Meanings: “Conservative”

January 27, 2012

“Conservative” is a word very much in play at present, especially as the Republican Party sorts out who its 2012 Presidential candidate will be.  But what does “conservative” mean? Various candidates, disagreeing with one another, lay claim to being a real conservative. Conor Friedersdorf usefully parses 21 different meanings of “conservative:”

  1. An aversion to rapid change; a belief that tradition and prevailing social norms often contain within them handed down wisdom; and mistrust of attempts to remake society so that it conforms to an abstract account of what would be just or efficient.
  2. A desire to preserve the political philosophy and rules of government articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
  3. A belief that it is imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the Bible, through cultural norms.
  4. A belief that it is imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the Bible, using cultural norms and the power of the state.
  5. An embrace of free-market capitalism, and a belief in the legitimacy of market outcomes.
  6. A belief that America is an exceptional nation, a shining city on a hill, whose rightful role is leader of the free world.
  7. A belief that America should export its brand of democracy through force of arms.
  8. The conviction that government should undertake, on behalf of the American polity, grand projects that advance our “national greatness” and ennoble our characters.
  9. An embrace of localism, community and family ties, human scale, and a responsibility to the future.
  10. A belief that America shouldn’t intervene in the affairs of other nations except to defend ourselves from aggression and enforce contracts and treaties.
  11. A desire to return to the way things once were.
  12. Affinity for, identification with, or embrace of Red America’s various cultural cues. (For example, gun ownership, a preference for single-family homes oriented around highways rather than urban enclaves organized around public transit, embrace of country music, disdain for arugula and fancy mustard, etc.)
  13. Disdain for American liberalism, multiculturalism, identity politics, affirmative action, welfare, European-style social policies, and the left and its ideas generally.
  14. A desire to be left alone by government, often coupled with a belief that being left alone is a natural right.
  15. A principled belief in federalism.
  16. The belief that taxes should be lower and government smaller.
  17. The belief that the national debt and deficits put America in peril.
  18. The belief that whenever possible, government budgets should be balanced.
  19. Consciousness of the fallibility of man, and an awareness of the value of skepticism, doubt and humility.
  20. Realism in foreign policy.
  21. Non-interventionism in foreign policy.

It’s quite a list.  No one could be a conservative in all these senses. Perhaps everyone affirms some items on the list. The full post is here.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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