Saturday, March 15, 2008

different kinds of Conservatives

The second op-ed from my most recent essay in the Jeff/NA News-Tribune-- on political labeling, and here, in particular, on the different types of conservatives. (The first essay talked about political labeling in general and different types of libertarians.)

In my previous submission, I described how political labels are unclear but still popular. I advocated the use of “two dimensions” — determining whether one is conservative or liberal in the economic and social/personal realms-as modeled by the political quiz at But I also noted that these two dimensions are still quite limited, since the terms conservative and liberal are used by so many different groups.

Here, I will describe the various types of conservatives. And in an essay to follow, I will describe different types of liberals.

Throughout the Republican presidential primaries, it was quite obvious that Republicans have different ideas of who is (and is not) conservative. As John McCain began to emerge as the front-runner, conservative talk-radio went ballistic about McCain’s supposed lack of conservative credentials. Now, President Bush says that McCain is a “true conservative.” But many people don’t think that Bush is a conservative! So, how can one know? Again, the problem is that the one label has a variety of meanings.

At its root, a conservative is, literally, one who conserves-who works to preserve the status quo in terms of social order, politics and economics. But over time, this definition has become less helpful. For example, conservatives seek a certain kind of social order-one which, in many ways, is not the dominant order today. So, in a sense, conservatives are conservative in that they hearken back to what they see as glory days of a more distant past. But they are progressive in that they work earnestly to change the current status quo.

For example, conservatives don’t want to preserve today’s status quo on abortion. So, they are conservative in wanting to go back to a pre-Roe v. Wade world. But they are progressive in that they want to change laws and social practices to pursue what they see as social justice.

Beyond the single term “conservative,” there are many subsets within that group. Simply adding an adjective in front of the term can add a lot of clarity.

For example, social conservatives are quite interested in social issues. They want to restrict or eliminate the practice of abortion. They are opposed to cloning and euthanasia. They are opposed to “gay rights” and “same-sex unions.” They want strong enforcement against porn-centered businesses. They usually oppose legalized gambling.

Fiscal conservatives are interested in some combination of smaller taxes, less government spending, and balanced budgets. They worry about the disincentives caused by high tax rates. They are unimpressed with the practical impact of government programs. And they are philosophically opposed to most forms of government intervention within the economy.

Beyond a negative criticism of government in the economic realm, fiscal conservatives positively applaud the effectiveness of free markets and they value individual freedom as expressed in a market economy. As a result, they are also called “free market” conservatives.

In contrast, there are “America First” conservatives. These people are the most literally conservative in that they want to preserve the social and economic status quo. They are the loudest on efforts to restrict illegal immigration-what they see as the most important issue today. They are typically interested in restricting legal immigration as well. And they are often willing to use trade protectionism to protect certain U.S. industries.

Finally, there are military conservatives. They value a strong national defense. They also tend to value a stronger version of law and order-enforcement and punishment of domestic crimes. Most of these are “neo-cons”— those who applaud the continuing efforts in Iraq and see those as helpful for defending our own country from additional terrorism.

A much smaller group of military conservatives points to the non-interventionist roots of conservatism and wants the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq. They believe that our significant troop presence in the Middle East since the Persian Gulf War has given terrorists the impression that we’re occupying their land. These conservatives want the U.S. military to defend our country-rather than trying to build nations or extend democracy across the world.

Of course, there are combinations of the above. But often, the categories are unrelated. And this is what leads to the confusion. For example, social conservatives are relatively unconcerned with other public policies and alternative forms of conservatism. The result is that social conservatives are often moderate or liberal on other policy matters.

Most of these groups find a home within the Republican Party-and so, it is common to equate Republicans with conservatives. But a recognition of the various types of conservatives makes clear that there are tensions within the Party-as the particular interests of the sub-groups are addressed well (or not). In any case, discussions about politics would have more clarity if we chose more precise labels.


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