Peter Wehner has an interesting post in Commentary regarding the tenor of many people who go by the conservative banner. His post should be read in full, but here is the money quote:
There have always been those in politics who are animated by the auto-da-fe. They thrive on relentless confrontation and want to (in the words of Ronald Reagan) go over the cliff with all flags flying. To be sure, such individuals can be a source of energy in a political party. They can also serve the purpose of stiffening spines when that is needed. And they may even be on the correct side of many public policy issues.
Yet it strikes me that in a deep sense, they do not possess a conservative disposition or even a particularly conservative outlook on the world. Rather, they have reinterpreted conservatism in order to fit their own temperament, which seems to be in a near-constant state of agitation, ever alert to identify and excommunicate from the ranks those they perceive as apostates. One day it is Chris Christie; the next day it is Bob McDonnell, or Jeb Bush, or Mitch Daniels, or Eric Cantor, or Lindsay Graham, or Mitch McConnell, or someone somewhere who has gone crosswise of those who view themselves as prefects of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
There is a different conservative disposition to which we can look, one which was embodied in Michael Oakeshott, one of the most respected intellectual spokesmen for British conservatism in the latter half of the 20th century. In her 1975 essay on Oakeshott (which is reprinted here), the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb said the key word describing the conservative disposition was “enjoyment.” Unlike the rationalist, who is “always lusting after something that is not,” the conservative tends to find delight in the gifts and blessings we have. Conservatives do not grow angry when the world refuses to conform to their ideals, nor do they see the present only as, in Oakeshott’s phrase, “a residue of inoppportunities.” He did not view the human situation as dark or dreary.
I do not always agree with Wehner, and I certainly do not agree with everything he says here.
For one thing, it is an open question as to how conservative someone like Chris Christie really is. Surely, by some measure of disposition, Christie is conservative, as his speech at the Ronald Reagan Library some years back well demonstrates (sorry, no link). However, when it comes to actual government policy, he has taken many positions that are quite liberal, and one does not have to be a hardline conservative to think this.
For another thing, the human situation is dark and dreary, and the knowledge of our grim lot is one of the foundations of conservatism. We live in an imperfect and imperfectable world which is always teetering on the edge of a cliff. Knowing this, we have a duty to do what we can–not to make the world perfect–but to prevent the world from spiraling into the abyss.
Having said all that, Wehner makes a good point. Some people who fly the conservative banner are really not all that conservative, but are just angry, embittered, and unwilling or unable to get along with others. They have reduced conservatism to one or two pet issues, and are unwilling to compromise on these issues at all–indeed, they define conservatism as an unwillingness to compromise on the handful of things they care passionately about. However, they lack a truly conservative worldview, philosophy, or disposition, as becomes imminently clear when their pet issues are not at stake.
Sadly, such people have in many ways become the face of conservatism.
One can say, with some justification, that liberals have defined conservatives this way, and the press has played along, influencing how conservatives and conservative issues are perceived by the public. The problem is, a few people who call themselves conservatives have played along with this as well–they have allowed themselves to become caricatures.
Some people spend their time shouting, rather than talking and reasoning with others. They peddle anger, divisiveness, suspicion, and conspiracies, rather than love, conciliation, concern for others, and hope. It is easy to see why this should be so, as this is the quickest way to gather a following and to gain personal influence and power. However, as has been made clear by recent elections and by the current tone of the political debate in the US, such a strategy will not result in a positive change in the US and will not return the US to its conservative roots. Rather, it only isolates and discredits the conservative movement.
Yes, the world is dark and dreary, and it is always teetering on the edge of the abyss. However, we were called to be a light to the world: We cannot spread light by perpetuating darkness. We were also called to be the salt of the earth: We cannot serve as salt if we are sour or without taste. Our lives are too short to invest in negativity and defeat. Even in the darkest depths of humanity, there are flowers blooming, new life being born, and times of respite and refreshing. These blessings are gifts from God, bringing us comfort and hope, even when the world is filled with despair. And we ourselves are called to be a comfort and hope to others who have no comfort and hope. This is why Paul gives us this command in Philippians 4: 8:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
If we cannot be a source of hope to a dying world, what hope does the world have? The very word “conservative” comes from the root “conserve”, in the sense of saving and protecting that which is valuable and worth saving. Thus, negativity and hopelessness are not at all elements of a conservative disposition. On the other hand, being light and salt to the world are very much core conservative values.
Further, as a practical matter, since when were most people attracted to anger, despair, hopelessness, and nihilism? Surely, those who have already given up might want to rally around such a banner, but the average person trying to live an everyday life already has enough despair–they are not going to be attracted to a continual message of doom and gloom, and they already have enough to be angry about without adding yet one more cause to their agenda. Most people do not want to live at a perpetual pitch of anger and agitation. They may, on the other hand, be attracted to positive suggestions as to how we might be able to make their world a better place. And indeed, we have the answers and solutions they looking for, but many people cannot see this because they are turned off by the shouting, angry face that a handful of “conservatives” prefer.
“Man’s anger does not accomplish the righteousness of God.” (James 1: 20). Therefore, whether we have a right to be angry or not, we need to put all anger aside and get back to the work that God has called us to do.