Modern American conservatism weaves several strands of thought — constitutionally limited government, free-market economics, time-honored virtues, and prudent statesmanship — into a fabric that is both large enough to encompass a majority coalition and strong enough to withstand that coalition’s inevitable twists and strains.
Two thinkers whose ideas inspire American conservatism, Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek, were neither Americans nor self-described conservatives. Burke, an 18th-century member of Parliament, defended the American Revolution, criticized the French Revolution, and was associated with the “Old Whig” faction of classical liberalism in the British politics of the day. Hayek, the 20th-century Austrian economist who spent some of his career in the United States, described himself as an Old Whig or classical liberal.
Yet both are venerated by today’s conservatives, in part because of their careful, historically grounded arguments for prudence. “Circumstances,” Burke wrote, “give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.” In Hayek’s case, he counseled his fellow advocates of individual freedom to recognize that “human civilization has a life of its own, that all our efforts to improve things must operate within a working whole which we cannot entirely control, and the operation of whose forces we can hope merely to facilitate and assist so far as we can understand them.”
At the present moment, North Carolina conservatives are confronted with a prudential question: what to do about House Bill 2. Enacted nearly a year ago in response to Charlotte’s passage of a poorly constructed anti-discrimination ordinance, H.B. 2 has come to dominate the state’s political discourse.
Some like it that way. Roy Cooper and his team actively lobbied Democrats during the 2016 campaign not to discuss any accommodations with Republicans on the issue, while also encouraging boycotts against the state and raising campaign funds from concerned business leaders to use against then-Gov. Pat McCrory. On the other side, there are Republicans who believe H.B. 2 was a reasonable response to Charlotte’s provocation and ought to remain intact, as well as out-of-state conservative groups that see North Carolina as a pivotal battleground in a twilight struggle to defend traditional values.
But most North Carolinians do not agree with either side. Surveys from both liberal and conservative pollsters find majorities of voters oppose H.B. 2. They are tired of hearing about it, unconvinced that it was narrowly tailored to address an imminent problem, and concerned about its effects on politics, business, and sports. In a survey taken just before the November election, the Civitas Institute found that even 43 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of self-described conservatives either opposed H.B. 2 or were ambivalent about it.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they or most other North Carolinians favor the approach of the Charlotte ordinance or the Obama administration on access to showers and locker rooms. In that same Civitas poll, 49 percent of voters agreed with the relevant provisions of H.B. 2 on those matters, while 35 percent thought the Charlotte/Obama stance was reasonable.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, and a bipartisan coalition have devised a new “repeal and replace” response, H.B. 186, to the ongoing dispute. It repeals H.B. 2 and explicitly grants municipalities the authority to enact anti-discrimination ordinances that go beyond state law to include such categories as sexual orientation or gender identity. However, it explicitly excludes access to multi-occupancy bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms on non-municipal property from such ordinances — describing it as “a matter of general, statewide concern.”
In response to concerns about overly broad anti-discrimination ordinances intruding on the religious conscience of private individuals and institutions, the bill excludes religious groups and nonprofits while allowing citizens to initiate a referendum to challenge any newly enacted ordinance, just as some city charters allow citizens to challenge other city actions.
The McGrady bill won’t make everyone happy. It doesn’t fully comport with my own preferences. But for conservatives, it has at least one compelling virtue: It is prudent.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.