Political Definition or Redefinition? Which do you choose? Today’s Word – CONSERVATIVE
Extremists on both sides of the American political spectrum excel at demonizing those on opposite side. I’m still irked by political poisoning of our body politic. So this week, I’m going to examine the word Conservative and consider the behavior of people who claim the label.
We’ll begin with the dictionary definition.
1. Favoring traditional views and values
2. Traditional or restrained in style
3. Moderate; cautious
4. Tending to conserve; the conservative use of natural resources.
5. Tending to oppose change.
My favorite one is #3: Moderate. I can hardly stop laughing, just trying to contain the dictionary definition and the thought of today’s political conservatives. Because moderate (something that I am!) is something that they certainly are not.
I will, however, give credit where credit is due. I’ll give them props for #1 and #5.
My father used to say “Don’t burn your bridges.” I think that can apply that advice to traditional views and values, because they place today’s decisions in a broader context rather than merely the exigencies of the moment. Fact is, I don’t fault anyone who calls him or herself a political conservative for taking principled stands. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson wrote “In matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
Problem is, most of today’s issues are not matters of principle, as the principle players in the decision making process have already sold out, sold their souls, and are beholden to behind the scenes players who require simple obedience masquerading as a principled stand. Even when it comes to traditional values, the devil is in the details, because one could apply different values and still be true to certain traditions. But all of that aside, today’s self-identified political conservatives often seem to excel at only one thing: Opposing change. In this regard, they are true to the definition of conservative, but I think a better word for their behavior is regressive.
I love that word, regressive. If I were going to try to associate a word with the group currently calling itself ‘conservative,’ that’s probably the word I’d use. I’d be inclined, by my desire to make things better and continually improve on the good that we already have, to embrace and reframe progressive as being, not left wing and liberal, but on the side of our better angels as opposed to listening to our fears and allowing things to keep deteriorating and getting worse.
But on definition #4, it’s a FAIL. So many of today’s conservatives seem to have an eager willingness to use up our natural resources with abandon. Media personality and half term governor Sarah Palin likes shooting animals from her helicopter, thus killing life and burning fossil fuel at the same time, a TWOFER! Dick Cheney prefers shooting his friends in the face. I guess it’s a matter of style.
Notice how the ‘drill baby drill’ crowd has gone mostly and suddenly silent while the oil spews into the gulf, and the ‘there’s no climate change’ crowd must have gone with them, because there’s hardly a peep from them as the world’s weather mood swings in ever widening extremes. Their shortsighted wastefulness has exposed future generations to an ever more dangerous climate and environment, but they seem just fine to conserve their energy where it counts and expend it where it can hardly be afforded.
And on #1, it’s at least half a FAIL. Today’s conservativism seems to embrace, and even promote, greed and self-righteousness as a virtues, and this is truly a wonder to behold. Our traditional values, as I recall from the teaching of my parents, community leaders and teachers, included generosity, modesty, and carried many warnings, such as ‘the end doesn’t justify the means,’ and ‘might does not make right.’ These things seem to be missing completely from the right side of the political stage.
That’s not, by the way, the political conservatism as practiced through most American history. George Washington, long considered a conservative icon, certainly didn’t oppose change. In fact, he worked and sacrificed for it. His interest was to conserve what was good, discard the rest and do better. Today’s conservatism is out of context and common sense, and out of control, and encouraging those at the front of the conservative crowd only ensures that we are all going to run out of time.
Conservatism was not always this way.
In a historical sense, political conservatives long believed that a limited government is a healthier government, that free markets allow for innovation and creativity and for people (alone and in company) to rise based on individual merit. They believed that individual liberty, traditional American values and a strong national defense are vital to a healthy nation. They believed the role of government should be to allow people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals.
These things matter to me. Like Thomas Jefferson (whom some current conservatives on the Texas School Board aimed to write out of our history books because of his desire to see a separation of church and state…a wall of distinction that helped us become such a mighty nation by tapping the talent of all good people, not just the irrational and unreasonable ‘true believers’ who pride themselves in their intolerance of ‘other’), I don’t think it’s healthy to have a government that is big enough to oppress the people (though it’s almost too late for that!)
I subscribe to the ethic of ‘think globally, act locally!’ Seems to me that the way to keep government small is to keep it healthy at a local level.
And like Adam Smith, I think that as long as there are reasonable checks and balances in place to protect against abuse, and people are guided by a sense of civic duty and personal morality, the free market works beautifully (though that is not how it’s done these days!) As the sense of right and wrong has fallen away from the internal value set of conservative leaders, a corresponding green light for all sorts of bad behavior in business and government has led to the near-collapse of our union and its takeover by special interests.
Traditionally, political conservatives also recognized that with individual freedom comes individual responsibility. Rather than wanting a growing dependence on a nanny-state that looks out for citizens who are unwilling or unable to be responsible for themselves, they think it is imperative that each individual take responsibility for his own actions, and exercise his rights and freedoms wisely and with discretion. The emphasis is on morality, duty, and responsibility to one’s self and fellow men.
But the outspoken mouthpieces of today’s conservative movement, whether it’s Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Coulter and Palin, seem unable to take the long view of anything, and spout patriotic slogans and hurl vitriol at people they don’t like at every opportunity. I’m particularly irked by Sarah Palin, the no-nothing VP candidate, former half term Governor and full time quitter, whose lies and aspersions about political opponents spew out as easily and nastily as oil bubbling up under the Gulf of Mexico. I’m not saying she’s dumb, but her intelligence seems strictly political and driven by ambition with her ‘don’t trouble me with the facts’ truthiness approach.
Those standing with her often do not seem to care about personal responsibility when it’s their responsibility, but instead apply a double standard that everyone else is somehow responsible. They engage in all sorts of bad behavior themselves, while condemning what they decide is bad behavior in everyone else. They apparently don’t have to be responsible for what they say and do, as long as they can attack those they disagree with. They do this by demonizing opponents and turning labels like ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ into pejoratives, rather than engaging in reasonable disagreements based on legitimate differences. Contrary to their claims, the loudest of them do not seem to be driven by a will to be of service to US.
My take is that if you care about something, then you ought to live it, set an example of it, rather than holding everyone but yourself accountable! Someone who truly embraces conservatism as a political stand in the modern world would be someone who rises above his personal self-interest and promotes moral and economic values beneficial to all. I’d like to see more decency, reasonable disagreement, and a willingness to work towards conserving the best of the past while aiming for the future.
I understand why some who call themselves conservative are defensive around those who call themselves progressive. During the Bush years, there was plenty of paranoia in a climate of sustained fear. But the fear projected onto the right was targeted at the leaders, the people who allowed the banking system to go bad, who held secret meetings with energy industry executives to waive responsibility requirements and regulations, who covered up the breasts on statues while running around with interns and having bathroom sex at airports, who turned the US into a nation of nation builders elsewhere, while neglecting anything that might have been helpful to our own citizens, and whose war on terror had about the same effect as the war on drugs…THINGS GOT WORSE! Lefties were frustrated that righties couldn’t see the writing on the wall, but I don’t recall the level of viciousness and hatred that the right now promotes against the left as a matter of course. My mother raised me to believe that we lead best when we lead quietly, by example. And the example set by the extremists on the right is one she never would have wanted me to follow.
Ok, that’s now off my chest. While I’m still irked, I’ve worked some of it out in writing. Time to focus forward.
I’m actually glad that people care about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And I’m glad that decent people are able to care about responsibility and progress at the same time. After all, the Eagle has two wings, and they are both necessary for the big bird to fly. Total liberty is anarchy. A loss of liberty is tyranny. Finding the right balance is what government at its best seeks to accomplish, and government at its best requires the best of WE THE PEOPLE to get involved in the political process, to demand that our representatives represent US and work for our best shared interests.
Like most the people I know, I’m a combination of both conservative and liberal impulses. I want what’s best for myself, my family, my community and my country. I want us to conserve what works and do what is needed in order to advance the human condition and increase freedom in the world. I yearn for a less partisan time, when we can agree about good intent and work together to reduce our differences, come up with workable solutions that conserve the best of the past while allowing us to make progress toward the future.
If you’re capable of reason and persuasion, talk to me. Are you a Conservative, a Liberal, or some combination of the two? Your comments and feedback are always welcome. Flames are not.
Rick is a best selling author and the founder of the Art of Change Skills for Life. His book titles include, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to bring out the best in people at their worst, Life by Design and Influence and the Art of Persuasion. These days he is spending quality time away from the spotlight enjoying the company of his wife and practicing his electric guitar.