By Cady Stanton
When I read John Dean’s “Conservatives without Conscience,” the point that really stood out was that we fundamentally misunderstand and misuse the word “conservative” in describing today’s GOP.
Dean’s focus was on Gingrich, Bush and others like them that transformed the Republican party into something that would make Barry Goldwater shudder and spin in his grave. As Dean correctly puts it, these folks’ politics represent radicalism. Under the stewardship of President Bush, the last decade produced a breathtaking expansion of executive branch power. In that expansion, the people who call themselves conservative stripped due process rights from anyone, even American citizens, designated an “enemy combatant,” set up “free speech zones” as if America itself was not already one, waged an unprovoked war, corralled communication information of ordinary Americans without warrants or probable cause, funneled tax dollars to religious organizations, and legitimized torture. No one can credibly describe these deeds as being conservative.
Dean’s book is a political discussion, but defending the proper use of language is a worthy task in its own right. In many respects, it is simply wrong to call the GOP the “conservative” party.
To be conservative means one is cautious and reluctant to make change or accept new ideas. A person who dresses conservatively, for example, is not concerned with fashion trends, and a conservative investor is risk-averse, preferring the safety of the investment over the potential for a big payoff. Politically, conservatism favors the status quo and, where there is change, it is incremental.
The condition of workers through the early 20th century is a useful example. Most of us cannot comprehend a reality where the norm is a six- or seven-day workweek, 12-14 hour days and wages that barely support subsistence. The transformation of workplace conditions is indeed a radical one, but it was accomplished incrementally over a period of time. Instead of revolution, change has come from the legislative process through the enactment of maximum hour, minimum wage, child labor restrictions, safety requirements and similar laws. (In the 19th century, the laissez faire Supreme Court routinely struck down such laws as unconstitutional. One must wonder whether today’s GOP would condemn the Court’s rulings as “judicial activism” that “thwarts the will of the people.”) In short, there has been a good measure of conservatism at work in this transformation.
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.)
It is, therefore, a falsehood of national proportions to call the GOP the “conservative” political party based on its opposition to homosexuality or abortion, its support of unrestricted capitalism or unfettered access to guns or any of its other positions. To find conservatism, we have to look at what the party advocates in support of these and other positions.
Take abortion, for example, which is closely linked to how Republicans view the judiciary. 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. Republicans want to outlaw abortion, which can only be accomplished by overturning Roe v. Wade. Thus the goal is not conservative in nature because it requires the Supreme Court to take the radical step of overruling its prior precedent.
What about guns? Republicans fancy themselves to be “constitutionalists,” meaning “men and women who will not distort our founding documents.” The Second Amendment, which presumably is among those founding documents, says this: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
For Republicans, this language translates into freewheeling access to guns and the ability to carry them, hidden, anywhere one chooses, even in bars. The question that logically arises is how this view comports with the Second Amendment’s references to “a well regulated militia” and “the security of a free state.” The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. The strength of one’s desire to hunt or hold burglars at bay cannot serve to strip away language from the Second Amendment that otherwise defeats its applicability to those desires.
The Supreme Court has had little to say about the Second Amendment and its intended meaning is not altogether clear. The framers were likely more concerned about such intrusions as the government using the military on U.S. soil than they were about someone bagging a deer for the family dinner. But it is clear that if the GOP chooses to insist on adherence to the language of the Constitution and its amendments, it cannot simultaneously ignore the language of the Second Amendment that is wholly removed from the party’s position on gun ownership. (It also cannot legitimately ignore the similarity of Justice Scalia’s reasoning in the Heller decision, which struck down a Washington DC handgun ban, to that expressed in Griswold v. Connecticut, the predecessor to Roe v. Wade.) Summarily dismissing language that is in the Second Amendment is hardly a conservative act.
By contrast, GOP opposition to Bush’s bank bailout and Obama’s stimulus bill does fit within the definition of conservative. Leaving aside the merits, both were bold, sweeping and expensive. Conservatism, by definition, would be resistant to these initiatives.
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.