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I came of age in the 1980s, when conservatives believed the Cold War could be won, immigration was good, protectionism was bad, the truth was not relative, moral character mattered, and there was such a thing as a "free world" worth championing. By the end of the decade, with the Berlin Wall down and the U.S. economy roaring, it was easy to see why conservatives could claim vindication. It’s what attracted me, as a politically minded teenager, to their banner.

Today my children are of the age I was in 1980s. What, from an American perspective, is conservatism to them?

Here’s what: A compulsively dishonest president with an instinct for bullying and the low bigotries of a sports-bar buffoon. A slogan, "America First," taken directly from the isolationist and anti-Semitic movement that predated U.S. entry into World War II. Demagogic rallies in which the president’s supporters rage against the news media as an "enemy of the American people." A gun culture whose most recent blood sacrifice consisted of 17 students and teachers at a Florida high school. Trade wars, border walls, and the cruel separation of families through forced deportations.

This is an abbreviated list, but it’s enough to ensure that my children will not soon become conservative, at least politically speaking. I can’t fault them.

But it’s also a shame, perhaps a tragedy, because no democracy can remain healthy for long without a morally sound and intellectually serious conservative movement. Right now, the United States does not have one and is unlikely to recover it anytime soon. Recent elections in Italy are a reminder that other Western democracies are also at risk. In place of a politics in which the fringes bend toward the center, we get a politics in which the center bends toward the fringe. It’s how democracies perish.

What, then, should conservatism be about? By definition, conservatism is the politics of order, tradition and caution. But conservatism in a liberal regime such as the United States will always mean something different, since the foundational order that conservatives mean to conserve is itself not conservative.

The intelligent conservative addresses the paradox by advocating a politics of liberal ends and conservative means. The ends are the rights of the individual to enjoy the greatest degree of personal liberty compatible with the rights of his neighbor. The means are the institutions—family, church, the military, civic associations, businesses, the free market itself, and so on—that help produce citizens capable of responsible and enlightened self-government. To argue for conservatism for its own sake is atavistic folly. Its purpose is to give men and women the moral and intellectual wherewithal to take full advantage of their birthright as free people.

This is also to say that intelligent conservatives appreciate, better than their left-wing peers typically do, the fragility of the liberal order. Liberal democracies don’t spring spontaneously into being, a lesson America has learned painfully in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are also far more vulnerable to neglect, decay, subversion or overthrow than many would care to believe. Just look at Hungary or Poland.

Free societies have enemies: the forces of revolution and reaction, of left- and right-wing populism, of utopia and tribe. The core conservative task is to protect liberalism from those enemies—even if it sometimes means protecting liberals from themselves.