Conservatives care about “protecting individual liberty” for some people, but the conservative movement includes many people who are indifferent, if not hostile, to the liberty of foreigners, immigrants, drug users, gays and lesbians, women who want abortions, broadcasters, sex workers, criminal defendants, Muslims, publishers of pornography, atheists, and so forth. It’s true, of course, that you can compile a similar list (gun owners, business owners, etc) on the progressive side. But I see no reason to think the progressive list is longer, or that the people on that list are somehow more important, than the people on the conservative list.
This belief is shared not just by some libertarians, but conservatives and Republicans as well. More than once I've seen people come to the fore with the sunny hopes of presenting a more inclusive vision of conservatism and the GOP, only to give up months later when they encouter some of the darker sides of the American right.
This all leads me to wonder: can American conservatism every be reformed?
There really isn't a strong movement in the United States that is committed to a more moderate version of conservatism. There are a few groups, but there is not strong reformist presence within what makes up the American Right in the same way that there is in the United Kingdom. Across the pond, the Tory Reform Group has been around for 35 years representing a more moderate brand of conservatism and they can be credited for helping get the Conservative Party back in power.
But the impulse here in the States among those on the Right who are disatisfied with the state of things, is to simply walk away. Whether its Brink Lindsey now touting a "libertarian centrism" or Tim Lee flirting with the Left, the usual result of frustrated folks on the right is not to change things, but to leave and look for greener pastures.
Why is that? Why is there no impulse to change the Right?
I think I have a few reasons.
The first is the word "conservative." When someone uses that word it is almost always about the more negative aspects of human nature. If a community or person has issues with same-sex marriage we tend to say that they are "conservative." Conversely, the word "liberal" tends to have more positive connotations. All the philosphical meanings of conservatism that came from people like Edmund Burke or Russel Kirk are never thought of in common parlance. If being a conservative means being anti-gay or suspicious of immigrants, well, who would want to be a part of that, let alone try to reform it?
Related to that, is how we see conservatism. If conservatism is made up of bigots, whom we believe can't change, then why bother trying to reform anything?
Finally, I think there has been so little impulse for a renewed conservatism, because there has not been a keen vision of what a renewed conservatism would look like. While there has been some attempt to start this project,
for the most part there really has not been any strong desire to frame a new conservatism for the 21st century. There's a lot of talk about what conservatism was like in the 1980s under Reagan, or about the moderate Republicanism of the 1950s through 70s, but very few have said this is what conservatism should look like today.
If you are someone under say, 40 years old who believes in limited goverment, but sees a conservatism that is filled with bigots and with no one really crafting a more positive vision, then you would probably want to ignore the conservatives and leave them to their fate.
For me, the question is not can American conservatism reform, but should it reform and I believe wholeheartedly that it should. The reason I believe it has to reform has to do with the fact that unless something radical happens, we live in a two-party system. While many folks have left the conservative movement, there are still a fair number that remain and they are more radical than ever. It is less thoughtful and deeply suspicious of anyone that doesn't think or see things in the way they do. It is a movement that is built more on resentment than on the sunny conservatism that Ronald Reagan once espoused. On paper, a party like this should be on the margins, but because of our two party system, they are the alternative to Obama and the liberals. As the alternative, it means they have a greater shot at winning. As Jeffrey Goldberg has noted in his blog posts on Sarah Palin and the New York mosque controversy, a simple-minded conservatism is dangerous to the health of our democracy.