My First 50 Years In The Conservative Movement: Reflections and Observations
March 17, 2014
By Don Feder
It's been 50 years since the Goldwater campaign, when conservatism as a political force came of age.
This year also marks my first 50 years the conservative movement.
Like many conservatives of my generation, it started with the Arizonan's quixotic quest for the White House. I was too young to vote, but headed my high school chapter of Students for Goldwater. One thing the campaign should have taught us is that it's not enough to hold the right positions. You need be able to articulate them without sounding like a cross between Vlad the Impaler and Crazy Guggenheim.
The one bright spot in an otherwise dismal campaign was a late October speech ("A Time for Choosing") by an ex-actor who 17 years later became our greatest president of the 20th century.
Although I didn't know it at the time, with the Goldwater campaign, I had enlisted for life. In college, I started a chapter of Young Americans for Freedom at my alma mater, Boston University. YAF was then the largest and most active national conservative organization. Eventually, I helped to start YAF chapters at a dozen Massachusetts colleges and universities.
In the 1960s, I encountered a neo-Marxist movement called the New Left, which would become the most corrupting force in American politics. With the triumph of Alinsky disciple Barack Hussein Obama, its banner now flies over the White House.
In the 1970s, I joined the burgeoning anti-tax movement, becoming the first executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Limited Taxation. I helped defeat a graduated state income tax and was involved with a property-tax cutting initiative called Prop 2 ½. That was followed by two years on the West Coast running the Second Amendment Foundation, where we fought to preserve a constitutional right the left claimed was nonexistent.
That led to 19 years as a columnist (lightly syndicated) and editorial writer at The Boston Herald (1983-2002). During those years, The Herald published over 2,200 of my columns.
Since then, I've been a free-lance writer, media consultant and communications director of the World Congress of Families. To recap, since 1964, I've been part of the campus-conservative, anti-tax, gun-owners rights, and family-values movements, while championing conservatism as a commentator.
I'm not boasting – others have contributed far more – but I have been around, fought for diverse causes and experienced the best and worst of a movement which has shaped America more than any other in the post-War era.
Here are the lessons I've learned along the way, most of which you won't hear on talk radio or read in the blogosphere.
1. Many who call themselves conservatives have a comic-book view of conservatism. Talk to anyone under 35 at the Conservative Political Action Conference (the annual orgy of self-congratulation and muddled thinking just ended) and you're likely to hear the following: "I'm an economic conservative." (In other words, "I have no idea of what a conservative is.") "I don't care about marriage, abortion and stuff like that." ("I'm a conservative who doesn't care about morality, the family and protecting innocent human life.") Ask what they believe and the answer you're likely to get is "Freedom, freedom, freedom! We need to cut taxes and have a smaller government." This is a pathetic reductionism that tries to distill two centuries of conservative thought, from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk, to "Government bad. Fortune 500 good!" This is to authentic conservatism what a sad clown done with paint-by-numbers is to Rembrandt.
2. Our cause is faith, family and freedom. These are building blocks. We start with faith, because liberty, morality and human nature (on which the first two are based) are of God. The family because it is the foundation of social order and the cradle of civilization. Freedom because it gives us the chance to find our way to God, and the ability to have families and make life's most important decisions.
3. Conservatives are patriots, not nationalists. We love America; we don't worship the nation state. We understand that, internationally, America isn't always right. A nationalist says: "My country right or wrong." A patriot says: "I love my country and will strive to see that it's in the right."
4. Conservatives believe in the concept of American exceptionalism – that America is unique in its contributions to freedom, prosperity and civilization, at home and abroad. And that, for more than two centuries, America has blessed humanity – materially and spiritually. You can disagree with the patriotic consensus on almost anything else – including defense and foreign policy – but dispute this, and you're merely a resident of the United States and not an American.
5. Conservatives believe in representative government, not democracy. The Founding Fathers disdained democracy (or "mobocracy" as they called it) which is why the word is not to be found in the Declaration of Independence or Constitution. The latter speaks of securing "the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." As America has become more of a democracy and less of a republic, we've become less free. De Tocqueville warned that democracy becomes a nation's undoing when the majority discovers it can vote itself benefits out of the treasury (out of the pockets of the more productive). Any limitation on governmental power – like the Bill of Rights – is anti-democratic, which is why the left keeps telling us that the Constitution is outmoded.
6. Conservatives aren't libertarians or soft anarchists. Libertarians and conservatives support the free market. That's where the similarities end. Libertarians (utopians of the right) believe in the separation of morality and government, as if such was even possible. A consistent libertarian opposes laws against drugs, prostitution, child pornography, abortion and euthanasia, and even age of consent laws. But, without a moral foundation, liberty becomes license. (John Adams explained: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.") The type of "freedom" libertarians advocate would lead to an unraveling of the social order, which would eventually result in a new tyranny, as the masses clamor to escape the chaos libertarians have unleashed. Libertarians understand the human drive for freedom, but miss the corresponding drives for security and order. The business of conservatives is to balance the three.
7. Private property and the free market lead to prosperity and are bulwarks against tyranny – The genius of the free market can be seen in comparing the economies of North and South Korea, East and West Germany (before reunification), and Costa Rica and Cuba. In the U.S., states with lower taxes and less regulation have more robust economies and better job growth. Private property and the free market also lead to a diffusion of power, one reason the concentration of power in Washington over the past century – which has accelerated under Obama -- is so dangerous. The power to tax and regulate can easily lead to control over every human activity – from how we raise our children to our speech and even our thoughts. The current regime would put the nation's health care in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats, literally giving them the power of life and death.
8. There is no conservative foreign policy, though there are some guiding principles. Isolationism and interventionism is a false dichotomy. If the Founding Fathers were inveterate isolationists, why did Jefferson send the Marines to the shores of Tripoli in the first decade of the 19th century? Sometimes, intervention in foreign conflicts is unavoidable. (World War II, Korea and Vietnam being cases in point.) And sometimes, the net result of intervention is building a better infrastructure for the Taliban or creating another Muslim republic in the Balkans. The Crimea? It hard to imagine a region whose fate is less related to our national interest. (Outer Mongolia? Fiji?) All intervention doesn't lead to a quagmire, and every crisis isn't Munich. Here are a few principles on when to intervene and how: 1. Don't use the U.S. military like the Peace Corps – an international force of community organizers. 2. Don't make threats you're not prepared to follow through on. 3. Even when our just national interests are at stake, apply as little force as necessary. Military intervention should always be the last resort. 4. A thug with an ideology is always more dangerous than a thug without one. 5. Support your friends; frustrate your foes. 6. The world is a perilous place. It always has been. Without a strong military, we will lose everything.
9. Islam is the principal external threat to America. Islam is as much an ideology as a religion. For most of its 1,300-year history, its goal has been conquest – a worldwide caliphate. (By comparison, communism and fascism are the new bullies on the block.) In normative Islam, there can be no separation of the political and spiritual. (Freedom of conscience, prized in the West, doesn't exist.) It's no coincidence that terrorism comes almost exclusively from the Islamic world – the Muslim Brotherhood and Tehran, Hamas and Hezbollah, al-Azhar University and al-Qaeda, Shiite, Sunni and Wahabi. Churches and synagogues don't preach holy war.
10. Leftism is the principal internal threat to America. Liberalism has morphed into a monstrosity which would have been unrecognizable to the liberals of old. Today, its drive for conformity by crushing dissent is relentless. With speech codes, anti-discrimination legislation, IRS harassment, and social sanction (political correctness) – and forcing abortion, contraception and homosexual "marriage" on believers – it has created a new totalitarianism, a drive to dominate every aspect of life and try to reshape human nature (the age-old dream of totalitarians). This is no longer a war of ideas but a struggle to preserve civilization.
11. The GOP is a necessary evil. The conservative movement has principles. The Republican Party has positions which it dangles before unsuspecting voters. There isn't an issue on which the party isn't willing to betray one or another of its core constituencies – from life and the family, to spending and immigration. The reward the Tea Parties got for delivering a Republican victory in 2010 ranged from sneering contempt to outright hostility by establishment Republicans. The "conservatism" of the GOP is transitory – until the next opinion poll do us part.
12. The Republican Party is all we have. A conservative third-party, which would do more than collect protest votes, is an illusion. The last major party to emerge from the ashes of one that failed is the GOP of the 1850s. That was before the age of mass media and billion-dollar budgets for presidential campaigns. The conservative goal should be a hostile takeover of the Republicans. We should enter the primaries, full force, to nominate the right candidates. Once they're elected, we should maintain unremitting pressure to keep them honest. We should take every opportunity to defeat RINOs, to weaken the establishment's hold on the party, even if it means voting for Democrats in general elections. In 1964, the enemy was George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller. By 2012, it was Mitt Romney and Karl Rov-efeller.
For all our shortcomings, conservatives are the only political force interested in rational analysis and open debate. Minds on the left are closed so tight that they might as well be hermetically sealed. "The discussion is over" should be stamped on their foreheads. "It's time to move forward on me telling you what to do – and you doing it."
In 1964, American culture was still relatively sane. Today, the savages make movies, report the news, control corporate boardrooms and run the public schools. America's survival depends on the triumph of conservatism.