ON MORE THAN ONE occasion, William Buckley performed the miraculous. He made conservatism both palatable and charming. Smart and snarky (in a buttoned-up New England sort of way), he married intellectualism with common sense rationality. In his nasally, skeptical voice, conservatism could actually sound adult.
This is less the case with Jonathan Krohn, the 14-year old child actor from Atlanta, whose recent book Define Conservatism has landed him on talk shows across the country. His study, whose title sounds like a command a teacher might give student or a challenge a game-show host might hurl at a contestant, tells us less about this ambitious teenager and more about the vacuousness of conservative ideas. It's an accidental expose--it reveals just how simplistic the basic tenets of conservatism actually are.
In his tract, Mr. Krohn defines a conservative as someone who believes in
1. Respect for the Constitution
2. Respect for Life
3. Less Government
4. Personal Responsibility
These are great notions. I would probably agree with all of them. In fact, most of us would. I mean really, who wants a government thinking it's big enough to tell us what marriage is?
The ease with which Mr. Krohn enumerates, defines, and distills conservatism remains both that movement's strength and weakness. On one hand, the ability to circumscribe a comprehensive belief system in four concepts and twelve words lends conservatism a certain ease. It's comfortable like soft slippers. It is reassuring. Black and white. Seemingly concrete. It is this aspect of conservatism that allows a 14-year old to articulate the concepts of an entire political party with confidence and ackknowledgement. It is also why conservatives have an easier time talking about their ideas than progressives. It's why Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity move from real issues to righteous indignation all in the span of a single commercial break.
But as America matures, conservatism's simplicity starts to look more and more like naivete. If conservatives actually stuck to the denotative meanings of the four ideas enumerated above, it could be a viable system. But, instead of being about denotation, conservatism is about connotation. Mr. Krohn's list is simply a litany of cliches, buzz words that mean something quite different from what they say. For example, "less government" really means "less taxes on the wealthy." "Respect for life" doesn't mean "we respect all living people," it means "no abortion."
America, like the world, is complex. It is full of gray areas. There are situations, evolutions, struggles, resentments, eventualities, and misunderstandings that require nimbleness, agility, open-mindedness, compromise, and nuance. As the world gets more complicated, simplistic political ideologies become less pertinent. It's like trying to repair a computer with a rock and a stick. Advanced issues need advanced ideas. Real-world problems need solutions commensurate with their difficulty. Hard conundrums can't be solved with easy platitudes. Complexity often requires complexity. Conservatism has been a lot of things, but complex has never been one of them.
And complexity and nuance are almost always hard to get worked up about. They engender emotions of patience, thought, and consideration. Black and white ideas, on the other hand, lead to emotions of anger, outrage, and offense. Hence the talk shows, hence Rush Limbaugh's inability to be anything but a disc jockey, hence Sean Hannity's bulging neck veins.
Conservatism is nostalgic. It's one dimensional. It's the poster of the Van Gogh. Not the Van Gogh.
Jonathan Krohn is a good kid with a big heart and a devotion to civic duty that is admirable. Pretty soon, I suspect he'll realize that if he really wants to ensure his four concepts find full and actual implementation into public policy, he's hitched his wagon to the wrong elephant.