What Does It Mean to Be a Conservative Today?

For most Americans, conservatism basically means the stuff Republicans are for, and liberalism means whatever Democrats are for. I don’t mean this as a criticism, just a statement of fact.

One of the great things about America is that politics—never mind political philosophy—isn’t a big part of most people’s lives. Associating a body of ideas with the institutions (political parties) that are directly charged with putting ideas into action is a pragmatic way to cut to the chase. Paying attention to what the eggheads and theorists of the left and right want the parties to do is only worthwhile if you’re especially interested in politics.  

The challenge for conservatives these days is that the Republican Party really doesn’t know what it’s for, beyond defending President Trump and opposing Democrats and socialism. While the fight over impeachment sucks up all of the oxygen in public, there’s a robust battle behind the scenes about what it means to be a conservative. 

Some of it has spilled out into public view, usually centering on nationalism—what it means, what it requires in terms of policy, how it differs from traditional conservatism or whether it differs at all. Sens. Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio, for example, have offered thoughtful versions of “economic nationalism,” pitting it against libertarianism (both real and imagined).

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