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Is American conservatism dead?

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Conservatism in the United States has slowly but steadily been on the decline for years, and while it has made some legitimate — and at times not so legitimate — attempts to revive itself, it has suffered from what C.D. Broad calls “philosophical neglect” in his treatise, “Lord Hugh Cecil’s ‘Conservatism.’ ”

As liberalism continues to expand and make progress with an ever younger and more diverse America, conservatism has failed to articulate its purpose and translate that into a meaningful debate about politics and policy in a way that meets the challenges of today. Instead, it has become reactionary, incapable of addressing today’s problems.

{mosads}Renowned political theorist and philosopher Sir Roger Scruton reminds the conservative that “everything is imperfect, but the question is, what parts of what we have inherited can be improved and amendment and what parts must be thrown away?” Conservatism cannot be reactionary because “institutions, traditions, and allegiances survive by adapting,” as Roger Scruton further reminds us in his column, “What Trump doesn’t get about Conservatism,” or, as Edmund Burke once wrote, we “reform in order to conserve.”

The failure of American conservatism can be traced to its unwillingness to adapt. What’s more, the full embrace of Donald Trump as an attempt to defend conservatism against modernity has been all but a failure. Conservatism seeks to preserve tradition, customs of behavior and order — all things that Trump so obviously disrupts. Yet, that which is so obvious does not matter to those who acquiesce to Trump’s every action, and they do so to the demise of conservatism.

Conservatism doesn’t exist merely to highlight and promote the number of jobs created or record numbers on the stock exchange; it is a lifestyle built on preserving the great traditions of church, family, and community. The true defender of conservatism understands that it is easier to tear something apart than to build it; as Paul Tillich wrote in “Morality and Beyond,” you must know when to adapt your ethical system for the problems of today — and that includes Donald Trump.

The root of conservatism from Latin is conservare, which literally means to preserve, but American conservatives have failed to articulate what is being conserved under Donald Trump. To the vast majority of the American people, conservatism appears to be nothing more than an ideology looking backward, but to be conservative does not mean that one has to be reactionary.

Conservatism as an ideology has failed to articulate what aspects of tradition are worth preserving and why; it has failed to articulate how and why customs of behavior are important; and it has failed to articulate why religion and its moral and ethical doctrines are essential to preserving American society. And instead of expanding to make a case to new groups of people, conservativism has weaponized them and turned them into negatives, thus isolating groups that otherwise might have been new recruits to the ideology.

{mossecondads}However, it is not just American conservatism that is witnessing its downfall. The death of American conservatism should also serve as a warning to American liberals.

The extreme elements of liberalism, such as socialism, pander to a base very similarly to the reactionary forms of conservatism. Following in the mistakes of the right, they ignore the reality that the vast majority of the American people do not support such extreme notions; instead, they want progress while also preserving order, customs and tradition. Essentially, it is a combination of conservatism and liberalism that has propelled the United States to unprecedented heights.

The death of American conservatism should not equate to the death of American liberalism. Though disparate, it is my hope that those on the left will help those of us on the right who seek to rebuild conservatism, just as I would help those on the left rebuild if the time ever comes. One form cannot exist without the other. They balance each other out, and without balance, there is chaos. There is a necessity for both ideologies to participate in the great intellectual exchange of ideas because it is that process that serves as a check for extremism on both ideological sides. 

Is it possible for conservatism to rebound? It ultimately depends whether or not there is an appetite to do so. If not, the death of American conservatism will serve as a great reminder of what happens to an ideology when extremism trumps purity.

Shermichael Singleton is a Republican strategist and contributing host of “Consider It” on Vox Media. You can follow him on Twitter @Shermichael_.

Tags American politics Conservatism Donald Trump Liberalism

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