Conservatism is usually defined as “opposition to change,” “adherence to the old and traditional,” and so forth.  But, of course, in the Bush-Cheney era, we all feel these familiar tags to be seriously inadequate, even wholly beside the point and downright misleading.

If these men are conservatives, as the news media insist on calling them, the term has changed beyond recognition.  It has nothing to do with limited or constitutional government, let alone such old causes as balanced budgets or such ancient virtues as prudence and piety toward the past.  In Cheney’s phrase, the new Republican regime has “other priorities”—militarism and boundlessly ambitious statecraft.  It is as alien to Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater as to Edmund Burke and Dr. Samuel Johnson, all of whom would surely have regarded it with horror.

Still, I don’t think it is hard to define conservatism usefully.  In essence, conservatism is the affirmation and defense of the normal.  Liberalism, by contrast, is a preoccupation with crisis situations that allegedly call for massive state action of a kind conservatism is suspicious of.

I think these definitions pass the simple test of common sense, while leaving room for exceptions and variations.  I don’t think they are loaded or partisan, and they don’t rule out certain elements and tendencies in today’s Republicans and neoconservatives we can fairly describe as conservative, even if they have become rather marginal lately (such as opposition to legal abortion and “gay rights”).

Best of all, you can be both conservative, in my general sense, and politically liberal, at the same time.  I think of the great French director Jean Renoir, who, when asked why there were no villains in his films, explained simply: “Everyone has his reasons.”  This Shakespearean breadth of sympathy is humane without falling into relativism.  “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”  It’s both deeply moral and slow to condemn.  Shakespeare’s plays certainly do have villains, terrifying ones, but even they are allowed to have their say.  We see ourselves in Iago and Shylock; they have their reasons, too.  As the Roman playwright Terence puts it, “I think nothing human is alien to me.”

So the conservative can recognize marriage as normal and sodomy as perversion without wishing to force men to be virtuous, or even thinking that possible; it is the liberal idiom that speaks freely of “eliminating” vice (though it speaks not of “vice,” but of “racism,” “prejudice,” and “poverty”); in the moralistic (though amoral) liberal universe, there is no need for trade-offs, which is to say, for prudence.

And just as the liberal dreams of doing away with poverty and racism forever, so President Bush aspires to eliminate terrorism and tyranny from the face of the earth, once and for all.  His quasi-Trotskyite dream, or “ideal,” of a “global democratic revolution” is about as far from conservatism as it is possible to get.  The conservative doesn’t traffic in dreams and ideals; he is interested in achievable norms, the kind men have always lived by and always will.  He can, for example, sympathize with the homosexual; for that matter, he may be one himself; in any case, he knows himself to be a sinner, an imperfect man.  He is not disposed to condemn his fellow sinners unless they are obdurate and refuse to honor the normal.  After all, he doesn’t claim normality for his own sins.  (The simplest proof that homosexuality is abnormal is that nobody, however tolerant, can wish it on his own son.)

The normal is not the same thing as the average, the typical, the ordinary.  In a sense, it may be rare, as the saints are rare.  In our own weakness, we look to it for guidance, even if we never expect to reach it.  However far we may depart from it in our conduct, we can always find our way back to it.

In this sense, the Christian would say that Jesus Christ is normal; whereas sin is, by its nature, abnormal, eccentric.  Peace and liberty are normal, however elusive they may be; but the Cold War, tragically, inured many conservative Christians to the assumption that war (and preparations for it) can bring both peace and freedom, an assumption Bush and his minions have exploited for all it’s worth.  No wonder so many Americans now mistake militarism for conservatism.

Bush’s feeble sense of normality is evident in his moralistic insistence that democracy (a term he uses interchangeably with freedom) is a universal human aspiration, implanted in every soul by God.  He was convinced that, with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, democracy would blossom—spontaneously, explosively, contagiously—throughout the Middle East.  When that failed to happen, did he admit his error?  Not at all.  Instead, he proceeded as if all resistance to the American occupation (“liberation”) were motivated by the same evil for which he blamed Saddam—“terrorism.”

Of course, there is an obvious sense in which we all want to be free: We would all like to be able to act without restraint.  But this is very different from wanting all others to be equally free; it is more likely to mean just the opposite.  Bush is conceptually confused to a degree remarkable for a mature and intelligent man, let alone one who has been educated at two of the best universities in the United States.  (It has been said that the chief difference between America and the European nations is that most of their heads of state speak fluent English.)

My purpose here is not to attack Bush; it is merely to point out an alarming fact: that he passes for a conservative among people, by no means idiots, who really think of themselves as conservatives.  Some of these people, as I wrote a few years ago, seem to believe that government should be confined to two essential functions: paving the streets and ruling the world.  At the moment, it’s not doing either of these things very impressively.