I’m not sure what a conservative is anymore. I grew up among conservatives and I was a conservative myself, even as a long-haired college student. I went off to a war that many people my age were protesting because I felt it was my duty to support my country and the fundamental freedoms I got to enjoy.
I’m pretty sure I’m not a conservative anymore, but I don’t see myself as a liberal either. I guess I’m still conservative about some things and not so conservative about others. You might say I’ve strayed to the middle and have become that rarest of political creatures— a moderate.
It all depends what you’re compared to. When we talk about radicals, we’re talking about the extremes on both the left and right. So there are radical conservatives like, say, Timothy McVeigh, as well as terrorists on the far left. People who kill innocents because of stuff they get out of the Bible are as detestable as those who kill in the name of the Koran.
The definition of conservative, to paraphrase, is favoring traditional values and beliefs and being somewhat resistant to change. It can be a synonym for restraint or playing it safe and taking few chances. It means being conventional and cautious when making life decisions. It may also be interpreted as being fearful of change.
Change is something you must adapt to, not resist. Conversely, as one TV commercial avows, “life is all about change.” That has never been clearer than the first 16.16 percent of the 21st Century, which has changed our lives at a dizzying pace.
I like Leo Buscaglia’s take: “Change is the end result of all true learning.” Then again, anyone who is a college professor with the nickname of “Doctor Love” is probably not all that conservative.
One of the synonyms of conservative is “moderate.” Now, in my opinion, moderation is quite different from conservatism, which is mostly about maintaining the existing order or, to be fair, going back to something believed traditional that has been altered by social change. A moderate is by definition opposed to extreme or radical views and is willing to listen to all sides of an argument before making a decision. I believe there was a time not so long ago when most legislators, whether Republican, Democrat or independents, were moderates in the way they made decisions regardless of their stands in specific issues.
It was called compromise, and it was the only way to get things done. We used to get things done, adapting new laws and policies by meeting each other halfway, so to speak. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen political rivals meet each other halfway. It’s come to be regarded as a sign of weakness. You can’t compromise if you plug your ears every time someone from the other side offers an opinion.
Liberal and conservative have become words that we use to stereotype each other. Stereotyping creates cardboard creatures, caricatures, and robs them of the characteristics that make them human. Once you do that, it is easier to dismiss them, even hate them. That’s what we do to our enemies when we go to war.
But I started this commentary wondering what a conservative is and whether it means what it used to. So I started trolling for observations from people, past and present, who have opinions about conservatives. Maybe that will be helpful.
Thomas Carlyle said “all great peoples are conservative.”
“Some fellows get credit for being conservative,” noted Kin Hubbard almost 100 years ago, “when they are only stupid.”
Then there was the late Sen. Jesse Helms, a notable conservative, who said: “Conservatism is a hard choice for a society that has become accustomed to big government and big entitlements promoted by liberals.”
“I do not know which makes a man more conservative — to know nothing but the present, or nothing but the past,” quipped Economist John Maynard Keynes.
“Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives,” concluded John Stuart Mill. Again, this was an opinion rendered in the mid-19th Century.
“A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs, who has never learned to walk,” said Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who didn’t have two perfectly good legs.
And this from a man still recognized as one of our most stalwart and intellectual conservatives, William F. Buckley, Jr.: “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’”
Does being a conservative today mean that same as it did in previous decades or centuries? Again, it is probably true that views deemed liberal in days of yore get adopted by conservatives as time passes.
“Conservatives of yesterday seem moderate or liberal to us today,” opined Author Arlie Russell Hochschild, a contemporary sociologist.
As I searched for quotes about conservatives, it became apparent that most of them came from those who aren’t. I suppose the same would be true in a quest for quotes about liberals.
Maybe next time.