Before I explain what’s so aargh-worthy, let me offer a very, very brief history lesson. There used to be this terrible country–an empire, really–called the Soviet Union. It was a repressive and cruel nation, which, under Stalin, killed more people than Hitler’s Germany. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, and freedom of immigration were essentially unknown. The United States, once allied with the Soviets in order to defeat Nazism, became the leader of a mighty coalition that held the Soviets at bay until one day that evil empire’s own internal contradictions forced it to collapse. That, as Bill Murray says in Groundhog Day, was a pretty good day.
But that’s not really the relevant part. You see, in the United States and the West generally, the issue of how to deal with the Soviet threat (Moscow was constantly trying to undermine Western governments, including our own) largely defined how we thought about politics. If you were sympathetic or in any other way “soft” on the Soviets, you were considered a person of “the left.” If you were anti-Communist, you were a person of “the right.” If you were what many called anti-anti-Communist (i.e., you weren’t pro-Communist, but you disliked anti-Communists) you were still considered on the left, but you might have been merely a “liberal.” Such was the gravitational power of the Soviet Union’s utopianism, that these rough categories stayed for the most part frozen from, say, 1930 to 1989.
O.K., back to the “aargh.” That’s what I say every single time I hear would-be Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko described as a “liberal” and the Moscow-backed Ukrainian prime minister called a “conservative.” Almost every Western news agency and outlet has used this formulation. Indeed, this sort of thing happens all the time. In Russia, the folks who believe in liberalizing the economy and the political system are “liberals,” while those who want to return to a Soviet style planned economy are “conservatives.”
Now, the frustrating thing isn’t that such characterizations are inaccurate when discussing someplace like Russia or the Ukraine. It’s that most commentators don’t understand what it means to be a conservative. When you listen to newscasters or read newspaper accounts of such matters, it seems that “conservatives” are simply the people who want bad things and the liberals are the ones who want good things.
Consider a story last week in the Financial Times about the views of Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer. According to the FT’s Washington correspondent, Scalia speaks for “radical Republicans” because he wants to interpret the constitution literally. Meanwhile, Breyer represents the “moderate Democrats” because he “offers a more pragmatic vision: Judges should consider not just ancient words but modern consequences, he said, adding that courts should try their best to interpret the law in ways that ‘are consistent with the people’s will.’ “
This has, um, exactly everything wrong. Saying that the courts should follow the Rousseauian General Will of the people isn’t “moderate” at all–indeed, it’s a form of radicalism. Meanwhile, saying that we should follow the strictures of our written constitution and laws is definitionally conservative. And conservatism and radicalism are opposites.
In 1957, Samuel Huntington wrote a fabulous essay titled “Conservatism as an Ideology,” in which he noted that conservatism lacks an inherent ideal. “No political philosopher has ever described a conservative utopia,” wrote Huntington. Unlike socialism, Marxism and Islamic fundamentalism, conservatism merely aims to preserve that which is deemed worth preserving in a given society. As Huntington noted, bona fide “conservatives” in America, Great Britain, and Portugal each want to conserve very different things. A “conservative” in Saudi Arabia wants to preserve their crapulent monarchy. Similarly, a “conservative” in the Soviet Union would want to preserve the rule of the Politburo. Meanwhile, someone in contemporary Russia who wanted to restore the Soviet system would properly be called a “reactionary.”
But here in America, a conservative is someone who wants to preserve those institutions and ideals enshrined in the Constitution. For example, a “conservative” at a liberal university would be someone who wants to preserve what they love about that university. Pym Fortuyn the gay libertine politician who was murdered in Holland for saying he wanted to limit immigration from Muslim countries so he could keep the party going was, in effect, a conservative. Similarly, this is why Huntington and philosophers like Friedrich Hayek argued that America might be the only place in the world where conservatives were the real defenders of liberty because they wanted to preserve our classical-liberal institutions.
Yes, in a sense it would be easier if progressives and other leftists never coopted the word “liberal,” which historically means someone in favor of a limited government and maximized economic and political freedom. But I am not optimistic that the media or academia will ever lift a finger to clarify the confusion over all of this. It’s just too easy to describe the bad guys as conservatives and the conservatives as bad guys.
–(c) 2004 Tribune Media Services