You have seen me use this word "conservatism" several times and you may be wondering what gives. What do I mean by that? Perhaps even what does conservatism mean to the average American. What is a conservative?
A conservative, many would have us believe, is nothing more than your average, ignorant hick. That's why they're conservative. A more thoughtful person would pull out the common dictionary definition. A conservative is someone who attempts to keep the government and social structure as it is now rather than employing radical changes. Someone who believes in moral absolutes at least to the point where they realize that government is fallible. Another idea is that a conservative attempts to make America what it was when it was founded. That is to say, a conservative tries to draw the country back to an outdated, horse and buggy system of government.
Each one of these views leaves out important aspects of conservatism. Each one lacks essence.
Take the first, if conservatives are merely hicks than what would you call Clarence Thomas? Numerous examples of educated, city dwelling conservatives exist. This argument is so lame as to make it nearly unaddressable.
The second argument leaves a vast amount of information to be understood. Conservatives seek to maintain the traditional government. They desire to keep the government from expanding its power too much. Government has flaws because it is made up of people and people are misguided by human nature. This is all true. Yet there are many different types of conservatives. They all approach the subject of government a little differently. Naturally, confusion reigns when you try to describe and explain each of the ten different types of conservatives, and the next person you ask may only have six different types of conservatives stereotyped. As a result, a discussion of the differing appproaches would not be helpful. Suffice it to say the second argument is an overall approach to the topic. One that seeks only information and not persuasion.
The third argument then, may be the most useful. A conservative attempts to make America what it was at its founding. In all seriousness I say, "What a shortsighted individual!" So much has happened since America's founding that no person ever born can make the United States what it was then. The Civil War carried with it the weight of nationhood. It descended upon a young country and sent the structure of a republic toward its doom. Following that came the progressives. They constructed the administrative state and guided the nation into modernity. The administrative state added an economic welfare state, which then gave way to another kind of welfare state. Through all of this various philosophies of government contended. The idea of making America what it was at its founding is shortsighted only because it leaves aside many facts that have shaped the nation I live in today.
I regret to say that a true conservative must remember the new traditions that have arisen from the progressive and administrative age. Reconciling these things with the vision of conservatism is one of the toughest tasks of today. The road stretches ahead and generations to come will travel its paths. When I look at the government as it is I agree that it has taken too much power from the people. It is no longer "government of the people, by the people and for the people." But much of that power cannot be taken back. How do you give power to people who have forgotten that they once wielded the power to rule themselves? The true reform of government may not be to change the actual institutions or redo the structure. After all, Reagan vowed that he would abolish the Department of Education and it remains.
The founders started our government on a path of tension. Tension between structure and human nature. Most of them recognized that human nature is fallible, government is made up of humans and, therefore, government is fallible. Most of them realized that power is corruptible, government claims power, therefore, government is easily corrupted. They sought a balance within government to keep power struggling against itself so that no one part of the government could rule over the rest. Their actions were admirable and made a lot of sense. Yet that balance has been upset many times from various sides. Restoring government to its original structure would ignore those upsets. Even during the early years the power swung like a pendulum out of wack. Many times the country almost collapsed upon itself. And many times it struggled up again. Each time new traditions arose and new questions stormed in. With these new traditions the general public increasingly lost interest in government. Today most people do not pay attention to government except at tax time or elections. The fact is, Tocqueville was right about the democratic man. The democratic person retreats within himself or herself, until he or she is nearly alone among all the other democratic citizens.
If the government is to change to a more conservative way then people must realize that it is their burden to change it. No one will change it for us. Conservatives must do this. In agreeing to help with the grassroots movement I have joined I understand that it is not the government's mind which must be changed, it is the mind of the general public. It is the attention of orinary, American citizens that must be sought. Their hearts and minds alone will turn the way our country goes.
Conservatism is thus a leaning toward limited government, and a true perspective on human nature. It takes into account the founders' points about good government. Yet it recognizes the truth of all the changes that have befell this country. And in the end it knows that those who can implement change are not those who live in the bubble that is government. They are the nameless, faceless, voting public.