I've been trying to remember where I heard, attributed to some leftist, the saying that "The issue is not the issue." The only thing turned up by a quick search is a remark attributed by David Horowitz to some SDS organizer of the '60s: "The issue is never the issue. The issue is the revolution."
Even if that's apocryphal, it certainly describes the method of many political activists, especially those who see themselves as being engaged in a campaign for some sort of broad and fundamental change. You pick particular situations that can be exploited for your purposes, but they're mainly important as means toward a far more important end.
I think--I'm afraid--that the quotation has a wider application now. It pretty much sums up our whole political situation. Right and left disagree as much as they ever have about specific policy questions. But those are somewhat in the background except insofar as they can be used to advance the essential cause: for progressives, to gain decisive control of the federal government so that "the New America" can begin (I've been seeing that term a lot recently); for conservatives, to prevent that.
Old-fashioned liberals believed in the constitution, but they are a fading breed, being replaced by leftists for whom the constitution is at best a set of more or less arbitrary rules that can be set aside when progress requires it. At worst it's just one more oppressive structure put in place by white men to keep everyone else down. In any case, it should be construed as requiring (or permitting, as the case may be) whatever advances the progressive cause. That tendency on the left has been evident for as long as I can remember, but it's far stronger now.
It becomes more and more clear that a lot of very influential progressives simply don't care in any positive way about the actual history, culture, people, and constitution of this country. They can only value it insofar as it seems to promise a bright shining socialist John-Lennon-Imaginary future. Anything that would get in the way of that vision must be discarded or destroyed. They're best understood as millenarian religious fanatics. I don't by any means say that everyone on the political left thinks this way, but, as I said, they are many and influential beyond their numbers.
So when the question "What do conservatives want to conserve?" is asked, my answer now is pretty simple: the constitution. Everything else in American political life depends on that. If we lose it, we lose the republic. And I think that would be a bad thing--even for those who don't at the moment understand that it would be.
Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review a couple of weeks ago in response to a New York Times call for "packing" the Supreme Court as a way of defeating the obstacle of originalist judges, makes the point brilliantly:
Bouie complains: “In the past, courts have walled entire areas of American life off from federal action. They’ve put limits on American democracy.” Indeed, they have — that is what they are there for. The Constitution and, specifically, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments exist explicitly to “put limits on American democracy.” Majorities do not get to overturn freedom of speech or freedom of religion. They do not get to impose slavery or imprison people without trial. There are lots of things majorities do not get to do. This is not some modern conservative invention to frustrate progressives — it is the design of the American constitutional order.
(Strange that you never hear progressives complaining about how Roe vs. Wade “walled off” abortion from majoritarian lawmaking.)
Bouie’s majoritarian ideology is nowhere to be found in the Constitution; in fact, the very structure of American government is designed to frustrate that kind of crass majoritarianism. Hence the Senate (as originally organized) and the presidential veto, both designed as checks on the excessive democratic passions to which the House might be subject; hence the written Constitution and the Bill of Rights, i.e. America’s Great Big List of Important Stuff You Idiots Don’t Get a Vote On, and a Supreme Court constitutionally empowered to police those limits. You can call that an ideology, too, and even conservative ideology, which it is: Properly understood, the principles and philosophy of the Founding are what it is conservatives try to conserve.
Exactly. The movement for getting rid of the Electoral College deserves similar scorn for similar reasons. Speaking of which, there is no surer way to get me to vote for Trump than to attempt to subvert the Electoral College. (You can read Williamson's whole piece here.)
We're in a strange situation now (to say the least). I don't think Trump really understands or cares about the constitution much more than most of these progressives do. People call him a fascist, but that's silly and lazy: if the word means anything useful (which is questionable), a fascist is a person with a rigid ideology. That's one of the last things Trump can be accused of being. The note in his manner and behavior that makes people think of fascism is that of the caudillo: the amoral strong man of the sort who tends to gain control of nations that have no strong constitutional framework, no strong deeply-rooted sense of "government of laws, not men."
And yet he has pretty well delivered on his promise to appoint constitutionalist judges, who are the final bulwark of a republic deserving the name. The man progressives call authoritarian is actually, where it counts most, shoring up the foundations against authoritarianism--even if he doesn't know exactly what he's doing.