Earlier this month Yellowhammer News Editor J. Pepper Bryars spoke at the annual board retreat of the Alabama Policy Institute in Birmingham, discussing his thoughts with the think tank’s trustees and advisors, about how the state of conservatism was strong both in our home state and across the nation.
The speech covered various definitions of conservatism and some of its principles before detailing the movement’s gains in Alabama and nationally.
Bryars also mentioned some of conservatism’s current challenges, including reckless spending, declining support for the First Amendment, internal divisions, and a lack of understanding of conservatism.
Watch the video of Pepper’s remarks and the question and answer session here:
(Below you’ll find a copy of his speech, as prepared)
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for the opportunity to speak about the state of conservatism, and I am especially grateful to share my thoughts with such an audience.
The Alabama Policy Institute is a vital part of our state’s conservative community, and our movement owes you a debt of gratitude.
I hope to save a few minutes at the end for any comments or questions – especially if you disagree with something I’m about to say. In that case, you get to go first.
Before a group of people can have a conversation about a subject, they should at least agree upon the definition of that subject.
But if I asked everyone here for their definition of conservatism, no two would be identical.
That’s because conservatism, as a word, doesn’t fully describe the many aspects of our political philosophy.
Some of its principles, like a preference for variety, and some of its processes, like the free market, aren’t “conservative” at all, just as modern liberalism hasn’t been liberal in decades.
Conservatism is complex and full of contradictions
So much so that when William F. Buckley was asked to define the term he produced an essay titled “Notes toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism; Reluctantly and Apologetically Given by William F. Buckley.”
If William F. Buckley couldn’t define conservatism, then nobody can … yet others have tried.
This, from Abraham Lincoln: “What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried.”
Yes, but as I mentioned a moment ago, conservatism also seeks variety, preferring creativity to centralization, and there’s nothing old and tried about what happens within a vibrant free market.
Back to William F. Buckley. He wrote that conservatives “believe that millenniums of intellection have served an objective purpose. Certain problems have been disposed of. Certain questions are closed.”
In other words, conservatives believe that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
True, but conservatism isn’t stagnant.
Russell Kirk: “The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.”
Once upon a time the traditions we now value were new, untried, and often radical ideas.
It stands to reason that there may be other undiscovered ideas that will, in time, and if tested, become traditions valued by generations to come.
So, no, the standard definition of a conservative as someone who doesn’t accept change … doesn’t work.
Most modern conservatives would likely define the term by focusing on some of the ideas we champion:
Both the broad – limited government, free markets, strong families …
And the narrow – overturning Roe v. Wade, defending the Second Amendment, balancing the budget.
President Trump. He’s no movement conservative, but he actually gave a pretty good answer when asked to define a conservative.
He said: “Well, I think it’s a person that doesn’t want to take risks.”
Yes. Again, Russell Kirk: “conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.”
A fundamental component of prudence is avoiding risk.
But then again, isn’t risk a fundamental component of capitalism?
Yet another contradiction.
So … now that we have established that we cannot define the term, let’s press ahead anyway and ask … what’s the state of this indefinable term in America?
Well, if you believed everything you read in the mainstream media you’d be convinced that conservatism is dead in the ditch and progressivism is on the march.
The morning after the election of Sen. Doug Jones, Al.com’s editorial board declared that the “voice of justice” had spoken for a “burning movement” of “black voters, LGBT activists, women and young voters” who represent the future of our state.
In their world, the progressive agenda had finally penetrated the Heart of Dixie.
They went on: “Doug Jones’s election is a moment of change, not only in Alabama, but for an America yearning for signs that these values matter.”
This style of fiction from the liberal media is nothing new.
We’re not hearing it so much right now, but let’s remember what was being written about our movement exactly one year ago this month.
President Trump had been in office for a few weeks. Some of his cabinet appointments were great … Mattis, Kelly, Sessions … but some were suspect.
We knew nothing of our new Treasury Secretary other than he had been a major donor to Democrat politicians.
And then we had Steve Bannon running around promoting a trillion dollar stimulus boondoggle and saying populism, populism, populism.
The American Thinker declared, “RIP, movement conservatism,”
The website Truthout carried a post titled, “How Donald Trump killed movement conservatism.”
And the Washington Post wrote that, “Trump’s takeover of conservatism is complete.”
This continued throughout the year … despite the growing body of evidence showing that conservatism is not only being implemented, but with great effect.
These types of eulogies for conservatism are nothing new.
Similar headlines ran when Goldwater lost in ‘64, when Reagan lost his primary fight in ‘76, and also in ‘92 and 2006.
Five years ago Reuters even asked “Is conservatism going extinct?” and in 2008 The New Republic happily confirmed that, yes, “Conservatism is dead.”
Ding-dong, the liberals cheered … then their party went on to lose more than 1,000 elected offices during the next eight years.
Who won those seats? For the most part, conservatives.
Truth is, our movement was far from dead in 1964 and it’s far from dead now. Quite the opposite.
Let’s look at Alabama.
When the Alabama Policy Institute was founded in the late 1980s:
— Democrats controlled all but one of our statewide constitutional offices – Gov. Guy Hunt was elected on a fluke.
— Both of our U.S. Senators were members of the Democratic Party, along with 5 of our 7 U.S. House members.
— And the State Legislature was 86% Democrat.
— 6 of 7 of our U.S. House seats are held by Republicans. Both of our Senators were Republicans until that fiasco last year. But we’ll correct that soon enough.
— The Republicans hold every statewide constitutional office in Montgomery, and the State Legislature is now 70% Republican.
And although some of that could be attributed to switching brands – a conservative Democrat becomes a moderate Republican – there has been an undeniable, seismic change in policy.
Republicans took complete control a few years ago and began trimming government, cutting waste, rolling back regulations, making hard choices, balancing priorities.
Now, the results: major businesses relocating to Alabama, near record low unemployment, tax cuts, defending unborn life, vouchers for kids stuck in failing schools, and other conservative reforms.
Alabama is an overwhelmingly conservative state, ranked fifth most conservative by Gallup earlier this year. Republican candidates enjoy a 30-point advantage here
Alabama is an overwhelmingly pro-life state, with nearly 60 percent of its citizens saying abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
It’s not just social issues, either.
Consider this from a poll commissioned by … the Alabama Policy Institute: “64 percent of those surveyed would be more likely to vote for a candidate that campaigned on reducing or rejecting federal dollars in order to limit the federal government’s influence over Alabama.”
So, that’s Alabama. Let’s have a look nationwide.
A survey from Gallup found that the United States remains a conservative country, with conservatives outnumbering liberals in 44 states, tied in just two, and lagging in only four.
You could walk from the Florida Keys to northern Minnesota without touching a single “blue” county.
And President Trump … who didn’t campaign as a movement conservative … has governed as a movement conservative, at least partially.
Rolling back harmful regulations. Cutting taxes. Opening up areas for oil and gas exploration. Getting out of that Paris Climate Accord scheme. Moving our embassy to Jerusalem. Challenging the Democrats … and some Republicans … on illegal immigration.
Experts say his judicial appointments have been conservative, as well.
One website that assigns an ideological grade to politicians found that, in 2016, President Trump took the conservative position about 42 percent of the time. By this month, that grade has jumped to 60 percent.
Like you, I think 60 percent isn’t enough – that’s a failing grade where I come from.
But when you consider that puts Trump only one point behind President Reagan on that scale, then even the most ardent Never Trumper must concede … if they are honest with themselves … that this White House is on the right track.
So, it was premature to have pronounced conservatism dead because the Republican Party nominated Donald Trump.
Actually, I think that the fact that President Trump has governed as a conservative, even though he isn’t a movement conservative, is evidence that our movement is actually stronger right now than we think.
And it’s downright silly to think that progressivism is on the rise simply because the reddest state in the union elected a Democrat.
One must consider the extraordinary circumstances in both races, look at the evidence, and draw an honest conclusion.
And when one does, they will see that conservatism remains popular in Alabama, and in the United States.
Meanwhile, our opposition remains disoriented and in denial, staggering from one angry group to another, and further alienating a majority of the country.
But … is all truly well and good?
No, it isn’t. We have many challenges, but in the interest of time, I’ll just mention four.
First, consider the debt. Last week we learned that the federal government must borrow nearly $1 trillion this fiscal year … almost double of what it borrowed in fiscal year 2017.
We cut taxes. Conservatives cheered.
We didn’t cut spending. Conservatives … were silent.
Not only were they silent … they went on to increase spending.
This isn’t consistent. This isn’t conservative. And this isn’t sustainable.
Second, consider our most treasured rights – freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
We’re becoming a nation of censors and snowflakes.
Americans now need to worry less about the government abridging their freedom of religion and their freedom of speech than they need to seriously worry about the Twitter mob having them fired for their religious beliefs, or for how they may express themselves.
— A lady riding a bike down the road raises her middle finger as the president’s motorcade passes. She loses her job.
— The founder of a tech company is blacklisted because he donated to a campaign to defend traditional marriage.
Every week brings new examples of people saying something … believing something … and it generating penalties once reserved for actions that actually broke the law.
These may be penalties imposed by the private sector rather than the government, but they can have the same impact upon someone’s life, and more importantly, they have the same ability to chill speech or to bully someone into the closet for their faith.
At least with government censorship or religious persecution, a citizen has due process.
But now. Think incorrectly. Speak incorrectly. And the mob will come for you.
You will be punished for your … thought crime.
Every year, George Orwell looks less a writer and more a prophet.
Third, consider the division within our movement.
Just as it is impossible to define conservatism, it is impractical to expect everyone to be the same type of conservative.
It’s not even conservative to think that way.
It’s the other side that demands conformity. It’s the other side that cannot tolerate true diversity. Not us.
We need everyone. We need a big tent.
But if we look at the Mitch McConnells and say, no, we cannot have them. They’re out.
If we look at the Steve Bannons and say, no, we cannot have them. They’re out.
If we push out the supporters of Roy Moore.
If we push out the NeverTrumpers or the ForeverTrumpers.
If we push out the supporters of Mitt Romney.
If we push out the supporters of Ron Paul.
Then the winner might be left with 10% of the electorate.
And what does that get us?
In a parliamentary form of government, maybe a minister or two.
In the United States of America, it gets you nothing.
But if you go too far in the other direction, unity becomes tribalism.
The fourth challenge we should be aware of … consider the cause of that division – a misunderstanding of conservatism.
For decades, we built a movement on organic American conservatism … the common sense that told us our beliefs were true.
Many of us are cradle conservatives. To us … these values … this way we think … it’s less of a political movement than a way of life that was passed from generation to generation.
Sure. Behind the scenes there were thinkers and institutions building an intellectual framework to make sense of it all.
But our parents didn’t need to read Kirk to value our traditions or study Hayek to not believe promises made in some far away capital.
Fair enough. This approach worked … until now.
Now, our unprecedented ability to share information and form even smaller networks of like-minded people has atomized the conservative movement.
Many now see conservatism in those fleeting policies we personally support, not the principles those policies are based upon.
Because of these factions, and a misunderstanding of our shared principles, where we should be seeing allies … we’re seeing enemies.
We must counter this problem … and we can start by taking the conversation straight to the people, right down to the grassroots.
Instead of talking about the political implications of a thing … we should talk about its impact on our culture, on our way of life.
That is how we can hold our movement together, and keep it from staggering too far off course.
Still … some say it’s pointless to talk about political philosophy, or even to discuss principles. Focus on the issues, they say. The bread and butter.
One friend in the conservative media told during the last presidential primary, “This isn’t about liberal versus conservative.”
But it’s always been about that – the struggle between those who believe in the perfectibility of society through plans and controls and those who believe in the prosperity of man through liberty and order.
We’ve been having this fight under one label or another since antiquity, and like the devil, its impact doesn’t depend upon whether anyone believes the fight is happening.
The Democrats, the liberals, the progressives know this.
They’re teaching it all of the time. What they think. How they think. Why they think.
They have goals, objectives. To them, theirs is a political movement with a clear trajectory and a destination.
We’d be fools to rest on all of the achievements I mentioned a moment ago.
They were gained over centuries, but our way of life can be lost in a generation if we fail to pass along our way of thinking.
We must teach conservatism. Early and often.
From the conservative perspective, not only our future, but the present … and even the past … depend upon our ability to do so.
So with that … I say “Thank you.”
(What do you think about the state of American conservatism? Post this to your Facebook page and tell your friends what you think.)