Conservatives:  What They Are and What They Aren’t

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We all live in a moment in history where it is all-politics-all-the-time. Everything from our health to our wealth, from the womb to the tomb, is viewed through the lens of our increasingly divisive politics. The resulting distortions are many. The most serious is language, the very tool we use to make sense to one another. The meaning of the word “conservative” has been a major victim.

When asked what the term “conservative” means, most of us are flooded with images, such as the FOX News logo, the face of Bill O’Reilly, and phrases in support of big military budgets, repeal and replace Obamacare, and drain the Swamp. But that is “politicospeak,” and a fundamental distortion of the core meaning of “conservative.” The same fate has befallen “liberal,” which classically refers to individuals who defended free speech and now is attached to advocates for policing “hate speech.” 

Currently, surveys report that the United States is evenly divided 31% to 31% between Conservatives and Liberals. And Conservatives are divided almost evenly between Business Conservatives and Steadfast Conservatives, with the latter having the edge. The Business Conservatives tend to be the most anti-government group in the country. On the other hand, Steadfast Conservatives are concerned primarily with the social issues. Also, they are the most active voters, with 74% regularly voting in primary elections. While the focus here is on the characteristics of both groups, the primary focus is on Steadfast Conservatives.

The non-political conservatives are more attentive to a set of core principles. Their “conservatism” refers to a lens, a way of looking at the world around us. It is what one loves and values. A conservative is “disposed” toward “faith, family, and hearth.” That is where and how he leans. It is written on his heart from his earliest contacts with parents, family, friends, neighborhood, church, teachers, and myriad other associations.

One’s dispositions, how one leans and what one values can, of course, change. The culture, a prime concern for the conservative, can strengthen or weaken an individual’s more traditional dispositions. Perhaps that’s the reason why so many conservatives describe themselves as “culture warriors.”

But what essentially defines a conservative? How can you tell him from the rest of our neighbors? For one thing, he values traditions, whether it is how the family annually celebrates Christmas and Thanksgiving or how she keeps her kitchen and garden. Conservatives like stability in their family, in their neighborhood, and in the world at large. Dickering with the local high school curriculum so that their children now read different novels and plays from what they read or substituting courses in Communication for American History puts their teeth on edge.

Conservatives have a middle-of-the-road attitude toward human nature, that is, what is the nature of man. Man is neither sugar and spice and everything nice nor a predatory beast. He is neither a soft malleable creature whom social engineers can shape into a “productive citizen,” nor so much genetic material whose destiny is set at birth. We are a mix of nature and nurture. And while we recognize and sympathetically deal with the plusses and minuses of body and intellect which nature deals out to us and our fellow humans, it is nurture to which the conservative pays more attention. His eye is on the children … and therefore on their schooling.

Conservatives are instinctively suspicious of Progress Education, the driving ideology of American public schools. Not because they are against human progress, but because they believe real progress is built on a foundation of the best thought and skill that man has been able to achieve. On the other hand, one of the buzz phrases of the Progressives is promoting “independent thought,” typically at the cost of gaining a foundation resting on the basics. A striking difference is that liberals are twice as favorable (67%) than conservatives (33%) toward an education promoting independent thought.

Conservatives support “classical education” which aims to teach our young the very best that Western Civilization has to offer. A classical curriculum imparts an appreciation of learning and cultivates intellect, but also focuses on moral virtue and the formation of good character. 

Conservatives know in their hearts that children are not naturally virtuous. A child needs to be both trained and inspired to become a good person. Conservative parents want schools that will continue and extend their efforts to establish in their children the good habits begun in the home, habits of kindness, persistence, and responsibility.

Responsibility is a defining value for the true conservative. While others look to the state as their safety net, the conservative believes the primary provider for his well-being and that of his family is himself. He believes that his dignity as a person rests on his ability to fend for himself and not to be a burden on others. While acknowledging his connectedness to others, his worst fear is a failure to protect and care for himself and his “responsibilities.”

The conservative has a tricky relationship with the state, particularly the heavily bureaucratized state of today. He knows that alone he is vulnerable and needs protections, whether from fires and floods or from criminals and hostile nations. No doubt that “no man is an island.” Still, in recent years his growing fear is of a powerful, intrusive state, one claiming to do more and more for him, while whittling away at his freedoms. For instance, only 32% of conservatives support the policy that health care is the responsibility of the federal government.

Conservatives cherish history for many things, and especially for bearing witness of the individual standing up to the unjust power of the state. Thus, the founding of our country by men who were ready to risk all for liberty is sacred to them. Knowing that power corrupts, the conservative wants the memories of heroic lives to be fresh in the minds of all Americans. 

The conservative has his mind on another responsibility. What kind of a world will he be leaving his children? Will it be a toxic landscape with befouled air? While others have their minds on the new-new thing, such as Elon Musk’s interplanetary settlements on Mars and elsewhere, the conservative is thinking of a proper balance between growth and preservation of the environment.

It’s true that the conservative does cling to his guns and religion. His firearms because as a student of history he knows what happens to the unarmed. His religion because he knows that it provides social stability to a community, and for the individual, it offers a powerful reason not to give in to one’s personal voice urging more and more pleasure, more and more personal power. While others are shucking off the rules and constraints of organized religion and making up new laws about what is birth, sexuality, and marriage, the conservative looks to his God and the wisdom of the past for his guidance.

In sum, the conservative has a visceral love for his country, its lands, its history and his traditions. He keeps a wary eye on the state and those governing him who continually nibble away at his liberty and freedom. The conservative is committed to democracy, but only when it is tethered to morality and virtue.

Kevin Ryan is a Boston University emeritus professor and Marilyn Ryan is a political scientist and writer.  The Ryans live in Brookline. Read their past columns here.