Conservatism: A Question
July 18, 2002
Conservative. What is a conservative? The question has also been asked, "What is a 'true conservative?'" Ralph Bristol gave his take on that question in his article, "There is no true conservative."
Before we begin to label people as conservative or liberal, it would be a good thing for us to stop and understand what the words mean. We need a handle, not only on the dictionary meaning but also how these labels have been used historically and within the particular context we are considering.
Even looking for the answer in the dictionary can be confusing. According to the Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary the primary definition for conservative is "preservative." As usual the dictionary points us to another word to find the root of the meaning. In this case we take a look at conservatism; "a disposition in politics to preserve what is established."
When we consider this definition of political conservatism, which is consistent with other usage of the word (conservative dress, conservative religion, etc.), it turns our application of the term upside down. Consider; though school choice is typically considered a conservative issue, those who are advocates of school choice are not truly conservative according to this definition. Webster tells us conservatives are people who are "tending to or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions." So, in this case, those opposed to school choice are conservatives!
We must conclude that Webster only gives us a start to understanding conservatism. History gives us insight. One of the primary lessons we learn from the past is that even those who claim the label "conservative" come in various stripes.
Pick up any book on the topic or peruse essays on the Internet and you will read of classical conservatives, neoconservatives, paleoconservatives and even an animal called a neopaleoconservative. Some trace their views of conservatism to the writings of Edmund Burke. Others will point to Rockwell and any other number of philosophers and political scientists.
In the end, what we learn from the history of American conservatism is there has never been a cohesive platform for conservatism. Unlike England there is no viable American political party with its own platform of issues known as the Conservative Party.
That brings us to today. History continues into the present. Conservatism is more of an adjective than a noun. There is no complete list of issues that makes a person conservative. That is why we see people labeled as "social conservatives" and "fiscal conservatives." Both of these labels fall under the umbrella of political conservatism.
Still, none of this explains WHAT a conservative is. It doesn't answer the question, "What is a 'true' conservative?" This article will begin a series of articles by various proponents of the movement. Somehow I don't believe we all agree on an answer, but perhaps we can better understand the mosaic that makes up American conservatism.
Next week look for an original article by Jim Kalb as he takes a stab at answering the question.