Sunday, February 20, 2011

What’s Wrong with Conservatism?

Recently I received an e-mail from a woman asking me to explain “what the qualifications are that label a person a ‘Right Wing Conservative.’”
In my response I said that I do not have any different understanding of “right wing” or “conservative” than from what can be found in any standard dictionary. But I went on to share the self-description given by the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Here is what they say on their website:
Founded in 1973, The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institution—a think tank—whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.
Most of that sounds quite good, doesn't it? Certainly there is a lot that we want and need to conserve. So what’s wrong with conservatism? Or why would I criticize those who claim to be conservatives?
One online dictionary gives this as the first definition of conservative: “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.” So think about it. Conservatives generally want to preserve existing conditions and to limit change—unless it means going back to things as they used to be.
But consider some conservative positions from the past, positions which were (or are) all on “the wrong side of history.” (And I am not implying that these are, or would have been, positions supported by the Heritage Foundation, except for the last example given.)
It was the conservatives (the loyalists) who supported King George III of England rather than seek independence for the Colonies in the 1770s.
It was the conservatives who wanted to maintain slavery in this country in the 1860s (and in the decades before).
It was the conservatives who wanted to keep women from having the right to vote in the 1910s (and in the preceding decades).
In the twentieth century, it was the conservatives who opposed Social Security and then Medicare and Medicaid for the elderly and the needy.
In 2010 it was the conservatives who opposed universal health care so that at least most of the 50,000,000 Americans who did not have health care insurance would be able to have it.
Conservatives have wanted to conserve much that is good, and for that I commend them. But conservatives have also opposed much that is good, and that is why I criticize them.
So what is a “right-wing” conservative? On the Heritage Foundation website, they make this appeal for new members (and for funding): “Become a Member: Donate to Heritage – Join Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and more than 710,000 conservatives in fighting liberals and advancing conservative principles as a Heritage Foundation member.”
From this I think it can be said that right-wing conservatives are people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity who see their mission as “fighting liberals.” And much of the rhetoric of those and other right-wing talk-radio hosts, as well as of many who extol them, seems repulsive to those of us who long for a civil society.
Note: I plan to post “What’s Wrong with Liberalism?” next.


  1. Thanks for another good post.

    Right now I am re-reading Foucault, who I think gives the best tools for critiquing both conservatism and liberalism. There continues to be a plethora of books and articles drawing from Foucault, even though he died in 1984.

    Also, I was going to comment that the movement for women's suffrage formally started in 1848, and there were conservatives fighting them every step of the way during their very difficult 72-year battle to get the vote.

  2. Many folks who self label 'conservative' do so in reaction against the neo-liberal policies of this country and around the world. Many current day conservatives are classical liberals who would support many of the freedoms championed and gained by the classical liberals of the past and mentioned by you in this blog. The problem today is that most liberals are not classical liberals but rather as labeled in most developed countries governmmental systems as Labor. Most European Liberal party members are the equivalent of American conservatives. I am glad that you are going to have a blog on Liberalism next, I just hope that it points to freedom as the cornerstone of liberalism not government control as neo-liberalist seems to want

  3. I just received an e-mail with these comments from a Thinking Friend in Canada, a pastor whom I have never met (but would like to some day):

    "Thank you, Leroy, for this posting. I have forwarded this to a number of my friends who are Liberals, Conservatives, and New Democrats (socialist party)!!! I think they will enjoy reading your comments on this timely topic.

    "In southern Alberta where I live, it is heavily conservative (we also have a lot of Mormons living in this area and they tend to be ultra conservative.) In Alberta, we have three political parties ... Progressive Conservative, Wild Rose Alliance (a relatively new party made of of disillusioned PCs and others who tend to be very ultra conservative in their viewpoints, and the Alberta Party which is made up of people who are, what I call, moderate conservatives.

    "As always, I enjoy reading your weekly commentaries on various topics. Keep them coming."

  4. Another comment from my esteemed TF in Kentucky:

    "Excellent response, Leroy. You have cited the real issue--resistance to change even when all moral considerations require change. You will notice also that huge amounts of money go into the right wing coffers. Money corrupts."

  5. Good points, Leroy. It seems to me that insofar as society is a realm of conflicting interests, a central question must always be asked with regard to any policy, whether conservative or liberal: Whose interests does it represent?

  6. As with other definitions (and importantly the application thereof), what is a true conservative? I like the Heritage Foundation definition. But "conservatives" seem bent on protecting sacred cows just like their liberal counterparts. Our country is in trouble economically and needs drastic action immediately with everything on the table, including sacred cows. The President's bi-partisan debt reduction task force presented an excellent report with appropriate recommendations (David Stockman has advocated similar measures), but Congress and the President are too fond of their sacred cows to even give consideration.

    So much for "real" conservatives. But liberals don't deserve any accolades either. And the Church is too politically connected to extremes on both sides to be of any value.

    According to The Economist we have about three years as a country before we will begin to pay the piper as Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Zimbabwe and others have.

  7. The following remarks from a much esteemed older colleague were received two or three days ago, and I am sorry I did not post them earlier.

    "Excellent summary of Conservatives and right wing Fundamentalism from the political view point. I lived through, as did you, the formation of Soc Sec and wonder now what this country would be like if it had not been enacted. Also Medicare/Medicaid. Each effort of social thinking persons--placing the welfare of needy Citizens above special causes (armament, actual warfare, i.e. Iraq, the top 5% of the high income persons in America getting special protection on taxes) was achieved by those who came to be named Liberals or Bleeding Hearts. Thus, if a citizen cares for the welfare of less fortunate ones and seeks to aid in employment, health, education and aesthetic opportunities they are branded but should not let the brand cow them down in the social context. I am honored to be listed with what is called 'the liberal wing.'"

  8. For whatever reason, there are far more men than women on my Thinking Friends mailing list. The following comments, though, are from a local woman whom I am happy to have as a TF.

    "Conservatives are out of fashion and don't seem to know it. At one time, their standing for States Rights and more thoughtful spending made some sense. Now with states providing services less than equally across the nation, we need the intervention and funds from a central government. We also need new ideas and generous hearts if we hope to thrive as a nation. Conservatism is another word for out-dated and stingy to me. Two of my most unfavorite words."