governing philosophy. Even in these early stages multiple candidates have already begun to criticize one another and to present their own candidacy as the true example of American conservatism at work. In such a context the primary voter is asked to judge results, and therefore it is up to us to determine the criteria of a successful candidate.
By what method or principles, then, should we as voters hold these candidates accountable? Already exchanges such as this one between Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul highlight seemingly opposite points of view over such general issues as the importance of personal privacy. Some candidates have espoused conservatism as a succinct ideal easy to grasp, while others have claimed for themselves the right to define conservatism and have done so on a basis more favorable to their background. And in almost sheer irony, current polling indicates that one candidate, who has been labeled by opponents as a “cancer to conservatism,” currently receives the majority of support from voters who themselves identify as conservative. With so much contention, whose definition of conservatism should properly inform our consciences and help us determine who is right and who is wrong? What does a legitimate conservative candidate even look like in today’s politics?
Solving these questions requires a thorough examination of American conservatism at the intellectual level; to know and recognize conservatism (and conservative candidates) we must first excavate conservatism as a governing philosophy and understand it down to its very roots. Such an examination is rare in the media world in which we typically experience the candidates, but it is nonetheless essential for judging those same candidates coherently and fairly. It is only on the basis of an examined worldview that we will see that behind many of these public disagreements lie dangerously imprecise definitions and misunderstandings concerning our country’s most cherished ideals. In reconciling these contradictions for ourselves, it is then possible that we may hold politicians to a coherent standard and reward them for adherence to a true and explicit conservatism.
In beginning such an excavation, it is prudent that we begin the work intently and directly. We should therefore begin by aiming for a thorough understanding of the deepest and most entrenched of conservative ideals: our concept of freedom. What we call freedom in a political context, often termed liberty, and our deep appreciation for it must be unearthed and inspected. We must look at political freedom squarely, examine its value and worth to us, and recognize its role and the extent to which it does and does not act as a solution for our affairs. For if we are ever to agree on a candidate, we must first agree on what we mean by freedom.
Next Post: The Roots of American Conservatism (Part 2)