by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Internal debates about “whither conservatism?” are one of the reasons for this magazine’s (and webzine’s) existence, and a more urgent one than ever with Donald Trump occupying — in the minds of many inside and outside the conservative tent — the position of leader of the conservative movement in 21st-century America. In that vein, there are serious stakes in Rich Lowry’s column on “The Never Trump Delusion” and Jonah Goldberg’s and Ramesh Ponnuru’s joint response, “Conservative Criticism of Trump Is Not Deluded.” Allow me to offer my own two cents.
First, it’s crucially important to remember that, when we talk about American conservatism, we are talking both about conservative ideas and philosophy and the conservative political movement in practice. (As I read Rich’s column, he’s really talking mostly about the latter, whereas Jonah and Ramesh are talking mostly about the former). Theory and practice can never be wholly separate in political philosophy (indeed, as I’ve often written, the essential element of conservatism is practical experience), but there is nonetheless more to conservatism than “it’s whatever people calling themselves conservatives do.” Most conservatives in America voted for Nixon in 1972, but there was still great value in keeping the torch lit for the ideas of Buckley and Goldwater rather than redefining the movement around détente, wage-and-price controls, burglary, Harry Blackmun, and so forth. Conservatives could and did learn lessons from how Nixon appealed to enough people to carry 61 percent of the vote and 49 states, and more than a few conservative politicians survived their support and defenses of Nixon, but there was nonetheless value in National Review endorsing Nixon’s primary opponent in 1972.
For those of us engaged in the contest of ideas outside the electoral system, therefore, it’s enormously important to stand up for conservative ideas, principles, philosophy, and experience especially when the man holding the reins of the Republican party diverges from them.