Attempting to categorize conservatism in the 21st century runs the risk of plunging into the briar patch of academic labeling or the fever swamp of left-wing vitriol. In the first category, one finds such designations as conservatism, neo-conservatism, and paleo-conservatism, while those things liberals say about conservatives may be relegated to the realm of overheated political rhetoric. But this still leaves those sympathetic to conservatism with the problem of self-definition, especially during a time when Tea Party enthusiasts have captured so much attention in the context of discussions about conservative views.
The word conservatism itself is usually and rightfully associated with political principles of the Founding Fathers, but the neo-conservative and paleo-conservative forms of conservatism seem puzzling to many. Not helpful on either score. And we have seen that even Tea Party metaphors can be dismissed with sound bites by liberal smear-aholics.
Here’s where Mark Twain comes to the rescue, especially since he was too busy mocking others to care about what others had to say about him, and his attitude toward politicians of every stripe pretty much says it all: “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Likely his observations of today’s congressional shenanigans would leave him rolling on the ground with laughter—or breaking down in tears. Either way, he would make great fun of it, no doubt with incredulity, skepticism, and no small amount of contempt. But does this make Twain a conservative?
The answer, I believe, is yes, for the following reasons. First, unlike America’s current ruling class, Mark Twain lived a very rich and full life, filled with events that burned the lessons of experience into his soul, all of which reinforced his understanding of the reality principle: that is, the relationship between cause and effect and taking responsibility for one’s actions. For instance, one does not advance to the position of river-boat pilot on the Mighty Mississippi with no more experience than negotiating a rowboat on a stream. His considerable income did not prevent him from losing all of it in failed business ventures; he traveled throughout the world, met thousands of people, was swindled by a few of them, became personally familiar with life’s many vices and tried briefly to give up smoking, drinking, lying and swearing, but couldn’t. The best he managed was to control his drinking and write an essay that was “An Appeal Against Injudicious Swearing,” which is as far as he would go on this very important topic.