A New, Moderate, Conservative Movement Can Be the Big Tent

Barry Goldwater said that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” And so, over the years, many have opposed moderates, especially those like Nelson Rockefeller and other big-government Republicans.

Moderation may be a virtue in temperament or consumption of food and drink. But what does moderation in politics consist of? We speak of a political spectrum going from left to right, but when we start talking about issues, agreement on where a conservative should stand is lacking. It is not possible, if it ever was, simply to arrange Republicans or conservatives in a spectrum ranging from liberal (left-leaning) to pure conservative (far right) with moderate in the middle.

In 1995, Russell Kirk, arbiter of Conservatism in the second half of the 20th century, explained in an article that a world view or mind set serves as the underpinning for conservatism. He also laid out conservative principles including, but not limited to, belief in the existence of a moral order, respect for custom and continuity, awareness of our imperfectability, belief in a link between freedom and property, and the need to reconcile permanence and change. Conservatives, in his view, would not oppose change. But they always would be aware of what it has taken, throughout history, to enable the establishment of self-government, the rule of law, and belief in the sanctity of equal rights. And they would be aware that failure to know and understand this history could erode or destroy what had been established. http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/detail/ten-conservative-principles/

In actuality, at least three types of conservatives have existed, not counting libertarians who have since become more visible. William F. Buckley worked successfully toward distancing main stream conservatives from segregationists and John Birchers while encouraging the inclusion and cooperation of Christian social conservatives, free-market conservatives, and anti-communist defense hawks. In a piece written in 2008, at Buckley’s death and during the time Republicans turned to John McCain, George Weigel noted that the “big tent” or fusion of the three types of conservatives was falling apart. He makes the excellent point that the free-market, defense-minded factions had not tried hard enough to make the moral case that free-market policies uplift individuals and offer them a better life. They had relied for moral grounding on the Christian conservatives who really had no interest in or understanding of free-market economics or the link between freedom and property, a link that is threatened by big government. https://eppc.org/publications/remembering-bill-buckley/

During the 2016 election, some considered libertarians to be moderate simply because they are against the intervention of government in social matters, even though, theoretically, they should be more free-market oriented than anyone.

Donald Trump’s election does not line up with conservatism. The new President of the United States, supposedly a Republican and surrounded by conservatives, has stated opposition to free trade and threatened to punish free speech. Although he does not appear to be a social conservative who would ban abortion and same sex marriage or roll back affirmative action, a large number of his supporters would favor these actions, thus coloring his presidency.

So far, it is unclear whether there can be a big tent again. Online, conservatives end up arguing with each other over what it means to be a conservative and whether it is good or bad to be moderate. Perhaps it is time to lay Barry Goldwater’s defense of extremism to rest and move beyond the definition of moderate as weak or favoring big government.

It is time to identify positions that a large swathe of conservatives will fully support, and even to look for areas of agreement on more controversial subjects such as the environment. A December 12 post on Facebook by Kara West looks wistfully towards this day of agreement, towards what might be a new moderate conservatism. She says, in part, “I am feeling like the New Conservative Movement, if it becomes a party, could be a great home for moderates from both sides of the aisle. People who don’t see half the country as their enemy, but want an America grounded in cooperation, not political warfare. People whose zeal is fueled by the amazing founding principles of the Constitution and not anger over how they have been wronged, as both Democrat and Republican partisans seem to be fueled.”

The positions staked out during his presidential campaign by the leader of the New Conservative Movement, Evan McMullin, offer a model for defining consensus or moderate conservative principles, which also could be enhanced by adding principles that support strong families and free trade.

McMullin’s principles are as follows:
1. Our basic rights are God-given
2. We honor our constitution.
3. Government power must be separated and balanced.
4. Our leaders must be honest and wise.
5. We share responsibility for service and civic duty.
6. Our leaders must be fiscally responsible.
7. Government must promote a free market.
8. We must help people in poverty to overcome it.
9. We must promote life, from birth to natural death.
10. National defense is a primary federal government responsibility.
11. All Americans must have access to affordable, quality healthcare.
12. Our second amendment rights must be protected.
13. Healthy immigration is important to our future.

We should make a conscious effort to promote McMullin’s and West’s vision of a moderate, inclusive conservatism. We have had enough of extremism for a while. It is time for a moderate conservatism.