Conservative, Liberal, and other now Useless Monikers
I used to call myself a conservative, and I suppose I still do. But, it is getting harder and harder to do so. Now, in hearing that statement, some “conservatives” may suspect that I am veering from conservatism. I assert that nothing could be further from the truth. Then again, maybe their suspicion is correct, as it is all in the definitions. You see, words mean things, and political labels are only as valuable (or should be only as valuable) as the actual meanings behind them.
Over time, the terms conservative and liberal have evolved, and while this notion of labels changing is nothing new, it is important to acknowledge such change and to recognize its meaning to assess where we stand as individuals. All too often, many of us blindly follow and identify with a group due to a familiar label, without considering if the values and positions of the group truly represent us. We could have a field day with this same concept in regards to the two major political parties, and how so many of us cling stubbornly to either Republican or Democrat regardless of how many times they let us down, doing the opposite of what they say or what we believe in. Yet I would posit that the way we cling to the conservative and liberal monikers is equally concerning and in many ways far more insidious.
The term conservative has two connotations directly related to the literal definition of the word: a) fiscal conservatism — spending as much or less than one takes in, and b) social conservatism — adhering to “traditional” positions and values. To fully expound the history of the label takes us from the writings of Edmund Burke through those of Russell Kirk and others. There are such label variations as liberal conservatism, conservative liberalism, classical liberalism (believe it or not, equated with modern conservatism), libertarian conservatism, paleoconservatism, and neo-conservatism (among others). But this writer’s purpose is not to get into that level of detail regarding the history of these labels, but rather to urge the reader to think about what these labels mean and whether as they change one should flippantly throw them around or apply them to an opponent or an opponent’s position without first considering said meaning.
All that being said, I would like to suggest that the definition of conservatism in the United States became small-government conservatism in delayed response to Goldwater conservatism, culminating with the groundswell of bi-partisan support for Ronald Reagan in 1979. American conservatism prior to this represented a union to some extent of classical liberalism and social conservatism. I believe the Reagan Revolution represented a divergence from social conservatism insofar as it represented a new-found emphasis on limited-government. In other words, while individuals may believe in adherence to traditional values, the way this manifests itself in terms of the role of government would be and should be very limited. In more recent years, however, true focus on limited government has been difficult to detect among the vast majority of “conservative” leaders. In my observations, far too many leaders who identify themselves as “conservative” fully manifest the breadth and depth of their conservatism when they pay lip service to things like “lower taxes” or traditional values. Beyond the rhetoric, their actions fall woefully short of the mark.
Consider the following:
Person “A” believes that the role of government should be limited, per the explicit instruction of the Constitution, placing emphasis on the individual and personal responsibility, individual rights, with individuals responsible for providing for their own needs, and the idea that “the government that governs best, governs least.”
Person “B” believes that the idea of lowering taxes sounds pretty good, but we cannot or should not reduce our spending thus making tax reductions untenable, believes that individual liberties expressed in the Constitution should consistently take a backseat to the government’s need to provide for the safety and security of the people, and believes that a large and powerful central government, whose responsibility it is to keep individuals safe, must also provide for the citizenry in many and varied ways.
How then could one call both of these persons “conservative” and have the label truly maintain any meaning whatsoever? Let’s face it, we’ve identified hypothetical persons adhering to positions that are practically diametrically opposed to one another, and yet these days both persons may very well (rather, they do) call themselves conservatives. If anyone doubts the description of person “A” above as a fair description of a conservative, I highly suggest searching online for the speech by Ronald Reagan titled, “A Time for Choosing” (you will not be disappointed).
It was Ronald Reagan who said, “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” Why did he say this? Because libertarianism is ultimately about limiting government to benefit the individual – limiting the power and authority of government (which indisputably was the goal of our Founding Fathers) empowers and enriches individuals, families, and communities. So did he refer to libertarianism because of gay rights, or abortion, or some other hot-button issue? Surely not. He asserted that libertarianism is at the core of conservatism because his view of conservatism focused on the importance of limited government and all the corresponding benefits. Ultimately, if we are to use this label, we must decide whether it is referring to small-government conservatism and use it accordingly (or consistently in some other way), or modify its usage to the point where the prefix contains all the meaning and the “conservative” portion is completely devoid of meaning (neo-conservative, paleoconservative, libertarian-conservative, etc.).
Likewise, I believe the term “liberal” has become increasingly less meaningful. Let us employ the same method to illustrate this:
Person “A” believes that the Bill of Rights are critical, and the liberties of the individual must be defended at all cost. To paraphrase a discussion along these lines that I heard from a popular radio personality a couple of years back, he might call you a racist for what you said, but would fight to the death for your right to say it. This person understands the importance of the right to bear arms and why our Founding Fathers felt this was critical, among the other rights expounded and enumerated in the Bill of Rights. The promotion of and protection of individual rights is at the core of this person’s political beliefs.
Person “B” believes that government must protect people from each other, even if that means limiting individual freedoms for the sake of the ‘greater good’, or for the sake of making our nation more secure or safe. He/she believes that censoring “hateful” speech to protect the thoughts or feelings of one group of individuals is more important than protecting a right of freedom of speech, and that the dangers of guns far outweigh any perceived fundamental (natural) right or Constitutional right to bear arms – the greater good outweighs the rights of individuals.
Believe it or not, both of these persons may identify themselves as “liberals,” and I personally know individuals with these fundamentally opposing beliefs who each self-identify as a “liberal.” Again, what then does liberal actually mean?
These days I find myself identifying more and more with Person A in both camps, regardless of the liberal or conservative label they apply to themselves. In fact, I know a good number of folks who would call themselves “very conservative” who would agree wholeheartedly with the Person “A” description of a liberal, and yet at the same time those who would call themselves a “bleeding heart liberal” who espouse the very same political philosophy.
I fear that for far too many people the label they apply to themselves ends up indicating for them not what they are or believe, but rather, what they are not. Many identifying themselves as conservative simply attempt to convey, “I am not a liberal,” and likewise many liberals, “I am not Rush Limbaugh (cough…”a conservative”).” This, to me, is sad. Why we want to lump ourselves together in a great big group of people, many of whom adhere to a political belief system diametrically opposed to our own, just to avoid being lumped together with different, more scary group of people with whom we do not agree, is beyond me. I believe it is also indicative of how conditioned we, as a populace, are to a pendulum-swing polarization in our politics. Two-thirds of the country ultimately do not much care where we go as long as it is not in the direction that we perceive the opposing ideology wants to take us. “Anywhere but there” becomes our mantra, and in maintaining such focus on what we are not rather than what we are, we as a people become duped by one big government “conservative” followed by a big government “liberal”, and so on and so forth. So long as all we hear are these useless monikers of conservative and liberal, rather than truly assessing the fundamental ideology, we have no hope of stemming this tide — this revolving door of big government usurpation of the rights and freedoms we hold dear.