A good friend of mine from the tech world is a serious proponent of the idea that the U.S. should restore the monarchy, along with the gold standard.
He can’t read Breitbart News, he says, because like the rest of the “conservative” movement, we are actually radicals. We believe in private enterprise, constitutional limits on state power, and the sanctity of the individual. No one, prior to the mid-twentieth century, would have called that “conservative,” he says. In fact, it’s just liberal utopianism.
He’s right, in the sense that American conservatism is basically classical liberalism, plus an embrace of faith — a faith largely grounded in the unique values of the American Protestant tradition, which itself was a radical break from authority.
What we call “liberalism” today is really socialism, combined with hostility toward traditional mores and a sentimental (though largely superficial) embrace of the poor, both of which are necessary for the post-monarchic state to emerge as the only authority.
What distinguishes American conservatives from conservatives everywhere else is what, precisely, American conservatives wish to conserve: namely, liberty, as defined by freedom’s greatest idealists in the late 18th century.
That liberty implies an openness to diversity, to debate, and to economic innovation — even though these are sometimes in tension with the traditional values that define us as individuals in the first place.
American conservatism, at its best, is open to new ideas and new people. In contrast, American liberalism, like the socialism and communism from which it springs and which it seeks to perfect, is constantly proclaiming its novelty, but is actually just the application of a very old principle to new targets.
It was Plato, not Marx, who first conceived of a completely equal society. Just like it was Aristophanes, not Hillary Clinton, who came up with the idea of a republic led by women. (All American liberalism has done lately is allow the women to carry male anatomy.)
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) mentioned Ronald Reagan on Tuesday, when he withdrew suddenly from the race for the Republican presidential nomination. He talked about Reagan’s vision and courage, and clearly wanted his audience to remember Reagan’s political precedent, falling short of the nomination in 1976 but winning the presidency in 1980.
Cruz even evoked Reagan by telling his heartbroken supporters he had “boundless optimism for the long-term future of our nation,” emphasis on future.
But what Reagan understood, and Ted Cruz has not quite grasped yet, is that American conservatism is dynamic. It embraces change — not the “fundamental transformation” of our society that Barack Obama has tried to deliver, but the kind of change individuals make for themselves, and that liberty makes possible.
The beating heart of that dynamism is New York City — and places like it — just as much as the traditional heartland. Ronald Reagan — the Hollywood star-turned-rancher — was able to embrace both.
Cruz attacked “New York values” to appeal to conservatives. But that is when he began to lose some of us.
Not because he had singled out a particular region or group — after all, Donald Trump did so often. Rather, in rejecting “New York values,” Cruz rejected the dynamism of American conservatism itself.
Cruz later said he had meant values that are “pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage – [that] focus around money and the media.” But American conservatism only rejects the former, not the latter.
None of that is to say Trump is any kind of exemplar of American conservatism. Nor is it to say, as some in the Beltway might, that openness to change ought to be the defining feature of American conservatism. We must, as Trump might say, have boundaries — moral as well as geographical.
But there is something fundamentally liberal — in the classical sense — about American conservatives. And it was that liberalism that Ted Cruz never quite managed to grasp. At least not this time.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. His new e-book, Leadership Secrets of the Kings and Prophets: What the Bible’s Struggles Teach Us About Today, is on sale through Amazon Kindle Direct. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.