The Fork in the Road Between Nationalism and Conservatism

There was a time, particularly in the latest Bush administration, that Republican and conservative were just synonyms. The mass party switching that occurred from 1994 to 1996, when so many Democrats became Republicans, left conservative groups free to focus on the GOP without having to build bridges to the Democrats. There were no conservatives there anymore at the national level.

Then the Bush administration came in and conservatives and Republicans were treated as the same and many conservatives put party good over principle. If it advanced the party, it would advance conservatism they thought. We should have known something was up when Fred Barnes penned his “Big Government Conservatives” piece in the Wall Street Journal. It was all down hill from there.

The Republican Civil War that so many fixate on is what I actually refer to as the great unraveling. The ties that bind the GOP to conservatism have loosened and those who put principle over party are separating from those who put party over principle. That’s not to say there are no conservatives in the GOP anymore. There are plenty. But where they draw the lines of demarcation and compromise are different from those who would prefer the principle to the party.

As we move from here, though, it is increasingly apparent that there are some in the party who are going to cast nationalism as conservatism. We should all be concerned and conservatives need to be vigilant.

Nationalism puts the needs of the country first. Those needs can be conservative or socialist. In too many cases, progressives take over nationalism and we get labor unionization, protectionism, corporatism, etc. all in the name of making the country great again and putting America first.

Conservatism puts the individual first and in the never ending fight between liberty and equality conservatism comes down decisively on the side of liberty. What is good for the individual will ultimately be good for the country. Where nationalism seeks what is good for any one country, conservatism sees and seeks universal truths that are applicable and beneficial to everyone.

This is going to be a problem for conservatives going forward. Increasingly, I suspect we will find the rhetoric of the nationalists working to take over the GOP declaring opposition unpatriotic. We are already starting to see that on social media. Conservatism is going to have to be vigilant and instead of being anchored to men, we will have to be anchored to ideas once again.

That, frankly, is where I think conservatism’s biggest failings have come in the last twenty years. We recognized the ideas were right, but failed to convince people that the big idea applied to their daily lives and pocket book issues. We’re going to get another chance because our old ideas are going to be argued as if they are new again. People have forgotten and continue to forget.

There are a lot of nationalists in the GOP convinced they are conservative. But they will pursue policies that show otherwise. Conservatives are going to have to be vocal and vigilant and point out that protectionism fails, unionism decays, and corporatism corrupts. The days ahead will not be easy, but perhaps finally the ties that bind the GOP and conservatism can be fully loosened and thereby readjusted. That’s not really a bad thing. Conservatives need to get back to persuading others of the merit of our ideas and policies instead of just taking for granted that we have a party vehicle to enact our agenda with little thought.

We are at a fork in the road. Let’s not get lost.

About the author

Erick Erickson

View all posts