Is Conservatism a “lifestyle”?
This is the first in a series of reflections on the panel discussion - “The Future of the Conservative Movement and the Republican Party” - held January 19th in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Originally scheduled for Centenary College, it was moved to the Hackettstown Community Center after the College’s President objected to the Second Amendment being part of the subject matter discussed.
Among those in attendance was David Larsen, a two-time candidate for Congress. Larsen, who lives in Tewksbury, Hunterdon County, was one of three “Tea Party” candidates to challenge Congressman Leonard Lance in the 2010 primary. He emerged as the strongest challenger with 9,475 votes to Lance’s 17,200. The two other “Tea Party” candidates received 2,534 and 1,448 votes. After congressional reapportionment made the seventh district more Republican, Larsen took on Lance head to head in 2012 and got 15,253 votes to Lance’s 23,432.
During last Saturday’s discussion, Larsen took to the floor to challenge libertarian professor Murray Sabrin on a few points and later tweeted, “Many of you understand, Conservatism is a life style, not a covert name tag to wear during a primary.”
Well is it? Is conservatism a “life style”?
David Larsen is very new to the conservative movement. Many conservatives with more experience in the movement recognize that the term “conservative” is an aspirational one.
They understand that a number of different philosophies exist uneasily under the banner “conservative” and that these are often at odds with each other. They accept that people who self-identify as “conservatives” often have a very loose understanding of the term and what it means, either in its historic context or in its modern American usage.
But is there such a thing as a “conservative life style”?
Take for example, the belief in God. Must all conservatives believe in God? Is part of that lifestyle going to church? Must conservatives be “born-again” in the spirit and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Do conservatives have to reject Darwinian science and embrace Creationism?
These are certainly attributes of some conservatives, but can a Darwinian atheist be a conservative? Many, if not most, experienced conservatives would emphatically say yes, and would point to many strong conservative activists who are.
Are conservatives personally frugal and fiscally responsible? Many are, but we have had very strong conservative activists who have found themselves in bankruptcy or who have fell behind in paying their taxes. Does this mean that they are not conservative?
So who is a conservative and who is not is a matter of self-identification, personal aspiration, and debate among that vague and undefined community who call themselves “conservative”. Nobody owns the trademark - and it is not a matter of lifestyle.
William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan understood this and welcomed the chance to work with and educate a broad spectrum of people who self-identified as conservatives. They were successful at making the word “conservative” a positive and an electoral winner, so that today, years after both have left the earth, their broad idea of “conservative” resonates with voters and is the most popular political label that voters apply to themselves.
For all its strong points, the two campaigns of David Larsen did not exhibit an intimate understanding of the different contexts which make up the conservative movement. According to activists involved in Larsen’s effort, there were strong religious overtones to his campaign meetings that did little to reassure those conservatives who happened to be of other faiths or indeed, no faith at all.
These were self-inflicted problems that plagued Larsen’s campaigns and cost him support. If the former candidate seems a little bitter for the experience, he should look no further than the mirror for the cause. Certainty is the cause of many a failed campaign - and nothing is more certain than when a candidate believes that God has pre-ordained his victory.