In several of my recent posts, I have indicated that I think there are demagogues on the loose who mostly just rile people up. One of these posts was a call for folks to stop using labels to dismiss those whose ideas they haven’t even attempted to understand. As an example, I told a story that illustrated how terms like “liberal” and “conservative” are often used like epithets or curse words to banish what some folks imagine is “wrong” with the world. This sets up a false opposition between terms that never actually get defined. (See the original post here.)
The post in question, then, set about to define the word “liberal” and strongly implied that, once defined, the term “liberal” describes most Americans. If “liberal” means, at its core, the radical belief that human beings are born equal and deserve to live in liberty and equality under the law, then most Americans are liberal at heart. This is true, I maintain, despite the fact that a fair amount of these same Americans would blanch at the term being applied to them.
However, it was claimed by one reader of the post in question that I did the same thing I said I was against: labeling those I misunderstand. And I can see how someone might get this impression as I failed to define terms like “demagogue” after claiming that certain media personalities are acting like demagogues.
Allow me to correct that now. A demagogue is properly defined as, “A political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular passions and prejudices,” and demagoguery is thus, “Impassioned appeals to the prejudices and emotions of the populace” (WordWeb dictionary). In this case, I see no problem with extending the definition of demagogue to media personalities whose main focus is politics and who make primarily emotional and prejudicial appeals. Those who know the history of American demagoguery are likely to think of one Fr. Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest who became a well-known radio personality and political organizer during the 1930s. He was never a candidate but was a swayer of opinions. Demagogues, in this view, are irrational swayers of opinion, and a fair number of politicians have depended in the past on such as these for votes. More on this later.
For now, notice that these are words with well-defined meanings. I used them to say what they mean — that some media personalities “appeal to the prejudices and emotions of the populace” rather than appealing to the intellect and reason. It is true that I see this as an objective fact, and I base my opinion on years of listening to these media personalities during which I thought I was “on their side” and that they were on mine. It will take another post to do justice to that line of thinking, so, again, more on this later. For now, it is enough that I do not use the term “demagogue” in the same way as those who use the term “liberal” when what they mean is anyone who wants to destroy America or the American system and when they then link this first thought to everyone of a politically liberal stance so that “liberal” = “bad, evil, inherently wrong” (if you think this does not happen, I have to disagree and kindly let you know that I witnessed it on Facebook less than two weeks ago and have no doubt I could find innumerable internet examples).
Now, it may be true that some politically liberal individuals want to destroy America (I don’t know a single one, personally), but wanting to destroy America is not the definition of the term “liberal,” and it is irresponsible speech to use the term in this way to talk about all or even most of liberal thought. If we are going to use the term, we ought to define it properly:
1. Showing or characterized by broad-mindedness [i.e., generous to the ideas of others]
2. Having political or social views favoring reform and progress [and this, we should add, is for the purpose of preserving political and social equality, which is a conservative action]
3. Tolerant of change; not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or tradition
4. Given or giving freely [i.e., generous of heart]
1. A person who favors a political philosophy of progress and reform and the protection of civil liberties [i.e., political and equality]
2. A person who favors an economic theory of laissez-faire and self-regulating markets
The first thing that might pop out at you is definition 3 of liberal used as a noun. Most folks would put this idea of economic liberalism squarely in the camp of conservative thought. In fact, laissez-faire is essentially a liberal idea and was at the core of much of the economic policy that both Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton undertook in the 1990s as the Developed World pushed for free and open markets in the Developing World (NAFTA and deals with China could be considered examples of their liberal economic policies).
These days, it is true that political and social liberalism are not always associated with economic liberalism, and this is really where we get our usual division between political liberals and conservatives in America. I, however, reject that usual division as unhelpful because it masks the core similarities between the great number of liberals and conservatives, both of whom value personal freedom. Given that, we can safely define a politically and socially liberal person as an individual who believes that political and social equality are essential aspects of a free, or liberal, society — a society characterized by liberty for all. Any reforms advocated are so advocated to the end of ensuring political and social equality and, thus, a more-free society. A more-free society is thus a society that has seen some progress, but, for a true liberal, that progress takes the form of more equal liberty for all. Liberty is, after all, related to the same Latin root as the word liberal (see the end of this post for more on that).
Now, I happen to look at the definitions of liberal as positive traits in the main. Its primary definition comes from the Latin for “free,” and its secondary meaning refers to the old idea of “generosity,” by which was meant an open spirit: openness to giving, openness to receiving, openness to listening, openness to others unlike oneself. A healthy dose of liberalism, or generosity, toward others and their ideas helps oil the gears of discussion and understanding. It is an objective good: either we agree after all and we know that because we now understand one another, or we disagree but, because we now understand one another, we can look for a way forward together.
I intend to show that even “conservatives” who oppose “liberals” by default require a fair amount of liberalism in order to achieve their end of conserving the political and social system they care about. They are, in fact, (or should be) liberal in many ways. Before I do that, we must also define “conservative”:
1. Resistant to change
2. Having social or political views favoring conservatism
3. Avoiding excess
4. Unimaginatively conventional
5. Conforming to the standards and conventions of the middle class
1. A person who is reluctant to accept changes and new ideas
2. A member of a Conservative Party
3. Believing in or supporting tenets of the political right
Notice that we really have to define the term “conservatism” to zero in on the definition of “conservative” as it is often used today:
1. A political or theological orientation advocating the preservation of the best in society and opposing radical changes [i.e., changes in the system of government, the economic system, religion, etc.]
A conservative, then, holds that the way things were intended to be, the way they were “handed down,” is usually the best way and that we should thus conserve (from the Latin for “protect”) the way handed down to us. One has only to realize that we no longer have absolute monarchies in Western society to realize that conservatism has its limits. It was the liberal thinking of previous centuries that caused that development; conservatives of the time were known as “tories,” or loyalists to the crown and the old way of the absolute monarchy.
However, what I would call a Pure Conservative holds to an anachronistic or ahistorical conservatism that tends to forget these facts. Their conservatism borders on the absolute. They imagine, it would seem, a particular time in history that was (to their thinking) “better” than now, and this is what they try to conserve. (Their thinking is also surprisingly Darwinian, socially, as they often advocate for the jungle-like survival of the fittest, but that’s a topic for another post).
Here is where the ironies begin to pile up:
1) When pure conservatives notice that something has changed in a way they consider for the worse, don’t they necessarily have to embrace the liberal idea that sometimes reform is required in order to preserve what they care about? In other words, even for a conservative there are both times to dig in and “conserve” and times to change things for the better.
This change back to what was better is the same as “progress,” in the liberal sense of ensuring freedom and equality for all (if that is what the conservative is truly after). But notice, there is nothing about the rhetoric of pure conservatism in 2010 that openly welcomes the ideas “change” or “progress.”
2) In a world that changes constantly (even as it remains essentially the same), choices have to be made about what to conserve, but pure conservatives seem to get bottled up by their conservatism. They don’t seem to realize a fundamental choice that often has to be made: do we conserve the system (or, more often, a certain feature or convention of the system), or do we conserve the values behind the system? Oftentimes, by conserving a system or a mere convention of it, we erode one or more values that lie more deeply at the root of a system’s existence.
There is no clearer example of this that I can think of than American slavery. By opposing slavery, the more liberal North called for a change that would ultimately preserve and extend the basis of American society: the radical equality of all human beings. The South, as purely conservative, opposed this change but, in the process, was upholding a system of tyranny.
Sometimes the most conservative thing a person can do is to seek reform at the most basic levels of society, and sometimes this is done in order to preserve general freedom and equality, which is a liberal value — the single liberal value, I would argue (after de Tocqueville, of course), that is at the root of the American system of government.
It is true that the American system was built with checks and balances in order to “conserve” this state of equality by not allowing any part of government to overstep its bounds, and it is true that the South claimed the Federal Government was overstepping those bounds. Abraham Lincoln and his Republican counterparts are seen in this case as political liberals surrounding the issue of slavery vs. states’ rights. They advocated for what was considered a radical change at the bottom of things in order to preserve the whole. That change? To start defining people of African descent as human beings. To do so ultimately required the Federal Government to step in and supersede the states’ individual determinations. In fact, our constitution is set up to allow for this, though it certainly can be argued that it was not handled in the best way (read de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America if you do not understand the important feature of the three levels of American government and how they interact).
3) We have established that, if liberty is most important to the existence of the United States, then the most conservative thing to do during the era of the Civil War was to fight for the end of slavery, and this actually required a liberal stance. Only the end of slavery in the South could hold the Union together; the existence of slavery in some but not all states was tearing the country apart. By holding to their convention of slavery, the South threatened the Union. Probably, the South could not imagine any other way of life. This choice did not, however, avoid excess as conservatism is thought to do. Rather, the South’s pure conservative stance unleashed a national bloodletting and an enormous tide of damages, thus ensuring that our nation would never be the same as it had been. Instead of trusting the political system to do its job of reflecting the people’s wishes (which, it can fairly be said, were leading the nation as a whole away from slavery, and justly so), one group tried to assert their wishes above what was fast becoming the view of the majority to disastrous effect.
4) We recently had a debate in this country over health care, and I am afraid it did not go far enough while it also went too far — individual mandates, for instance, probably goes too far, though I understand why this was pushed since universal coverage and even a public option were off the table. The fact is, certain things were off the table because of a huge outpouring of what I have already called pure conservatism. The result: our nation has now guaranteed that a substantial number of workers will continue to be tied unfairly to employers’ decisions about their health care. Workers will continue to feel the necessity to put up with an employer they would just as soon leave because they will not want to make changes in their health care. In contrast, if universal care or a public option had been on the table, workers might much more easily jump ship and find a better job or even start a business of their own doing something they actually feel passion about.
Notce that these options would not have substantially changed the health system because we already have a health insurance bureaucracy that wastes tons of money and drives up prices. The choice could have been between a multi-corporate bureaucracy serving the interests of the bottom line and in which common citizens have no say as opposed to a government not-for-profit bureaucracy in which common citizens have a vote through their elected leaders (which, by the way, is the definition of the American system — we are a democratic republic). That choice was kept off the table and so we have once again defaulted to the present state of affairs — the current multi-corporate bureaucracy which exists for-profit.
Incidentally, one of the main reasons employers ever started health insurance programs was to tie workers more closely to their businesses and thus decrease turnover. You can be sure that many employers do not want this dynamic to change. It has had the effect of chaining workers to their employers by making it that much harder for workers to change jobs. For those who doubt the power of this, I suppose you have never experienced what I have, nor have you talked to the people I have talked to. It is a very real consideration and, again, the subject of another blog post.
Suffice it to say, from my experience in the workaday world, free workers are preferable to enslaved workers. Free workers tend to speak up more often about what is wrong in their work environment. Free workers will more easily leave a bad employer without fear of their children getting sick during a time of no coverage or of an already sick child being unable to get new coverage. I took that freedom for myself as a gamble for me and my family and have been fortunate enough to get by, but it really was (and still is) a gamble. In a work environment policed almost exclusively by the employment market, not being attached to an employer through health insurance would be a huge boon to workers.
If there is anything good about the health care legislation, it is that some of the truly shackling traits of our health care system should be alleviated by it: no more preexisting conditions clauses, closures of other coverage loopholes, changes that should hopefully drive down costs on individual plans, and a security net for those who lose their jobs and their health care through no fault of their own. These are some of the best elements of the recent health care legislation because they will serve to free workers from undue pressure by their employers over the long term. They should also serve to strengthen the competitiveness of the insurance marketplace, which should please (but has not) the economic liberalism that conservatives hold so dearly.
The irony here: pure conservatives profess to be against the whole idea of health reform because their stance is to change nothing about our system out of fear that they will lose their freedom to so-called “big government,” and this while big corporations already hold many of the freedoms they are afraid of losing.
The further irony, then, is that health insurance did not exist as such when the Constitution was signed. It is not inherent to our system but is a convention that has grown up within our system. It is not inherent to our system, while individual freedom surely is. In a world where we have made it nearly impossible for workers to get along without health insurance (a more basic lack of freedom, to my mind, and the reason why I’m not really mad about the individual mandate since it merely openly acknowledges this reality), it seems quite conservative to return to those workers their freedom of choice concerning the health care they get by untangling their choice of health care from their choice of employer.
By keeping the two entwined, there is less liberty in America, not more. We have not preserved freedom nor our system but rather a convention to which the middle class has become accustomed. Thank you, pure conservatives, for “conforming to the standards and conventions of the middle class” in this case. Yes, it’s how we’ve done it for a lot of years, but that in itself should have told you it was time for a bigger change than the one we made.
After only a few self-conflicted ironies are brought to the light of day, we might ask why anyone would hold to a purely conservative perspective? It is obviously unbalanced, after all. Conservatism that makes sense realizes what ought to be conserved and what ought not be conserved. It jettisons what IS NOT best while preserving what IS best, whereas the pure conservatism I have described is something like a constipated child who refuses to let a host of things go that really ought to be let go. More than that, this child won’t even consider the possibility of a bowel movement.
Why would anyone hold to pure conservatism? Well, I told you I would get back to the idea of demagoguery. Demagoguery is at least one reason why a person would continue to hold to pure conservative political stances despite the imbalance, for demagoguery preys on the “prejudices and emotions of the populace.” My claim is that it does so to the ultimate detriment of that populace by strengthening their resolve against what might actually be good for them. My claim is that demagoguery always has worked against its listeners and always will. It is like the irrational and coddling parent who shields the child from the realistic parent who knows the child will have to learn a hard lesson either sooner or later — so why not now?
More on how demagoguery works in my next big post (it may be a few weeks). For now, take home this point: we all have a conservative in us who wants to keep certain things just the way they are. The question the politically and/or socially conservative must ask (and ask constantly) is what ought we conserve and what let go in favor of conserving what is truly important and foundational? Pure conservatism that never asks this question is out of balance and in danger of destroying that which it would conserve. It will destroy a relationship while trying to keep it just the same as it always was, and this in ignorance that relationships are constantly changing to begin with. It tends to balk unrealistically at every change in a world that changes constantly and will continue to do so.
The answer within American politics about what to conserve and not conserve is found in the root of the term “liberal.” This term refers us back to the idea of the “free” or “freedom,” and in American democracy this especially means the freedom of the individual achieved and preserved through political and social equality.
It does not mean the freedom of any one person or group to dominate the course of society by belittling the ideas of others just so that individual or group can have the comfort of not having to learn to get along. It does not mean the freedom of a corporation to exert undue pressure over its employees. It also does not mean that an individual or group that has a legitimate beef cannot seek and attain justice — quite the opposite.
True conservatism should mean trusting our system of government because it is set up to do the job of conserving our freedoms over time. That system has proven, over and over, to be up to the task when we let it. It is a transformative system that is still in motion and that was designed to meet with unforseen challenges. It is also very, very slow.
All definitions taken from WordWeb, the free dictionary download service, with options set to “American” English. All words in [ ]‘s are my additional comments.
For additional reading on the definitions explored in this post, check out the links below. Notice that the root of the words liberal and liberty are in both cases the latin word for “free.”
~ Webster’s 1913 Dictionary of the English Language ~
~ Webster’s New World Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary ~
~ Babeled.com ~ (for more on the Latin roots of “conservative” and “liberal”)