What is the future of conservatism?

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  • Conservatism can mean many different things to many different people. @JonahNRO

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  • Will enough Americans remain committed to the principles that define modern American conservatism to sustain the movement?

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  • The vernacular of conservatism comes from a time when the country was churched & defined liberty as personal sovereignty.

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Commentary's January symposium issue in response to the question: “What is the future of conservatism in the wake of the 2012 election?”

Like the ancient parable of the blind men describing the same elephant from different perspectives, conservatism can mean many different things to many different people. Indeed, given the relatively straightforward and down-to-earth meaning of the word,conservatism actually lends itself to considerable linguistic legerdemain. One can use the word to refer to a temperament, an ideology (or ideologies), an objective tendency, or simply an unwillingness to heed the forces of progress as fashion dictates.

It seems to me that the future of each of these varieties of conservatism is assured. The conservative temper stems from the crooked timber of humanity and the accumulated scar tissue of experience. The objective tendency, whether imposed by external forces, threadbare budgets, impertinent facts-on-the-ground, or a general lack of popular enthusiasm, also seems baked into the human experience for as far as the eye can see. For related reasons, there will always be realists who counsel the hotheads to slow down, earning at minimum the label “conservative” if not “reactionary.” In this sense, while there may not always be an England, there will always be something called conservatism.

The one with the cloudiest future is ideological conservatism. Will enough Americans remain committed, or at least open, to the bundle of principles that define modern American conservatism to sustain the movement and the Republican Party, which imperfectly carries its banner?

My short answer is an equivocal yes. My hedge stems from the fact that it will be hard, for all the reasons we’ve all heard already: demographics, the changing nature of the economy, etc. But there’s one factor that hasn’t been adequately discussed: the fading of conservatism’s libertarian brand.

I say “brand” because I think the issue has less to do with substance than with marketing. For good and bad reasons, liberalism has managed to cover itself with a patina of libertarianism. Some of this stems from changing attitudes about sexuality. Conservative opposition to gay marriage sends a powerful cultural signal that makes the GOP seem Comstockish and scary, at least to the elites who shape the culture and to younger voters.

That argument is familiar enough. But what allows the Democrats to seem more libertarian isn’t just cultural marketing, but a widespread acceptance of the idea that positive liberty is more important than negative liberty. The former, an idea near to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s heart, is that you can’t be free unless the state gives you the material aid necessary to enjoy life to its fullest. This was the point of his “economic bill of rights.” Negative liberty, an idea dear to the Founders, defines freedom as independence from government intrusion and meddling.

Conservatives have been very successful at arguing separately against positive liberty and against cultural libertinism, but the merger of the two presents new challenges, particularly given the attitudes of young people who seem to believe that you should be free to use birth control (true), but that you’re not free unless someone else pays for it.

The vernacular of conservatism derives from a time when the country was churched and defined liberty as personal sovereignty. It needs to change to engage a country that is increasingly unchurched and incorrectly thinks liberty can and should be subsidized.

Jonah Goldberg is a contributing editor to National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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