“First, do no harm” - the timeless admonition to new doctors - gets about as close to the core of conservative philosophy as four words can. A conservative measures twice before cutting, heeds the doctrine of unintended consequences and lives by the motto: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
A healthy republic needs conservatives in its political mix, and the lack of them in power today is a leading cause of America's civic anomie. Our conservative party has become a radical movement, from the White House to the statehouse.
The latest evidence is found in the radical antiabortion laws passed this month by legislatures in Georgia, Alabama and Missouri, with other states apparently close behind. These laws are intentionally provocative, reckless and, as televangelist and abortion foe Pat Robertson put it, "extreme."
Though not identical (Georgia's law will subject patients to criminal penalties, while Alabama targets only the doctors), the new laws are built from the same rigid timber. They hold that a fetus of six or eight weeks' gestation has all the rights and protections of a born child. No ifs, ands or buts. The end result is tyranny masquerading as love: Even an Alabama child in grade school raped by an abusive father must carry the resulting pregnancy to term.
The radicals behind such laws fall into two camps, neither one conservative. Some are zealots who genuinely believe in their extreme ideas. The rest are cynics who hope that the courts will strike down these laws and thereby drive the abortion wedge into the heart of the 2020 campaign. What unites them is their willingness, even eagerness, to strain the social fabric and discredit our institutions.
One sees this drive to inflame and divide in the way they talk about existing abortion laws. In his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump - solidly in the cynics' camp - spoke of babies "ripped from the mother's womb moments before birth" and killed. However, in 2007, the Supreme Court actually upheld a nationwide ban on the procedure he so morbidly referenced. Nor has there ever been an "unlimited right to abortion," as proponents of the crackdown claim. The high court's landmark 1992 abortion ruling plainly stated that women may choose an abortion before the fetus is viable outside the womb - but the state can regulate abortion after viability, as long as the regulations don't impose an "undue burden" on women.
In truth, the Supreme Court's careful, measured approach to abortion has been an example of conservatism in action. The justices have avoided sweeping, categorical rulings designed to turn the world on its head. Its opinions have upheld the institution of family by giving parents and spouses a limited role in abortion decisions and have recognized community mores by affirming that at least one procedure is beyond the pale. True, critics have wondered whether Roe v. Wade moved too quickly and too far, but clearly Roe was consistent with a general trend toward women's autonomy over childbearing.
One of the intellectual founders of conservatism, the 18th century Irish statesman Edmund Burke, watched across the English Channel as radicals dragged France toward national madness. "All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off," he wrote. "Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal."
Burke would surely say the same of those who have hijacked his philosophy in today's America, calling themselves conservatives while rudely tearing at the drapery. True, there are radicals on the other side as well, and the argument between left and right will go on forever without resolving whose extremism came first. But that doesn't change the fact that a genuine conservative resists extremes of all kinds in favor of gradual progress in which all can share.
We now can see that the conservative hero Barry Goldwater was wrong philosophically, and not just as a matter of campaign strategy, when he declared in 1964 that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." With that battle cry, Goldwater breathed the germ that now puts America's conservative movement on its deathbed. Whatever its initial motivation, and regardless of what it sets out to defend, extremism winds up going too far. Extremists demand 100 percent in a world of compromises, and seek to paint the many-shaded human condition in stark black and white.
Extremism in the defense of liberty proves to be an oxymoron, for extremism comes at the expense of liberty. To achieve their goals, they must infringe on the liberty of others. Thus, a movement that began with skepticism of government power now enacts laws to direct government power toward coercing women to carry unwanted pregnancies and turning rape victims into unwilling incubators.
And a movement that once valued patriotism now sows division just to win reelection.
David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine, and is the author of four books, including “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”
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