We’ve used the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to discuss American ideological and policy matters for my entire life, but I’ve often been struck by the fuzziness of both terms.
In fact, “liberal,” which means sort of center-left in American usage, means pretty far right in many other countries. Conservative used to refer to a perhaps healthy reluctance to change things too radically or too fast.
With the Trump takeover of the supposedly more conservative of our two major parties, the idea that there is anything cautious about the Trumpian version of conservatism, or “Republicanism” in a tradition that has meant many things from Lincoln to Reagan, is now laughable. If Trumpism is the latest model of conservatism, the term has lost any connection to what I thought of as the enduring meaning of conservatism.
Which brings me to a fine illustration of the difference between old-fashioned principled, rational conservatism – the kind that I, as a lifelong “liberal,” have long respected if not embraced, as opposed to the bizarre new Trumpist version of the C-word.
It came in a Saturday column by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who has been classified as a “conservative” voice in the Times lineup, but who now finds himself hoping for a Joe Biden presidency in 2021 because, while Bernie Sanders is way too far left for Stephens, he seems to hold the prospect of four more years of the current incumbent as equally dreadful.
Personally, I don’t share his dread of Sanders. And even those who think Sanders’ brand of “democratic socialism” is too extreme should take comfort that many of his leftiest ideas could not be enacted by any Congress likely to be elected in the foreseeable future.
But Stephens’ column, above all, was a conservative’s list of problems and horrors that the election of an old-fashioned moderately liberal Biden would spare the country from, compared with four more years of the incumbent, who, in Stephens’ expert conservative opinion, is no conservative at all.
An excerpt from that portion of his argument, from Stephens’ column of Saturday:
If Biden wins the White House, I won’t have to worry about the president trying to criminalize his political opponent. Not with demagogic chants of ‘Lock her up,’ nor with quiet attempts to strong-arm an ally for the sake of digging up dirt on an American citizen. I won’t have to worry about White House officials being forced to choose between their ethical obligations and their loyalty to the president. I won’t have to worry about an attorney general who chooses loyalty over obligation — and, a year later, is bluntly reprimanded by a Republican-appointed federal judge for doing so.
If Biden wins, I won’t have to fear that the president might order the abrogation of a free-trade agreement with a major trading partner — only for a watchful adviser to snatch the order from his desk before he can sign it. I won’t have to read about frantic aides wondering if the president is really serious about his threats to withdraw the U.S. from NATO. I won’t have to cross my fingers hoping that a clever general will convince the president that the reason we shouldn’t betray our desperate Kurdish allies in Syria is so we can keep the oil. …
If Biden wins, I will write column after column opposing him on policy grounds. But at least I’ll feel relief that the American people didn’t vindicate Trumpism and the nativism and meanness it represents. …
If Biden wins, it will not mean a great American presidency. It will mean a decent one. That will be more than enough for me.
I’m sure I don’t agree with Stephens on many substantive policy issues. But I hope his column represents the thinking of enough rational conservatives of good conscience to make a difference in November.