Political hegemony aside, let's talk about the definitions of the terms Conservative and Liberal. We (the populace at large, meaning you and me) are assaulted daily by relative use of these terms. Are you a Conservative or a Liberal? Politically, these terms are loaded with presumption and mis-direction. From each side of the political spectrum the terms mean different things. I think it is a appropriate to talk about the words from an objective point of view and then we can discuss the relativism on the meanings that pervades our political process.
First, a recitation from the dictionary. For this, I'm citing my antiquated volume from 1975, The Random House College Dictionary, revised edition, unabridged version published by Random House, Inc. ISBN- 0-394-43600-8 thumb-indexed edition.
Conservative: adj. 1. disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc. and to resist change. 2. cautious; moderate: a conservative estimate. 3. traditional in style or manner; avoiding showiness: a suit of conservative cut. 4. (cap.) of or pertaining to the Conservative party. 5. of or pertaining to political conservatism. 6. having the power or tendency to conserve; preservative. 7. of or pertaining to Conservative Judaism or Conservative Jews. - n 8. a person who is conservative in principles, actions, habits, etc. 9. a member of a conservative political party. 10. a preservative.
Now, let's see what Random house says about the term Liberal:
Liberal: adj. 1. favorable to progress or reform, as in religious political affairs. 2 (often cap.) noting or pertaining to a political party advocating measures of progressive political reform. 3. of or pertaining to representational forms of government that aristocracy and monarchies 4. of, pertaining to, based on, or advocating liberalism. 5. favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties. 6. favoring or permitting freedom of action, esp. with respect to matters of personal belief or expression. 7. free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant. 8. open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc. 9. characterized by generosity and willingness to give in large amounts. 10. given freely or abundantly. 11. not strict or rigorous; free; not literal. 12. of, pertaining to, or befitting a freeman. - n. 13. a person of liberal principles or views. 14. (often cap.) a member of a liberal party in politics, esp. of the Liberal party in Great Britain.
Ok, now we've got the academic definitions out of the way, which definition would you apply to yourself? Interestingly enough, if you are a member of the National Rifle Association, you would have to assume the "Liberal" label for your beliefs regarding the individual freedom as defined in the Liberal definition above. But we know from our current circumstances that most people who are advocates for unrestricted gun ownership align with the Conservatives which in most people's eyes are represented within the Republican party. I'm an avowed and confirmed Liberal, but the clothes I wear are extremely conservative in cut and description. The point of this is that we make the words fit the definitions we want. Relativism abounds with these words, as we all have a tendency of defining the terms in varying their meaning to meet our requirements or circumstances.
Why then, do we have these strong, visceral responses to the terms? Politicians today will run as fast as they can away from the term Liberal. The meaning of the word has become synonymous with anti-god, gay loving, tree-hugging pussies that hate America and all she stands for. During the recent presidential election, Senator John Kerry refused to be "labeled" a Liberal because he knew that if he aligned himself with the term it would cost him votes. Since the Reagan Revolution in the early 1980's, Conservative has become closely associated with the iconic "John Wayne" type of American. This person is god-fearing, fair, individualistic, self-made, and all around righteous. Compound this with the influence of fundamentalist Christianity, and Conservative basically means that you are part of the community of the blessed. You believe in God and that He has chosen America as his beacon for the rest of the world. Conservative as a term used to be scorned not so long ago, as it was associated with those out of touch, out of step, older generations of people who hated that "hippie music", and all that "free love" that was pervasive in the 1960's.
Attributed (although probably falsely) to Winston Churchill, this phrase has another view of portraying the differences in the terms: "If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain." The point of this is that when we are young, we are idealistic, open-minded and tolerant of other people, but when we get wiser and older, we become more convinced of our views and less tolerant of others.
I believe we all have liberal and conservative traits that we carry. I'm very conservative when it comes to what my 14 year old daughter watches on TV or listens to on the radio. This music today. Jeez! I'm pretty liberal though when she asks me to explain matters of religion. Most of us probably have similar characteristics.
Politically, the terms are very relative when applied to the entire world. Would you consider the former Soviet Union "Liberal" or "Conservative"? Characteristics of the U.S.S.R. included an atheistic credo disavowing religion. Afghanistan, under the Taliban, by contrast was a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy whose legal system was a particularly conservative interpretation of the Koran. The former U.S.S.R. was a communist country, led by a few well-heeled dictators whose enforced autocracy was incredibly restrictive. Both examples in my view are an example of an extreme form of conservatism. Liberal countries are generally more closely associated with democracies. England, France, the United States, Australia, Canada, Spain, Italy, Japan, etc. etc. could be classified as Liberal because of their general tolerance for other points of view and for their relatively progressive political approaches. We, as a society hold dear the term Liberty and indeed, have fought wars to attempt to bring it to those that are held hostage by a dictator (see recent adventure in Iraq).
Bring the terms back to America and we have to ask ourselves a few questions. What does it mean to be conservative or liberal? If you go by the strict definition supplied above (I, by the way have absolutely no idea whether or not the publishers are liberal or conservative) then the term conservative means resistant to change. If one agrees with that, then you conservatives by all means should believe we should still have segregated schools, women shouldn't be allowed to vote or own property, and we should still be burning witches in the public square. I would contend that we have no true conservatives. I think instead, we have different degrees of liberalism. No one wants to go back to the days of Dred Scott or Jim Crow. We like our scientific progress. Anyone want to give up their cell-phone or their microwave?
Conservatism and Liberalism alike have been polluted by special interests. The Liberals are co-opted by PETA and the Sierra Club, the Conservatives by the Moral Majority and John Birch society. I think very few people would align themselves with these groups. So, why do we get so worked up when someone calls someone else a Liberal, or Conservative? I think these terms have been Madison Avenued by a small group of people to really confuse and irritate the rest of us. Let's stop this. If you want to be conservative on some things fine, just recognize the word means that you don't want things to change. If you want to be liberal on some things fine, just recognize that the word means you are open and tolerant of other ideas and opinions (including conservatives, so stop whining).
Tell me what you think,