During, and in the few days after CPAC 2015, I found myself engaged, again, in what it means to be a Conservative. I’ve been identified as one and I don’t hate it. But I don’t feel like it describes me. (More on that in a bit).
What brought on the renewed discussion was the presence and short presentation of the American Atheist organization at CPAC2015. A lot of fellow atheists covered social media with gasps of how a humanist organization, one seeking scientific solutions, could be at a Conservative convention. So, being comfortable in both swimming pools, I did my own reaching out. “Hey, fellow atheists! Look, I’m one too! You probably didn’t know this but now you do and we’ve been getting along forever. Isn’t that cool?” And the reception has been just fine. Its fine, because some assumptions were realized and broken. There’s still some head scratching over why I’d want to align myself with such a group (most atheists are of the Liberal persuasion). I believe the problem is because of what the popular definition of a Conservative has come to mean verse what I take it to mean. So let’s examine that. First, let’s examine what the definition of a Conservative is. Then the popular definition. And where else to start than to simply google the word, “Conservative” and see what comes up.
Via Google, the noun definition is: “a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in relation to politics.”
Well, that’s a lot. What exactly is “traditional”? Is it a good thing? Slavery was traditional. So was polygamy. It was also traditional not to allow women to vote. Also traditional to burn heretics and witches at the stake. Yet I don’t know anyone who identifies themselves as “Conservative” and wants to bring back slavery and witch hunting. Hmmmm…
The adjective definition per Google is: “holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.” So it’s about the same as the noun. Again we’re with the “traditional”. Yet here there’s also “cautious about change or innovation”. And it’s in relation to politics and religion. So you could be a Conservative Russian Communist pro-slavery, Hindu. But I’m probably the first person to put those identifiers together. No, the popular definition, which we’ll get to, is so far away from that. Hmmmmm…
In the Wikipedia entry for Conservative, we come across more of what’s noted above. Being Wikipedia, there’s deeper analyses and there’s this: “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.”
There ya have it. Sure does look like “Conservative” is whatever the hell you want it to mean. So it’s no wonder that when I’m having a conversation about politics with someone who says they can’t back a Conservative agenda, I’m having such a hard time wondering why. We may have different ideas in our heads. We may be talking about different things. Everyone is a conservative and everyone is not. The word is practically meaningless. Or, better yet, the word means whatever the speaker considers traditional.
Example: A Christian conservative may feel that one man, one woman is a proper marriage. Their conservative view of marriage goes back to a time when polygamy was no longer welcome.
Example: A Muslim conservative may feel that one man, many wives, as young as nine, is a proper marriage. Their conservative view of marriage goes back to their religious history when that was practiced. (And it still is in many parts of the Muslim world).
Now we come to the popular definition of a Conservative. It has some baggage and I think this is where the problem comes in, and where American Atheists found their comrades wondering why they were there.
The term has been hijacked (in part, intentionally and, in part, unintentionally) by a small subset. This subset is summed up as heterosexual, white, Bible loving, Christian, primarily from a southern state, possibly anti-vaxxer, climate change denier and white with a side of white and more white with old, white money. The current trend is to assume that this person wants to hold marriage to one man, one woman. This person wishes to keep women’s wages lower than a man’s. This person also wishes not to grant the LGBTQ equal rights. These people, for all intents and purposes, wish to keep America divided and unequal, with themselves at the top. They love their guns. They love their “traditional family values”. They are pro-death penalty but anti-abortion. And, first and foremost, they have a tighter grip on the United States Constitution than their Bible. Have I missed anything in the stereotype? Please add in the comments.
Of all the descriptors noted above, only four of them are something the person had no choice in. The only four that qualify as “not my fault” are being white, being heterosexual, being born in a southern state or being born into old money. Other than that, the rest are matters of opinion formed after birth. So unless the anti-Conservative is a racist, I’m sure the problem is more with the other descriptors.
How did all those other descriptors get in there? That’s a whole other study, too big for the present piece. Regardless of how it happened, it happened. And we’re living with the stereotype today. And when, for the sake of brevity, I identify as one, all that baggage comes with it.
I addressed that in a prior piece here and here so I won’t get into it again. And I asked my fellow Conservatives to review their histories and policies and see the flaws. So clearly, I’m not in the stereotype because I’m trying to clean house. And, quite frankly, other than being white and heterosexual, I don’t have any of the other traits. Yet, again, for the sake of brevity, I use the term, “Conservative”.
The only position from the descriptors noted above that I hold dear, is a grip on the Constitution. But it’s not a holy grip. The Constitution is amendable and rightly so. It has been amended, for better or worse, twenty-seven times. In most cases, it’s amended as Thomas Jefferson suggested, always keeping in mind the original spirit of its making, always choosing the position that grants the most individual freedom. The Founding Fathers recognized there was a future they couldn’t predict and allowed for measures of change. I’ve already covered this here. A desire to see my government run closest to the boundaries of the Constitution is why I use the term Conservative. Everything else is baggage I’d just assume do away with.
So maybe I could use something else. Maybe Conservative doesn’t serve it’s purpose for people like me. So, let’s drill down again.
In the Wikipedia article on Conservatism there’s numerous camps under the umbrella, too many to get into. But there’s this entry for Libertarian Conservatism. Hey, I do call myself a Libertarian. So let’s look at that. In part, it defines as, “Its five main branches are Constitutionalism, paleolibertarianism, neolibertarianism, small government conservatism and Christian libertarianism. They generally differ from paleoConservatives, in that they are in favor of more personal and economic freedom.”
Oh geesz, more big words to define.
For fun, let’s look at the first: Constitutionalism. The Wikipedia article says, “Constitutionalism is “a complex of ideas, attitudes, and patterns of behavior elaborating the principle that the authority of government derives from and is limited by a body of fundamental law.”
Sheesh. It’s complex and has patterns. More things to dig into.
How about Paleolibertarians? This form is based on the policies and philosophies of Murray Rothbard and Llewellyn Rockwell. So now we have a breakdown based on two personalities.
How about Neolibertarianism? Also known as ring-wing Libertarianism. Sigh. Please define “right wing” now. And this contrasts to left-Libertarianism.
And if this wasn’t bad enough, in the Wikipedia side box of the Part of a Series on Libertarianism, under Schools, are the following:
Agorism, Anarchism, Anarcho-capitalism, Autarchism, Bleeding-heart libertarianism, Christian libertarianism, Collectivist anarchism, Consequentialist libertarianism, Free-market anarchism, Fusionism, Geolibertarianism, Green anarchism, Green libertarianism. Individualist anarchism, Insurrectionary anarchism, Left-libertarianism, Left-wing market anarchism, Libertarian communism, Libertarian Marxism, Libertarian socialism, Minarchism, Mutualism, Natural-rights libertarianism, Paleolibertarianism, Panarchism, Right-libertarianism, Social anarchism and Voluntaryism.
My brain hurts.
Maybe it’ll help if we look at what is currently considered the opposite of a Conservative: Liberalism. Back to Wikipedia and the opening paragraph reads, “Liberalism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality. The former principle is stressed in classical liberalism while the latter is more evident in social liberalism. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas such as democratic elections, civil rights, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free trade, and private property.”
Sigh. That sounds like Libertarianism. That even sounds like Conservatism.
It sounds like the only way to really describe myself is to use more identifiers than any person could ever understand in polite conversation. It might take twenty different isms to get to the bottom of it. And imagine saying, “I’m a Libertarian, equal rights, social anarchist, voluntarily, liberal on speech and natural rights, conservative about the Bill of Rights except that embarrassing 18th one”. It’s rubbish.
After looking into these and tossing some dice on others, it breaks down to is this: I’m Eric. I’ve lived on this planet for almost forty-five-years now and spent a good part of it sampling much of what life has to offer. I’ve adopted policies and philosophies that seem the best. And they clearly come from different pools. So when someone calls me a Conservative, well, they’re right in part. When someone calls me a Constitutionalist, well, in part. When someone says I practice the Socratic method, yes, but I also like the scientific method, find it a better way at getting to the truth. When someone says I’m White, maybe. But I like peach better.
In essence, part of the problem is that in the United States, we have a two party system. Of course there’s other parties. I belong to one. But the deck is currently stacked against them. So for all intents and purposes, we’re dealing with two. And there’s no possible way to encompass all the different ideologies and life choices in two parties. In fact, everyone is pretty much there own party.
Should we drop labels all together? No. A label gives the frame. Despite this bunch of confusion, I accept being called a Conservative because it’s a frame that I’m closest to. It doesn’t mean I don’t share some opinions outside of the frame. In fact, I share quite a bit. But we just don’t have the time in a day to drill everyone down we meet. Ideally, the best thing to do if you have enough time in conversation is to not bring up a defining label at all. Start with issues. Ask where a person stands on this or that. Bet you’ll find out, as stated above, that no one fits perfectly into a box.
Remember, Schrodinger’s Cat could be either dead or alive in that box. That’s extraordinary polar opposites. Yet, both are as capable of being true until you check. You have no idea what its status is until you open it and check for yourself. I say, labels are convenient. They’re a starting point, hardly a finish. But before you generalize about someone, open the box.
So because of this, I’ll also have to revise my own policy to never argue with Democrats or anyone in the “Communitarian” pool. Maybe someone is in that pool but more like me and I didn’t even know it. Maybe I’m using the label Libertarian and they’re using the label “Communitarian” but we‘re both in favor of the same things and the same way of getting to them. The labels are what’s getting in the way.
And by the way, if you google the word, “argue”, you’ll see two definitions. One reads, “give reasons or cite evidence in support of an idea, action, or theory, typically with the aim of persuading others to share one’s view.” and the other reads, “exchange or express diverging or opposite views, typically in a heated or angry way.” Don’t do the latter. Do the former. Because in the former, there’s no “heated or angry way”. Angry hats never look good and no one learns anything. In fact, angered, heated disputes on politics usually ends up reinforcing a stereotype. And what we want to do, is break them. Bet we’ll find we want much of the same thing and that some of it just might be details.