Home/When I Use A Word, It Means Just What I Choose It To Mean — Neither More Nor Less

When I Use A Word, It Means Just What I Choose It To Mean — Neither More Nor Less

Daniel Larison complains about my last post on the grounds that defending the status quo isn’t conservative. I think he misses my point. I wasn’t arguing that Barack Obama is a traditionalist conservative, nor that he’s an ideological movement conservative. I argued that Barack Obama was already pursuing what Tom Friedman thinks a conservative opposition should be advocating, and that it is therefore bizarre that Friedman is pining for such an opposition rather than simply supporting the President.

The semantic debate about defining a “real” conservative is exceptionally tedious, but I will put in a word for resisting the contemporary inclination to identify it either with a set of policy prescriptions or with a demographic cohort. As Larison himself recognizes, there are essentially no self-identified conservatives in America today who advocate “curtailing the power of the Executive branch,” and precious few who favor “reducing overseas commitments.” I would argue that those who “practice fiscal responsibility in budgeting” are few and far between as well, and I think Larison would agree with me.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that “conservative” can’t mean these things, only that – in the parlance of our time – it mostly doesn’t. This magazine, as I understand it, is devoted to a project of redefining what Americans think it means to be a conservative, specifically arguing that it is more properly conservative to exercise restraint in foreign affairs (potentially even to oppose interventionism on principle) than to try to preserve hegemony, and that it is more properly conservative to nurture local economies and cultures (potentially even ones an individual might find baffling or distasteful) than to try to flatten them in the name of capitalist or administrative efficiency. The fact that one needs to make an argument to the effect that these things are conservative, when most self-identified conservatives plainly don’t think they are, implies acknowledgement that whatever “conservative” means, it means something else – otherwise it would be impossible to convince a self-identified conservative who identifies his or her “conservatism” with nationalism and unfettered capitalism that he or she is wrong in making that identification, and the mission of this magazine would be fruitless.

Whatever that “something else” might be, I would argue it has something to do with endurance, with making it possible for things to continue to be. That goal, it seems to me, is quintessentially conservative. Of course, making it possible for things to continue to be sometimes requires change, and sometimes requires resistance to change. It sometimes requires the exercise of power and sometimes requires its restraint. Daniel Larison favors reduced central government power and favors reducing the power of large banks. As early as the 19th century, Progressives were arguing that these goals were in tension if not in outright contradiction. For this reason, simple deference to the status quo is not, I agree, a good definition of conservatism. But it is a useful default position. “Keep things as they are, unless they are unsustainable, in which case change them in such a way as to cause the least disruption” sounds to me very much like a conservative default position on governance, all else being equal.

Again, I have no interest in arguing that Barack Obama is what Daniel Larison thinks a conservative should be. Plainly he isn’t remotely that. Nor, plainly, is he what a conventional movement conservative thinks a conservative should be. All I was arguing is that he is, in fact, what the blathering centrist commentariat thinks a responsible conservative should be. It would be nice if they acknowledged that as plainly as Larison does.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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