While Democrats remain divided over whether to call themselves liberals or progressives, Republicans and their media cheerleaders treat the term "conservative" as a fetish. Part of this is ideology; Republicans tend to believe deeply and strongly in their party's self-described conservative agenda. But it's also a product of political calculation; with polls showing that 40 percent of Americans embrace the conservative label (compared with just 21 percent support for "liberal"), Republicans feel they do themselves electoral good by proudly proclaiming their conservatism.
What makes someone a genuine conservative? Let's start simple. If the term is to mean anything, surely it must include an effort to conserve the status quo. That's certainly how conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott famously defined the conservative disposition — as a tendency "to prefer the familiar to the unknown... the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss." This describes vastly fewer people than you might think.
Let's take, as a case study, the "conservative" response to the rapidly accelerating movement to legalize marijuana. Many liberals support the legalization movement, as do libertarians and a number of writers associated with National Review (which has long favored legalization). Needless to say, changing long-standing state laws banning pot, and doing so in defiance of federal drug laws, is a thoroughly unconservative thing to do. (Perhaps NR founder William F. Buckley should have amended the magazine's properly conservative motto "Standing Athwart History, Yelling Stop!" to add the exception, "Unless History Will Deliver Us Legal Weed.")
On the other side, several pundits have come out against legalization. One of those is David Brooks, the center-right columnist at The New York Times. In his much-mocked column of last Friday, Brooks staked out the following position: Pot has negative effects on some users, so we shouldn't be encouraging its use by making it legal.
The biggest problem with this line of argument, as hordes of merciless Twitter critics have pointed out, is that alcohol is legal, despite the fact that it produces numerous negative personal and social consequences, and arguably more of them than marijuana does or ever will. If we were starting over from scratch, dispassionately examining the comparative effects of alcohol and marijuana, we would likely conclude that both of them should be legal or both of them illegal (depending on our views of personal freedom and our willingness to pay the costs of those negative consequences). And if only one were to be banned, wouldn't it be alcohol? After all, given the enormous toll of alcohol use and abuse, you could certainly defend the position of banning alcohol while making pot legal.
The least sensible position would be the status quo for most of American history prior to last week, when Colorado became the first state to sell weed for recreational purposes: Alcohol permitted and pot banned.
Note that no one in the debate — not Brooks, and not the others on his side of the argument — even attempts to mount a genuinely conservative argument, which would go something like this: Lawmaking never starts from scratch; it takes place within pre-existing cultures with pre-existing laws and legal traditions; like it or not, the United States has a long-standing tradition of legalized alcohol, and likewise has a tradition of outlawing marijuana; it's true that permitting alcohol and banning pot in the way the U.S. has traditionally done isn't completely rational, but cultures are never fully rational, and change usually produces unanticipated negative consequences of its own; that's why, except in the most egregious cases of injustice, we should defer to habit and tradition; and in the case of marijuana, that means keeping it illegal. (Rightly understood, Prohibition — the temporarily successful movement of a century ago to ban alcohol by way of constitutional amendment — was a radical measure, not a conservative one.)
Stated at the level of principle: Unless something is very badly broken, don't even attempt to fix it, since the change is likely to break other things.
On some issues — like, say, gay marriage — self-proclaimed conservatives would surely say their stance against change is quintessentially conservative. But by and large, across a broad swath of issues, I can't think of a single pundit or politician making this conservative and profoundly pessimistic argument against change of any kind — not even a dissenting conservative like Andrew Sullivan, who is a deeply knowledgeable student of Oakeshott's thought and who regularly denounces Republicans for abandoning genuine conservatism on issues ranging from foreign policy to the separation of church and state. Sullivan's position, on pot legalization as it is on gay marriage, amounts to saying that there's no good reason not to upend decades and even centuries of habit and tradition in order to fix a relatively recently perceived injustice.
That's a perfectly legitimate — sometimes inspiring, oftentimes banal — position to hold. It has motivated nearly every reform movement in history. But it is, at base, an expression of optimism regarding change and contempt regarding the limits imposed by received habits and traditions. That makes Sullivan (on these issues at least) a prototypical progressive, not a conservative.
He has plenty of company. Republicans may prefer to describe themselves as "conservative," but they don't much like pessimists. Which means they don't much like genuine conservatives either.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 10 things you need to know today: August 1, 2014
- Why Mitt Romney is perfectly poised for a comeback in 2016
- 8 secrets to steal from power networkers
- How Ronald Reagan turned America into a nation of children
- How to make classic pulled pork
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The Nazi smart bomb that inspired China's most dangerous weapon
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Why is the West so afraid of Islam?
- The main lesson of Argentina's debt nightmare
Subscribe to the Week