The recent defections among high-profile intellectual liberals from the progressive left is only surprising if you haven’t been paying attention (The Harpers Letter, etc). It was only a matter of time before these thoughtful and engaged adults were “red pilled”, and realized the cold, hard fact that the progressive left has abandoned them, and is no longer a champion of classical liberal ideals.
Millions of free-thinking adults who have self-described as “liberal” for most of their adult lives are now realizing that our cherished concept of liberal democracy, and even basic human freedoms are no longer supported by their so-called progressive friends, and the iconic American media institutions we hold so dear have completely abandoned any semblance of intellectual honesty.
For long-time proud liberals, this turn of events is a political life crisis.
Despite the discomfort, this mass enlightenment is a good thing for America. In the face of a historic onslaught of political manipulation by the media, academia, the entertainment industry, and the administrative state, America needs all the champions she can get right now.
Badges like “liberal” and “conservative” are powerful proxies for our beliefs. We all use them to describe ourselves, and others, which is why it’s important to try and be honest about what these things mean, so we can have respectful, fruitful discussions. And if we can align on these basic semantics, then we might just have a shot at saving this amazing experiment, with which our Founders entrusted us.
The most basic dictionary definition of conservative is, simply, “to conserve”.
As in, “we conserve milk when we’re running low,” or “we conserve our energy for the hike back home”. We humans also tend to conserve things like customs, values, and ideals over generations. Sometimes these are good ideas and traditions, sometimes they’re not so good. But the word “conserve” is neutral. It doesn’t care. So, in governmental terms “conservative” means, basically, to keep things the same from a structural standpoint.
Politically, the term “conservative” gets a mixed rap – primarily because this governmental sense is often conflated with “conservative” in the cultural/moral/religious sense. Sometimes this conflation happens on purpose, sometimes it happens out of laziness, and it’s become a common political shorthand: conservative = Christian-ish.
This is inaccurate, and unhelpful.
National conservatism and religious/moral conservatism are not automatically the same thing, but they do at times function together ala the medieval Christian monarchies of Europe or the Islamic states of the Middle East, where national conservative interests dovetail with religious conservative interests. Hence the notion that Monarchy + Church + Military = “conservative”. This seems to be a common frame of reference for many people, and it’s certainly not wrong.
It’s just not the only way it can be.
Sometimes “conservative” is the opposite of what we’d expect it to be through a Left v Right lens. For instance, by the end of the 1980’s the USSR – one of the most leftist, authoritarian, statist and atheistic governments in history – was, by definition, a conservative enterprise, because they wanted to “conserve” the Soviet Union. Those Communist Party apparatchiks fighting to preserve their nation, along with its institutional socialism, were conservatives in that they wanted to keep things the way they were. Even though “the way things were” was about as left as you can possibly get.
On the flip side we have the term “liberal”, which primarily means: “willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own; being open to new ideas, and relating to or denoting a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise”. Interestingly, the other definition of liberal is “a lot”. As in, “May I have a liberal dollop of gravy on my mashed potatoes, please?”.
The current political definition of the term liberal is: “favoring policies that are socially progressive and promote social welfare”.
How did that happen?
It’s a long story, but the short answer is on purpose.
But, just as it does with “conservative”, this mis-definition of the word “liberal” is something we have to fix in order to move forward.
Words matter. Terms are important. If we actually want to solve problems, it’s important we agree on the meaning of the things we’re discussing, and politics does interesting things to our dictionary. After decades of moral majorities and southern strategies here in the US the term “conservative” has absolutely become intertwined with its moral/religious subset, and “liberal” has morphed into a proxy and epithet for “progressive” and even “democrat”.
These two important terms – liberal and conservative – have been pushed into being political polar opposites when they don’t have to be; and, in America, weren’t meant to be. These stubborn over-simplifications are divisive, and it mires us in disagreements over terminology instead of legitimate disagreements over policy.
But, more importantly, from a “right” POV, allowing liberal to be defined in this narrow, tribalistic way causes millions of free-thinking, rational, and even patriotic self-described liberals mistakenly to feel like they don’t have anything in common with Conservatives. This is unfortunate, because they in America they are natural allies.
The dictionary definition of radical is “fundamental” and “core”. Most people think it means “fringe agitator”, which, of course, is the second definition.
We must remember that our Founders were radicals. And this great nation was a radical notion, in all senses of the word. And still is.
The precept of America’s founding was liberty (and liberty shares a root with liberal), and is a living shrine to the most liberal idea of all: the individual. As the Founders thought and fought long and hard about how to construct this great nation, they carefully selected the best ideas throughout history, and established a lasting foundation specifically designed to protect and inspire freedom, liberty and other incredibly liberal ideals that would endure for centuries.
But we often forget how “liberal” our founding actually was.
The fact is our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights are essentially liberal “greatest hits” lists of Classical Liberalism. Ours was the first nation on earth to ever to give primacy to the individual. Every other great nation in history up until this point was designed with the“greater good” in mind, and our Founders realized that was counterproductive. They understood – contrary to most assumptions – that focusing the system on protecting the individual (the smallest minority) actually benefits the majority more so than any attempt to put the collective’s interests first. Much like the invisible hand of the free market alleviating more poverty than any central command scheme one could dream of, our liberal individual-focused system of government creates demonstrably better collective outcomes. Oh, the irony.
And at the core of this ingenious idea was a codified collection of now-classic liberal tenets; e.g., liberty, freedom of speech, universal human rights, freedom of association, agency, equality under the law, personal responsibility, etc.
And so, by definition, those who support and defend the founding elements of this country, and want America to stay the same in those extremely liberal aspects are what we would call American Conservatives. Because a large majority of America’s DNA (in fact probably the most important bits) are textbook liberal genetic code.
And so it is utterly unsurprising that right now scores of liberals are fleeing the Democrat party and the American left.
The problem is isn’t liberalism but, rather, progressivism – and its evil demon spawn of Post Modernism, Wokeism and Neo-Marxism.
Liberals used to cheer the ACLU for defending Nazis marching down Main Street – not because we enjoy Nazis – but because we have honesty and courage. We understood that free speech, free association, and free-thinking was sometimes messy, icky, and offensive… but nonetheless are important liberal principles that needed defending from all sides.
Right now, in real time, scores of liberals, classic liberals and libertarians suddenly find themselves politically homeless as their supposed friends and fellow travelers have abandoned them, and disowned them. Yet they seem more shocked to discover that the only defense of liberties, freedoms and rational thought is coming from the American right. They think the New York Times abandoning them, and Ben Shapiro defending them, does not compute.
But it does compute, because (refrain): here in America Conservatives are Liberals and Liberals are Conservatives.
When Ben Franklin was asked what kind of government they had crafted, he replied “A republic, ma’am, if you can keep it.”
Defending this great country and what it stands for requires both liberalism and conservatism, bound together, as they were always meant to be in America.
The liberal part is the freedom. The conservative part is “keeping it”.