Just one year ago, which marked Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, a Gallup Poll found that only 39% of Americans “believe in the theory of evolution.” To think that a theory accepted by academia, backed in reason, corroborated by scientific evidence, and adapted from other such theories like natural selection and Mendelian genetics would still be challenged in American education and society is quite remarkable to any Princetonian, conservative or liberal. To consider further that even a fewer number of conservatives (32% of Republicans, according to a similar 2008 poll) believe in evolution should be of no surprise, but is cause for reflection. Why do we, as conservatives, hold on to the old?
Perhaps we embrace the past due to nostalgia, or due to a fear of change, or even due to different genetic factors, as some scientific studies have argued. Were we psychologically and not philosophically minded, we might explore these possibilities and settle the debate if one were discovered to be conclusive. But we must reject this route; for all of these reasons, be they emotional or physical, base conservatism simply on the empirical notion that “this is the way things are.” They end the search at the “what,” and do not press on to the “why.” In many respects, if we end at the evidence, then we are akin to Darwin in formulating his theory of natural selection. We come to consider conservatism as a predictable, observable mechanism and nothing more – powerless and purposeless, no better or worse than any other political ideology. And so I ask again, why do we hold on to the old?
The answer, paradoxically, is evolution. The history of conservatism has always been one of gradual change, in which an ideology has been our hypothesis and society our experiment. We have, at all times, had to anticipate the future and apply our time-tested values to it. We must therefore not dismiss liberalism outright as irrational, but rather adapt from it those ideas proven to work, so long as they do not conflict with our core principles. In light of evolutionary theory, we may view radical liberalism as a cancerous mutation to our political genome; but then we must also view radical conservatism as overly stable, unwilling to mutate, and thus doomed to die out.
Princeton, with its overwhelmingly liberal student body, faculty, and administration, offers an unparalleled environment to test our values. Each of us may discover for himself or herself which ideas to accept, which to tolerate, and which to reject. Through independent observation we may learn whether the hook-up culture among our peers translates into long-term happiness, whether unanimity of opinion provides for more than simply high marks in some Humanities courses, or whether University expansion into all facets of our lives ensures a better place to learn and to grow. And as two of this issue’s articles demonstrate, we may analyze the efforts to replace Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson and probe the proposed policies of incoming USG President Michael Yaroshefsky, so that we may come to a better picture of a responsible government in a time of transition.
Beyond Princeton, we must look to changes in conservatism in general. In my interview with founder of SecularProLife.org Kelsey Hazzard, she discusses an American populus that is becoming “more pro-life and less religious.” More broadly, whether our current leaders like it or not, this is the dawning of the age of secular conservatism. And while secular conservatives like myself welcome religious conservatives to join in our cause, they must ultimately ask themselves, “Am I conservative because of my faith, or do I have faith in conservatism?” As I have claimed, “faith in conservatism” does not mean “unwillingness to change,” but rather “willingness to evolve.” This November, the GOP is poised to take back control of the country and truly lead once again. But they must be prepared both to bring about and to test mutations in a political genome that has not witnessed change for 16 years. For a party of No has no fate other than extinction.
As the new Publisher of the Tory, I hope to herald a new vision of conservatism as an evolving organism. This year will be a defining one for conservatism, and it will take visionary, not reactionary, leaders and thinkers for conservatism to succeed. Why do we hold on to the old? To compare against the new.
Aaron Smargon ‘11