The Tyranny of Conservative Cliches
Julia Shaw /
In his latest book, The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, Jonah Goldberg argues that liberals hide their ideology behind tired aphorisms such as “violence never solved anything” or the Constitution is a “living document.”
Unlike liberals, conservatives admit to having an ideology (although we prefer the term philosophy). We are also comfortable enough with our intellectual history that we don’t shy away from arguments, invoking authorities from the Bible and Publius to Hayek and Reagan. Nevertheless, conservatives use clichés, as everyone does. Here are some we should avoid.
“America Is a Christian Nation”
Yes, Christian morals and many biblical principles influenced the American Founders. And, yes, Christianity has thrived in America. But America is not a Christian nation in the strict sense of the term: Christianity isn’t the official religion to the exclusion of all others, nor is it the basis for membership in the political community.
The better way to defend Christianity’s place in the public square is by arguing for religious liberty. The Founders all agreed that practitioners of every faith have a right to the free exercise of their religion—in their houses of worship and in the public square. They enshrined that right in the First Amendment. Why use an inaccurate cliché when you have the original meaning of the First Amendment on your side?
Nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution are states or any other government—federal, state, or local—said to possess rights. Rather, states have powers. The much beloved, if often ignored, Tenth Amendment says that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Not only is it incorrect to speak of states’ rights, but the expression was the rallying cry of segregationists. Since no right-thinking conservative abides such arguments, let’s just drop the term “states’ rights” once and for all.
If you’re concerned about federal encroachments on state sovereignty or the erosion of federalism—as you should be—then speak of federal encroachments on state sovereignty or the erosion of federalism. Or, of the need to restore limited constitutional government, reinvigorate local self-government, decentralize power, and check the growth of out-of-control government.
With so many great formulations to choose from, why weaken the case for liberty by relying on the phrase “states’ rights”?
American conservatives needlessly undermine their arguments by labeling every liberal program or policy as “socialism.” This claim is incorrect: American liberals are generally progressives, not socialists.
Conservatives need not rely on the s-word to argue against liberals—there’s plenty wrong with progressivism. Better yet, demonstrate what’s wrong in principle and in practice with a particular liberal program instead of relying on a debatable label.
We conservatives are against “big government,” so we must be for “small government,” right? Wrong. We’re for limited government.
The Constitution creates a federal government of enumerated (i.e., limited) powers. When Congress acts within its legitimate scope—for instance, national defense—then it can do a lot. There is nothing inherently contradictory about a limited-government conservative supporting strong national defense, because that is within the federal government’s constitutional responsibility. On the other hand, for areas outside of the federal government’s constitutional scope (Obamacare, anyone?), there is no role—big, small, or medium.
Careful with the Clichés
Conservatives use clichés—but not because we shy away from arguments or deny having an ideology. Clichés can be true statements summarizing a longer argument. Or clichés can be incorrect arguments masquerading as obvious statements. It’s the latter that conservatives should eradicate from our language.