Those Pesky Conservative Principles


Being pragmatic in the application of one’s principles does not manifest a lack of principle. I recall that some admired Paul Ryan and put down the Tea Party – in part because of Ryan’s willingness to accommodate, versus the Tea Party insistence on ideological purity. They made a point about how Ryan’s pursuit of the half loaf is preferable to the Tea Party’s willingness to throw out the loaf altogether.

Perhaps we are quibbling on definitions here. For me, the pragmatic approach (or the “what works” approach) is similar to incrementalism: see what is possible and advisable under current conditions and then go that far.

An example is the Pro-Life Movement. In principle, they oppose all abortion as the act of taking an innocent life. As pragmatists, though, they have come to realize that by focusing on late-term abortions (infanticide) they are making greater inroads than by focusing on all abortions, per se.

Of course, the real question is whether the pragmatic approach is in pursuit of the principle. That, in turn, begs the question of what is the principle. What then is the definition of conservatism? Is nationalism, or the perpetuation of the American nation-state and its unique cultural, historical, and linguistic heritage, a necessary tenet of conservatism? I argue that it is.

Thus, while I support the view that “what works” can and should be applied as a restraint on principle, I would argue that the compromise nevertheless needs to be in the direction of what the principle would dictate, and that the principle itself needs to be defined sufficiently to make any evaluation on the efficacy of the half measure.
The TPP makes my earlier point that the real question is what is conservatism. I have often said that the conservatives from Hamilton to Senator Robert Taft, and that includes McKinley and Coolidge, were against free trade. They put their nation above the profits of multi-nationals.  The so-called “long held conservative beliefs” are mostly libertarian, not historically conservative, and date to around the mid-twentieth century, when – as the world’s economic superpower with a strong manufacturing base – we would stand to benefit from free trade agreements.

The problem is that most “conservatives”  really know nothing about the history of conservatism prior to Goldwater. That is abundantly clear from their failure (or unwillingness) to see the historical nexus between conservatism, nationalism, immigration, trade, etc. They are Ayn Rand, atheist, anti-nationalist libertarians.  Paul Ryan is a peculiar case:

As a Catholic Christian Paul Ryan is not a Randian Objectivist in any formal sense and he has a pro-life position but where I disagree with the Objectivists, and also with Paul Ryan, is in their anti-nationalism and their underemphasis on ethnic and cultural identity in maintaining a nation state. I reject the idea that the USA is fundamentally an “idea.” If we are principally an “idea,” then we can and should eliminate borders, no longer insist upon any uniform cultural identity or language, etc. I would oppose doing anything of the sort, because I recognize nationalism to be intimately linked with conservatism, unlike Speaker Ryan

They oppose the historical Hamilton/Lincoln/McKinley/Coolidge conservativsm that I espouse.

I believe that our nation is unique in the ideas expressed within the Declaration of Independence. I also agree that, as a practical matter, those ideas have no life in them except in the life of a particular nation. Remember John Adams’ final words spoken on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He said, “Independence Forever!” He did not say “Freedom Forever!” or “Liberty Forever!” It is not that he denigrated freedom and liberty, although no doubt he would have defined the terms very differently from most Americans today. Rather, it is that he understood that free people exercising God given Liberty must be first and foremost independent from the other nations, cultures, and religious traditions that are incompatible with those cherished ideas. Our Great Experiment fails without perpetuating the nation. That means opposing its  disunion from within (Lincoln tying Southern insurrection with denigration of Liberty) and in our time its de facto absorption into a political or economic globalism that in all practicality denies the American people their own self-rule and the perseverance of their own culture.

Thus, with “Independence Forever!” as my guiding light, the question of any policy comes down to whether it helps or hurts Americans maintain their independent self-rule and also maintain their own unique culture. So as an example, if I conclude that free trade actually works against America’s independence, her legal sovereignty, and her cultural identity, etc. then I oppose free trade, even if I concede that economically it brings about more wealth for more people than protectionism. That is what it means to be a nationalist. A man who favors free trade (just one policy example among many), because of its economic benefit, even when he knows or suspects that it undermines American independence, is by my own definition an anti-nationalist.

Michael Sean Erickson is a political consultant, film producer, an essayist, an Anglican Catholic Priest, a stage actor, and a husband, He is also the author of The Lost Sombrero, Beautiful Catrina, and Dream Time. Originally from San Jose, California, he had lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, before moving more recently to Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, Sharon, and their Shih Tzu, Shansi.

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