A Point of Clarification

By Cady Stanton


Apparently, my prior post, “Republicans are NOT ‘Conservative,’” got some knickers in a knot.  I don’t fully understand why the post was perceived as a slam against people who call themselves “conservative” and the things that they believe in (although my hunch is that the perception is of the knee-jerk variety that is all too common in our modern politics among lefties and righties alike).  But Rule #1 of writing is to make your point clearly and if I failed in that, it’s my job to lend clarification.


The point of the post was words – “conservative” and “radical,” to be specific – and the contrast between their traditional definitions against the way they are used by Republicans and in the context of political rhetoric.  As I said in the post:


The objective reader will see that there is no attempt here to weigh in on Republicans and their policy positions.  Rather, my goal – my hope, really – is to restore some intellectual honesty to the words that form our political discourse.  The terms “conservative” and “liberal” are critical to that discourse, yet we tend to allow each to become utterly distorted, aided in large measure by the pundit class and a news media that has all but abandoned inquiry, investigation and insistence on facts.


For too long, politics has been a triumph of style over substance, which could not happen without the distortion of the words that make up the rhetoric.  Substance ought to matter and that includes an honest portrayal of the actors and their policies.  No good citizen should settle for less.


Toward that goal, I brought in the dictionary definition of “conservative” and juxtaposed that definition against certain platform principles espoused by the GOP, and sought to highlight the radicalism of either the principles themselves or the means of achieving them.  I also opined that some issues are neutral on their face, with conservatism (or liberalism, for that matter) coming into play by virtue of reaction:


When the definition of “conservative” is correctly used, it becomes clear that the term is largely irrelevant to moral questions or notions of right and wrong.  A person who states that homosexuality is a sin is saying nothing conservative or liberal because the fact of homosexuality invokes neither adjective, just as it is neither conservative nor liberal to dislike broccoli. 


Rather, these notions come into play in how a person responds to the belief that homosexuality is a sin.  Resisting efforts to allow gays to legally marry reflects conservatism because it is an attempt to preserve the status quo.  Advocating the execution of gays based solely on their sexual orientation, on the other hand, is a radical response.  Such a policy would require a substantial departure from the status quo not just in terms of the people who would be put to death but also of the power of the government.  (Just to be clear, no, I am not saying that the GOP advocates the execution of gays.)


I can make the same point about issues espoused by the political left (indeed, I could write an entire post entitled, “Democrats Are NOT ‘Liberal’”).  Take healthcare reform, for example.  Most Americans agree that our current healthcare system is in need of reform.  For the left, that reform will involve some measure of governmental involvement, but the extent of that involvement runs on its own conservative-to-radical continuum.  Reform that places restrictions of private sector insurers, such as prohibiting the denial of coverage based on pre-existing conditions, is conservative because it leaves the current system largely intact, seeking only to improve upon it.  At the other end is universal healthcare, provided exclusively by the government and paid for with public funds.  In 2009, the proposals put forth from inception to the Senate’s Christmas Eve vote, rested at various places between these two endpoints on the continuum.


(As a disclaimer, let me add that the healthcare reform “debate” was a travesty on all sides, with the politicians and punditocracy treating all of us as if we’re too stupid to weigh in with rational, rather than emotional, responses.)


To reiterate, my point was about words and their definitions, and the adverse comments about my post have not challenged my premise.  With that in mind, I turn to A.C.’s response to my post.  It is unfortunate that he chose not to address directly any point I raised (choosing instead to dismiss the message because of its messenger) because doing so would have made for an interesting discussion, especially if it required that I rethink my own assumptions. 


More important is that A.C., no doubt inadvertently, bolsters my point by citing approvingly to Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles.”  Consider Kirk’s second principle (emphasis mine):


Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire. It is through convention—a word much abused in our time—that we contrive to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties: law at base is a body of conventions. Continuity is the means of linking generation to generation; it matters as much for society as it does for the individual; without it, life is meaningless. When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions, and broken the continuity of social institutions—why, presently they discover the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions, and continuity; but that process is painful and slow; and the new social order that eventually emerges may be much inferior to the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise.


Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. Thus the body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls. Human society is no machine, to be treated mechanically. The continuity, the life-blood, of a society must not be interrupted. Burke’s reminder of the necessity for prudent change is in the mind of the conservative. But necessary change, conservatives argue, ought to be gradual and discriminatory, never unfixing old interests at once.


This principle gets to the very foundation of my post, which was, as I said above, to examine what the word “conservative” means and to contrast it against the goals of the Republican party and the means of achieving them.  In its current form, the GOP embodies radicalism because it seeks sweeping, sudden change, as the examples I examined demonstrate.


Since my post, another example emerged in the form of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.  In his third principle, Kirk states:  In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.”  Without having read Kirk, I echoed this sentiment in the context of stare decisis:  Our courts operate on the centuries old rule of stare decisis, which means that they rely on prior holdings and reasoning in rendering decisions, departing from them only in exceptional circumstances.  Stare decisis is conservatism in classic form.”


The Supreme Court abandoned both Kirk and stare decisis by abandoning a century of law.  (It has done likewise in other, less sexy cases that don’t make the news, such as when it overruled the 50-plus year precedent of Conley v. Gibson and its standard to test the viability of a complaint.)  Yet this court’s majority is commonly described as conservative even though it has embarked on a course that can only be properly described as judicial activism.


With the foregoing, I hope to have lent the clarity that may have been wanting.  If it hasn’t, and a reader still perceives my posts to be about people rather than words, then I can only conclude that the reader has an impenetrable filter through which no message that does not conform to one’s own rigid perceptions can pass.  In that event, I recommend John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” which shall be the subject of a future post.




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