First, a nonpartisan public service announcement: Yield does not mean stop. It does not mean slow down. It means, in traffic circles, to allow other cars who are in the circle to go before you enter if you are entering at the same time that car would be passing. You yield to that car. Hence, the “yield” sign, not the “stop” sign or “slow, traffic ahead” sign. That said, if you can get into the circle before a car gets to you, do it, even if you need to accelerate slightly. Only yield if you would otherwise collide with the car. Yield signs are only telling you who has the right-of-way, not how to drive your car. That’s all.
I’ve been reading, thanks to John Hood, about an attempt by mainstream conservative intellectuals to recreate the energy that William F. Buckley, Jr., brought to the conservative movement 60 years or so ago. They’ve put together a statement of principles and call themselves “Freedom Conservatives,” as opposed to the “National Conservatives” that they see as their competitors on the right.
A few things strike me about this movement. First, the National Conservatives are really reactionary populists who are flirting with neo-fascism. Instead of disdaining them, the Freedom Conservatives seem to be wooing them, attempting to re-build the same political coalition that emerged from Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Flattering them by calling them National Conservatives instead of what they really are is just disingenuous.
The segregationists that the Buckley crowd tolerated and that Nixon recruited are the Trumpists today. The difference is that the segregationists were Democrats and their transition into the GOP took decades. For most of that period, they were the minority members of the Reagan coalition. Buckley and the free-market ideologues drove the policy decisions, even if they turned a blind eye to the racist political tactics of people like Jesse Helms, Lee Atwater, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone that kept the segregationists in the fold. Today, the reactionaries are the dominant faction of the GOP, dwarfing these so-called Freedom Conservatives.
It’s the same deal with the devil that Democrats made in the post-Civil War era that gave us Jim Crow. Now, with the help of the GOP, that deal has delivered us Donald Trump. The National Conservatives are driven by a fear of immigrants and minorities. They are isolationist and paranoid with little respect for democracy or the rule of law.
In reading their document, you would think that these Freedom Conservatives would be pro-choice and oppose arbitrary restrictions on medical care. Unfortunately, that’s not the case and really brings into question their commitment to freedom from government coercion. They have bastardized freedom of religion to justify restrictions on personal medical care.
Nothing is more invasive or coercive than regulating what people can do with their own bodies. There’s nothing free about that. Arguing that a nonviable fetus is a human child is a religious conviction, nothing more. Imposing that belief on the broader population is a violation of freedom of religion and directly contradicts their statement, “Among Americans’ most fundamental rights is the right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force: a right that, in turn, derives from the inseparability of free will from what it means to be human.”
In their view, the government should not regulate free enterprise, but it can tell doctors and their patients what is best for them. Personally, I have some qualms about invasive medical treatment for transgender youth. However, I am far more comfortable with doctors and families making those decisions than politicians, especially ones driven by religious convictions instead of medical and emotional considerations.
The Freedom Conservatives define themselves as protectors of our heritage “because we seek to conserve that which has made America great—and always will.” I would argue that what has made us truly great is our ability to adapt to an ever changing world. We overcame slavery and Jim Crow. We expanded the franchise. We created a social safety net, though we could do better. And, yes, we became an innovative society that created wealth, but our strength was making sure that it was spread instead of concentrated. I believe, as Lincoln did, that we are an aspirational nation, not a limiting one.
Finally, the statement of principles promotes what it calls “Freedom of conscience,” stating, “Essential to a free society is the freedom to say and think what one believes to be true.” I equate that statement with a commitment of freedom of speech, yet the signatories have little to say about the GOP movement to regulate voting, the greatest expression of free speech that we have in this country.
If the so-called Freedom Conservatives were true to the principles they laid out, they would be leading the charge for more access to the ballot box, promoting free speech. Instead, they have either promoted government restrictions or sat silent as states led by National Conservatives, as they call them, strip away voting rights from people. If they really believed in personal and individual freedom, they would be the most ardent proponents of undeterred access to medical care for women and transgender citizens. Instead, they advocate heavy-handed government restrictions that limit individual freedom and endanger lives and the emotional welfare of patients.
Instead, the Freedom Conservatives understand that they must make compromises, because that’s what politics is all about. Despite their name, they are seeking alliances with the people who have the least interest in freedom and who flirt with authoritarianism. They are looking to rebuild the coalition with the same forces that brought us Jim Crow and Trumpist reactionaries. Unfortunately, they are a long way from having the influence to change the course of the Republican Party. They would be smarter to reject the reactionaries and make peace with the Democrats. At least those compromises would not force them to turn a blind eye toward racism and bigotry.