Conservatives today gain almost no ground because they have no idea what a conservative does except a vague notion of preserving tradition, which allows them to be easily backdoored as soon as something has been around long enough.
For example, we see conservatives today defending unions, civil rights, entitlements, Abraham Lincoln, big government, and other non-conservative things. They are simply keeping up what was old when they were new.
As with all human groups, conservatives form an ecosystem, and those who are most knowledgeable are buried deep within it. Those who are most popular, as usual, tend to be those who seize on simple easy ideas and make them dramatic.
If you go to the upper echelon of conservatives, you will find some talking about natural rights. These refer to the abilities that you had in nature which are made into “rights” to protect them from government.
America, for example, was intended by its Framers to be a natural rights legal framework. We know this because they told us in their founding documents:
In the Declaration, primarily authored by Thomas Jefferson, the Second Continental Congress asserted the “self-evident” truths that “all men are created equal” and entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Many scholars think that the idea of natural rights emerged from natural law, a theory evident in the philosophy of the medieval Catholic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274). Natural law was thought to embody principles of right and wrong — especially pertaining to relations between and among individuals — that could be ascertained by human reason, apart from divine revelation.
As philosophers applied the concept of natural rights to the secular world, the focus shifted from rules concerning individual behavior to claims of rights that individuals could make against the state. Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704) in England, and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) in France, were among the philosophers who developed a theory of natural rights based on rights to life, liberty, and property (later expanded by Jefferson to “the pursuit of happiness”) that individuals would have in a prepolitical “state of nature.”
Perhaps natural rights have an even older origin, such as in our favorite philosopher (or at least mine) Plato, who wrote of a fusion of law and nature through reason which may have been the misinterpreted basis of the Enlightenment:
The dominant tendency of the time was to see “nature” (phusis) and “law” (nomos) as quite distinct and even opposed notions representing what was permanent and non-human on the one hand, and what was a product of human agreement on the other. It is precisely this opposition that Plato puts in question. His dialogues contain extensive discussions of the “natural” (phusei) and what is “according to nature” (kata phusin) and how we should think about these things in relation to political and legal institutions and to the conduct of life generally. What emerges from Plato is the idea of nature as normative for human affairs as the rule of reason.
This theory fit within the framework of other Platonic beliefs, namely that the universe is a sensible place and humankind works to decode it for our benefit, thus all of our actions must have a logical or natural origin or metaphor.
Plato asked, as his fundamentally question, “What is the best life?” This quickly came to a discussion of ends-over-means and results-over-sensations, at which point it became clear that realism was a prerequisite.
As part of that exploration, he focuses on the distinction between harmful acts and beneficial ones. It turns out that the beneficial acts coincide with the goal of any species, which is to adapt to its environment, but have the added wrinkle of having to consider civilization and its furtherance in the mix.
Plato so offended human pretense — think Ahab, or the apple in the Garden of Eden — by not deferring to the gods, human social pressure, or other surface-level symbols or appearances that the Enlightenment invented a version of his philosophy, neo-Platonism, which was both dualistic (heavens and Earth play by different rules) and deontological (principles over results, a.k.a. means-over-ends) which later made it into Aquinas. The Enlightenment guys wanted us to use “reason” alone, instead of having a reality-like method such as measuring results in reality instead of human impressions of them, which led to an overly legalistic interpretation of natural law that concerned only the human individual and not social order. The Constitution skipped out on mentioning social order, assuming that the WASP colonies would continue as they had been, and in doing so, left open a wide door.
Natural rights, not surprisingly, became radically reversed when civil rights became the norm:
The doctrine affirmed by the American Founders and epitomized in the Declaration of Independence is a classical-liberal doctrine of natural rights grounded in a specific account of human nature.
The term “classical liberalism” is used here to denote liberalism in its classic form as exemplified in the political thought of John Locke, the Baron de Montesquieu, and the American Founders, among others. It signifies a doctrine of constitutionally limited government, authorized by the consent of the governed to secure the natural rights of its individual constituents. It is to be sharply distinguished from what has commonly been called “liberalism” in American politics since the New Deal, referred to here as “Progressive liberalism,” which is characterized by the construction of a constitutionally unlimited and ever-expanding welfare and antidiscrimination state.
According to that account, human beings by nature possess certain specific faculties that entitle us to rights because they render us capable of responsible action—of rational liberty. Human rights at first sight appear to be similarly grounded in a concept of human dignity, or of the distinctive worth of human personality, but the appearance of similarity is misleading. In the latter understanding, human rights are conceived not as the exercise of human faculties but rather as the fulfillment of human needs. The transition from natural rights to human rights is a transition from a faculties-based to a needs-based account of the basis of rights, and from this transition arise serious difficulties in the human rights argument.
In 1870, America permanently modified its government by patching its Constitution to include a European-style government mandate to enforce equality on everyone. This followed the European socialist model, not American natural rights.
Nonetheless, the two coexisted until the 1960s, when it became clear that freedom was less important than enforcing equality, diversity, and entitlements upon all people in matters both public and private.
With the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, America set itself on the path toward becoming a permanent minority-majority state, meaning that it would no longer have natural rights since those would allow some to escape diversity.
Even if we repeal the 14A as we should, problems remain with natural rights because they do not address what Plato ultimately wanted to speak about, which was natural order.
Natural order is more mathematical and logical than anything else. To avoid chaos or terminal repetition, we need hierarchy, an ends-over-means morality, and a goal that pushes us toward an eternal positive that we can never fully achieve and therefore can always keep pursuing. We interpret natural order through natural law, or the idea that our civilization must emulate the way things work in nature instead of some idealistic or dualistic emulation of Heaven or human social pretense.
However, natural rights offers a more sensible model of civilization. It both enforces anarchy, through limiting the ability of government to control us, and natural order, through a competitive environment where natural selection is common.
As the great experiment in democracy from the 1700s begins to wind down, we are starting to see more interest in a natural rights society because it would allow the competent and capable to rise and shrug off the parasitism of the rest.