Conservatism is usually defined as “opposition to change,” “adherence to the old and traditional,” and so forth. But, of course, in the Bush-Cheney era, we all feel these familiar tags to be seriously inadequate, even wholly beside the point and downright misleading.
If these men are conservatives, as the news media insist on calling them, the term has changed beyond recognition. It has nothing to do with limited or constitutional government, let alone such old causes as balanced budgets or such ancient virtues as prudence and piety toward the past. In Cheney’s phrase, the new Republican regime has “other priorities”—militarism and boundlessly ambitious statecraft. It is as alien to Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater as to Edmund Burke and Dr. Samuel Johnson, all of whom would surely have regarded it with horror.
Still, I don’t think it is hard to define conservatism usefully. In essence, conservatism is the affirmation and defense of the normal. Liberalism, by contrast, is a preoccupation with crisis situations that allegedly call for massive state action of a kind conservatism is suspicious of.
I think these definitions pass the simple test of common sense, while leaving room for exceptions and variations. I don’t think they are loaded or partisan, and they don’t rule...