Could the real conservative please stand up?

There’s this funny thing that “conservative” is seen as a compliment, even coming from political liberals. For example, Nicholas Lemann writes in the New Yorker that Karl Rove “was never a real conservative, except in the liberal-hating sense, because the idea that everybody who participates in politics expects something from government was at the heart of his thinking.” This seems to me to be a funny definition of “conservative.” I would think a conservative would be realistic enough to expect that “everybody who participates in politics expects something from government.” To continue, I’d think a conservative would want to preserve the existing social order as much as possible. There are different flavors of this; Rove’s involves reducing taxes and business regulations, both of which seem like pretty mainstream conservative goals. I’m not saying that Lemann or others should necessarily support Rove–one might instead prefer goals such as redistribution, environmental protection, etc.–but I don’t see how you can say that Rove was never a “real conservative.”

In general, I think these sorts of labels are a topic worth studying: how do words like “conservative” get used differently at different times, and by people of different political persuasions.

7 thoughts on “Could the real conservative please stand up?

  1. A working definition of a "real conservative" might be someone who believes in free markets, as opposed to someone who believes in free lunches (ie tax cuts without spending cuts). Rove is surely in the latter category.

  2. I see it both ways. I always took "conservative" to mean interpreting the Constitution literally – limited government in both business and social practices.

    Rove, like many of the newer Republicans, are for the limited government when it comes to business, but not socially (e.g., faith-based research).

  3. Well, I am a free marketeer and a total social liberal (and an atheist).

    I do not consider myself a conservative US-style.

    US conservatives seem to also (and, nowadays, predominantly) be moved by social conservatism (and religious zeal).

    Maybe I could stomach voting for the Tories in the UK in present day. But not for a US Republican.

  4. I think that's because the word "liberal" has been twisted much more effectively than the word "conservative" – both have positive connotations, or originally did. Liberalism went with idealism and progress, and conservatism went with preservation and stability. They've both become flags for sports teams now though, but even liberals advocate conservation of the environment and balanced budgets and so forth.

    So, the word "conservative" was never pushed to be quite the slur that the word "liberal" is for some people, and can in fact be used (as it is in the article you linked) to set a standard that supposedly conservative people fail to meet. It's still an insult, albeit a subtler one.

  5. The real irony is that someone who believes in free markets and small government would be called a liberal in most of the world, to distinguish them from socialists and conservatives (the implicit dichotomy is liberal vs paternalist). In France it's a term of political abuse for precisely the opposite reasons that it's a term of abuse in the US.

    It really is interesting how continuously anathematizing a word changes its meaning over time.

  6. "Liberalism went with idealism and progress…"

    Um, no. Liberalism has a distinguished history as a philosophical outlook that goes way beyond American (mis)usage of the term to denote "progressive".

    The US is the one country in the world where "liberal" means what you claim.

    Background reading: Smith, Hume, Locke. Or any History of Political Thought reader.

  7. Yes, "liberal" goes back before America, as does "conservative" (and most other terms). But as a political term in America (which was the topic) I'd say "progressive" is a decent synonym. Not perfect, but no one-word definition is.

    The main point though is that neither word means much more than a label for the two main political parties now, except "liberal" comes off as generally more tainted than "conservative." And as the original post observed, it is curious, but I think that having "conservative" mean some ideal that "actual conservatives" such as Rove can't live up to is actually a pretty effective way to smear them. Unlike "liberal" (which essentially means "wimp" or whatnot out of the mouths of many), "conservative" has been placed on a pedestal that conservatives themselves cannot actually reach.

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