Defining Conservatism and Liberalism in 2012

Part one of a two-part series by Transylvania University political scientist Don Dugi focuses on the term “American conservative” in this presidential election year. Part two, scheduled for the April 13 edition, will look at modern American liberalism.

This election season brings us yet another hot-button term. Like the health care reform battle and its focus on “socialism,” current campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination focus on the term “conservative.” It seems time for another clarification, especially because, in the Republican primaries, all candidates have been claiming themselves to be authentic conservatives and claiming that their opponents are inauthentic or false conservatives.

And the brands of conservative are diverse. You have Romney, who is historically primarily a fiscal conservative (and somewhat moderate on social issues); Santorum, who is a strong social conservative; Gingrich, who claims to be both fiscally and socially conservative; and Paul, who is libertarian (fiscally “conservative” and socially libertarian). And in addition, there are various groups attaching to each candidate (although results like South Carolina cause wonder — the Evangelicals voted for Gingrich, a thrice-married serial philanderer and a Catholic convert).

The agendas for each type of conservative are quite different. For the fiscal conservatives, it is primarily no taxes on the “haves,” although some do talk about reduced spending or balanced budgets, but those goals often fall away when there is money to be made from government policy. The social conservatives focus on abortion or gay marriage, as do many religious conservatives. Libertarians want less government (evidently taking infrastructure, material and political, for granted), ironically advocating a radical version of classical liberalism.

Which raises the question: What exactly is an “authentic conservative” (if there is such a thing)?

The short answer is there is not. As indicated above, there are multiple versions of conservative. Indeed, the divisions and tensions in conservatism are obvious even in Conservapedia’s attempt to define “conservative,” wherein the authors quote Ronald Reagan claiming more individual freedom as the basis of conservatism but then go on to state that “the sine qua non of a conservative is someone who rises above his personal self-interest and promotes moral and economic values beneficial to all.” Clearly pursuing one’s individual freedom can subvert promoting “values beneficial to all” (witness the economic problems of the late 2000s). So someone can be authentically one kind of conservative or another, but not “an authentic conservative” in any absolute sense.

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