What the Heck is a Conservative?

“Ted Cruz is a true conservative”.

“If Trey Gowdy isn’t a conservative, then I don’t know what is”!

“The Bush Family is not conservative”.

None of these statements make any sense whatever if we cannot define what we mean by conservative in the first place. Clearly, “conservative” does not mean Republican. I think everyone can at least acknowledge that not all conservatives are Republicans and not all Republicans are conservatives. Conservative does not seem to apply, ideologically anyway, equally to every realm of political philosophy. A conservative on “social issues” might not be considered “conservative” on foreign policy or “conservative” on the role of government, or “conservative” on debt and spending.

So what does it mean to be conservative? The word is used so often and by so many people, that in order to hold a conversation with others, you must be able to use the word in a sentence, but if anyone stops and demands clarification, “What does conservative mean”, how in the world can we answer that?

Wikipedia goes with this:

Conservatism as a political and social philosophy promotes retaining traditional social institutions in the context of culture and civilization.

What if our current traditions and culture are despised by the folks who consider themselves conservative? Certainly it must mean more than the status quo, since “conservatives” are apoplectic with regard to the status quo. Conservatives haven’t been happy with Republicans since Teddy Roosevelt instituted progressivism in America well over one hundred years ago.

Back in 2012, during the last election, and trying to answer the same question I am asking to today, Conor Friedersdorf wrote the following in The Atlantic.

Bear in mind that what follows aren’t my definitions of conservatism, but what various Americans mean when they use the word.

  1. An aversion to rapid change; a belief that tradition and prevailing social norms often contain within them handed down wisdom; and mistrust of attempts to remake society so that it conforms to an abstract account of what would be just or efficient.

  2. A desire to preserve the political philosophy and rules of government articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

  3. A belief that it is imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the Bible, through cultural norms.

  4. A belief that it is imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the Bible, using cultural norms and the power of the state.

  5. An embrace of free-market capitalism, and a belief in the legitimacy of market outcomes.

  6. A belief that America is an exceptional nation, a shining city on a hill, whose rightful role is leader of the free world.

  7. A belief that America should export its brand of democracy through force of arms.

  8. The conviction that government should undertake, on behalf of the American polity, grand projects that advance our “national greatness” and ennoble our characters.

  9. An embrace of localism, community and family ties, human scale, and a responsibility to the future.

  10. A belief that America shouldn’t intervene in the affairs of other nations except to defend ourselves from aggression and enforce contracts and treaties.

  11. A desire to return to the way things once were.

  12. Affinity for, identification with, or embrace of Red America’s various cultural cues. (For example, gun ownership, a preference for single-family homes oriented around highways rather than urban enclaves organized around public transit, embrace of country music, disdain for arugula and fancy mustard, etc.)

  13. Disdain for American liberalism, multiculturalism, identity politics, affirmative action, welfare, European-style social policies, and the left and its ideas generally.

  14. A desire to be left alone by government, often coupled with a belief that being left alone is a natural right.

  15. A principled belief in federalism.

  16. The belief that taxes should be lower and government smaller.

  17. The belief that the national debt and deficits put America in peril.

  18. The belief that whenever possible, government budgets should be balanced.

  19. Consciousness of the fallibility of man, and an awareness of the value of skepticism, doubt and humility.

  20. Realism in foreign policy.

  21. Non-interventionism in foreign policy.

I cannot think of a better and more concise list, though I absolutely love fancy mustard. What could we add and take away? Could we change #9 from, “localism” to individualism? How do we square #21, #20, #7, and #6? Do these inherent contradictions require us to assume that only some of these are “conservative” and others are not? #11 is pretty much what Wikipedia ran with, though how far back are we talking? And if we do prefer the way things were, does anyone really believe those preferences to be all encompassing? In other words, do we want to go back to the way things were in 1800 or 1825? 1862? 1937? Or 1984?

Does it apply to everything? Technology?

Or are we merely referring to fiscal responsibility, constitutional integrity, federalism, Judea-Christian Ethics and rugged individualism toward which conservatives feel nostalgic? If that is the case, then can we not ignore #11 and acknowledge that #2, #3, #5, #9, #14, #15, #16, #17, and #21 already cover it?

I like this list, outside of #11, contradictions and all. Let’s assume that these are the TOP 20 premises of what it means to be a conservative. How many apply to you? As for me, if I’m completely honest, numbers (1,2,5,6,9,10,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19, and 20) all apply. That’s 15 out of 20 (remember we’re ignoring #11). That means I’m 75% conservative. Is 75% enough? Am I almost conservative?

Now, I believe that I am “conservative”. One might even call me a Christian Conservative, being that I am both a Christian and Conservative. Yet, numbers 3 and 4 do not apply to me, because of 15, 14, 9, and 2.

Play around with this yourself, working out the contradictions, measuring your own conservatism and comparing it with the conservatism of your friends. Or possibly this list is wrong. Maybe when we say, “conservative”, what we really mean is Ronald Reagan. Of course Ronald Reagan signed an amnesty bill, so I guess that doesn’t work. Maybe we mean Barry Goldwater or Calvin Coolidge (which is what I usually mean).

Who knows? I don’t think there is an actual answer to this question. I don’t really know what a conservative is. Maybe we ought to be using better words? Like what, you query?

Constitutionalist is a good word, pertaining to the original intent and understanding of the Constitution. Federalist, is a good word, pertaining to the original intent of the original States, and to the 10th amendment. Free-Market Capitalist covers most of our economic positions, though one must endeavor to disavow crony-capitalism and corporatism. Individualist, too, minus the derogatory and easily demagogued negative connotations.  Maybe self-reliant would make more sense, though it does not fit with a truly specialized capitalist economy, where hardly anyone has the skills to survive on their own. No one seems wise enough to nail down foreign policy as it relates to conservatives.

I could say that I’m conservative, or that I’m a Constitutional Federalist who believes in an individualist society and a capitalist economy. Though, conservative is easier to say.

Alas, I cannot help myself, or you I’m afraid. Defining what we mean by conservative is, as I believe I have helped demonstrate, a frustrating and fruitless mission.




About Steven Brodie Tucker 184 Articles
Graduated From Virginia Tech with a Bachelors in Philosophy and a minor in Psychology. Studied Economics and History at George Mason University. Caroline County Resident and Activist.