On Wednesday Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona and author of the recently published book, “Conscience of a Conservative”, spoke with Georgetown students about conservative political philosophy in the face of the current Trump administration. In a conversation moderated by Mo Elleithee, Executive Director of GU Politics, Senator Flake discussed his views on the current state of the Republican party and his vision for the conservative movement and the Republican party moving forward.
Senator Flake contextualized his discussion of conservatism and conservative politics by invoking a famous quote from Barry Goldwater, whom he felt aptly summed up what it means to be a conservative. “Politics is the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order.” Conservatism, Senator Flake contended, is about “taking what is best of our past and perpetuating that in the future.” On a more tangible level those fundamental tenets of conservative politics, according to Flake, include the promotion of limited government, immigration, free trade, and enterprise.
Senator Flake pointed to his upbringing as a significant contributor to his stances on issues such as the Muslim ban and illegal immigration. As a member of the Mormon faith, which has faced persecution of its own, Flake is outspoken against the ban. His contact with migrant workers on his childhood cattle farm revealed to him the discontinuity between the honest intentions of migrants and the criminal nature often associated with them. Above all, Senator Flake emphasized the need to push back against the “otherization” of our politics.
However, as his book alludes to, contemporary Republicans have become largely disenchanted with these defining tenets of conservatism. Not to be mistaken for a treatise on Trumpism, “Conscience of a Conservative” outlines how Republicans have abandoned the core values of conservatism. While the rise of populism and Trump appear to have coincided with the decline of conservative values in Republican politics, the shift occurred prior and should not exclusively be associated with President Trump. The fracturing within the Republican party, whereby a number of competing ideologies have united under one banner has certainly abetted the deviation from intrinsic conservative values. This is evident, Flake notes, in the “cultural wars” being waged by Republicans, at the expense of promoting limited government and “the arguments that need to be had in Washington.”
Senator Flake dismisses those issues that dominate the “cultural wars”, as they have been deemed, as obstacles to be avoided in the pursuit of more traditional policy legislation. Backlash against the establishment of both political parties is symptomatic of a growing cultural trend and to ignore that pervasive sentiment could be disastrous. In fact, this unique political dynamic could potentially set the stage for a reduction in Presidential power, the empowerment of state and local government, and ultimately, a return to our core conservative values. This political renaissance is foundational for a thriving and diverse civil society and one in which growing cultural trends play an integral role.
Nonetheless, Senator Flake claims that the Republican party needs to reconcile its opposing, internal ideologies and return to a more honest conservatism. Republicans have a unique opportunity to appeal to a broader electorate and distance themselves from the “vitriolic politics” that have come to dominate our contemporary political landscape.