During the last months in the Republican primaries, each man has tried to prove that he is the true conservative. But that begs a simple question: just what does conservative actually mean in today's politics?
Let's start with immigration, an issue currently being debated in Congress. The Republican Party is divided on the issue. Business leaders want a more open border so they can get cheap guest workers, while the social conservatives want to shut down the border and deport 12 million people. Which of these represents the truly conservative position? Letting in guest workers helps business, something in line with the laissez-faire economic principles conservatives supposedly pay homage to. Deporting illegal immigrants and closing off the border represents the strand of conservatism which places a high premium on law and order.
This split between different factions of the Republican Party is evident on the most difficult moral issue of our time, abortion. Conservatives in the mold of Rudi Giuliani would leave it in the hands of strict constructionist judges. One strict constructionist might conclude that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and overturn it. Another one, however, might uphold it, based on the fact that it is precedent. Regardless of whether Roe is overturned, Giuliani favors letting the woman in question choose whether or not to have an abortion. In fact, letting someone make a personal decision without the interference of the federal government in faraway Washington D.C. coheres with conservative rhetoric distrustful of government. Religious conservatives who want the government to ban abortion could be accused of taking away a person's choice, and having the government make it for her, thus enlarging the scope of a federal government they don't trust. How liberal.Conservatives have long claimed to be strong on national security. Yet even here, it is hard to define exactly what conservative means. In the aftermath of September 11, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act. This legislation gave the federal government astonishing new powers. Now for example, the government can investigate your library records. The Bush administration even claimed that stronger measures were needed to keep the country safe. Many conservatives would have you believe that their ideology descends from Thomas Jefferson. Yet, I have trouble accepting that the vehement critic of the Alien and Sedition acts would have supported giving government this kind of authority. In fact, some of the harshest critics of the Patriot Act have been conservatives like Bob Barr of Georgia. Here we see conflict between the security hawks like John Aschroft, and conservatives suspicious of government like Ron Paul.
Back in 2002, conservatives were hard at work telling us that Iraq was a crucial new front in the global war on terrorism. But there is a conflict of ideologies here as well. Traditional conservatives chided Clinton for his efforts at "nation-uilding" during the 1990s. However, that is exactly what we are doing today in Iraq. The ones who really pushed this war were a new breed of conservatives, neo-cons to be precise. It should be remembered that this ideology descends from liberal Democrat Woodrow Wilson and his desire to "make the world safe for democracy." Personally, I find it fascinating to watch conservatives staunchly defend what is essentially a liberal war. It is hard to speculate about what historical figures would do, but I cannot believe Nixonite realists would have launched this war.
All of this demonstrates the fallacy of simple political labels. Both defenders and opponents of all manner of legislation claim to be the true conservatives. At the end of the day, I am not really sure what it means to be conservative anymore.