Op-ed: What happened to conservative optimism?

  • By Cal Thomas
  • Saturday, February 25, 2017 9:59pm
  • Opinion

I had never heard of Milo Yiannopoulos until recently, perhaps because I don’t visit some of the websites where his musings are published.

Milo, as he calls himself because of the difficulty some have pronouncing his last name, was disinvited from this week’s Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) annual gathering of the right in Washington. Apparently the organizers were not bothered by Milo’s association with the so-called “alt-right.” CPAC withdrew the invitation only after a video surfaced showing him apparently endorsing man-boy relationships that qualify under the definition of pedophilia. Yiannopoulos has resigned as an editor at Breitbart.com and apologized for his remarks.

The editors of National Review, as well as other traditional conservative publications and individuals, criticized CPAC for inviting Yiannopoulos to speak. The conservatism of Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan was about ideas, not emotion and exclusion. Reagan, whom the modern right likes to claim as one of its own, was an optimist. Even when he criticized the left’s policies, he almost always presented a superior alternative. He wanted to attract as many people to his worldview as possible by winning the argument and converting opponents, whom he always regarded as fellow Americans and “friends,” even when he disagreed with them.

Today, conservatism has become known in the eyes of many for what and who it is against, not what and who it is for. Yes, part of this is due to media stereotyping, but not all. Traditional conservatism has been a positive “we can do better,” an inspiring and uplifting philosophy that motivates rather than denigrates.

In his 1993 book “The Politics of Prudence,” Russell Kirk set down principles he believed should define conservatism. Among them were the following: an enduring moral order; an adherence to custom, convention and continuity guided by the principle of prudence; the principle of imperfectability, meaning we don’t look to government to create perfect men and women, or a perfect society, thus rejecting utopianism; the belief that freedom and property are closely linked; conservatives uphold voluntary community and reject involuntary collectivism; the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions; permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.

That last one bears elaboration, and Kirk offers it: “The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that give us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.”

One sees this in the debate over the Constitution between liberals, who believe it to be a “living” document, subject to constant change and updating, and conservatives, who believe it a rock of stability that serves as a guide even in the face of rapid technological and cultural change. Just as a GPS must have a starting point in order to arrive at an intended destination, so too must America have a source from which it can plot its direction and not get lost on the journey.

In 1962, William F. Buckley Jr. denounced the John Birch Society as “far removed from common sense” and urged the Republican Party to purge the movement from its ranks. So too must today’s conservatives separate themselves from the “alt-right” white supremacists and anti-Semites and reclaim traditional conservatism as the authentic brand.

Conservatives can win elections and govern without beyond-the-fringe types like Milo Yiannopoulos. If they can’t, they don’t deserve to win.

Readers may email Cal Thomas at tcaeditors@tribpub.com.

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