In North Carolina, the political label “conservative” is more popular than the terms “liberal” or “progressive.” In the most recent John Locke Foundation poll, for example, 46% of likely voters described themselves as conservatives, with 25% picking the liberal label and the rest either “moderate” or nothing at all. If we broaden out to include all North Carolinians, not just those who reliably vote, the gap shrinks a bit. But conservatives still form a plurality — and they significantly outnumber liberals.

These are just stated preferences, though. They’re political brands, if you will. They aren’t definitions.

What is conservatism? Ask two self-identified conservatives and the two answers you get will never be identical. Over the past few years, in particular, the rise of populism on the American right has provoked a robust debate about the future of the movement. Should conservatives abandon their past commitments to free enterprise, balanced budgets, limited government, and local autonomy? Many self-styled “National Conservatives” say yes.

I say no. And I’m in good company. On July 13, more than 80 leaders from across the conservative movement — scholars, journalists, organizers, litigators, campaign veterans, and former public officials — released a statement declaring themselves Freedom Conservatives.

“Authoritarianism is on the rise both at home and abroad,” they stated. “More and more people on the left and right reject the distinctive creed that made America great: that individual liberty is essential to the moral and physical strength of the nation.”

In the Freedom Conservatism Statement of Principles, the signatories of July 13 affirmed such propositions as:

• “Essential to a free society is the freedom to say and think what one believes to be true. Under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, federal and state governments have a legal obligation to uphold and protect these freedoms. Private institutions have a moral obligation to do the same.”

• “The best way to unify a large and diverse nation like the United States is to transfer as many public policy choices as possible to families and communities. Much of the discord in America today comes from the fact that too many decisions are made for us by centralized authorities.”

• “The skyrocketing federal debt is an existential threat to the future prosperity, liberty, and happiness of Americans.”

• “We commit to reducing the cost of living through competitive markets, greater individual choice, and free trade with free people, while upholding the rule of law, freedom of contract, and freedom of association.”

• “Equality under the law is a foundational principle of American liberty. Unfortunately, today this principle is under attack from those who believe that the rule of law does not apply to them.”

• “Immigration is a principal driver of American prosperity and achievement. America is exceptional because anyone — from any corner of the earth — can seek to live in America and become an American.”

• “We commit to expanding opportunity for those who face challenges due to past government restrictions on individual and economic freedom. We adamantly oppose racial discrimination in all its forms, either against or for any person or group of people.”

• “Americans are safest and freest in a peaceful world, led by the United States, in which other nations uphold individual liberty and the sovereignty of their neighbors.”

I am honored to be among the signatories, who represent a wide variety of backgrounds, professions, leadership roles, and home states. We FreeCons don’t necessarily agree on every policy issue or priority. What we have in common, however, are a firm commitment to America’s founding principles and a passionate belief that political movements defined primarily by what they’re against instead of what they’re for are unlikely to build and sustain a successful governing coalition.

You can read our statement in full at Now, just to be clear: we describe ourselves as FreeCons not because freedom is our sole interest but because without it, our other fundamental values and institutions will prove impossible to sustain. Only a free America can be a great America.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.