NOVEMBER 2006

Hijacking the Conservative Movement
by Joe Sobran
(pages 1, 3-4, 7)

     Nowadays, in startling contrast to my youth, it's 
very fashionable to claim to be a conservative. Back in 
the Sixties, conservatism was still rather a fugitive 
thing, and the fashion was liberalism or even radicalism. 
By the late Eighties, "liberal" had become "the L-word," 
and liberals were looking for a less alarming euphemism, 
such as "progressive." As I say, the change is startling.

     But have things really changed that much? Or is the 
change really superficial? I'm afraid the latter is the 
case. The airwaves are clogged with the clamorous voices 
of talk radio, or "squawk radio," as I like to call it -- 
people claiming to be conservative, though they don't 
sound much like the great conservatives I grew up 
admiring: Bill Buckley, Frank Meyer, James Burnham, 
Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, and Barry Goldwater, to 
name a few.

     In fact many of today's so-called conservatives seem 
to me to be liberals without knowing it, no matter how 
much they say they detest liberalism. Rush Limbaugh, to 
name only the most audible of them, seems to have no real 
philosophy, no awareness of conservative literature 
outside journalism. His premises are hard to distinguish 
from liberalism's. Apparently he equates favoring war 
with conservatism. He likes big government just fine, as 
long as it's shooting something. He says the Republican 
Party will save Social Security and Medicare, huge 
liberal programs which a real conservative thinks 
shouldn't have existed in the first place. Sometimes, 
after listening to him for a half hour, I want to beg 
him, "Rush, how about equal time for =real= 

     Well, just what is "real" conservatism? This is an 
old question, much debated. Dictionaries define it in 
such terms as "preference for tradition" and "resistance 
to change," but these are too general to take us very 
far. After all, nearly everyone wants to preserve some 
tradition and opposes some kinds of change, and people we 
call conservatives often want to do away with certain 
traditions and bring about important changes.

     And all of life is in flux at all times. You can 
never conserve everything. We are forced to face the 
question of which things we should conserve, which we 
should discard or even destroy, and which we should let 
pass away. When a house catches fire, we may have to 
decide very quickly what we can rescue from the flames 
and abandon all the rest.

     And conservatism isn't just passivity. It's active 
maintenance. An old house needs repair and painting, a 
garden needs weeding, trees and shrubs need pruning. To 
conserve is to renew. Conservatism can't mean neglect.

     And conservatism varies from place to place, from 
people to people. The great Russian novelist Alexander 
Solzhenitsyn, even under the Soviet regime, wanted to 
preserve tsarism and the Russian Orthodox Church. Islam 
is in many ways deeply conservative, but we have also 
seen it take radical and revolutionary forms. Mormonism 
was once seen as radical, but today it seems a very 
conservative religion. The same might be said of 
Christianity in various forms. And as G.K. Chesterton 
says, "It is futile to discuss reform without reference 
to form."

     The word "conservatism" came into general use after 
the French Revolution of 1789, its first and most 
eloquent spokesman being Edmund Burke in his REFLECTIONS 
ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE. Burke argued for the 
traditional liberties of the English against the 
"abstract" Rights of Man advocated by the 
revolutionaries, predicting correctly that such abstract 
rights, with no force of custom behind them, would perish 
in a reign of terror. The revolutionaries, he said, were 
so obsessed with man's =rights= that they had forgotten 
man's =nature.=

     History has vindicated Burke's warning, but many 
have doubted that his kind of conservatism fully applies 
to America. We don't have the sort of history England and 
France had, a feudal ancien regime with a social 
hierarchy and inherited status. It is even argued that 
our only tradition is a liberal one, of legal equality 
for everyone. After all, we are not divided into peasants 
versus noblemen, or anything of the sort. We even take 
pride in our social fluidity and more or less equal 

     This brings us to a paradox. The most eloquent of 
our own Founding Fathers was Thomas Jefferson, who 
welcomed the French Revolution and had no use for Burke. 
Yet most American conservatives look to Jefferson as 
their intellectual patriarch, he who wrote the 
Declaration of Independence and proclaimed that "all men 
are created equal."

     Today "conservatism" has become a confusing term. It 
can refer to a Jeffersonian vision of limited government 
and strict construction of the U.S. Constitution, or it 
can be equated with President Bush's militarism and what 
has been called his "big-government conservatism." And of 
course the title is also claimed by "neoconservatives" 
who share Bush's enthusiasm for war and are, when it 
comes to social policy, more like liberals than 
Jeffersonian conservatives.

     Both Bush and the "neocons" favor an undefined war 
and speak of a "global democratic revolution." But what 
is conservative about war and revolution? It has often 
been pointed out that this sort of talk is more akin to 
Leon Trotsky than to Edmund Burke. Bush even speaks of 
eliminating tyranny from the face of the Earth -- a neat 
trick, if you can do it.

     Here I think we should keep in mind Burke's 
distinction between "the abstract rights of man" and 
man's actual nature. Conservatives tend to believe in 
Original Sin, or something like it, that will forever 
prevent man from achieving perfection. This attitude 
produces a disposition that tends to be both skeptical 
and tolerant, deeply dubious about overhauling society. 
Societies and traditions can't be built from scratch; as 
Burke said, we must build out of existing materials -- 
that is, real human beings and their habits, rooted in 

     Liberals, on the other hand, speak freely of 
"ideals," imagined perfections that we can achieve if 
only we have the will. "I have a dream," as Martin Luther 
King said. Hence liberals typically talk of abolishing 
evils -- "eliminating poverty," "eradicating racism," 
"doing away with prejudice," "ending exploitation," and 
so forth. This usually means strenuous government action, 
massive coercion and bureaucracy, because these things 
don't just evaporate of themselves.

     Conservatives don't speak much of "ideals." They 
think, more modestly, in terms of norms, which are never 
perfectly realized, but only approximated by sinful man. 
Consider homosexuality. Whereas the liberal wants to 
impose "gay rights," by law and coercion, the 
conservative sees homosexuality as a defect, which to 
some extent can and must be tolerated, because it can't 
be "eradicated," but it can't rationally be exalted to 
the plane of normality; and he knows that all talk of 
"same-sex marriage" is nonsense, like trying to breed 
calves from a pair of bulls. But to the liberal, the only 
issue is equal rights; human nature and normality have 
nothing to say to him. What the conservative sees as 
life's mysteries, the liberal sees as mere irrationality.

     One word is notably absent from the liberal 
vocabulary: "enough." For the liberal, there is hardly 
such a thing as "too much" government. There is no point 
at which liberals say, "Well, we've done it. We've 
realized our dreams. We have all the government we need, 
and we should stop now." No, they always want =more= 
government. There is no such thing as =enough= 

     Again, Chesterton sums up liberalism in a phrase: 
"the modern and morbid habit of always sacrificing the 
normal to the abnormal." We see this again in the grisly 
business of abortion. To the typical conservative it is 
an ugly thing, something that may not be entirely 
"eliminated" but must be contained, condemned, and above 
all must never be accepted as normal. But to the typical 
liberal it is a =right= -- even "a fundamental human and 
constitutional right"!

The role of Lincoln

     Consider Abraham Lincoln, claimed by both liberals 
and conservatives. Most Americans consider him our 
greatest president -- a view I emphatically reject. But 
both sides have a point in claiming him. In some respects 
he was rather conservative -- for example, in his 
willingness to compromise on slavery before the Civil 
War. He doubted that he had the constitutional authority 
to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which he finally 
justified only as a wartime measure, applying only to the 
seceding states.

     But he finally became an all-out abolitionist, and 
he had a radical dream of colonizing all free blacks 
outside the United States; in his 1862 State of the Union 
message, he called for a constitutional amendment 
authorizing such colonization! In addition, Lincoln was a 
high-handed centralizer of power, who suspended habeas 
corpus and crushed freedom of speech and press throughout 
the North. Like most liberals, he talked of freedom -- "a 
new birth of freedom," in fact -- but the reality was 
power. Under the Constitution, he insisted, no state 
could withdraw from the Union for any reason. This was a 
view Jefferson did not share. The United States had begun 
in secession. Lincoln himself had once called secession 
"a most sacred right, which we believe is to liberate 

     A more recent conservative, Willmoore Kendall, who 
died in 1967, argued that American conservatism is rooted 
in its own constitutional tradition, best understood in 
the light of THE FEDERALIST PAPERS, where the limits of 
the Federal Government are clearly set forth. As far as I 
can tell, Lincoln was entirely ignorant of THE FEDERALIST 
PAPERS, as well as of the Articles of Confederation -- a 
point I'll return to.

     An even more recent conservative, Michael Oakeshott, 
who died in 1990, was English rather than American, but 
he had much to teach us. Oakeshott, like Burke, decried 
"rationalism in politics" -- by which he chiefly meant 
what we call liberalism. He observed that some people 
(liberals) see government as "a vast reservoir of power," 
to be mobilized for whatever purposes they imagine would 
benefit mankind. By contrast, Oakeshott argued, the 
conservative sees governing as "a specific and limited 
activity," chiefly concerned with civility and the rule 
of law, not with "dreams" and "projects." I consider 
Oakeshott the most eloquent expositor of conservatism and 
the conservative temperament since Burke.

     I have already said that Lincoln was poorly 
acquainted with the Founding Fathers. By contrast, 
Jefferson Davis was thoroughly familiar with them, and in 
his history of the Confederacy (too little read nowadays) 
he makes a powerful, I would say irrefutable, case that 
every state has a constitutional right to withdraw -- to 
secede -- from the Union.

     In the North, secession is still seen as a regional 
"Southern" issue, inseparable from, and therefore 
discredited by, slavery. But this is not so at all. At 
various times, Northern states had threatened to secede 
for various reasons. On one occasion, Thomas Jefferson 
said they should be allowed to "go in peace." After all, 
the whole point of the Declaration of Independence was 
that these "are, and of Right ought to be, Free and 
Independent States." Not, as Lincoln later said, a single 
"new nation," but (to quote Willmoore Kendall) "a baker's 
dozen of new sovereignties."

     And the Articles of Confederation reinforced the 
point right at the beginning: "Each state retains its 
sovereignty, freedom, and independence." And at the end 
of the Revolutionary War, the British specifically 
recognized the sovereignty of all 13 states! This is 
flatly contrary to Lincoln's claim that the states had 
never been sovereign.

     But didn't the Constitution transfer sovereignty 
from the states to the Federal Government, outlawing 
secession? Not at all. The Constitution says nothing of 
the kind. And as Davis wrote, sovereignty cannot be 
surrendered by mere implication. In fact, several states 
ratified the Constitution on the express condition that 
they reserved the right to "resume" the powers they were 
"delegating" -- that is, secede. And if one state could 
secede, so could the others. A "state" was not a mere 
province or subdivision of a larger entity; it was 
sovereign by definition.

     Claiming sovereignty for the Federal Government, 
Lincoln felt justified in violating the Constitution in 
order to "save the Union" -- by which he meant "saving" 
Federal sovereignty. One of the best-kept secrets of 
American history is that many if not most Northerners 
thought the Southern states had the right to secede. This 
is why Lincoln shut down hundreds of newspapers and 
arrested thousands of critics of his war. He had to wage 
a propaganda war against the North itself.

     Were you told this in your history classes? Neither 
was I. We are still being told that Lincoln's cause was 
the cause of liberty; just as we are told that he was the 
friend of the black man, though he wanted the freed 
slaves to be sent abroad, leaving an all-white America. 
Lincoln had a dream too, but it wasn't Martin Luther 

     Lincoln achieved what the Princeton historian James 
MacPherson calls "the Second American Revolution," giving 
the Federal Government virtually full authority over the 
internal affairs of the states. Columbia's George 
Fletcher credits him with creating "a new Constitution." 
A third historian, Garry Wills of Northwestern 
University, says he "changed America," transforming our 
understanding of the Constitution.

     Mind you, these are not Lincoln's critics -- they 
are his champions! Do they listen to themselves? They are 
saying exactly what Jefferson Davis said: that Lincoln 
was abandoning the original Constitution! But they think 
this is a high compliment. Lincoln himself claimed he was 
"saving" the old Constitution. His admirers, without 
realizing it, are telling us a very different story.

     Peaceful secession was a state's ultimate 
constitutional defense against Federal tyranny. Without 
it, the Federal Government has been able to claim new 
powers for itself while stripping the states of their 
powers. Lincoln neither foresaw nor intended this when he 
crushed secession. But today the states are helpless 
when, for example, the Federal Courts suddenly declare 
that no state may constitutionally protect unborn 
children from violent death in the womb. If even one 
state had been able to secede, the U.S. Supreme Court 
would never have dared provoke it to do so by issuing 
such an outrageous ruling, with no support in the 

     But Lincoln has been deified as surely as any Roman 
emperor. Today he is widely ranked as one of our 
"greatest presidents," along with another bold usurper of 
power, Franklin Roosevelt. And as I say, even 
conservatives, so called, join in his praise. President 
Bush and his supporters invoke both Lincoln and Roosevelt 
to justify the war in Iraq and any powers he chooses to 
claim in its prosecution. In the old days, Americans told 
the government what our rights were; now it tells us. And 
we meekly obey.

     If Bush and his right-wing supporters are 
conservatives, what on earth would a liberal be like? In 
these last six years, the Federal Government has vastly 
increased in power, with a corresponding diminution of 
our freedoms. Every American child is now born $150,000 
in debt -- his estimated share of the national debt, 
which he had no say in incurring. And of course the 
figure will be much higher when he is old enough to vote.

     Meanwhile, he will go to a school, where he will be 
taught that he enjoys "self-government," thanks to great 
men like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Bush.

     What passes for "conservatism" now is a very far cry 
indeed from even the limited-government conservatism of 
Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan just a generation ago. 
It is merely a variant of the liberalism it pretends to 

     How do these pseudoconservatives differ from 
liberals? Chiefly, for some reason, in their reflexive 
enthusiasm for war. Ponder that. War is the most 
destructive and =least= conservative of all human 
activities. It is big government par excellence; it 
breeds tyranny and, often, revolution. Yet most Americans 
now identify it with conservatism!

     I am very much afraid that the next generation will 
have forgotten what real conservatism means: moral 
stability, piety, private property, and of course the 
rule of law (as distinct from the mad multiplication of 

     But genuine conservatism will reassert itself, even 
if it has to find another name and new spokesmen. If the 
Bushes and Limbaughs have usurped and discredited the 
word "conservatism" for the time being, we must try to 
take it back. If we can't, we'll just have to find a 
label they can't steal.


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