August 12, 2020

What Is a Conservative? Why the Label?


When I was growing up, being considered a conservative person seemed straight-forward.  Violence on TV or nudity in movies was forbidden. Curse words like damn or hell were only muttered in private. Sex before marriage? That was a no-no (or not talked about). Children respected their parents. The government was essential to parts of daily life, but best if invisible most of the time. Spending more than you took in was to be discouraged. Trust in institutions was a given.

The suburbs where I grew up were almost all white, middle-class, and content. Problems existed, but they were abstract; they happened in other places to other people (or were kept in the shadows). Conformity was good.

Leaders that would tell the truth were expected. Decency and courtesy were the norms. America was exceptional, a world leader, and envied by everyone who didn't live here.

Now, Conservative seems to be one of those words that have been hijacked, or at the very least, is more emotionally charged than during my youth. To be thought of as conservative in 2020 carries with it all sorts of meanings.

Evangelical Christian? Probably. Belief in smaller government and a tightened social safety net? Yep. A strong military presence to keep others in line? Certainly. A growing sense of nationalism that urges us to tighten borders and pull back from contact with the rest of the world when it doesn't benefit us? Seems that way.

Obviously, words and labels and their meanings change over time. For most, conservative now seems to be a powerful, life-defining, us versus them, category. Instead of merely a definition of a particular view on how to see life, it seems to have become almost a line drawn in the sand, for both those who call themselves conservative and those who occupy the liberal camp.

My problem is the pigeon-holed view of things, with conservatism being a prime example. I am liberal about some issues but conservative in others. Unfortunately,  saying I hold a traditional outlook about some things immediately puts me in the box with that label, implying that all my beliefs are in line with that philosophy. Yet, that is simply not true.

Example? I think a border that is not an open sieve is important. A country without boundaries is not really viable. At the same time, I am a firm advocate in the ability of those who want to improve their lives, to legally have a path to enter this country, a way that is straight-forward and doesn't seem punitive at every turn. We are built on immigration and are more robust with different cultures as part of our mix. I encourage controlled immigration, but nothing as barbaric as putting kids in cages or keeping families stuck in permanent limbo.

Another example? One of the government's primary functions is protecting the health and well-being of its citizens. I believe all of us deserve access to high quality, affordable health care. That means we should be given the option to choose a government-run program, like Medicare. Or, for reasons of our own, if we prefer a private system of health care, then that choice needs to be protected. 

Part one of that statement puts me in the liberal/progressive box. The second part labels me as a conservative.

I guess what I am rebelling against is the simplistic way we tend to see things. Live long enough, and you are quite aware life is not black or white. There are not just binary choices to be made. Shadings of meanings, conclusions, inferences, are part of being human. If true, then why are we so quick to look for the easy way out, the either/or option?

In doing so, we divide ourselves into warring factions, that are artificial in their rigidity. They create battles when points of disagreement are the natural order of things. 

We build barriers between ourselves and then get angry about the obstacles. Silly, right?

44 comments:

  1. Very well said. Nowadays we are being pushed to be in one camp or the other in my country too. There cannot be a single word such as conservatism or liberalism to reflect my beliefs. If I do not agree with an idea, that should not put me in the "them" camp. Honestly, I epected much more from 21st century, yet I feel like we are being sucked into middle ages again.

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    1. The middle ages analogy may not be so far-fetched. There are the landlord (rich and power) and the rest of us (serfs) struggling to keep our heads above water. Society back then was very strictly divided by "us versus" them labels. What has changed?

      Americans seem to want simplistic answers to complex problems. A conservative or liberal label makes it easy to like or dislike someone...no work or thought required.

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  2. I have never been a conservative by any stretch of the imagination but before the Tea Party hijacked the Republican mind-set I used to respect conservatism and thought it was a necessary force to bookend liberalism---the yin and yang that kept a balance down the center. But the fine art of compromise was lost when the Tea Party started their all or nothing demands that have gridlocked us ever since.

    I hate what has become of our country and you described the past very well when you said, "Leaders that would tell the truth were expected. Decency and courtesy were the norms. America was exceptional, a world leader, and envied by everyone who didn't live here." I seriously doubt we'll ever get that back in my life time and that makes me sad and angry.

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    1. American "exceptionalism" has caused many of the problems we now face. The belief that we are above the fray, especially blessed, and the envy of the world, are dangerous mindsets to adopt. Every empire in history had the same self-confidence and self-delusion that led to their downfall. Sadly, we seem to be on the same path.

      A rude awakening is happening right now. How we emerge will be a test of our staying power as a country and a leader.

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  3. In our quest for what is good and right, we truly have divided our country with no room for any combination of thought. Like you, I am conservative in some ways and not in others. If I have to choose, I suppose I will be left of center. It all makes me sad.

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    1. I see my self as moderate...moderation in all things, including, moderation, is a wise way to approach a complex world. But, Those in the center are few and far between. It is more of a "pick your side and fight" mindset.

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  4. In the old days I would be what they called a New England Democrat. Fiscally conservative but extremely liberal in social issues. Unlike Jean I don't blame the issue on the Tea Party as such. I think this falls fully on the backs of Evangelical Christians who somehow decided that they were the last word on how everyone including those not like themselves should live. And the politicians who have been willing to let their money rule. Trump is actually the perfect example. While he was always a racist and an assshole, on other issues he was far to the left before running for president and got caught up in the Megachurch money.

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    1. Barb, I stand corrected. The Evangelical Christians also had/have a huge hand in causing gridlock.

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    2. I'd agree that a religion that has allowed itself to be politicized can cause major damage to a society. Think back to the Roman Empire and the power of the Catholic church.

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    3. I am reading the comments and I have a question. Who are the Evangelical Christians that every evil is currently blamed on? Is it simply the mega church people? My best friend belongs to one in Mesa and it has more outreach then any I have ever seen. Is it the Southern Baptists? Baptist morals of faith and family in a very vocal way. I don't agree with their stands on many things, but I understand where they are coming from. How about the Catholics and their anti abortion call? Is is the Black Church (they are definitely evangelical)? Is is small community churches who only care for their own? How did they get that way- are they following a person or a doctrine?How about people who choose to pray for anyone in leadership- that they will do the best they can to make their country a better place for all no matter their background? Really, I want to know. I just don't seem to know this monolith that is SO large and vile that it can be so blamed for the rise of a person so despised and ridiculed.

      BTW- the Roman Empire brought clean water and roads to most of their empire. They brought an equity of working your way out of slavery after capture. They dealt in fair coin throughout their empire. Only when the elite became overly greedy (that is a light word) did they "fall" because the middle no longer supported them. That is what we are close to today. Unfortunately our elite, from industry and politics, do not recognize the dismay of "their" middle class. The virus is showing, clearly, that divide.

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    4. Check out the book by Sarah Posner called "Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump."

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    5. Barbara you are spot on correct...I read an article the other day that the Christian Right began to take over the Republican Party around Eisenhower's time and haven’t stopped since. They have ruined the Republican Party

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    6. Janette, no I dont just mean mega churches. Although they are almost always far to the right and funding. Outreach is a good thing. But when you as a church try to rule my life and how I live it, especially when you profess to be opposed to government interference in other areas I find that apalling. You want to be able to whack your kids at will and yet deny me the right to marry who I chose, control my own body or hell, even have certain kinds of birth control. And frankly. Many of them seem to care more about old testament fire and brimstone than New Testament teachings not to judge and to love your neighbor as yourself. Outreach tied to faith and behavior is not true outreach. And the minute they became Trump supporters they lost all authority far as I am concerned.The poster boy for continued unrepentant sin. I am tired of social justice and equality being considered political issues rather than those of human rights and that is almost all directly attributable to the Christial right.

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    7. Barb,In reality - there are many religions that fit your paragraph in many ways. Just say it. Islam, most sects of Christianity, many sects of Judaism--Even Hindi... Really, even Communist China state fits many of these things. That is a whole lot of Evangelical Christians.
      Sorry to be so late in responding. Life----

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  5. Looking in from the outside I think the U.S. is uniquely conservative among the advanced western democracies. What is considered fairly conservative in most other western democracies would often be considered wildly liberal in the U.S. This is in no way a knock against the U.S., just an observation. Why it is this way is something for those that know a lot more about it than me to explain.

    In any case, I expect that there is some political pendulum swinging going on and at this point in time the conservative versus liberal discussion in the U.S. is at its most extreme. The fact that people are noticing and speaking up about it probably means that it has reached it's end point and is about to start swinging back.

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    1. Regarding the pendulum swing, I hope you are right. Politics and life in general tend to follow that model. Huge swings to one side results in a backlash that causes things to shift back the other way. While incredibly wasteful in money, time, people, and progress, it is the way our system has worked since 1776.

      Unlike most of Europe (and Canada, I imagine), religion still plays a major role in American culture. I suspect that is part of the reason for the overall conservative lean of the country

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    2. Dear Bob and Friends, for the most part, America was a Bible-based society...hhmmm, could be why the US had been clearly number one for quite some time.

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    3. And just what are we number one at?

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    4. Dear Mary, in years past (if not still at present) America had the best economy, best standard of living, the best hospitals, the best help for people falling on hard times. And for people who break the law, it's better to serve time in a US prison than in other nations.

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    5. As someone who had lived half herife in western countries that is patently untrue. Almost every other western country has better medical care and hospitals, and having lived in Germany i can assure their safety net is much better than our and they dont leave the elderly, the handicapped and others living on the street. Every single European county has at least as good standard of life and some better.

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    6. Just to follow up my original post there was this headline in an opinion piece my local news today after Kamala Harris was announced as Biden's VP pick which sort of makes my point: "By Canadian standards, Kamala Harris could run for the Conservatives"

      The piece went on to say... "[politicians] like Harris could easily fit into the political spectrum of moderate conservatives in Canada or Europe".

      Just to stay on point, there was no mention of religion in the piece and the U.S. has had a lot of success but it is an interesting divergence with other western democracies (for better or worse).

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    7. America may have been good at some of those things in years past, but not so much today. We are low in Education, reasonable health care for ALL our citizens, separation of church and state, infant mortality, high rate of obesity, definitely worse nation for controlling the Coronavirus, senseless enduring wars, highest on record national debt, poor safety nets for the poor and poor elderly, lowering (thanks to trump) of environmental protections, lessening of cooperation and concern for our long time allies and being in cahoots with our enemies, bashing our own FBI and other security agencies and being down the list of overall happiness of our citizens. Not to mention the religious right trying to takeover our lives and threaten everyone who differs with going to hell.

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    8. And just to follow up. Today a certain Frsnklin Graham said that Bidenand Harris were not good for Christians. What does that even MEAN? and since when do all Christians fall under one umbrella

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  6. There is a book called “The Fourth turning” and it explains and gives examples of how life and history moves forward in cycles that are predictable. The life you describe when you and I grew up was a “FIRST TURNING..’ We then proceeded through good times,conservative values, civic pride, trust.. on to an unraveling, like the the 60’s.. mistrust of government and authority, focus on individualism and consciousness vs. the collective good... then the 2008 financial crisis was the beginning of a FOURTH TURNING..and we are in the crux and CRISIS of i a Fourth Turning right now.. (tHIS cycle we are in is the same cycle when we had the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and WW Two!!) In about 10 years.. over time, we will cycle back to a FIRST TURNING.. and so on.. it’s a fascinating book..written back in the 90’s.. and very very pertinent.. I recently re read it. I am not sure if it soothes my soul or makes me more worried..I actually get some comfort from knowing this is not the first time values and life have changed..and not the last.. I would not mind some civic responsibility, a government, i can trust,health care, families and households pulling together for one another..and more sense of community... Highly recommend reading this book.It we’s available on cloud library and also on amazon...

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  7. Some people avoid this book because BANNON cited it during the early days of trump ism. He DID read the book and had his own ideas about how he wanted to commandeer the fourth turning! The book itself is not a manual for destruction of society! !! It is a deep look at where we came from and where we are going..and hopefully a better leader than trump will emerge to see us through. The book suggests we will vote for the candidate who will help us feel SAFE again during the crisis..... (Bannon thorugh trump would! I don’t think so!)

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    1. The belief that history repeats itself in endless cycles....and humans never learn. Sounds like a book right up my alley. I will take a look for it.

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  8. I don't know if I can post this, but here is a link to an interesting article about how most people are liberals, whether they know it or not:

    https://prospect.org/power/americans-liberal-even-know/

    I'm not sure any of us are hardcore Conservative or Liberals.
    I am thinking I am an more of an Eisenhower Republican:
    1956 REPUBLICAN PARTY PLATFORM:
    ASSISTANCE TO LOW INCOME COMMUNITIES
    PROTECT SOCIAL SECURITY
    PROVIDE ASYLUM TO REFUGEES
    EXTEND MINIMUM WAGE
    IMPROVE UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS TO COVER MORE PEOPLE
    STRENGTHEN LABOR LAWS SO WORKERS CAN JOIN UNIONS
    EQUAL PAY REGARDLESS OF SEX

    He also taxed the wealthiest at a rate of 91% unless they expanded or invested in infrastructure bonds, use it or lose it.

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    1. Isn't it interesting that Ike's platform is close to a Democratic platform over 60 years later.

      I agree with your premise to a degree. There are hardcore conservatives and liberals, but they are in the minority. Most of us are a bit more nuanced than that.

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  9. I also have beliefs on both sides. The thing that flipped my switch was when GWB invaded Iraq. I knew that was a terrible mistake. I had no idea the magnitude of the mistake. I have not voted for a Republican since. That preemptive war plus the total lack of self-control of the present incumbent is the perfect argument for elimination of the nuclear football, an outdated idea past its time.
    Who is a fiscal conservative? Forget it. Our children and grandchildren will be paying for what we have done for the rest of their lives. If they decide to cut our benefits I really don't see how I could complain. Conservatives need to keep in mind that everyone on Medicare is receiving welfare. We never put in anywhere near enough to cover our costs. One trip to the hospital could easily exceed all of mine and my employer’s lifetime contributions.
    If we really want to have a change in healthcare end all employer based healthcare. They can pay the employee what they would have spent on the policy and let them go to the open market and buy their own. It will take only a few short years for the amount paid by the employers to be far below the employees cost. Conservative and liberal alike will scream for government intervention. Just like what has been done in every other major county in the world.
    Any religious group that openly supports a political candidate makes a grave mistake, in my opinion. Politics is frequently made up of the worst traits of all of us. Mixing the two denigrates our religion when the shortcomings of that individual are displayed to all. People like Robert Jeffress will never again be able to hold the moral high ground after supporting a human cesspool like Trump. Keep religion in your house of worship and home.
    We all tend to think we were the ones that worked hard played by the rules and those others are free loaders. When I slip in that direction I remind myself that my position in life was subsidized by countless others. I think of the roofer, barber, landscaper, farm worker, carpenter, day care worker, waitress, cook, grocery sacker and countless other workers. They worked for less because they did not receive benefits. I bet they never got stock options, bonuses or pensions. They lowered my costs. There is not a world in which they could have all become high paid workers. We are all in this together.

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    1. Fred, that is a tremendous summation of our situation. I have nothing worth tacking on to what you wrote.

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  10. Great discussion. I tend to think (and hope) that most of us are somewhere in the middle and the noise level is generally created by the extremes. But then, I tend to be an optimist.

    The Republican party as it stands is not recognizable by lifelong adherents. My DH has abandoned the party and he is far from alone. The people I know still on board with their policies are mostly Evangelicals and/or rich & worried about their portfolios. Also more than a few blatant or subtle racists. Trump is singing their song and blowing their dog whistle. Not necessarily because he believes it, but because he is a reality TV star looking for ratings. His audience has shrunk, but they're rabid.

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    1. With all the terrible problems we are facing, Trump decided now is the time to talk about how unfair low flow shower nozzles are to his hair grooming. Oh, and if Biden is elected he will tear down the Empire State Building.

      Watching a seriously unbalanced person veer completely off the rails is scary as hell. I feel like I am watching the Wizard of Oz madly twirling the controls after the curtain has been pulled back by Toto.

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  11. Dear Hope, repubs (conservatives and / or fundies) and their fat portfolios? Uh, might have something to do with decades of diligent work and spending carefully...not blowing $$ on junk.

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    1. Or, maybe it is because of tax policies and stimulus funds that reward the wealthy rather than those who really need it.

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    2. Kenneth Copeland net worth $760 million, Pat Robertson $100 million, Benny Hinn. $42 million, Joel Osteen $40 million, Rick Warren $25 million....etc. this is far beyond diligent work and careful spending. This is lining your pockets, several 12,000 sq foot homes, yachts, private planes all built on the backs of others

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    3. Well, as L. Ron Hubbard said, you don't get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion. PT Barnum was right...there's a sucker born every minute.

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  12. A lot of good, interesting points here, so thanks for a great post. I agree, the conservatives have lurched to the right (Tea party, evangelicals), the liberals have drifted to the left (Occupy Wall St., antifa) and so politicians and the media have ignored most of us in the broadly defined middle. I don't endorse political candidates, but we might keep in mind that Biden won the Dem. nomination because he is -- or at least perceived to be -- the moderate compared to Sanders, Warren, etc. So politicians . . . please don't forget the reasonable, rational, science-based, moderate middle class!

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    1. Amen.

      There is a reason a pendulum always returns to the center after spending time on the extreme left or right. That is where the natural balance is.

      Thanks, Tom.

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  13. I saw/heard a news article recently citing poll data that shows that we are not as divided as we think. When you ask people on the left how many people on the right hold extreme views, they give a much higher number than is actually the case. Same thing when you ask people on the right how many people on the left hold extreme views. (Of course, I can't find the article now to cite it properly!) This makes we wonder whose interests are served by emphasizing our differences and making us believe we are more divided than we are.

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    1. The idea that one side of the partisan divide assumes their opposite number is more extreme than it really is makes sense. Media and human nature demand that our choice is the correct one.

      As I noted above in the response to Tom, the center is where nature finds perfect balance. We should learn that basic fact of life.

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    1. I am blessed with readers who contribute and participate in a way that benefits us all.

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  15. I am not a conservative in my own political views, and as one of your readers above said, to Canadians, even most American Democrats seem quite conservative. Nevertheless, I am distressed to see the disappearance of the old fashioned, moral conservatives of the past whose motivation was to serve and make society a better place (even though I wouldn’t have agreed with their approach or end-goals). Instead, the conservative agenda has been usurped by bottom-feeders in thrall to their corporate masters, who seem to celebrate the worst of human vices — racism, violence, sexism, xenophobia. This worldwide political movement has been labelled populism, but I refuse to call it that; I don’t want to believe that the general populace is that ignorant and self-serving. I think it’s really a coalition of minorities with extremist views who have managed to amplify their influence via the Internet, the loss of professional journalists, the funding provided by multinationals looking out for their own interests, corrupt political systems, and so on.

    Jude

    Jude

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    1. You've mentioned something that bothers me as well: labeling these disparate movements as populist. That word does not match the angry, narrow, extremist positions often taken by those quickest to usurp that label. Just another case of a label being misused by those with their own agenda.

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