The terms “liberal” and “conservative” these days are thrown around so promiscuously that they are practically devoid of meaning, of course. But still, my understanding of “conservative” is a person who wants to “conserve” the “original” meaning of the Constitution. I think we can all agree on that.
But even there, I get pretty confused.
I won’t belabor the point that “neoconservatives” aren’t conservatives by any stretch; they are radicals. Cheney, of course, is advancing a truly radical definition of executive power, the “unitary executive,” that I can find in not a single one of the Federalist Papers. Bush’s unilateralist, pre-emptive war policy is basically imperialistic in nature, and flies directly in the face of the founders vision (George Washington, in particularly, would be appalled; Washington was an isolationist). Further, Bush’s huge expansions of government, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Medicare drug policy are very much anti-conservative, pro-governmental (and thereby classically liberal) in nature. And the interventionist, nation-building exercises that we’ve been engaging in are hardly “conservative” (unless you consider Woodrow Wilson a conservative).
No, what confuses me is when people who are lionized by the “conservative” movement turn out to have heavily non-conservative impulses. Or when things that would seem to be as conservative as can be–sections of the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, say–are considered “liberal.”
For example, consider that lion of “Originalist Interpretation,” Antonin Scalia. Scalia has said, over and over, that hews to an interpretation of law that is what he views is the “original intent” of the Founders. (How he thinks he can know what fellows dead 200 years ago were thinking is beyond me, but never mind.) Even people who disagree with him feel that he does rule based on original intent.
Except, you know, when he doesn’t. Like in Bush v. Gore, where he tossed his original intent and federalist principals right out the window, and over-ruled a state court in a state matter. Or in Lawrence v. Texas, where his dislike of gays apparently over-ruled his desire for ruling based on original intent. (Although he was able to rationalize it pretty well.)
And in this, Scalia is similar to many conservatives; he blats on about federalism and small government and keeping the government out of your life, but when his moral outrage kicks in–in his case, it happens to be gays–he’s perfectly happy to toss his precious principals out the window and rule according to how he feels, rather than the law.
And conservatives, by and large, seem to have that problem. They want to keep government “out of your life,” except, you know, when they want to tell you what to do in the privacy of your own bedroom. My feeling is, if you’re going to be a conservative, be one; have a little intellectual honesty, for crying out loud.
Another thing that confuses me about conservatives is which principals they pick and choose as the “conservative” ones. “Defense” is a bedrock conservative principal. “Welfare” is a liberal principal. And this has always confused me, because of the following prose:
We the people, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
There it is, right there in the the Preamble, right after “provide for the common defense”: “Promote the general welfare.” I mean, how much clearer can you get? How much more conservative can a value be than one that is listed in the preamble, for crying out loud? And yet, this is constantly given as a liberal value. I just don’t get it.
Perhaps I am being too hard on “conservatives,” and folks think I should shine an equally harsh light on “liberals.” But during my lifetime, liberals have always been incoherent, basically a collection of pressure groups and single-issue people (labor, racial politics, gender politics, anti-war politics, what-have-you). While the classic definition of “liberal” may have a definition as strident as that of “conservative,” there has been no liberal “movement,” at least in the last 30 years, like there has been a conservative “movement.” And hence I am only focusing on the conservative ideology, because in my view, there really isn’t a liberal ideology per se.