Conservative? Americans Don’t Know the Meaning of the Word : Ideology: The nation’s parties are ‘liberal’ in the traditional sense. A true ‘conservative’ party might be just what the country needs.

<i> Guy Molyneux is president of the Next America Foundation, an educational organization founded by Michael Harrington</i>

As Republicans gather this week in Houston, we hear much talk of conservatives and conservatism. Is George Bush a true conservative? Will conservatives support the President, or stay home? Is the movement intellectually exhausted? Who will emerge to lead conservatives in 1996?

But these discussions all overlook one significant point: The Republicans are not really a conservative party. Indeed, we might say of American conservatism, as Mohandas K. Gandhi said of Western civilization--"It would be a good idea.”

True conservatism is a philosophy committed to conserving-- conserving families, communities and nation in the face of change. Committed to preserving fundamental values, such as accountability, civic duty and the rule of law. And committed to a strong government to realize these ends. What passes for conservatism in America today bears only a passing resemblance to this true conservatism. It worships at the twin altars of free enterprise and weak government--two decidedly unconservative notions.


Real conservatism values security and stability over the unfettered free market. In Germany, for example, it was the conservative Otto von Bismark--not socialists--who developed social insurance and built the world’s first welfare state. Today conservatives throughout the world--but not here--endorse government-provided national health care, because they recognize public needs are not always met by the private sector. And they see a role for government in encouraging national economic development.

A true conservative movement would not ignore the decay of our great cities, or see the disorder of the Los Angeles riots only as a political opportunity. Nor would they pay homage to “free trade” while the nation’s manufacturing base withered. Nor would a conservative President veto pro-family legislation requiring companies to provide leave to new mothers, in deference to business prerogatives.

Traditional conservatives champion community and nation over the individual. They esteem public service, and promote civic obligation. They reject the “invisible hand” argument, that everyone’s pursuit of individual self-interest will magically yield the best public outcome, believing instead in deliberately cultivating virtue. Authentic conservatives do not assail 55 m.p.h. speed limits and seat-belt laws as encroaching totalitarianism.

Finally, a genuine conservatism values the future over the present. It is a movement of elites to be sure, but of elites who feel that their privilege entails special obligations. The old word for this was “stewardship"--the obligation to care for the nation’s human and natural resources, and to look out for future generations’ interests.

Such conservatives would not open up public lands for private commercial exploitation, or undermine environmental regulations for short-term economic growth. They would not cut funding for childrens’ vaccinations, knowing that the cost of treating illness is far greater. And a conservative political party would never preside over a quadrupling of the national debt.

In America, then, what we call conservatism is really classical liberalism: a love of the market, and hatred of government. Adam Smith, after all, was a liberal, not a conservative. As the economist Gunnar Myrdal once noted: “America is conservative . . . but the principles conserved are liberal.”

American conservatives have often celebrated the country’s historically “exceptional” character: the acceptance of capitalism and the absence of any significant socialist movement. Curiously, though, they often miss their half of the story: the absence of a real Tory conservatism. What Louis Hartz called America’s “liberal consensus” excluded both of the great communitarian traditions--ain’t nobody here but us liberals.

True conservatism’s weakness as a political tradition in America is thus an old story. When values confront the market here, the market usually wins. In recent years, though, conservative social values seem to have been eclipsed. Many of today’s conservatives are really libertarians--proponents of a radical individualism that has little in common with conservatism. Consider some very non-conservative messages that conservatives have delivered in the past two weeks.

Conservative GOP leaders called on the President to propose massive new tax cuts as the centerpiece for a possible second term. Fiscal responsibility, apparently, is no longer part of conservative doctrine--if it gets in the way of a nice capital gains tax cut.

The Wall Street Journal assailed Maryland for introducing a new 75-hour community-service requirement for high school students. What about teaching values in school? Or putting nation before self?

When it comes to good conservative values, today’s conservatives talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. Look at Dan Quayle, the elected official who supposedly most speaks to real conservatives. Every day, the vice president is out there talking about traditional values, and slaying liberal dragons like Murphy Brown. His agenda: tax dollars for parochial schools, banning abortion, allowing school prayer. This is the 1980 Moral Majority program. Yet, after 12 years in power, the Republican Party has delivered nothing to social conservatives--the closest thing we have in this country to authentic conservatives. Republicans’ business allies, on the other hand, have reaped tremendous gains in such areas as taxation, regulation and labor relations. There are many social-issue conservatives in the GOP, but when it comes to governing, they are clearly the junior partners.

These social issues are trotted out every four years, but it’s just a ritual, like hanging Christmas lights on the front porch. The rest of the time, they sit in the Republican basement. For them, it’s simply a matter of electoral opportunism--a way to attract working-class voters whose economic interests drew them to the Democrats. Now Barry M. Goldwater, the grand old man of American conservatism, has called on the party to abandon its anti-abortion commitment. The political calculus has changed, and so must the platform. Individual liberty is the important point now. It would appear that the ban on abortion was only in there to win votes in the first place--if it doesn’t do that, what’s the point?

The future seems to lie with the libertarians. We should expect more Republicans like Gov. Pete Wilson, who prides himself on savaging the social safety net. Personal freedom is the message: free to have an abortion, also free to go hungry.

However, this does not bode well for conservatives’ long-term electoral fortunes. Economic liberalism is a weak political force in countries with conservative and social-democratic alternatives. Historically, lower-class voters have been mobilized by appeals to class solidarity on the one hand, or religion and nationalism on the other. Liberalism is the credo of the upper middle class.

The historical failure of American elites to embrace authentic conservatism is a loss for the nation. Even liberals--in the American sense--should regret this void. In fact, they should be most concerned. Conservatives would resist the relentless privatization of our social and economic life, and help rein in the nation’s free-market excesses. If real conservatives had been in charge in the 1980s, we might have been spared the orgy of speculation, takeover and deregulation that so weakened our economy.

The free market, after all, is a powerful force for change. It creates and destroys communities, sunders families and undermines traditional values. People desire protection from it for sound conservative reasons--they want security and stability. A genuine conservatism would provide a kind of social ballast for a nation constantly buffeted by change.

America is too liberal for its own good. Our brand of conservatism is too American for its own good. Maybe it’s time to let conservatives be conservatives.