“Conservative,” that surprisingly malleable word

This morning as I parked on Assembly preparing to go in for breakfast, I ran into my good friend Samuel Tenenbaum, who was just leaving. He was agitated, as he often is. He and Patrick Cobb from AARP had just been commiserating about the general decline of our society, what Daniel Patrick Moynihan termed “defining deviance downward.”

And he couldn’t even get the first few words out without being interrupted by a beat-up car with a massive sound system, pulling up at the light right next to us, drowned his words. In frustration, he raised his voice higher to say that was just the kind of thing they were talking about — look at that guy; he’s not even embarrassed! Indeed not. He had his windows part way down, the better for us to hear the obnoxious sounds emanating from within (although not enough for us to see the darkened interior).

Of course, this was just part of the picture, the triumph of low and tacky that washes over us like a tsunami, from Sarah Palin (and such maids-in-waiting as Nikki Haley and Christine O’Donnell) to reality TV. I nodded and agreed that these were parlous, tacky times. (Oh, and no fair throwing that last post at me in this regard.) I tried to pull the conversation AWAY from booming basses, lest Samuel draw gunfire from the guy in the car. You never know.

What Samuel was exhibiting, of course, was a quality that people with a respect for the language would term “conservatism,” in the purest sense — decrying change, longing for a better time when people respected each other more. This may shock those who think of Samuel, with some justice, as one of the few actual liberal Democrats in South Carolina. But that’s what it was. Samuel was being as conservative as all get-out.

This brings me to something I read in the paper this morning:

House Republicans have a simple 2010 election agenda for S.C. voters — boost their Republican majority to 75 members, then watch conservative reform take hold.

Note the lack of quotations around the oddly oxymoronic phrase, “conservative reform.” Irony is often lost on news people, who have to play it deadpan. But what interested me is how a phrase that I remember hearing for the first time this year (it first jumped out at me back here) — I remember it because it struck me as odd — has now entered the lexicon so completely that an experienced reporter like Roddie Burris would use it, straight-faced, without attribution. And that his editors would go along.

My hat is off to the Tea Party and its allies, because a result like this would make any propagandist, even the propagators of Newspeak, envious. Causing people to adopt one’s own linguistic restylings is to propaganda what the hole-in-one is to golf, or the 300 game to bowling.

My problem with the phrase, of course, is that conservatism, rightly understood, is a resistance to change — not advocacy of it, whether the change is termed “reform” or not. If a conservative wants change, then he wants to change back to the way things once were, and then the term is no longer “conservative,” but “reactionary.” Properly understood.

Yes, I get that people want to reform the government in ways that they maintain are in keeping with “conservative” principles. And that’s not inherently oxymoronic, however much it might sound that way. For instance, the kind of restructuring of state government that I and Nikki Haley and (most effectively) Vincent Sheheen advocate would introduce such “conservative” values as accountability to entities and processes that now answer to no one.

My problems is that a lot of people call themselves “conservative” when they are not, according to any traditional meaning of the term. Nikki Haley, for one, whose politics would rightly be termed populist demagoguery (nobody ever called Huey Long “conservative”), and whose personal and business financial accounts exhibit anything but conservative accountability. But one can see why a politician would call herself “conservative” in a state that worships the word. And how he or she would term his or her ideas “reform” whether they are (and sometimes they are) or not.

All perfectly understandable, and perfectly within the honored traditions of political rhetoric.

What surprises me, though, is when I see the rest of us going along with the terminology. I say this not to pick on Roddie or The State. I think they are reflecting the fact that the term has entered the mainstream. I’m just surprised that it has.

14 thoughts on ““Conservative,” that surprisingly malleable word

  1. Phillip

    The incident with the car radio brings to mind the central contradiction between conservatism-the-political-movement and conservatism understood as trying to get back to “a better time when people respected each other more.”

    Actually it’s two (related) points of contradiction: one is that modern conservatism exalts the individual (and self-interest) even at the expense of society in general. You have to be completely “free” to do your own thing, and conservatives are generally less interested in how that affects other people (whether you’re a millionaire getting a big tax cut, or a guy playing your radio obnoxiously loud so as to bother your neighbors).

    Related to this is conservatism’s unquestioning worship of “the market”–as blindly followed by today’s conservatives, in a quest for philosophical purity, as Marxism once was for many leftists in the West before the examples in the USSR and elsewhere opened eyes to the dangers of following dogma to its ultimate end.
    This parallel is brilliantly explored in one of Tony Judt’s last pieces for the NY Review of Books):

    A lot of people one might think of as conservative decry the coarsening of American culture (“the triumph of low and tacky” as you so aptly put it) but all that really signifies is the triumph of the markets. Everything has to have a price tag on it, and if something makes more money than another thing, then by golly that first thing is “better” and the other thing must be inferior, otherwise it would have made more money.

    It’s not a big step from this to extend this value system to individuals, which is my biggest problem with modern conservatism today: Person X makes lots of money therefore they must be a “success” to be worshipped, whereas Person Y is not doing well, needs the social safety net which the conservatives would just as soon do away with, and therefore is a “burden to society,” a less-worthy human being.

  2. Mark Stewart

    The state has always been conservative: Jeffersonian, Dixie Democrat and now some kind of Republican-ish thing.

    Look where that’s got us?

    Personally, I would be pleased to see a little Progressive Reform take hold. I just doubt that Rep. Harrell and Sen. McConnell are the ones to lead the charge.

  3. bud

    Conservatism today is very different from the way Brad views it. What it is now is a philosophy that wants to reduce taxes, reduce the size of government and especially government regulation. At the national level they would eliminate social security, medicaid and replace them with pure for-profit enterprises. Furthermore, a conservative today wants much more government intervention into the workings of foreign countries through the use of military power. They also wish to impose an approved set of social values on all of us (gay marriage and maybe even gay behavior would be prohibited). Abortion would be banned in all instances, certain drugs (marijuana) would be outlawed while others would be allowed (alcohol, tobacco).

    It is a strange philosophy that has nothing to do with the definition as Brad describes it. Nevertheless, Conservatism thinking is pretty clear in it’s objectives. Mostly it’s about creating a system that facilitates the accumulation of wealth by a handful of chosen elitists while pretty much ignoring opportunity for most people. It’s acceptable to make vast amounts of money on one drug (tobacco) because the beneficiaries of that toxic substance are members of the chosen elite. Eliminating the competition (pot) is therefore an acceptible goal of the conservative movement because anyone who might benefit financially from that particular vice is not a part of the inner circle.

    Conservatism in the 21st century America is a perverse way of managing the nation’s (and state’s) affairs and it can only be implemented by duping millions of Americans through the motivations of fear. Allow pot and your children will end up in the gutter strung out on heroin. Allow Sadam Hussein to rule in Iraq and he will one day obliterate America with nuclear bombs. Allow a Mosque in New York and the bogeyman Islamists will impose Sharia law on all of us.

    The conservative movement is very diabolical in that it so dishonest about it’s intentions. It’s not for the betterment of ordinary Americans. But it is sold that way. Tragically, far too many buy into the propaganda.

    And that explains the success of phonies like Nikki Haley. Why people can’t see through this transparent scheme is hard to explain. Then again, Jim Baker was pretty transparent and he swindled millions of dollars out of the un-suspecting sheep drawn to his creepy message.

  4. James Ronan


    We’re all liberals in plain English. Know any monarchists? Ross perot was an autocrat and Hillary Clinton may be an oligarch in political English, but they are liberals, too.

    Conservatism, in political English, doesn’t mean resistnce to change. It means less intrusive government. Of course, there are fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, neo-conservatives and paleo-conservatives.

    How apropos you would run this piece and mention a decline of standards. Know doubt you missed the boat on the versatility of the English language.

  5. Matt

    James Ronan: you hit the nail on the head with your comments. Very well said.

    Also: one can be maybe conservative personally and liberal politically, and vice-versa. It’s not that remarkable to observe that a guy who, let’s say, supports the Obama agenda and the Democratic Party platform also doesn’t like loud rap music blasting from cars or likes to dress in polo shirts and oxfords.

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    I’m conservative personally and liberal politically, for one.

    For example, I am married to my one and only husband and I believe the best music was written before 1825, and maybe even 1670, but if you make me pick 20th Century stuff, it’s jazz from the 50s and 60s.

  7. Steve Gordy

    There is a saying from the British Parliament that encapsulates my political philosophy about as well as anything: “Tory men, liberal measures.” While I’m no fan of sweeping reform measures (or any other kind of sweeping change), some real reform (not the phony stuff that gets ballyhooed at every election) could do this state a world of good.

  8. Nick Nielsen

    @James, if conservatism means “less intrusive government”, why are the “conservatives” trying to pass laws defining marriage? Government doesn’t get much more intrusive than that.

  9. bud

    Modern conservatism doesn’t mean “less intrusive government” at all. It’s a very intrusive philosophy but selectively so. Most people who regard themselves as “conservative” were vehemently oppossed to public smoking bans. Yet those same “conservatives” have no problem banning marijuana even for medicinal purposes. Conservative thinking really is all over the place.

  10. James Ronan

    This discussion, on my part, isn’t about politics.

    It is about poor use of language as evidence of declining standards.

  11. bud

    I’m convinced. Brad and James offer excellent arguments that our use of language has deteriorated over the last few years. However, I would argue that the modern “conservative” movement is an intentional hijacking of that term to facilitate a political movement rather than merely a sloppy use of the language.


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