Tell Me Once Again: What Does It Mean To Be a Conservative?

There seems an interesting debate between John McCain and Mitt Romney as to who is the most reliably conservative.

McCain was recently quoted as saying, “And I promise you, if I am so fortunate to win your nomination, I will work hard to ensure that the conservative philosophy and principles of our great party _ principles that have done so well by the country we love _ will again win the votes of a majority of the American people, and defeat any candidate our friends in the other party nominate.”

George W. Bush wants to present himself as a conservative. But, I don’t think that true conservatives could possibly believe that he is. Didn’t conservatives use to rail against interfering in the affairs of other nations, didn’t they use to rail against the whole concept of “nation building”? Didn’t conservatives at one time obsess over the importance of fiscal responsibility? Isn’t a true conservative appalled by much of what George W. Bush has wrought?

George W has marched us in to over $3 trillion of additional debt, how is it possible that anyone could think he is a conservative? No wonder there is such confusion as to what conservatism actually is.

You would think that a philosophy of conservatism would be a philosophy that agreed with original principles that founded our nation, a philosophy that shared the original vision of our nation. A philosophy of conservatism, you would think, would adhere to the radical notions of the nation’s founders — that in this country all are created equal and that there should be freedom and justice for all.

But conservatism, as I hear it from the Republicans, isn’t all that concerned about justice, economic justice, anyway, and seems eager to worship a market system that blatantly unfairly distributes wealth — a system that causes a large segment of citizens to be working poor, bereft of one of the most important freedoms that every citizen should be guaranteed: freedom from want.

The thought that stands out, if one discovers true conservatism, does one discovers liberalism?  But I’ll save that thought for another time.

The current debate in the Republican Party is: What does it mean to be a conservative? John McCain is being accused of not being a true conservative. This web-site says, “Ann Coulter took aim at McCain’s positions — particularly his fervent anti-torture stance — and said he and Clinton differ little on the issues.” Is this saying that, according to Coulter, if you are a true conservative you should have a pro torture stance? But the conservatism that Coulter advocates for Republicans, that justifies torture, is strikingly at odds with traditional conservative principles. Here is an interesting post that tells the thinking about torture of someone of impeccable stature, whom I assume is accepted by the Republicans as a true conservative, George Washington.

The above article also says, “McCain has been at odds with some of the conservative base for his support of campaign finance reform legislation and his vote against President Bush’s tax cuts.” So, it appears, according to the Republicans, advancing conservative principles means rejecting campaign finance reform and cutting taxes in time of war.

Since when is a vote against tax cuts automatically a vote against conservatism? Since when is it a conservative principle that taxes should be cut, regardless, even if spending runs amuck?

The conservatism of Republicans, as revealed by the McCain / Romney dispute, is showing itself to not be a well thought out philosophy at all, but rather it is revealing, to anyone paying attention, that it is simply a term used to confuse and manipulate the public. Tell me once again: What does it mean to be a conservative?

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3 comments to Tell Me Once Again: What Does It Mean To Be a Conservative?

  • Mike, you state conservatism is not all that concerned with “economic justice.” At the level of the federal government, you are correct. The Constitution did not authorize the federal government to expropriate money from some people and give it to others in the name of “economic justice.” It does that, but the Constitution as written does not authorize it to do so. For that matter, the Constitution does not authorize Congress to restrict freedom of speech, but that is what the McCain-Feingold Act does.

    McCain is no flaming liberal, but he is not a conservative. He seems to favor big government. In the 2000 primaries he went out of his way to antagonize social conservatives. He is definitely too interested in having the US involved overseas and flexing our muscle.

  • T. Ruddick

    “Conservative” and “Liberal” are handy stereotypes, and like all stereotypes they’re best used as insults. Every human being is a complex of opinion. Ronald Reagan was not particularly interested in a balanced federal budget either; John F. Kennedy was decidely un-“liberal” in his militarism.

    Even if we accept those terms not as stereotypes but as convenient identifiers, it’s clear that further subdivisions are warranted. There have always been at least three major sub-types of Republican conservative: the “main street” conservative who was devoted to fiscal responsibility and infrastructure, the “wall street” conservative who was concerned with supply-side “tinkle-down” economics and corporate welfare, and the “church street” conservative who was eager to impose religion on others and to hasten Armageddon through our middle-east policy.

    Reagan’s genius was to merge those three strains together (along with some help from, for example, Ralph Reed who convinced fundamentalists that it was OK to be involved in secular politics–in fact it was a mission from God. Or for example Richard Viguerie and Rupert Murdoch). It was the same sort of genius in the Democrats in the late ’50s and ’60s that coalesced civil-rights advocates, libertines, environmentalists, and moderate socialists.

    And now those three convservative strains are finding a lot to scrap about, with the main street and wall street strains happy with McCain and the church streeters now flocking to Chucklehead. Meanwhile Barack Obama talks about how he wants to replicate the genius of Reagan and Kennedy by uniting disparate opinion points in his party.

    Frankly, none of the Republican candidates strikes me as my sort of conservative–the George Voinovich main street type who can manage to keep the budget balanced while promoting some excellent public works.

  • Stan Hirtle

    I think that whatever the term “conservative” may have meant in other times and contexts, today it is mostly defined by its attitude toward authority and obedience to authority, whether the authority is that of the boss in the workplace, the owner over his money, the flag over America, America over the world, men over women, parents over children, the hierarchy of the military, and religious authority (of God, the Bible or church hierarchies) over humankind. Somewhat related is the concept of privilege (of race, class, gender and age), which most everyone has a little of and seeks to protect .

    Underlying this may be less tolerance of uncertainty and even chaos in life. The amount of change and uncertainty we live with, and the vulnerability it brings so that even those doing well today may be losers tomorrow, both economically and in terms of life’s meaning, may be what makes the nation so conservative today.

    The day to day issues that define conservatives therefor change constantly. Abortion was not a big deal before Roe v. Wade, and even Reagan didn’t care much about it early in his political career, until it started bringing millions to the side of politicians who opposed it. Tax increases, balanced budgets, stem cells, guns, Spanish on signs, torture, all these come and go as to the emotional power they command. As do wars. Conservatives who will go to the mat for Bush’s war in Iraq were contemptuous of Clinton’s “nation building” war in Bosnia.

    Like other generalizations this is oversimplified and in fact the conservative movement is filled with people who care about very different things and who coexist easily because they are in limited competition with each other. Authority is both the right to say no and the power to make others say yes, so it is not always clear where people of a libertarian bent fit. However the consrvative movement has worked politically. It is easy to divide up power over wealth and power over the culture. What does Christianity have to do with being for war, power for the rich and low taxes? Not much, but it is easier to campaign on all of those things than to provide access to a middle class life for working class whites and blacks, while you also preserve the environment.

    So now McCain has time to capture the conservative label and bond with those who wear it, while Clinton and Obama fight it out. We will see how well he does it.

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