When, over a decade ago now, I first veered away from the liberal-progressive orthodoxy, I lived in dread (okay, that’s too strong a word — maybe trepidation) that I would be branded a “conservative.”
Who wanted to be that? I was a bona fide Child of the Sixties — a rebel as in The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel.” (“He’s a rebel and he’ll never ever be any good/He’s a rebel ‘cause he never does what he should.”)
To be a conservative was to be square. Never mind liberals were even squarer in their own paleo-sclerotic traditionalism. (Have you ever met people more lockstep than liberals?) Conservatives were the squares of squares — the uptight white guys with bowties who forever passed the joint without trying it. That certainly wasn’t me.
But sure enough, shortly after I started blogging in 2003, I was branded with the “c-word.” I didn’t know what to make of it and was, frankly, more than a little uncomfortable.
Not long after I was branded with the “l-word,” libertarian, and exhaled. Libertarians were the cool guys, conservatives who could pick up girls at parties, as some wags had it. Better to be that, even if I was a little overage for the parties.
This tendency continues perhaps ever more strongly with the new generation. Last month my ninth-grade daughter attended a conference for the Junior State of America. Almost none of the high school students, she told me, caucused with the Republicans. A throng went to the libertarians.
Still, I can’t totally identify as a libertarian, since I find some of their more extreme views silly. (Someone does have to pay for the interstate highway system. And Islamic jihadists are quite serious about a world caliphate. Declaring ourselves the purest of free marketers and rolling up the gangplank will not deter them in the slightest. In fact, it will only encourage them.)
All this is the long way around to saying that the problems creating the current dissension at CPAC stem in part from the word “conservative” itself. It seems mired in the past — even when it is not. As much as anything else, in an odd way, it’s a semantic difficulty.
Young people particularly (and even some older folks like myself) like to see themselves as oriented toward the future. Clinton was no fool when he chose “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” as his theme song, corny as it may now seem. The truth is yesterday is gone.
Liberals, as we all know, rebranded themselves with some success as progressives — a word that was, ironically, itself once discredited. The wheel goes round on these things.
But what should conservatives do? Declare themselves to be “classical liberals,” which many are? That seems a bit academic.
Whatever the case, new terminology should and must be found. And whatever it is, it should be forward looking. Virginia Postrel seemed on the right track when she titled her book (way back in 1999) The Future and Its Enemies.
Conservatives and libertarians — whatever they are now called — should market themselves as the party of the future. Respecting the Constitution is important, but something more than that is necessary. With the Constitution as its only guide, it’s easy to tarnish conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans as the party of old white men because, well, as brilliant as they were, the Founders were just that — white men. (Yes, some of them were not old, but that’s a distinction without a difference when you’re talking about something that occurred over two hundred years ago.)
This new terminology should concentrate too on a certain kind of pragmatism. It should help end the pompous and self-satisfied exclusionism with which some like to define others as being in or out of a movement, as happened this year at CPAC.
And remember, whatever name is chosen now need not, and most likely will not, be permanent. In the brilliant words of the nineteenth century libertarian socialist designer William Morris: “Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about it spite of their defeat, and when it comes out not be what they meant, other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”
(Don’t miss Next Generation’s members-only coverage of CPAC 2013 — featuring former Congressman Allen West and Michelle Fields. Click here to learn more.)