Conservatives take great pride in their label and in angrily attacking those who don't share their beliefs. Thus was I taken aback to see the self-described conservative commentator and New York Times columnist David Brooks defend the idea of gay marriage.
Gay marriage is a hot topic, like civil rights and legal abortion in other times. If a conservative defends such a progressive idea, is he still a conservative? What makes a conservative?
I don't like labels, a convenient though inadequate means of description. Politics, let alone society, is too complex to be reduced to handy either-ors. Howard Dean's surprising prominence in the presidential race can be attributed to the absence of labels for him, or the presence of contradictory ones, indicating he obviously is his own man.
But conservatives exult in their label as though it carried the distinction of something high and mighty, like Mensa membership. Wearing the label normally means accepting the baggage that comes with it, some of which Brooks is trying to unload.
Check the conservative baggage claim area and you find such items as opposing big government, abortion, gun control, environmentalism, affirmative action (a form of civil rights) and homosexuality. It means supporting religion in politics, school prayer, creationism and the military (through spending, not serving).
There is also a club subset called neoconservatives, of which Brooks is a leading member, that believes America should fight Israel's battles.
Hypocrisy won't exclude you from the club. The most angry of the Clinton-haters had their own bimbo problems, and the most righteous of the moral majority have tripped up over the usual sins.
Rush Limbaugh, a radio conservative, claimed the solution to drug use was "to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them and send them up the river." Then Limbaugh became a drug addict and changed his mind about prison time.
Hypocrisy gets a pass, but what about apostasy? Can Brooks get away with backing something as radical as gay marriage and stay in the club? What is the essence of conservatism? When we boil it down, what's left?
The movement has tried to finesse its existential problem by subdividing into social and economic branches. Abandoning social conservatism, Brooks presumably could claim economic conservatism and still keep his pin and secret handshake.
The problem is that economic conservatism died under Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush has now broken all Reagan's budget deficit records. With our all-conservative government wallowing in debt, it's hard to find a practicing economic conservative.
Libertarians and liberals are the economic conservatives today. Libertarians, the people with the Adam Smith ties, are the true defenders of small government, while liberals have rallied to balanced budgets. One of the great political switches of our time – right up there with the South's going Republican in the 1970s – has been liberals replacing conservatives as the champions of fiscal responsibility.
Deprived of economic credibility, conservatives threw themselves into their social agenda. They turned on social enemies with an anger rarely seen in politics. In Bill Clinton, they had their devil, and with impeachment reached their apogee of hatred.
That's what makes Brooks' defense of gay marriage so damaging for them. If they lose their social issues, what's left? Robbed of grand modifiers like "social" and "economic," the club is reduced to mere lobbyist status, like the NRA and AARP. The risk is that conservatism ceases to be a credible club at all, as in Canada and Britain.
Support for gay marriage is a big crack in the facade. Brooks' action not only undercuts their social agenda but deprives conservatives of an issue to use in next year's election.
In our quest to understand, to give the word "conservative" meaning, we return to the roots. Edmund Burke is recognized as the first conservative, whose pro-monarchist, anti-democratic views in England would give birth to the Conservative Party. Whigs, by contrast, were progressives who sought to weaken the monarchy.
To be conservative in Burke's time was to defend traditional things – values, institutions, above all the pound sterling, for society's stability was built on bonds. Change was the enemy, which led to unrest, even revolt, the enemy of tradition, of conservatism.
Whatever you may think about homosexual marriage, you have to admit it is not a traditional value. It may be an idea whose time has come, and I suspect it is, though I give way to no one in respecting traditions.
Our distillation of conservatism leaves the vat almost empty. Economic conservatism is gone, and social conservatism under attack. What's left to bind together the fraying brotherhood, to keep government halls filled with dyspeptic fulminators and the airwaves with angry ranters?
Even robbed of doctrine, conservatives have a unique glue to bind them together. It is the thing that identifies them in every setting and separates them from others. It is the one thing left in the vat when all else is boiled away, disappeared into the ether.
It is their anger, anger at a world that doesn't fit their ideas of it, that will evolve as it sees fit.
© Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.