Conservatism and Progressive Conflation

I don’t often take issue with another writer in particular, but a recent column by The Washington Post‘s EJ Dionne wants a response.

Dionne makes his case that President Obama, in the coming national elections, is actually the conservative in the race and that the Republican contenders are the radicals trying to change things utterly.  He frames his argument thusly:

Obama is defending a tradition that sees government as an essential actor in the nation’s economy….


Today’s Republicans cast the federal government as an oppressive force, a drag on the economy and an enemy of private initiative.

This is an interesting argument.  Dionne apparently believes that our tradition—that our American history—begins less than a century ago, in FDR’s 1930s, with his Progressive New Deal politics.  It is then, after all, that the “tradition” of government as major actor in our economy began.  But this elides the preceding 140 years of American history.  And it ignores our founding precept of a minimalist government, created in the aftermath of having just freed ourselves from a remote, intrusive, controlling government.

In fact, the conservatism that Dionne defends, the conservative that is Obama, is the 18th Century Conservatism against which we rebelled: the idea that government knows best and that our rights and freedoms flow from government and are not inherent in the individuals that comprise We the People.  Modern Liberalism—Progressivism—holding as it does that government should instruct us on what we must, or must not, buy (strictly for our own good, you see) and that requires our money for its own spending (leaving such amounts to us as it deems appropriate), is nothing but the modern version of 18th Century Conservatism.

The modern conservative position is, in fact, an effort to reverse these Progressive politics of big, intrusive government and to restore our country to its 18th Century Liberal roots of a small government that looks outward, toward foreign policy and external threats, not inward, except to make rational the relations of our constituent States among each other.  The modern conservative looks to restore the individual citizen to his 18th Century Liberal’s responsibility for his own outcomes and satisfaction of his own obligations and to his place as Sovereign over government.

The titles of Liberal and Conservative have reversed their meaning from the 18th century.  Dionne chooses to overlook that.

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