Andrew Coyne: It’s time for old-school conservatism and liberalism to defend their common values

Why would anyone describe himself as a conservative? While we’re at it, why describe yourself as a liberal? Or socialist? Or libertarian? The point is not that there is anything wrong with any of these — only that there is something right with all of them. Each of the traditions, that is, has something to teach us. Why limit yourself to just one?

Still, people do. The desire to belong to a tribe – or perhaps, to quarrel with another – is one of the deepest urges of humanity. But tribalism, ideological or other, is not just self-blinding. On occasion it leads to madness. Consider the present state of conservatism, a tribe that has, as the past week has illuminated, lost its way, if not its mind.

If it were just a matter of Donald Trump’s racist attacks on four racial-minority congresswomen – the latest in a long series, but arguably the worst — it might be put down to his own personal depravity. If it were just the chants (“send her home’’) of the people at his rally in Greenville, N.C., it might be written off as the ravings of a lunatic fringe.

But Trump, it is abundantly clear, stands atop a vast infrastructure: the Republican leaders who shrug off his abuses for the sake of party unity; the commentators who look the other way so long as he champions their pet causes; the base who are content with whatever he does so long as it annoys the liberal media; and underpinning all, a set of beliefs – superstitions, prejudices, call them what you will – that predate Trump, but which he has helped to make the credo of the conservative movement.

It was convenient that in the same week as Trump was issuing such crude appeals to hatred and bigotry, a group of academics, journalists and politicians were meeting at a hotel in Washington in an attempt to give a veneer of intellectual credibility to Trumpism. The “National Conservatism” conference underlined how completely conservatism, at least in the United States, has been turned on its head.

The conservatism of the post-war decades, a sometimes uneasy coalition of social conservatives, free marketers and hawkish internationalists, has been replaced by a populist-nationalist conservatism marked by hatred of “globalist” elites, hostility to immigration and fear of foreign trade, and by its enthusiasm for whichever strongman will protect America from these.

Where conservatives were traditionally advocates of limited government, wary of government intervention and worried about deficits, today’s conservatives embrace many of the same limitless-government approaches as the left – “collectivism rebranded for the right,” as the Republican-turned-independent Congressman Justin Amash calls it.

Where conservatives were skeptics of change, pragmatists seeking to reconcile the necessity of reform with the wisdom of tradition, the Trumpians are as reckless as they are reactionary, heedless to the social and institutional harm they have caused in the name of Making America Great Again.

Trump, it is abundantly clear, stands atop a vast infrastructure

And as the conference highlighted, the civic nationalism that American conservatives used to cherish – the nation to which anyone could belong so long as they subscribed to the basic ideals of the American political system, not least its reverence for the equality of every individual under the Constitution – has been replaced by a more culturally-specific, if not ethnic definition, majoritarian and monocultural rather than liberal and pluralist, that is not easily distinguished from xenophobia or indeed racism: identity politics for white people.

Canadians will be familiar with this from, for example, the Bill 21 debate. Still, few in this country would go so far as the University of Pennsylvania law professor who told the conference that, as people from certain cultures were more likely to fit into a “modern advanced society” like the United States, and as those people came mostly from Europe and the First World, and as those societies are “mostly white for now,” it followed that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.” But not, you know, in a racist way.

This is, as The Economist put it in a recent issue, “not an evolution of conservatism, but a repudiation of it.” The conservatism I grew up with was basically a species of liberalism, part of the same Western liberal inheritance but more alert to liberalism’s potential for overreach. Its mission was, if you like, to save liberalism from the liberals. As such it represented a continuous tradition that, even as it changed with the times, represented certain enduring ideals. How can the very opposite set of ideas also be called conservatism without doing violence to the language?

Perhaps, as others have suggested, this is naive. Maybe there are no permanent or defining principles of conservatism, independent of its practitioners. Perhaps conservatism is whatever self-described conservatives happen to believe at the time. Trump enjoys the approval of 90 per cent of Republicans; even in Canada, according to a recent Abacus Data poll, 46 per cent of Canadian Conservatives have either a positive or neutral impression of him. Maybe it’s time to concede the point.

If so, then perhaps it is time for a more fundamental political realignment. If conservatism is now to mean its opposite, perhaps it is time for conservatives of the old school to make their peace with liberalism – for the two estranged children of the Enlightenment to reunite in defence of its values. The differences between them that once seemed so great look trivial now, compared to what they have in common, and in light of what they both oppose.