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Who’s the true conservative now?
Trump or Biden?
Was Alexander Hamilton the model conservative of the early republic? Or Thomas Jefferson? Was Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis the true conservative of the Civil War era? Who’s more conservative now: Donald Trump or Joe Biden?
Labels matter, and for good reason. They help us make sense out of the welter of life. They speed decisions when swiftness is more important than strict accuracy. They contribute to the feelings of membership that bind groups together.
But labels are never more than approximations. When labels are applied to people, no individual meets the standard of any label in all particulars. Political labels pose special problems, for two reasons.
First, the meaning of labels changes over time. What seemed conservative in the eighteenth century might not seem conservative at all in the twenty-first.
Second, the interests of people exist on multiple axes. A person can be conservative on economics but otherwise on social and cultural issues.
With those disclaimers on the table, what can we say about American conservatives and conservatism?
Like conservatives elsewhere, American conservatives are so called because they distrust change, preferring to conserve the status quo. Some take this position for philosophical reasons, arguing that human institutions have evolved to their present state because they have demonstrated their fitness during extended periods of time. Marriage or its equivalent, for example, has allowed the human race to survive for millennia, the conservatives say. And so it shouldn’t be tampered with lightly.
Other conservatives simply have a vested interest in the status quo, and for that reason don’t want it to change. This explains why conservatism has almost always appealed to the wealthy. But it appeals as well to people who value the status quo for non-material reasons. Established religions don’t take well to disestablishment. A dominant race or ethnic group will fight to preserve its dominance.
Conservatives can be in favor of weaker government or stronger government, depending on circumstances. In the absence of an active threat to their dominant position, they often prefer weaker government, for government itself can become a threat, through higher taxes that erode their wealth or laws and regulations that intrude upon their autonomy.
But should a threat arise, conservatives call on government to put it down. The threat can be domestic - insurrection, riot, ordinary crime - in which case conservatives become the party of law and order. The threat can be foreign - revolution in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, communism in the Soviet Union in the twentieth, a rising China in the twenty-first - prompting conservatives to support stout and often forward defenses.
Even in the absence of imminent threat, conservatives have sometimes been willing to expand the scope of government. No status quo is so sturdy it can’t stand improvement. Business conservatives have favored subsidies and tariff protection. Social conservatives have pressed for government support of religion and for curtailment of immigration. For long periods of American history, conservatives employed the power of government to enforce the dominant position of whites over other races.
American conservatives historically distrusted democracy. To the extent that ordinary people were involved in the making of laws, the people should do so at some remove, the conservatives judged. Rather than vote on laws themselves, the people should elect representatives who would vote in their place. These representatives, ideally, would be better educated than ordinary people and have a greater stake in the status quo. In other words, they would likely be more conservative than the ordinary people.
In America’s federal system, conservatives have been on both sides of the states’ rights question. The desire of the Federalists in the 1790s to attach the business interests of the country to the new Constitution prompted them to extend the powers of the federal government at the expense of the states. During the late nineteenth century, industrial leaders opposed the growth of federal power vis a vis the states, judging the latter easier to manipulate. And yet, once regulation became inevitable, many of the industrialists argued that it should be federal rather than state by state; meeting one uniform code would be less expensive than meeting dozens of different ones.
Conservatism is often counterposed to liberalism. This is unhelpful, because liberalism has changed even more than conservatism over time. Liberals originally wanted to shrink government - to liberate individuals from the oppressive power of the state. But when other threats to the individual emerged - from overweening or malfunctioning capitalism, for example - liberals sought to employ the power of government to protect individuals against those threats. By the middle of the twentieth century, the willingness to seek government solutions to public problems had become the defining trait of American liberalism.
At times - the early twentieth century, and again in the twenty-first century - some liberals have preferred to call themselves progressives. This is a neat exercise in branding, for who can oppose progress? And it draws a clear distinction from conservatism. Progressives embrace change; conservatives fear it.
But progress is in the eye of the beholder, and change is an empty promise in the absence of details about what change is proposed.
Getting back to the conservatives: Who were they? Hamilton or Jefferson? The case for Hamilton is that he favored the interests of the business and urban elites, and he opposed the challenges to the status quo represented by democratic and insurgent movements in the states. Though he had been an ardent revolutionary in the war against Britain, he admired the British approach to governance and sought to make it a model for the United States. He wanted the American presidency to be an elective version of Britain's monarchy.
The argument for Jefferson as a conservative is chiefly that he favored small government, at a time when government was already small. In other respects he was not very conservative. He was a member of the landed elite, but he pursued policies he thought would benefit yeoman farmers - independent small holders. And his opposition to slavery - though he was a slaveholder himself - put him at odds with most of the planter gentry. Unlike Hamilton, Jefferson placed great faith in democracy.
What about Lincoln and Davis? Davis was the opposite of conservative in trying to blow up the Union. But his motive - to preserve slavery and the economic prerogatives and social preferences that went with it - was as conservative as the desire of the French ancien regime to resist the revolution that swept it away.
As for Lincoln, his political conservatism - in particular his reverence for the Constitution - infuriated abolitionists who deemed the Constitution a shield for slaveholders. And yet Lincoln ended up effecting a revolution in America's political economy by eventually making emancipation a central war aim in the fight against the Confederacy.
What about the twenty-first century - who are the conservatives now? The Republicans present themselves as the conservative party. In their concern for the interests of the wealthy, they deserve the label. They deserve it as well for their resistance to social change.
But the Republicans lately have been the party of Donald Trump, who in crucial respects has been anything but a conservative. Trump has shown little respect for tradition or for existing standards of presidential behavior. He has undermined America's longstanding alliances with foreign countries. Most grievously, he has attacked the credibility of America's political institutions by attacking the pillar on which all of them rest: the accurate counting of votes. If Trump had had his way, the result would have been a coup d'etat against American republicanism.
By these measures, Joe Biden is more the conservative than Donald Trump. Biden respects America's institutions and habits of governance; he seeks to honor America's commitments; he is attempting to restore the presidency to the position it occupied in American life and in the world under every modern president before Donald Trump.
Don't expect Biden to boast of being a conservative. The Democrats are the liberal party in America today, and he is their leader. But for those with an interest in preserving - conserving - the values that long made America the envy of the world, Biden is the guy, not Trump.