Presidential Politics: They’re All Conservatives
By Thomas L. Knapp
As reliably as seconds ticking by on an expensive wristwatch, Republican presidential candidates loudly and vehemently identify themselves as “conservatives.” We’re used to hearing politicians lie, but these politicians are telling the truth for once. They ARE all conservatives.
Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, lie constantly about their political orientations. They label themselves “liberals” or even “progressives.” But they are conservatives, too.
Since FDR’s New Deal, politicians of all stripes have consistently tried to link conservatism with “smaller government.” But that’s not what conservatism is, or ever has been about. Conservatism is about conserving.
What does it mean to conserve something? “To keep in a safe or sound state; to save; to preserve; to protect” (Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913 edition).
What does political conservatism aim to save, preserve, protect? The existing system. As William F. Buckley, Jr. put it, political conservatism consists of “standing athwart the tracks of history yelling stop” (or, in the case of conservatism’s “progressive” variant, “yelling slow down”). And that, in a nutshell, is the platform and program of every serious candidate for either major party’s 2016 presidential nomination.
Sure, there are differences in emphasis. But they’re not especially significant.
The candidates who call themselves conservatives are hell-bent on preserving the post-WWII garrison state by way of the single largest welfare (mostly corporate welfare) entitlement program in the federal budget: They want to maintain “defense spending” at a rate ten times that of America’s nearest competitor (China). They describe proposals to even limit the growth of that budget line as “draconian cuts.” When it comes to “social” programs like Social Security, they occasionally talk about minor cuts or privatization … but only by way of “saving” the system, not abolishing it.
The conservative candidates who call themselves “progressives” come at it from the opposite direction: Their priority is saving those “social” programs. When it comes to military spending, they occasionally talk about tiny cuts, or perhaps capping increase rates, but as the Obama administration demonstrates, even those minor modifications are not hills they’re prepared to make their last stands on.
If we think of politics as a 360-degree circle, the differences between modern American “conservatism” and modern American “progressivism” cover maybe five degrees, just to the right of zero. Those boundaries are, to mix metaphors, third rails. Step on them and die — or at least, as Rand Paul has discovered, get a nasty jolt encouraging you to hurry back into safe territory.
In reality, there are only two available political directions: Society can become more libertarian, or it can become more authoritarian (and eventually totalitarian). The conservative candidates of both parties offer only the latter option.
Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.
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