Two friends of mine (Dafydd ab Hugh and Brad Linaweaver) have hashed out a list of what they feel are fourteen key indicators of a current-day American conservative. Here they are:
1. Optimism about the future and the courage to face its challenges
2. The complete rejection of utopianism or human-achievable perfection -- this one was suggested by Brad; I hadn't thought of it, but Brad is right!
3. Adventurousness, dreaming big, achieving the "impossible"
4. Individualism, in contrast to collectivism
5. Capitalism, in particular, small-business entrepeneurship
6. Strong tendency towards preserving American traditions, whether good or bad
9. A strong belief that personhood begins at conception, thus that abortion is nearly always morally bad
10. A strong tendency to reject evolution by natural selection as denying God and the spiritual nature of Man
11. Belief in the legislating of virtue
12. Deep respect for and appreciation of the American military
13. Respect for the democratic decisions of the people -- extreme distaste for oligarchy (especially kritarchy)
14. Distrust of foreigners, especially immigrants
Read the whole thing in Dafydd'd blog, Big Lizards, here.
I wrote a tedious and overlong comment in response which I have decided to post here as well. (Why should only Dafydd's reader suffer?) Here it is:
My rule-of-thumb notion of a "conservative" is a person exactly like me when I am surrounded by libertarians. Contrariwise, a "libertarian" is me when I am surrounded by conservatives. As a Frank Meyer-style fusionist I think that the silly schism between libertarians and American conservatives can and should be patched over, and whenever I am surrounded by members of one group I feel the need to serve as an ambassador for the other. Since you and (especially) Brad tend to identify more with libertarians than conservatives I will be using myself as a model of conservative perfection for purposes of this discussion and as I visit each point I will either admit, humbly, that it describes me perfectly or complain that you have larded your list with not-necessarily-conservative vices to justify your rejection of the label "conservative". Feel free to bear that in mind.
Trait 1 -- Optimism: This one is odd but mostly true. More on it later.
Trait 2 -- Antiutopianism: Perhaps the reason that Brad needed to point this out to you is because you didn't derive your list, as you state, from first principles. This is the first principle of modern American conservatism.
Trait 3 -- Adventurousness: This is related to traits 1 and 4. Individualist optimism tends to manifest itself as adventurousness.
Trait 4 -- Individualism: Given its roots in classical liberalism this is a key attribute of most variants of American conservatism.
Trait 5 -- Entrepreneurial Capitalism: Quite right. It is merely adventurousness expressed in its economic variant.
Trait 6 -- American Traditionalism: I'm something of a traditionalist and I must quibble here a bit. I don't think any traditionalist would agree that we seek to preserve "bad" traditions. We merely give the traditional modes of thought and behavior the benefit of a the doubt until the evidence become persuasive.
Trait 7 -- Patriotism: Certainly a virtue associated with American conservatives (and occasionally a vice as well.)
Trait 8 -- Religiosity: Religiosity is closely related to populism and populists are ideological nomads. It is true that they are currently camped in conservative territory -- so for the moment you are right -- but they are fickle and may move on at any moment.
Trait 9 -- Personhood of the Unborn: There are pro-choice conservatives but this seems fair since there is a strong correlation with other markers for conservatism. This is a difficult issue for fusionist compromise. I suppose I might support a woman's right to kill her baby provided that she understood that that is precisely what she is doing, and that all arguments to the contrary are rubbish.
Trait 10 -- Creationism: Um, really? You mean to tell me that something like the majority of the conservatives that you guys know are creationists? Weird.
Trait 11 -- Legislating Virtue: This libertarian talking point is a truism that is not particularly true. If you look at the seven deadly sins (Catholic version) -- sloth, lust, anger, greed, pride, envy and gluttony -- you will find liberals and conservatives have split the list fairly evenly for their proscriptive legislative agendas.
Trait 12 -- Respect for the Military: Currently true but, as I am sure you know, historically problematical as a marker for conservatism.
Trait 13: Respect for Democracy: I must admit I had to hit Wikipedia for "kritarchy." I was initially inclined to mostly agree here but on further reflection I have decided you are mistaken. With a few obscure exceptions such as those very few people who know what the word republican means (most of whom, coincidentally, tend to vote "Republican") all political organizations will extol "the will of the people" when they are winning and tend to be OK with judicial activism when it is on their side. "Conservatives" do it, which is disappointing since they should know better, but no more often than the other side.
Trait 14 -- Nationalist Xenophobia: Yes, there is rather more of it in conservative circles than I would like. It is an understandable, but nonetheless unfortunate reaction to militant internationalism, multiculturalism and affirmative action on the other side. It irks me because the anger is misdirected and wasted -- charging the cape and ignoring the matador.
Getting back to the concept of conservative optimism, it is quite real and, in a round-about way, a consequence of conservative antiutopianism. Modern liberalism is officially more optimistic than conservatism -- after all they believe in the perfectibility of human institutions and the conservatives don't -- but that belief sets liberals up for a lifetime of disappointment. Conservatives, on the other hand, expect to have to muddle through in a not-altogether-satisfactory environment. Experience makes liberals cynical as they fall short of their hopes, while conservatives are mostly pleased to find how much can be done in an imperfect and non-perfectible world. This cheerful but conflicted optimism is a key indicator of a conservative mindset and is almost-always present, even in officially-dour paleo-cons such as John Derbyshire of NR.