Defining Conservatism Up (Part One)

In 1993, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan published a landmark article, “Defining Deviancy Down: How We’ve Become Accustomed to Alarming Levels of Crime and Destructive Behavior.”

Moynihan’s point was that instead of dealing with the hard task of getting alarming social destruction and disintegration under control, we’ve taken to simply watering down our standard of deviancy so that we can continue whistling cheerfully as greater darkness descends.
In pointing all this out, Moynihan, the grand senatorial Democrat, was butting heads with the ideologues of his own party, for whom redefining deviancy was—and still is—a mode of social progress. Sample this stinging bite:

“In 1965, having reached the conclusion that there would be a dramatic increase in single-parent families, I reached the further conclusion that this would in turn lead to a dramatic increase in crime. In an article in America, I wrote: “From the wild Irish slums of the 19th Century Eastern seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure—that is not only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable.”

The left’s response was, as Moynihan later scolded in 1993, to redefine the family to include all deviations. No-strings-attached male sexual predation and single motherhood became normalized (and then subsidized), and then the deluge.

Defining Conservatism Up

Of course, you’re waiting for me to get to my point. And here it is. Conservatives are in danger of defining conservatism down so that they can win big in the next election (and the next), casting away essential principles in order to hustle ever more disgruntled bodies into the big Republican tent.

This big-tentism is a big mistake. As with all such attempts at watering down political principles, it will simply result in a slight shifting of the political haunches of the great compromisers of the ruling class, rather than creating a major revolution that is needed to keep the country from sliding further into its own self-dug abyss, and even more, dragging it back up the slippery slope.

We can’t afford to define conservatism down. We can’t even afford to let it remain bobbing at the current level. We need to define conservatism up. As Moynihan made clear almost 20 years ago, we’ve already slid too far down the slippery slope. Even more morbid, we’ve gotten used to it. Not only moral and social disintegration, but sliding itself now feels natural. Most of us have never known any other condition. We were born into a culture that had already defined deviancy down.

For precisely this reason, conservatism must be defined up, as the bearer of those principles that can reverse our decline. In pursuit of this, I offer 10 Essential Conservative Principles that would restore the robust core to the swelling conservative movement. Pray, don’t think I’m being haughty or overbold. These principles are taken from the great conservative thinkers covered in my 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read. I only pass on their considerable wisdom.

As this is a two-part article, I’ll only cover the first two principles here.

10 Essential Conservative Principles

Principle # 1: “Being against” is not enough.

It is tempting to define conservatism entirely negatively, such as being “against big government” or “against taxes” or “against whatever.” The temptation comes from two sources in our own time. The first is the simple fact that the Obama Administration has tried to ram through nearly every item on the far-left agenda thereby causing a significant conservative reaction. The second arises when all the disgruntled sit down for a common tea, and realize that while they agree about what they are against, they have radical disagreements about what they should be for. But no society—and especially not one rapidly unraveling because of fundamental moral and social disagreements—can be salvaged and rebuilt without deep consensus about fundamental things.

Principle # 2: Being for liberty is not enough.

Crying up liberty is, all too frequently, merely a disguised form of “against-ism.” It allows all those who are against something—be it taxes or bureaucratic interference or obscene federal debt—to appear to be for something together. But a pro-family stalwart and a professional pornographer can both stand adamantly against burdensome taxes, bureaucratic niggling, and crushing federal debt. If liberty is defined only negatively, as “freedom from” government interference, then the chaos caused by more fundamental moral and social disagreement will remain untouched.

To be continued.