Political Labels: The History of “Conservative/Conservatism”

Do you know what the word “Conservative” means?  The term actually has a definition, but that definition has changed over the years because different political ideologies have attempted to claim the term to describe themselves.  This has resulted in no small amount of confusion as to what someone means when they say “Conservative.”  Originally, the term “Conservative” was used to describe a political ideology most commonly credited to Sir Edmund Burke.  And the “Conservative” ideology for which he is credited for developing was associated with the conservation of whatever political system happened to be in place at the time.  However, before we go any further, let’s look at the dictionary definition of “conservative:”

Definition of CONSERVATIVE (edited for the sake of brevity)

3a : tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions : traditional

b : marked by moderation or caution <a conservative estimate>

c : marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners

 As you will note, “conservative” means to preserve what is as it is.  Originally, this is what the term meant.  Burke was primarily concerned with maintaining the social order and political system as it was.  Burke advocated change through slow, deliberate steps including the careful examination of all aspects to a given issue and consideration of all possible outcomes of a given proposal for how to deal with that issue.  Burke was also very concerned with preserving the integrity of the law and with the legal process.  I believe that, in his mind, they were connected.  Nowhere is this more evident than in his scathing attacks on the French Revolution, which he saw as the epitome of lawlessness.  I could very well be wrong, but I would argue that Burke’s support for the Colonies and the American Revolution was due more to consistency with his allegiance to this view than to sympathy for the Colonists.   The Colonies were formed by Charter, which was essentially a legal contract between the Colonists and the King. This established certain rights for the Colonists.  The Colonists showed a consistent attempt to stay within these Charters and the law in their dealings with the King.  It was the King who violated his part of the Colonial Charters.  Therefore, if he were to remain consistent, Burke found himself having to side with the Colonists as a matter of law.  He was merely trying to “conserve” the existing legal system.

Now, let’s look at the definition of “Conservatism:”

CONSERVATISM (Latin: conservare, “to retain”)

A political and social philosophy that promotes retaining traditional social institutions. A person who follows the philosophies of conservatism is referred to as a traditionalist or conservative.

Some conservatives seek to preserve things as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity, while others, called reactionaries, oppose modernism and seek a return to “the way things were”.[1][2] The first established use of the term in a political context was by François-René de Chateaubriand in 1819, following the French Revolution.[3] The term, historically associated with right-wing politics, has since been used to describe a wide range of views. There is no single set of policies that are universally regarded as conservative, because the meaning of conservatism depends on what is considered traditional in a given place and time. Thus, conservatives from different parts of the world—each upholding their respective traditions—may disagree on a wide range of issues.

Edmund Burke, an Anglo-Irish politician who served in the British House of Commons and opposed the French Revolution, is credited as one of the founders of conservatism in Great Britain.[4] According to Quintin Hogg, a former chairman of the British Conservative Party, “Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society, and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself.”[5]

 Now, notice that the broader definition of conservative – those aspects common to all ideologies calling themselves “Conservative” — deals with the preservation of whatever culture/system is in a given place at a given time.  What this means is that, if Putin enacts policies meant to preserve the old Soviet model of Russia, he can claim to be “Conservative” while, at the same time, the TEA Party can claim to be “Conservative” while trying to protect the principles and ideals of the American founders.  This means that, if we want to understand what a group means by “Conservative,” we have to look at the form and function of what they say and actually do.

This is the point where most Americans who call themselves a “Conservative” get tripped up: what do you mean when you call yourself a conservative?  For all my harping on this issue, all I have ever wanted, all I have ever asked anyone to do is to make sure they know and understand what they mean when they call themselves “Conservative.”  For example, are you a:

Neoconservative* (also spelled “neo-conservative”; colloquially, neocon) in American politics is someone presented as a conservative but who actually favors big government, interventionalism, and a hostility to religion in politics and government. The word means “newly conservative,” and thus formerly liberal. A neocon is a RINO Backer, and like RINOs does not accept most of the important principles in the Republican Party platform. Neocons do not participate in the March for Life, stand up for traditional marriage, or advocate other conservative social values. Neocons support overthrowing foreign governments even when the results are new regimes likely to allow persecution of Christians.

Paleoconservative* is a term that describes conservatives who opine strong restrictions on immigration, a rollback of multicultural programmes, the decentralization of the federal polity, the restoration of controls upon free trade, a greater emphasis upon economic nationalism and isolationism in the conduct of American foreign policy, and a generally revanchist outlook upon a social order in need of recovering old lines of distinction and in particular the assignment of roles in accordance with traditional categories of gender, ethnicity, and race.[1] As such, paleoconservatives differ from mainstream conservatives.[2]

The most prominent figure is TV commentator and author Pat Buchanan.

Many paleoconservatives identify themselves as “classical conservatives” and trace their philosophy to the Old Right Republicans of the interwar period, which helped keep the U.S. out of the League of Nations, reduced immigration with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, and opposed Franklin Roosevelt‘s New Deal. They were isolationists who opposed entry into World War II.

They often look back even further, to Edmund Burke, as well as the American anti-federalist movement that stretched from the days of Thomas Jefferson to John C. Calhoun.

Or just a plain old:

Conservative* is someone who rises above his personal self-interest and promotes moral and economic values beneficial to all. A conservative is willing to learn and advocate the insights of economics and the logic of the Bible for the benefit of all.

More formally, a conservative typically adheres to principles of personal responsibility, moral values, and limited government, agreeing with George Washington‘s Farewell Address that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” to political prosperity.[1][2]

Former President Ronald Reagan said, “The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom.”[3]

Now, after you decide if you are one of these three types of “Conservative,” or maybe another form all together, can you then tell me whether your “Conservatism” is closer to the principles and ideals of the American Founders or to the American Progressives?  This is actually important to know, because none of the forms of “Conservative” I just listed agree with the Founders on the issue of:

A strong, standing military

Import tariffs and free trade

Corporations and property that exists only as a result of public legislation

Immigration and a number of other important issues

However, if you did not know this, then how can you claim to be on the side of the Founders, the Constitution and “Original Intent?”  And if the leaders you follow tell you that you should support a given person or policy because it is “Conservative,” but you do not know what type of “Conservatism” it is, or that leader is, then how can you tell you are not being deceived into supporting a person or policy that is actually opposed to what you believe?

So, this is all I ask – all I have ever asked: please be sure you understand what you mean when you call yourself “Conservative,” and make sure that it means what you actually believe or do not use the term or align with others who do.  In other words, know what you believe, why you believe it and take care not to stand with others who speak your language but who are actually your enemy.

NOTE: If truth be told, I suspect many of you who think of yourself as a “Conservative” are actually closer to a “Classic Liberal” than you know or understand.  I’ll post on that in the coming days.  I think it might surprise you 😉


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