Look to Howard, Thatcher and Reagan for inspiration… not Trump.
In 2010 we formed the University of Sydney Conservative Club at a time when the political establishment was the only game in town and Donald Trump was that guy with that hair from the apprentice. Nobody had yet heard of the ‘Alt Right’ but every club member could tell you about Edmund Burke, Western Civilisation and the philosophical underpinnings of conservatism. Seven years later and the Australian conservative political discourse has been sullied by Trump, Hanson, Milo, and Pepe the frog memes.
With the current climate and these stark changes in mind, we can’t help but ponder since the first formation of our Conservative Club, what Edmund Burke would think if he were alive today.
It is always controversial to appropriate historical figures to modern times, but if one thing is certain, it is that Burke wouldn’t be wearing a MAGA hat and chanting “grab her by the pussy!” Burke was not a reactionary he was a conservative. He simultaneously opposed the French Revolution and supported American Independence. A defender of traditional institutions and values combined with combating abuses in English colonies. He was a classical liberal, a Whig, an ardent supporter of free trade, the economic soul mate of Adam Smith, and yet also the single most important figure in the development of the modern conservative political philosophy, earning his well deserved title as ‘the father of conservatism’.
As we venture towards the end of our time in the Young Liberals, and with campus politics now over four years behind us, we wanted to take the time to outline three broad pieces of advice to young conservatives. Practical lessons that we’ve learned along the way but which are more pressing now against a backdrop of anti-establishment rhetoric and offensive far right click bait.
The Primacy of Philosophy
The first lesson, which sounds quite simple but which so many politically involved youths fail to adhere to, is the importance of comprehending a conservative philosophy from first principles. Becoming well versed in the values and principles that underpin conservatism and classical liberalism and gaining an appreciation of the complementarity of the two philosophies should be the basis by which all young conservatives grow from.
The loss of this philosophical understanding of the ideology and the concept that conservatism is more than just simply its political arm, has tarnished the movement more profoundly than anything else. It is potentially a broader societal problem that the young are reading less, investigating less and relying more heavily on buzzfeed opinion polls than the great writings of our forefathers. However, if we were to advise on the basics that would see a vital strengthening of conservatism, our primary advice would be around philosophical education.
Naturally, there will always be some debate around various concepts of conservative philosophy, but at its core, the marriage of classical liberalism and conservatism is often not understood by the emerging and eager young who throw around the definition of conservatism like a trendy concept that wish to trigger the left with.
If Edmund Burke was a conservative and Adam Smith the quintessential classical liberal, then why would Smith praise Burke as “the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us”? The reality is that classical liberalism and conservatism are in many ways tautological. Not only do conservatives and classical liberals agree on private property rights in a free market economy but most of the institutions that a conservative seeks to conserve are classically liberal in nature- freedom of speech, Westminster parliamentary democracy, religious liberty, federalism, separation of powers, habeas corpus, common law, constitutionalism, the rule of law, and the list goes on.
Indeed, in the Anglosphere at least, conservatives and classical liberals are united on almost every political issue. We owe a lot of this to Burke, as no philosopher has been able to better embody both right-of-centre philosophies. He was anti-authoritarian and had great faith in individuals, civil society and the ‘little platoons’ rather than big government. Even today in the Anglosphere conservatives and classical liberals are cut from the same cloth despite the hysteria amongst the media and left trying to divide us. Not only do we share similar beliefs but more importantly in these trying times, we also share a common enemy.
Look to the Greats
Whilst having a strong political philosophy from which you see the world is essential, it cannot achieve political outcomes on its own, unless you intend on becoming an academic (which is certainly still a noble profession). This leads us to our second lesson, which is to look to the political greats who transformed their conservative and classical liberal philosophies into policies, long-lasting reforms and indeed, a legacy. John Howard, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did this; they transformed their principles into societal change. Any objective analysis would say that they have been the most effective right of centre political leaders in the Anglosphere at least in the last five decades.
Turning philosophy into legislative reform is not easy, and translating this into cultural change is often even more difficult. This mass shift requires leadership, pragmatism, political manoeuvre, salesmanship, and managing the relationship with a (it seems growingly) cynical electorate.
John Howard should be venerated because under his Government we paid off the debt, reformed the tax system, took on the trade unions, strengthened our nation’s borders, supported our defence force, promoted liberal democratic values abroad, and Australia became a cohesive nation proud of ourselves and our place in the world.
Similarly, Thatcher transformed Britain from the sick man of Europe to an economic powerhouse through the harsh medicine of budget cuts, privatisation, smashing trade union dominance, and squeezing out inflation via monetarism. If that wasn’t enough then the Iron Lady also took on the Euro superstate, General Galtieri and global communism. Some may argue her biggest battle however, was taking on the lily livered weaklings in her own party with the courage and conviction we hadn’t seen again in Britain until Brexit.
Ronald Reagan also cut taxes and spending, but much more importantly he was the single most significant figure in the collapse of the Soviet Union and global communism. Not only did communism enslave and oppress hundreds of millions of people worldwide but also the world came very close to destruction and nuclear holocaust, a fear not often recognised by our generation. Reagan achieved this by a mixture of hard power defence and soft power diplomacy.
Howard, Thatcher and Reagan knew what battles to pick. They weren’t blind ideologues, but they held strong principles. They weren’t populists, but they understood the electorate. They weren’t weathervanes, but they were pragmatic.
Noting of course that political success is not the all-encompassing purpose of our philosophy, it is however of vast assistance in the battle against the left. Howard won four elections, Thatcher three, and Reagan remarkably won 49 of 50 states. Imagine the GOP today winning California and Massachusetts. The Howard/Thatcher/Reagan model for success was no doubt a mixture of pragmatism, conservatism and classical liberalism.
Reagan often spoke of the GOP base being a three-legged stool of economic libertarians, social conservatives, and foreign policy neocons. But the reality today is that Donald Trump is none of these things. He is an economic nationalist-protectionist who also supports more stringent banking regulation. He certainly has no credibility as a Christian and his crass and vulgar comments make philosophical conservatives cringe. Further to this, his foreign policy position is a far cry from the neo-conservatism of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, and is a baffling aspiration of isolationism, with a whole lot of bombing ISIS, and fawning over Putin thrown in.
Donald Trump is not a conservative and no young conservative should look to him for inspiration. Of course it’s almost fun to watch the left’s hysterical childish tantrum attacks against Trump, and of course a GOP controlled Congress under Paul Ryan means that Trump will hopefully implement a number of solid policies. But a conservative he is not and we should rather be looking to gold standard conservatives for inspiration.
Now naturally we can’t ask Thatcher or Reagan for their thoughts on Trump, but we can ask John Howard. And his views are pretty clear:
“Trump is not my idea of a conservative. He is very hard to label and it’s far too early to make a judgment. He may turn out to be a very good president. But it’s a mistake to see him as part of the continuous conservative tradition in the US. Trump is no Reagan or Thatcher and they are the two conservative lodestars in my lived political experience.”
So why are some young conservatives flocking to Trump? We in the political establishment are partly to blame.
Nobody joins the Liberal Party or the Republicans to listen to uninspiring managerial politicians talk about boring centrist policies. As Thatcher said, the Conservative Party conference before her time was “bland and anodyne, careful to avoid differences.” She shook up the Conservative Party, but these days similar to the 1970s before her, there is a severe lack of vision across the Anglosphere in right of centre parties.
The great conservative leaders of our times, and the great philosophers before them, were not bland centrists; they were inspirational radicals. No voter in a western democracy is sitting around getting excited about maintaining the status quo. Trump reinvigorated voters on this notion, in the same way that Thatcher ferociously fought the unions of England who had the country by the ball sack. It is important to recognise the deep dissatisfaction of the mainstream voter, and to aggressively take up the fight with them on issues of importance.
Public life is a noble profession
Our last piece of advice to young conservatives is that there is nothing wrong with ambition. Ambition has become an even dirtier word in politics, probably due to the many individuals seeking public office that are solely of ambition for themselves, and not necessarily the service they could render.
However, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that you are seeking public office and dedicating your life to it. Indeed a healthy ambition in some respect, is at the heart of the human condition; to constantly strive towards perfection and human flourishment.
Of course you will be at some point labeled a ‘careerist’ or an ‘establicon’, but there is also no greater honour than serving in public life and we shouldn’t feel as if we need to hide our ambition on that front.
It seems as if those who rail against ambition the hardest are those who exhibit none of it themselves- alt right losers in their mum’s basement blogging and memeing against the political establishment whilst stroking their neck beards, munching Doritos, and guzzling down Mountain Dew. They revel not in their right to free speech, for they are not classical liberals, but rather the thrill of creating and sharing offensive, disgusting, and confronting posts on social media; the more offensive the better. They take inspiration from Milo and Trump rather than Burke or Mill. They may be fearless keyboard warriors in the recluse comfort of their mollycoddled parents’ home but are socially awkward losers in public.
Yet when we look to John Howard for political nourishment, we see a man who was very ambitious and whilst he wasn’t from the big end of town, he became part of the political establishment in the 1960s as the NSW Young Liberal President, as the campaign manager to Tom Hughes, and as the protégé to HQ official and later Senator, John Carrick.
The disengagement of the mainstream in the political process has never been higher, so it is important to ensure that young people coming into the fold of the faithful, stay motivated and stay committed. This can only be achieved if they truly understand why they are there.
Understanding the basic philosophical principles provides this purpose, and the evidence of what can be achieved by looking to the greats gives us all a playbook. Healthy ambition becomes a handy virtue but married with the first two a young conservative can understand that this movement and all it aims to bring the world, is so much bigger than just them.
None of this is a recipe of course, and no doubt the new generation of young conservatives will have their own context by which they fight their battles. In some ways their battles are more difficult than our own. We fought the communists, the socialists, labor left, labor right, the greens and the empty-headed independents. New generations of conservatives have all that as well as the alt-right, and must decide where and how they draw the line and the basis on which they do so.