‘Conservative.’ You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

On a previous thread, Kathryn noted that “satire” doesn’t mean what Todd Kincannon claims to think it means.


That put me in mind of this joke (at right) I ran across on the interwebs a few days ago. You may have seen it before; there seem to be several versions of it out there. Still, it’s funny, if you’ve seen the movie.

When we started watching “Homeland” at my house a few weeks ago (and, in the modern fashion, zipped through both seasons fairly quickly), it took me an episode or two to realize that “Saul” — the one really likable, admirable character on the show, which makes me worry something awful’s going to happen with him — was Mandy Patinkin! Then, for the rest of that episode, I kept thinking, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You keeled my father. Prepare to die.

Which in turn, this morning (after seeing Kathryn’s comment), got me to thinking about his performance as “Che” in “Evita,” so I listened to that on Spotify while doing ADCO work.

See how everything in the world is related? But no, I don’t know how many degrees away from Kevin Bacon Mandy Patinkin is…

Anyway… a couple of recent posts, this one and this one, centered around the word “conservative” and its obsessive overuse in SC politics. And indeed, one of my objections to hearing it over and over, apart from the pure monotony, is that I do not think it means what many of the people using it think it means. As Bud noted earlier, “Seems to me it’s not particularly useful to just advocate for ‘conservatism’ when the meaning of the term is so blurred and overused.”

For instance, 19th-century classical liberalism is not conservatism, although many in SC — those along the Mark Sanford/Nikki Haley axis — seem to think it is. Nor is the kind of rhetoric and attitudes that Todd Kincannon puts on display on Twitter a conservative way to communicate. It’s not prudent; it’s not respectful of traditions for human communication. It’s bomb-throwing rather than keeping the peace. So neither he nor those who cheer such Tweets as the Trayvon Martin ones are conservative people. Or at least within that context, they are not being conservative.

Conservatives don’t give themselves over to anger; they are temperate. If language is to have meaning, that is. But too many people gut words of their actual meanings, and restuff them with whatever strikes their fancy. And pretty soon, words don’t mean what any of us think they mean.

43 thoughts on “‘Conservative.’ You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  1. Norm Ivey

    The Oracle of Bacon claims Mandy is 2 degrees from Kevin. Mandy was in Run Ronnie Run with Rebecca Romijn who was in X Men: First Class with Kevin.

    Conservative does mean exactly what these people think it means. Their constant use of “conservative” to describe their view of the way things should be has supplanted its traditional meaning. Being a conservative now means being opposed to all government spending except for defense. It means seeing the media as liberal and science as conspiracy. It means viewing those with differing ideas not just as opponents, but as enemies. It means believing nobody should pay any taxes. It’s a shame because an intelligent dialog–an argument between two (or more) opposing ideas–will often result in a compromise that better serves the nation than the ideology of right or left. It’s heartening to hear some like Bobby Jindal making an effort to steer the right more toward the center.

    The current administration has adopted policies that in the last decade of the 20th century were conservative ideas (can you say individual mandate?). In the last election 44% of South Carolina voters voted for the Democratic candidate for president and 43% voted for a Democratic Representative, and yet only 14% of our representatives are Democratic. The state legislature is just as skewed. It’s the unconscionable drawing of districts to favor Republicans that prevents the voters of this state from being able to elect more moderate politicians at both the state and federal level. A moderate, reasonable government could find workable solutions to many of South Carolina’s woes, but instead we choose put those who believe government is an evil thing in charge of government.

  2. Steve Gordy

    Whenever someone here trumpets how “conservative” he or she is, ask them”Who do you think is the greatest conservative thinker of all time? Burke? Dostoyevsky? Randolph?” It would be a hoot watching the blank looks on their faces.

  3. bud

    Brad, I understand you have a deep affection for the meaning of words as used in the 19th century. But it really doesn’t serve any real purpose to try and fight to regain that perspective. What we need is to establish a consistent meaning for the term “conservative” as it applies in the 21st century. Seems as though some folks equate the term “conservative” with “libertarian”. Others take the government intervention of business component from libertarianism but add elements of government involvement in personal areas like drugs, abortion and gambling (video poker) as legitimate “conservative” family values goals. Still others add a military component that goes far beyond anything a libertarian would believe is necessary. A Ron Paul conservative is very different from a Rick Santorum. Both would say they are conservative.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Bud, looking at this comment again — you have never quite understood why video poker had to go.

      It was corrupting the Legislature. Think Chicago in Capone’s day. It wasn’t the liquor; it was all the other stuff he did.

      It was an out-of-control (legal) racket that refused to be contained. Lawmakers had allowed it to become legal with the understanding that it would follow certain basic rules and pay taxes. But the poker barons flouted the law and fought in court, and constantly pressed to have the Legislature remove any statutory limitations. And they had a practically unlimited supply of money with which to do these things.

      And lawmakers started to fear them, because they did the same thing school “choice” advocates have tried to do since then — buy a legislature more friendly to their interests. Only video poker had a $3 billion (with a B) revenue stream to draw on.

      The rather clever way that the Legislature did the industry in was the last really politically brave thing I’ve seen our lawmakers do. Possibly the last thing I’d call “clever,” too, for that matter.

    1. Doug Ross

      I’m a fiscal conservative (don’t spend what you don’t have, spend money as if it was yours not someone else’s, don’t waste money on foolish things) and a social liberal (do what you want as
      long as it doesn’t harm someone else, war is for defense and the last resort when all other options
      have been exhausted) all wrapped up in a philosophy of personal responsibility and anti-collectivism – don’t expect others to do your work/charity for you.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    Brad, that was my tortured reference.

    Norm is right except that conservatives also often favor corporate welfare and the erection of Christian displays on public property with public funds. They are libertarian except when it comes to s-e-x and G–d.

      1. Mrs. Stephen Fenner

        Wasn’t clear to me that you understood that I was intentionally drawing on Inigo Montoya, in a convoluted way…

        1. Steven Davis II

          So am I seeing what I think I’m seeing? Kathryn has now dropped her strong feminist attitude and is now known as Mrs. Husbands Name?

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          Maybe Dame Kathryn is being ironic.

          And while I may not have consciously realized she was referring to Inigo Montoya, she at least succeeded in making me think of him…

  5. bud

    Norm is close to describing a tea-party conservative but I would dispute this one sentence:

    “It means believing nobody should pay any taxes”.

    Actually they have no problem with folks paying payroll taxes and sales taxes. People who pay those are mostly of modest means. In fact they howl about the 47% who pay zero federal income tax. I would replace – “It means believing nobody should pay any taxes” with “Job creators should pay very low tax rates” . (Job creators being the rich of course).

    1. Doug Ross


      “Job Creators” are not the same as “People Living off Dividends”.

      I pay upwards of 45% of my income to various taxes. I’d like it to be lower, not zero. I think 1/3 max is fair.

      It’s simply untrue to suggest that Tea Party types don’t want to pay any taxes. A total misrepresentation. They want to pay less, not zero.

  6. Brad Warthen Post author

    Bud says my definition is 19th century, seeming to imply it’s hopelessly passé, but here’s the thing: As he also notes, people who call themselves “conservative” use it to mean very different things. That means the definition is up for grabs, and my version is at least as valid as anyone else’s. I assert that it is far MORE valid, as it is the correct one. Precedent is on my side.

    Tradition, of course, is something that true conservatives embrace. When you read the word, try to imagine it being pronounced as Maggie Smith does on “Downton Abbey” (our dialect coach on “Pride and Prejudice” told us to use her as our model). A couple of episodes back, she said the word with such emphasis that she practically whistled on the “sh” sound — “trah-DISH-shun.” Hear, hear, I thought. Quite right. Capital, capital…

    Anyway, observe the dowager countess — SHE is conservative.

    Another way to look at it is the way I did in this 2008 column, “Give me that old-time conservatism,” which I essentially wrote to defend John McCain from the so-called conservatives in his party who disapproved of him. An excerpt:

    By now some of you think I have it in for all things “conservative.” I don’t. I just grew up with a different concept of it from that which has in recent years been appropriated by extremists. I grew up in a conservative family — a Navy family, as a matter of fact. To the extent that “conservative ideas” were instilled in me, they weren’t the kind that make a person fume over paying his taxes, or get apoplectic at the sound of spoken Spanish. They were instead the old-fashioned ones: Traditional moral values. Respect for others. Good stewardship. Plain speaking.
    And finally, the concept that no passing fancy, no merely political idea, is worth as much as Duty, Honor and Country.

    Note the capitalization of virtues, which was me, as editorial page editor, demonstrating that I didn’t have to follow AP style when I didn’t bloody feel like it. It was a way of deliberately evoking an older style of writing, a traditional style, of visibly rejecting the tyranny of modernity. When I read that now, I think, hear, hear. Quite right. Capital, capital.

    Bottom line, I consider myself much more conservative than these radicals running around with their snake flags railing against the very existence of one of our bedrock institutions, our government.

    Imagine me “harrumphing” now.

  7. David Carlton

    I think that the word “conservative” can best be understood in much the same way the word “Christian” gets used in the South–not as either a philosophical or a theological stance but as a marker of tribal identity. Most of the time, after all, people in the South appropriate the “Christian” label with little regard to anything Jesus Christ actually stood for; when one calls someone a Christian one simply means “a good, respectable person like me, who shares all my prejudices.” Ditto for “conservative,” which in the South implicitly means “a white southerner, or someone else who thinks like a white southerner.” And what white southerners think is a grab-bag of stuff, some of which is sort-of-libertarian-sounding but basically boils down to “We don’t want outsiders interfering in our affairs.” But if “our affairs” include the right to impose “southern” religious and moral views on those who don’t share them, this “conservatism” is anything but libertarian. This form of conservatism is basically tribal; it combines hostility to outsiders with different values with an insistence on enforcing the values of the tribe. This version of “conservatism” has enormous appeal in a place like South Carolina, or among the virtual tribe of talk-radio “conservatives,” but it’s becoming increasingly toxic in the rest of the country, and for that matter even in places like northern Virginia and the Research Triangle.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’m not surprised that Kathryn and Bud were pleased by the comment of Prof. Carlton of Vanderbilt. But his comments have a tendency to strike me less positively.

      He’s right about a number of things, up to a point, but then he tends to engage in hyperbole, as people with strong views on either end of the political spectrum (or the secular/religious spectrum) tend to do. Just one example:

      “Most of the time, after all, people in the South appropriate the ‘Christian’ label with little regard to anything Jesus Christ actually stood for.”

      Most of the time? Really? There are plenty of people who do that (and not just Southerners), but MOST people who would call themselves Christian? I see that as an extreme assertion. I find that there a lot of people whose religious beliefs and practices differ from mine. But I don’t delegitimize the people who hold those different views as hypocrites.

      Here’s another: “when one calls someone a Christian one simply means ‘a good, respectable person like me, who shares all my prejudices’.”

      No, actually, what I hear people say is that they mean someone who believes in the same things in a theological sense — not “shares all my prejudices.” What people mean by that is something I’m particularly aware of because the people who say it — evangelical protestants, generally — don’t have the same religious perspective that I do. I know that what they tend to mean is other evangelical protestants. That’s an excessively restrictive definition, and it tends to exclude me, but I don’t dismiss it by saying “people who share their prejudices.” They just don’t view their faith the way I view mine. (For instance, I don’t call myself a “Christian” to other people because I think that’s an ideal toward which I strive, not a distinction I have the right to claim.)

      There’s a certain tone that runs through the comment of “those people,” in which “those people” are stupid, hypocritical, and probably beneath contempt. Basically, what I’m talking about is a tone that is the very reason why I don’t like reading writers such as Paul Krugman. It’s also related to the thing that puts me off of party politics. Prof. Carlton speaks of “tribalism,” but that runs throughout our public sphere. People who, say, are of a certain secular bent tend to see overtly religious people a certain way. Other people who share that worldview and perhaps feel isolated in a culture in which overt religious expressions are common tend to say “damn right,” because they believe they see the same thing.

      But I see it as the dismissal of the “other,” and I don’t think it’s a constructive thing in public dialogue. I in fact see it as a sort of tribalism. We need to be trying harder to understand each other, not dismiss each other.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      On a lighter note…

      In his novels about characters living through the Napoleonic wars, Patrick O’Brian has fun with a lot of idioms and attitudes prevalent at the time and among certain classes in Britain, particularly those that reveal the typical English officer’s reflexive chauvinism. For instance Jack Aubrey (one of the two protagonists) is constantly coming out unthinkingly with cutting remarks about Papists, forgetting that Dr. Maturin (his best friend and the other protagonist) is a devout Catholic. It may not sound like it, but O’Brian manages to do this to comic effect. Maturin accepts his friend as he is and is not offended, while Jack realizes what he’s done and turns red and says something like “I’m afraid I’m laid by the lee again,” after which he almost inevitably says something else just as thoughtless. OK, I admit; you have to be a fan of the books to see how this actually endears you to both characters, but it does…

      The way the word “Christian” is used by Aubrey and other characters goes considerably beyond “a good, respectable person like me” in asserting the chauvinism of their culture. It’s broader than that. It can mean such things as “sane” or “normal” or “competent.” A sailor who knows how to handle a small boat might be said to “row like a Christian” rather than the way an awkward lubber would.

      It’s an interesting window on the culture and times…

  8. T.J.

    “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

    ― Mahatma Gandhi

    I sort of feel like this about “Southern Conservatives”. There are many Conservative values with which I can agree. And by Conservative I mean, Pre-Bush 2 type items like, small but effective government whose scope is appropriate to services desired by the people, spending to support said government reasonably close to tax revenue, progressive (as opposed to regressive) taxation, avoidance of military expeditions or attempts at colonialism, and limitations on government involvement in the private lives of citizens. Sounds good right?

    1. Steven Davis II

      And we care what Gandhi says why??? Just a Indian version of Jesse Jackson for what it’s worth.

      1. T.J.


        You are the first person I have ever interacted with who had something negative to say about Gandhi. I think that says a lot about the nature of your beliefs.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      On its face, that sounds like a brand of conservatism I could embrace, but in practice it is not. It was used a decade ago to describe people like Patrick Buchanan and others who believed that U.S. military power should only be used to defend the homeland and such. As opposed to neoconservatives, who believed in using it to promote liberal values abroad.

      On that spectrum, I’m more neo than paleo.

  9. Kathryn Fenner

    When people say so and so is a good Christian man/woman, in my experience, they usually mean what Prof. C said. How can we know what is in someone’s heart?

    I didn’t pick up on the supercilious tone you cite. I read it as a statement of fact that comports with what I hear and what I read in The State.

  10. Kathryn Fenner

    The wife of a prominent Republican former state officeholder and ongoing landlord in my neighborhood told the proprietor of a Five Points shop that she could not understand how anyone could be a *Democrat*. Of course, she is not known for her intellect.

  11. Steve Gordy

    It’s interesting to note that C.S. Lewis, whom many “conservatives” cite as one of their own, was distinctly “modern” in his acceptance of evolution and refusal to insist on the infallibility of the Bible.

  12. Kathryn Fenner

    CS Lewis was an Anglican, a church generally noted for its pragmatism and welcoming of intelligence and education. The Lowcountry Piscos are an anomaly.

  13. Mark Stewart

    I find it wryly amusing that the low country plantation parishes want to join the African Anglican union.

    That about sums up the journey of conservatism in the South.

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