Chairman and Associate Professor of Economics Charles Steele explained why conservatism is no longer viable at a meeting of the Hillsdale College Classical Liberal Organization on Sept. 30.
“Is conservatism viable? No. OK great, well why not?”
Steele began his presentation with a meme portraying a Republican in the year 2040 saying “Jesus was obviously trans, but he wasn’t a necrophile,” and “Free oxygen? But that’s socialist!”
“It would make more sense if the image said 2040s conservative,” Steele said. “They find themselves fighting against the latest ideas.”
Steele shifted his focus to identifying different people throughout history who could be called conservatives, including Winston Churchill, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Ronald Reagan, Sayyid Qtub, and Osama bin Laden.
“What do they have in common?” Steele asked. “Nothing.”
Steele made the point that the main categories of conservatives — patrician, religious, and economic — have nothing in common with each other. He quoted Russell Kirk’s “10 Points of Conservatism,” saying that the problem with conservatism is that it has “no fixed ideology.”
“That leads to a couple of problems,” Steele said. “Conservatives find themselves fighting against the Overton Window. This is the latest idea that’s being made possible, the newest kind of progressive.”
The Overton Window describes how society’s ideas about governmental policies change over time.
According to Steele, conservatism is not grounded in rational philosophy because it lacks a foundation. This leads to an inability to define what should be conserved.
“I have heard people, even on this campus, who are self-avowed conservatives, talk about true freedom,” Steele said. “They say true freedom means doing the good thing so whoever is in charge should force everyone else to do the good thing. And that’s what conservatism is.”
After Steele finished his presentation, graduate student Caleb Itterly provided a similar assessment.
“A conservative is someone who has a constitution more precious to him than change,” Itterly said. “He will try to preserve this constitution.”
Itterly described this moral credo as being the meaning of some people’s lives.
“Conservatism is a group of people whose purpose is ultimately to advance some set of goals based on shared values,” Itterly said.
This shared set of goals usually has to do with some mix of religious, social, traditional, or economic values, Itterly said. Examining political philosophies is more important now than ever, due to the effect that the Trump presidency had on the media.
“What is conservatism?” Itterly asked. “Is it viable in this world where the media has a particular bent which is very obvious and isn’t even being denied?”
He questioned whether or not conservatism could stand up to this amount of pressure, and if there was anything worth conserving considering the amount of corruption in government today.
“If someone said my arm is gangrenous, someone is going to say ‘Well, we can save your body, but we’re going to have to lose the arm,’” Itterly said.
The meeting was then opened to discussion. This covered a wide array of topics, from what to do about the welfare state to the issues with the education system.
“It was fun,” Steele said. “I think we covered the points nicely. I don’t know what people were expecting to hear, but it was obviously not just an attack on conservatism.”
“This is the first CLL event that I’ve come to, and it makes me want to come back to more,” junior Samuel Quinones said. “I think the talk went really well given that the definitions we were working with were so broad.”