What Is A Conservative In 2023?

Feb 4th, 2023 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

One historical aspect of America’s political culture is the rise and fall of political parties.  The Federalist Party was the “faction” (George Washington’s term) associated with George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams.  By the presidency of James Monroe it was dead.  The Whig Party emerged in the early 1800s, but by 1856 it was dead, replaced by the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln.  Today, the Republican Party seems hopelessly divided and the infighting is potentially fatal:  Witness the intense struggle over Kevin McCarthy’s effort to become Speaker of the House.  That struggle gave every evidence of a Party gravely divided.  Furthermore, the Party experienced serious losses in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections, to the surprise of many.  All of this begs the question, what does it mean to be a conservative Republican?  What does the Republican Party stand for?  What are its core values and goals?

For much of my adult life I have regarded myself as a principled conservative.  Until quite recently, if someone mentioned “conservative” it was rather clear what that meant—generally a commitment to limited government, individual liberty, and free trade.  The conservative label also connoted a set of values, virtues and standards closely aligned with those of Scripture. Ronald Reagan, Russell Kirk, Margaret Thatcher, William F. Buckley, among others modeled and taught a consistently conservative approach to government, ethics and culture.  Christian conservative writer and author, Rod Dreher, comments that “. . .  the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos. . . .  A people’s historic continuity of experience, says the conservative, offers a guide to policy far better than the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers.”

  • “. . . The conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.  This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth. . . . The problem of order has been a principal concern of conservatives ever since conservative became a term of politics.”
  • Our 21st century world has experienced the hideous consequences of the collapse of belief in a moral order. “Like the atrocities and disasters of Greece in the fifth century before Christ, the ruin of great nations in our century shows us the pit into which fall societies that mistake clever self-interest, or ingenious social controls, for pleasing alternatives to an oldfangled moral order . . .  A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.”
  • As Russell Kirk said, “conservatism is an attitude toward the world, not a dogmatic religion. It irritates me to no end that the American conservative mind is so closed, even to thinkers and resources in its own tradition. As Kirk’s tenth canon says, ‘The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.’ That means that we have to be willing and able to think creatively about conservative principles, and apply them to new facts and circumstances.”

Furthermore, as Peter Werner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center contends, “[Many Republicans today] have turned inward instead of outward, they have embraced white identity politics as a matter of course and they have developed a disdain for the intricate work of governing . . . There is a nihilistic strain coursing through the veins of a significant number of people on the American right.  They delight in . . . effort[s] to annihilate truth and peddle conspiracy theories . . . .”  Indeed, in 2017 former President George W. Bush declared that “We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger that the forces binding us together.  Argument turns easily into animosity.  Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.  Too often we judge other groups by the worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions, forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.  We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism.  Forgotten is the dynamism immigration has always brought to America. . . . Being an American involves the embrace of high ideals and civic responsibility. . . This means that people of every race, religion and ethnicity can be fully and equally American.  It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”

In addition, principled conservatives have advocated for democratic values, consistently standing against totalitarian dictators who use their military and political power to destroy innocent nations. Principled conservatives find it abhorrent when the dictatorial egomaniac, Vladimir Putin, ruthlessly invaded Ukraine.  The moral clarity of what Putin has done to Ukraine is abhorrent and offensive to conservative values and principles.  Indeed, Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates recently wrote:  “Increasingly, members of Congress and others in our public discourse ask, ‘Why should we care? This is not our fight.’ But the United States has learned the hard way — in 1914, 1941 and 2001 — that unprovoked aggression and attacks on the rule of law and the international order cannot be ignored. Eventually, our security was threatened and we were pulled into conflict. This time, the economies of the world — ours included — are already seeing the inflationary impact and the drag on growth caused by Putin’s single-minded aggression. It is better to stop him now, before more is demanded of the United States and NATO as a whole. We have a determined partner in Ukraine that is willing to bear the consequences of war so that we do not have to do so ourselves in the future.  President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech before Congress last month reminded us of Winston Churchill’s plea in February 1941: ‘Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.’ We agree with the Biden administration’s determination to avoid direct confrontation with Russia. However, an emboldened Putin might not give us that choice. The way to avoid confrontation with Russia in the future is to help Ukraine push back the invader now. That is the lesson of history that should guide us, and it lends urgency to the actions that must be taken — before it is too late.”

But Fox News’s so-called “conservative” celebrity, Tucker Carlson, has emerged as an advocate for Vladimir Putin.  Consider the following:

  • After Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a rousing speech to U.S. lawmakers before Christmas, Tucker Carlson unleashed a diatribe that put “schoolyard sadists everywhere to shame.” “No one’s ever addressed the United States Congress in a sweatshirt before,” he seethed, slamming Zelensky as a “strip club” manager whose presence was “humiliating” to “the greatest country on Earth.”  Greg Sargent argues that “Carlson’s attack on the Ukrainian president, whose olive green garb was meant to dramatize his country’s wartime plight, has sparked outrage because of its demeaning quality at a time of extraordinary duress for the Ukrainian people. But this episode deserves a deeper look than Carlson’s adolescent belittling usually merits.  Carlson’s rant carried a more hateful edge than usual, a kind of shrill fury. Perhaps that’s because Zelensky’s presence before Congress was far more humiliating to Carlson and his ideological comrades than to anyone else: It demonstrated how badly they misjudged Ukraine’s will to resist Russian conquest and the durability of the U.S. commitment to our beleaguered ally.  This represents the failure of a worldview, a strain of far-right authoritarian populism, that goes well beyond Ukraine. A whole lot of things have happened that — in Carlson’s mental universe — were not supposed to happen.”
  • In his diatribe, Carlson depicted Zelensky as little more than a sleazy street thug who had come to “demand money” from Congress, telling his audience that the lawmakers “love him much more than they love you.” He exaggerated Ukraine’s conditions for ending the war, depicting Ukraine as the unreasonable party.  Carlson has long insisted that Ukrainians are “pawns” in the United States’ quest for “regime change” in Russia, predicting our warmongering would trigger nuclear catastrophe. He has trivialized the invasion as a faraway “border dispute,” and has scoffed that Democrats are hypnotizing Americans into feeling “hate” for Russia.
  • “There is an ideology behind all that wrongness, and Carlson has clearly laid it out. It tells Americans that Democratic elites prioritize Ukraine’s border over our own — they love Zelensky more than they love you. This conflation of the two borders, a widespread right-wing populist trope, encourages Americans to turn inward in multiple ways, washing our hands of responsibility for international allies and desperate migrants alike.  This worldview also rails against elite wokeness. Carlson frequently tells viewers that the same elites who want people to hate Russia and are obliterating the southern border are also brainwashing kids with anti-White racism.”


There is one further element about the war in Ukraine that necessitates the attention of principled conservatives:  “War is chaotic, inexplicable and devastating to children caught up in it. But war is not an excuse to abduct children from parents and their nation, as Russia is now doing in Ukraine. This is specifically prohibited by the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia — and attempts to brainwash them, removing their language and culture — is a genocidal crime that calls for prosecution.”  Washington Post writers, Robyn Dixon and Natalia Abbakumova, reported on 24 December on the “details of an abhorrent Russian campaign to ship Ukrainian children to faraway cities inside Russia. President Vladimir Putin issued a decree in May making it easy for Russians to adopt Ukrainian children, and the policy is being ‘vigorously pursued’ by the Russian children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, who ‘openly advocates stripping children of their Ukrainian identities and teaching them to love Russia.’ Ukrainian children taken to Russia would, at first, insult the Russian leader by singing the Ukrainian national anthem, Ms. Lvova-Belova told journalists, ‘but then it transforms into love for Russia.’ The Kremlin has boasted of the removals, evidenced by the number of photos and videos appearing on its website and on state television.  While the number of children taken is not clear, Daria Herasymchuk, Ukraine’s top children’s rights official, has estimated that nearly 11,000 Ukrainian children have been taken by Russia without their parents.


The seizure of these children appears to violate the treaty, which seeks to outlaw acts “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The treaty prohibits “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Some international law experts have argued that the genocide convention also prohibits acts to destroy a protected group’s culture, language and religion”— including that of children. The facts Lvova-Belova and Putin have acknowledged about assimilating the Ukrainian children into Russia and eradicating their culture provide evidence of intent to commit genocide as defined by the treaty.


As the Washington Post editors correctly observe, “The provision in the genocide treaty was adopted in the shadow of Nazi atrocities, including a scheme directed by Heinrich Himmler to snatch children from Poland and place them in German orphanages or with German families to be raised as Germans. The first convictions at the Nazi war crimes trials were for child abductions. Prosecutor Harold Neely declared that ‘it is no defense for a kidnapper to say he treated his victim well,’ noting that ‘these innocent children were abducted for the very purpose of being indoctrinated with Nazi ideology and brought up as ‘good’ Germans. This serves to aggravate, not mitigate, the crime.’  Russia, successor to the Soviet Union, is a party to the genocide convention. But Mr. Putin has shown little regard for international laws or norms of any kind in his war to wipe out Ukraine’s democracy and its people. He and the other Russian officials complicit in genocidal crimes against children should be held to account.”

See Rod Dreher, “What is a Conservative,” The American Conservative (22 September 2012); Michael Gerson in the Washington Post (16 and 23 October 2017); Peter Waldman in the Washington Post (19 October 2017); David Brooks in the New York Times (27 October 2017); Peter Wehner in the New York Times (22 October 2017);  Greg Sargent in the Washington Post (23 December 2022); Washington Post editorial (27 December 2022); and the Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates editorial in the Washington Post (7 January 2023).

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