Even the Party Faithful Can't Define Conservatism and That's Why We're In Big Trouble

By Tommy De SenoAttorney/Writer

Considering how the Republican Party had its clock cleaned in the 2006 and 2008 elections, this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington was particularly important. If conservative ideas are better than liberal ideas but people aren't voting for our candidates, then we must be doing a poor job of letting people know what conservatism is.

The purpose of a 3-day event like CPAC is to hone conservatism into a message for people.


Issues don't move the masses; they move partsof the masses.

Conservatism needs an umbrella description that covers it all. Conservatism needs to be defined in brief. Our candidates need to have a definition of conservatism at the ready, and it must be clear, understandable and sharp. We need the worker on the assembly line and the guy at the lunch counter to repeat it and believe it.

So while at CPAC, I conducted a one-question survey. The question presented was as follows: "Being as brief as you can be, and as understandable as possible, offer a definition of: conservatism."

As it turned out, this isn't as easy as it sounds. Despite being at a convention with thousands of people so dedicated to the concept of conservatism they left work and school for three days to support it, upon reading the question most presented furrowed brows, struggling to give an answer. Many said they couldn't.

Many other people did write down their definition of conservatism. There were 25 different ideas raised in their answers.

I've analyzed them and recorded the results at the bottom of this post from the most frequent idea offered to the least.

The most frequent idea raised was that conservatism is freedom or personal liberty. That was followed by small government and self responsibility, with individual rights and morals/ethics rounding out the top five.

The next five were national defense, free markets, lower taxes, belief in God/religion and traditional values.

The results were recorded specific to what was written by each respondent, however I'm cognizant that some of the ideas could be combined in the mind of the writer. For instance, Respect for Life could be combined with freedom. Federalism could be combined with small government. National identity/strong borders could be combined with national defense.

That of course is the purpose of the exercise -- to assemble the ideas as compactly as possible to form an inclusive, but simple, definition.

The high point of the survey came when I spotted columnist George Will walking through the lobby of the Omni-Shoreham Hotel. I asked him if he would take my survey. He hurried along and said, "I'm meeting my children for dinner." I walked with him and pleaded, "But it's only one question! Let me ask as we walk." "Fine," he said. "What's the question?" I asked him for a short definition of Conservatism, to which he replied, "It can't be done -- the answer is far too complex."

That, Sir, is why we are losing.

The Liberals pushed their philosophy into two words -- Hope and Change. Meaningless? Yes. It's completely devoid of content. Yet friend and foe of President Obama can repeat it. Our message? I don't recall what it was.

Conservatives pride ourselves on our political philosophy requiring deeper thought than liberal philosophy, thus attracting deeper thinkers. Which is probably why we are attracted to the often tough read that is George Will. That, however, should not be an excuse for our inability to make the complex understandable.

George Will has dedicated his life to writing books and columns about conservatism, but if he is resigned to the idea that one must master his books to understand it, he renders himself less then helpful to our current situation.

This is not your father's political battlefield Mr. Will, fought in books and broadsheets. You may not be able to communicate conservatism in the lobby of a hotel, but yes, we can. We must.

The definition of conservatism, encompassing all its ideas put in its simplest form, is this:

"Conserving the rights of the individual against the trespasses of government, and the trespasses of others."

Test it. Every idea is covered. From rights supernaturally endowed to the rule of law, from the free market to low taxes, from national defense to respect for life, there it is. Anyone can say it. Anyone can understand it.

Below are the full results of the survey: Definition of Conservatism

Survey Data Analysis

25 Ideas Offered



Freedom/Personal Liberty


Small Government


Self Responsibility


Conserving Individual Rights




National Defense


Free Markets


Lower Taxes


Belief in God/Religious Liberty


Traditional Values


Vision of the Founding Fathers/Documents




Respect for Life








National Identity/Strong Borders


Less Spending


Family Values


Fiscal Responsibility




Freedom from Forced Sharing


Ordered Justice/Rule of Law


Social Structures (Church, School, Government)


Virtuous Reaction