This is where conservatism is heading

National Review’s editors say the time for legalizing marijuana has come. Though founder William F. Buckley had been saying this since 1996, America’s most recognized conservative journal formally applauding Colorado for being pro-pot is something of a cultural mile marker.

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It’s not the only one.

While many conservatives defended Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson over his recent controversial statements, no one noted that fewer conservatives than ever agree with his negative views on homosexuality. A Pew Research Center poll in October reported that while a majority of conservatives still oppose same-sex marriage, those margins are quickly becoming smaller. Gay acceptance is now the norm among right-leaning youth, where 54 percent of 18-29 year-olds support gay marriage. For conservatives over 65, that number drops to 18 percent.

Phil Robertson is 67.

According to Gallup, the only age group in which a majority still supports keeping marijuana illegal is 65 and over. For Americans 64 and under, support for legal pot is strong and becomes stronger the younger the category including among Christians.

While some older conservatives might see the country becoming more liberal, others see it becoming more libertarian. That some see little difference between the two only proves that current concepts of what’s “left” and “right” either need updating or the dichotomy itself might be outdated.

If popular attitudes can be said to now skew “left” on gay marriage and marijuana, they simultaneously trend “right” on gun rights and what really should be the primary social issue for most conservatives—the sanctity of life. Couple this with the fact that Americans are growing disenchanted with large and intrusive government at record levels, including Obamacare, the National Security Agency’s mass spying on citizens and a costly foreign policy that doesn’t make sense—and it seems more people than ever are fed up with the big government, left and right.

For conservatives who would like Americans to be more suspicious of government than not, this is an encouraging development. Such attitudes represent not only a more libertarian public temperament but also the reinvigoration of an older, more traditional conservatism of which liberty was always the primary component.

Even the Duck Dynasty controversy was more about Americans seeking tolerance and respect — on both sides of the argument—than it was some national affirmation of anti-gay, anti-African-American intolerance. It can reasonably be argued that most conservatives were defending what they saw as free speech or religious intolerance more than Robertson’s actual statements.

Conservatives and even some liberals who defended the reality television star almost always included in their arguments, “I don’t necessarily agree with what he said, but…” I don’t know that such a caveat would’ve even crossed the minds of those who supported Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusades of the 1970s or Southern racists who opposed the 1960s civil rights movement. Their purpose was to intentionally oppress gays and minorities.

While bigotry still exists, America has changed significantly since those times. So has conservatism.

Definitions of conservatism have long pointed to enduring or fixed truths. But what conservatism actually means, or what most conservatives have believed it to mean in terms of issues or policy, has changed dramatically over time.

A decade ago, most self-identifying conservatives supported a Republican president best known for war, attacking civil liberties and growing government. Today, most conservatives identify with Tea Party Republicans who want to keep the US out of Syria, protect the Fourth Amendment and want Obamacare repealed. On the drug war and gay acceptance there really is no consensus, as conservatives have actually been split on these issues for a considerable time.

Reconsidering or reexamining positions has never been incompatible with conservatism. In fact, it has been essential to its survival. As Russell Kirk reminded us, “the intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression.”

In 2014, conservatism is changing, or reverting, to its old focus on less government and individual liberty while also embracing tolerance in ways that have not been associated with the right in recent decades. These political and cultural shifts are largely generational and therefore inevitable, whether some like it or not.

For a better liberty, they are also wonderful.

In 2004, William F. Buckley wrote of the war on drugs, “Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.”

Today, the stakes for the future are too great. It’s time to raise our heads and reconsider some things, preserving and expanding liberty while discarding dogma that no longer makes sense or never did.

It’s time for conservatives to look up.

What do you think?

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