Hello, readers, I would like to introduce the well-educated and thoughtful Nick Sacco. Prepare to learn something today. – Joshua
As the quest for a Republican candidate for the 2012 Presidential election continues to roll on – although we are getting closer to the end – sharp debates have taken place between each of the candidates over who should be considered the “most conservative” nominee. Who has the best credentials? Who will appease the Tea Party? Who will reject President Obama’s calls for “change” and restore the role of the federal government back to its supposedly “conservative” roots? These sorts of questions have arisen during every GOP primary over the years, albeit with different politicians and different social, cultural, economic, and political questions to solve. However, the question of who best embodies the conservative principals of the Republican Party has been of fundamental importance when picking a presidential candidate for at least the past 60 years. In order to truly understand what exactly it means to be “conservative”, perhaps we should take a moment to analyze how the term has been used historically, along with the term “liberal”, so that we can not only better understand how each of these words has shaped our modern political culture, but to provide an opportunity to consider how we can use these words within a more accurate context to provide for more fruitful political discussion in the future.
The concepts of liberalism and conservatism have taken many different forms and names ever since men have formed governments to regulate their respective societies, but a good starting place to understand each term in a modern context would be 17th Century England. During the English Civil War of 1642-1651, fundamental questions regarding the proper role of the monarchy and parliament in dictating executive governmental policy – and who would ultimately have the last say in these matters – led to massive bloodshed between the “Roundheads”, who supported efforts to establish parliamentary superiority, and the “Royalists”, who supported the absolute power of the monarchy in deciding political matters. The Roundheads ended up winning, leading to the abolishment of the English monarchy altogether. However, by 1660 Charles II had been inaugurated as King, returning monarchial rule to England.
During the English Civil War, a group of citizens dedicated to what would later be considered “liberal” political positions began organizing and identifying themselves as “Levellers”. The Levellers made clear their dislike for the machinations of the English monarchy and their desire to reform many aspects of the government. While they did not all conform to one unified platform, the Levellers advocated such positions as religious toleration, low taxes, extended suffrage, freedom of the press, and equality before the law. These positions were not very popular with either the Roundheads or the Royalists, and the movement died by the end of the war, but a solid “liberal” position advocating limited government and the restoration natural rights had been established within English society.
Several years later, during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a much different movement – one that dedicated itself to preserving the rule of the monarchy and upper classes of England – began to emerge in response to the increasingly liberal tendencies of the English people.
Historian William C. Davis described this “conservative” movement as such: “The slow spread of rights and opportunity and the growing power of national legislatures [following the Glorious Revolution] posed an ever greater danger to the aristocrats’ status quo.” Thus, conservatives established themselves as defenders of the King’s throne, using their power to maintain order and stability in society via the concentration of power within the upper classes of British society. While conservatives, much like the Levellers, didn’t have a cohesive political party to promote a uniform set of policy objectives, they all unified behind the idea of monarchial supremacy and upper class political privilege.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the terms “liberal” and “conservative” became more clearly defined political concepts. Those who supported conservative ideals generally advocated positions that more firmly entrenched the power of governments throughout the world to control the actions of their subjects, especially those of the middle and lower classes. These positions included the protection of upper-class property, limiting the right to vote to those with substantial wealth and/or property, state churches (such as the Anglican Church in England), mercantilist economic policies that promoted monopolies within staple ports and discouraged free trade, restrictions on free speech and free press, strong militaries, and centralized government. Royal families such as the Stuarts of England, the Bourbons of France, and the Hapsburgs, who controlled many different parts of Europe over hundreds of years, reigned throughout the 17th and 18th centuries with the avid support of conservatives. During the 19th century, conservatives dominated the Congress of Vienna following the fall of Napoleon, promoted the maintenance of large empires such as the Austrian empire, and resisted the various nationalist uprisings that attempted to bring democratic reforms throughout the world.
Liberalism was a response to these conservative policies and the absolute monarchies that benefited from them. Expanding on the ideals of the Levellers, liberals called for the promotion of natural rights and limited government that focused on the preservation of life, liberty, and property. During the 18th century, liberals called for the removal of monarchial governments and the implementation of representative government, leading to revolutions in America and France, among other countries. Liberals in the 19th century supported nationalist movements throughout the world that promoted self-determination; the right of a people to determine what sort of government they wanted. They also supported expanded voting rights for all classes, regardless of wealth and property, free markets, and the abolition of slavery in favor of free labor. A few radical liberals went so far as to advocate the complete removal of government or supported fringe movements such as women’s rights.
However, the term “liberal” took on a new meaning in the 20th century. As David Boaz explains in his book The Libertarian Reader, liberalism “had come to mean advocacy of big government: high taxes, the extension of the state into the realm of civil society, and massive intrusion into the personal choices of individuals.” There are many reasons why this occurred, but one worth mentioning is the ascension of the Progressive movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The movement held that pragmatism was central to proper governance; as society evolved, government should alter its function and practice to meet the needs of contemporary society. Some of the Progressives’ positions included the end of government corruption, to be replaced with the idea of a “positive government” under the control of the federal government, regulation of industry, trust busting (the removal of monopolies), prohibition, and the implementation of the first national income tax via the 16th amendment. The term “liberal” showed signs of a definition change when former President Teddy Roosevelt – running in the 1912 Presidential election as a progressive against his former friend William Taft after a divisive split over political views – branded Taft as being too “conservative” and himself as the proper “liberal” candidate to lead the nation going forward.
Thus, from the Progressive movement to the present day, liberalism has experienced a profound shift in its definition. Outlining the policies of the Democrats and Republicans is beyond the scope of this essay, but it doesn’t take long to see examples of 20th century liberalism in both parties, from the Democrats promotion of an individual mandate in the Affordable Health Care Act that would force all U.S. citizens to purchase healthcare, to the Republicans promotion of an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy and the support of some of its members for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, even if a state were to legalize it.
With this in mind, it is no surprise to discover that throughout the pre-20th century world distinguished thinkers such as John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Alexis De Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill considered themselves liberals, dedicated to promoting liberty and freedom for all individuals. Some 20th century intellects such as F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman also considered themselves liberals, even after the term dramatically changed in meaning. Hayek explained in an essay that he was a liberal because of his support for spontaneous order and its ability to lead to natural progress within society without the use of coercive measures against individuals. “Order”, explained Hayek “appears to the conservative as the result of the continued attention of authority”, as opposed to the liberal who finds order out of individuals working within the free marketplace of ideas.
Should we consider redefining the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to fit the definitions used in past centuries? Ultimately, we can use the actions of past thinkers to help guide our intellectual thought today, but we must engage in useful discourse with our eyes focused on our current political situation while also considering the circumstances of our future. Perhaps it would be useful to have the Republican Presidential candidates of 2012 debate amongst each other who is the most liberal, but it could be equally fruitful to devise an altogether new term that better defines the unique political issues of contemporary society. More than anything, this discussion reminds us of two truths. Firstly, it reminds us that words have distinct meanings, but that these meanings sometimes change over time. If one were to do a quick brainstorm of common words used in 19th Century America, he or she could probably find a few words – quite easily, in fact – that are still used today, but have changed in meaning. Secondly, it reminds us that what is considered “liberal” and “conservative” changes over time, sometimes quite often. For example, most conservatives today have expressed their support for upholding the Civil Rights Act of 1964; however, support for that act back in the 1960s and 70s would have branded you a liberal, a “socialist”, or worse.
In conclusion, let us look at a recent attempt at definition-making. The Encyclopedia Britannica defined one of these aforementioned political terms as such:
“[a] political doctrine that takes the abuse of power, and thus the freedom of the individual, as the central problem of government.”
Which term is it? The Encyclopedia defined “liberalism” in this manner, but it would be safe to say that both liberals and conservatives today would argue that their respective movements embody this principle. It remains to be seen whether one of these terms, or a new one altogether, will properly represent this definition in the future.