Self-identification is all the rage these days, but as Caitlyn Jenner or Rachel Dolezal can attest, it can come with criticism. I self-identify as conservative. That upsets some commenters on my columns, who have called me “politically correct” and a “RINO,” or “Republican in Name Only.”
Such epithets are understandable. Modern usage of “conservative” usually connotes support for a particular set of political positions, most of which are pillars of GOP platforms. I support many of them: decentralized power, ending racial preferences, entitlement reform, federalism, free enterprise, personal responsibility, and strong national defense.
As attentive, long-time readers know, however, I also support – sometimes with significant conditions – abolishing the death penalty, abortion rights, legal status for illegal immigrants, Common Core education standards, de-criminalizing marijuana, gay marriage, gun control, tax increases, and universal health care.
These views are not usually part of the American conservative canon. So how can I call myself conservative and why do I?
Conservatism is not (or is not supposed to be) an ideology or fidelity to an approved litany of policy prescriptions. It is more of an approach to or attitude about government and how to balance goals like liberty and order to produce the best society realistically possible.
This kind of conservatism's intellectual pedigree begins with Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and St. Thomas Aquinas. It continues through Edmund Burke, John Adams, Alexis de Tocqueville, and various agrarians, anti-majoritarians, poets, romantics, and writers.
Burke's works criticizing the French Revolution are often considered the sacred texts, and the late Russell Kirk his apostle. In his classic 1953 book The Conservative Mind, Kirk said distilled conservatism's essence down to six “first principles.” Not all conservatives agree with them, but they help explain how an apparent apostate like me considers himself conservative.
First, “conservatives generally believe that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.”
Second, “conservatives uphold the principle of social continuity,” and believe “order, justice and freedom … are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice.”
Third, “conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription,” which entails respect for “things established by immemorial usage” and caution in innovation.
Fourth, “conservatives are guided by the principle of prudence,” whereby “any public measure ought to be gaged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity.”
Fifth, “conservative pay attention to the principle of variety” and “feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.” This principle means that preservation of healthy societal diversity may require “orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality.”
Finally, “conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability.” Because human beings are imperfect, “no perfect social order can ever be created” and “to aim for utopia is to end in disaster,” as fascist, Marxist, and other radical regimes have demonstrated.
Conservatism is not against change. Indeed, Burke acknowledged prudent change as the means of societal preservation. So one can self-identify as a conservative in this sense while taking policy positions that sometimes depart from what is considered current conservative orthodoxy.
The death penalty may not be immoral or unconstitutional, but as a practical matter it does not deter, is incredibly expensive, can be discriminatory, and risks executing innocent people.
The Supreme Court made a big mistake in creating a constitutional right to abortion, but letting the states handle the issue differently and having limits like 20 weeks even where abortion is legal make sense.
Amnesty in the form of a legal status short of citizenship for illegal immigrants may be an appropriate part of an approach that first secures the borders, expands e-verify, truly tracks visas, and really reforms legal immigration.
Obamacare is a bad and bureaucratic way of pursuing it, but universal health care is a worthy goal.
The Common Core education standards are not curricula, were created by the states (although the Obama administration tainted the effort by offering federal money to encourage their adoption), and are better than the erratic, ineffective, and weak state standards that preceded them.
De-criminalization of marijuana makes sense given our alcohol laws, limited law enforcement resources, and prison populations.
Gay marriage as a product of democratic processes rather than judicial imposition is fair and will help preserve the institution of marriage against other, less desirable alternatives.
Tougher gun laws and more mental health options are absolute necessities to tackle the carnage that has become commonplace in America.
A well-conceived carbon tax could make environmental, fiscal and public health sense.
Some tax increases coupled with entitlement reform as was proposed in the Bowles-Simpson plan could be a commonsense compromise for responsibly dealing with the country's deficit and debt death spiral.
None of these positions is inherently “un-conservative” in the Burke/Kirk sense of the word. But if you self-identify as conservative while backing them you may get called some nasty names.
(John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is jddyche.com. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.)