Friday, April 11, 2003

What is conservatism

What makes one a conservative? (in a political sense, as the term is used in modern American politics) After years of listening to this term bandied about, I have been completely unable to determine what this term means. Do you know?

The meaning which I derive for "Conservative", as practiced in modern American politics, is little more than a name for one "team". That is to view modern American politics like a football game, there's two teams, one named "Democrat" and the other "Republican" and it's the "Republicans" who are "Conservative", while the "Democrats" are "Liberal". What I'm searching for is the meaning of these labels.

An obvious thing is to turn to the dictionary

conservative: 1) Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change. 2) Traditional or restrained in style: a conservative dark suit. 3) Moderate; cautious: a conservative estimate.

But all that does is confuse the issue, as modern self-styled "conservatives" in the political arena seem to mean other things. And, as for "oppose change", why is there so much preaching for "regime change" around the world by the "conservatives" in charge of the U.S. government during the 2000-2004 time frame (at the time of the World Trade Center attack, and the following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq)?

The Cato Institute

Doing a Google search for "Conservative" turns up a lot of hits, and the first one of any seeming credibility is the Cato Institute, a Washington DC think-tank. In their "About Us" page is a section "How to Label Cato" which gives a piece to this puzzle:

Today, those who subscribe to the principles of the American Revolution--individual liberty, limited government, the free market, and the rule of law--call themselves by a variety of terms, including conservative, libertarian, classical liberal, and liberal. We see problems with all of those terms. "Conservative" smacks of an unwillingness to change, of a desire to preserve the status quo. Only in America do people seem to refer to free-market capitalism--the most progressive, dynamic, and ever-changing system the world has ever known--as conservative. Additionally, many contemporary American conservatives favor state intervention in some areas, most notably in trade and into our private lives.

"Classical liberal" is a bit closer to the mark, but the word "classical" connotes a backward-looking philosophy.

Finally, "liberal" may well be the perfect word in most of the world--the liberals in societies from China to Iran to South Africa to Argentina are supporters of human rights and free markets--but its meaning has clearly been corrupted by contemporary American liberals.

Well, so much for clarity, since they seem just as confused as anybody. "Conservatives" seem to profess a love for free markets and personal liberties, but this is really "liberalism"? In any case we have these attributes to think about

Individual liberty

Limited government

The free market

Rule of law

These attributes are ones which I clearly have heard the "conservatives" talk about.

Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition



The title of this section is the title of a research paper that's causing conniptions among the "Conservatives". A group of psychologists have been tracking, for decades, different styles of political leanings. The paper in question studies the Conservative, as practiced in politics.

ABSTRACT: Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism–intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification). A meta-analysis (88 samples, 12 countries, 22,818 cases) confirms that several psychological variables predict political conservatism: death anxiety (weighted mean r .50); system instability (.47); dogmatism–intolerance of ambiguity (.34); openness to experience (–.32); uncertainty tolerance (–.27); needs for order, structure, and closure (.26); integrative complexity (–.20); fear of threat and loss (.18); and self-esteem (–.09). The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat.

Psychological Bulletin 2003, Vol. 129, No. 3, 339–375

Copyright 2003 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.

0033-2909/03/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.129.3.339

No doubt there's a lotta good stuff in that article, but I don't have time to summarize it right now.

A tour of conservative web sites

While writing this article I took a break to go to a bookstore, hoping to find something in the political studies section to help understand this conundrum. Nothing to be found would offer a simple explanation of the meanings of these labels of "Liberal" or "Conservative" or any other political label. Instead all the books were busy espousing some political view or another.

Lacking any guidebook to consult, I've decided to go on a tour of "Conservative" web sites and summarize what's there. Largely what I've found is a disgusting level of intolerance for others ideas, and in some cases an appalling level of attack and slamming. In verfy few cases was the tenor of the material examination of issues in a clear manner, but instead the majority of the material was highly postured US versus THEM positioning.

There are many more of these sites than the few I've listed here. My stamina was not enough to tour them all.

Organization & its web site Discussion
The Common Conservative

"Practical conservatism for the common man"

The site is an archive of articles written by Tom Adkins, Thomas Lindaman, Patrick J. Shanahan, Heidi Parent, Carter Fletcher, Ray Mc Clendon, Gary Aldrich, and Sean Carter. In addition there are links to conservative-oriented books, and the Conservative Book Club.

The tenor of the articles are entirely blasting "liberals" in general and specifically Democrats. No discussion of issues, just attack after attack. A special target is the Clinton years.

The Heritage Foundation
This site is the online home for a Washington DC based conservative think tank and research organization.
The CATO Institute

"Individual Liberty, Limited Government, Free Markets and Peace"

"The Cato Institute seeks to broaden the parameters of public policy debate to allow consideration of the traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace. Toward that goal, the Institute strives to achieve greater involvement of the intelligent, concerned lay public in questions of policy and the proper role of government."

A think tank with lots of research articles and educational activities.

"Conservative news and information"

" is the first truly interactive community on the Internet to bring Internet users, conservative public policy organizations, congressional staff, and political activists together under the broad umbrella of "conservative" thoughts, ideas and actions. is a one-stop mall of ideas in which people congregate to exchange, discuss and disseminate the latest news and information from the conservative movement. is committed to inform, educate and empower the public through this emerging electronic medium. "
Human Events Online

"The National Conservative weekly"

The web site contains news articles, as well as opinion columns. The named columnists are Ann Coulter, Terrence P. Jeffrey, Robert Novak, John Gizzi, Patrick J. Buchanan and others.

The tenor of the articles is largely a very partisan, lopsided, look at the news. Running through it is a constant slam of "liberals".

60plus Association

"Kill the death tax & Save Social security"

A citizens lobbying group for retirees. They take "a free enterprise, less government, less taxes approach to seniors issues".

Very focused on the two issues of ending taxes on estates of the deceased, and privatising Social Security.

Accuracy in Media

"For fairness, balance and accuracy in news reporting"

Articles and reports about political events. Largely these events are related to various hot issues that had received news coverage. Many of the reports are about the Clinton years, and the smearing of Hillary Clinton in particular.
American Civil Rights Institute

"Race has no place in American life or law"

A legal lobbying and activism organization apparently dedicated to eradicating racial preferences from the law.

Ward Connerly is presented as the leading member of this organization, and much of the material has his name attached to it.

Americans for Tax Reform
The web site contains a collection of reports, "talking points", and opinion pieces around various tax related issues.

There's not an apparent outright slant. No repeated slams against the Clinton years. There are occasional slams against liberalism.

Capital Research Center
"Capital Research Center (CRC) was established in 1984 to study non-profit organizations, with a special focus on reviving the American traditions of charity, philanthropy, and voluntarism."

They go on to explain that the Great Society programs launched in the 1960's inspired a bunch of charitable organizations. Along the way these charitable organizations, they explain, are guilty of promoting more government welfare programs, especially in types of activities that had previously been taken care of by families, charities, neighborhood organizations, and volunteer organizations.

"Capital Research Center is analyzing organizations that promote the growth of the welfare state - now almost universally recognized as a failure - and in identifying viable private alternatives to government welfare programs."

Center for Equal Opportunity
"As the only think tank devoted exclusively to the promotion of colorblind equal opportunity and racial harmony, the Center for Equal Opportunity is uniquely positioned to counter the divisive impact of race conscious public policies. CEO focuses on three areas in particular: racial preferences, immigration and assimilation and multicultural education. "

Position papers and legal filings around affirmative action.

The logo contains an American Flag theme.

Center for Security Policy

"Promoting security through strength"

"The Center for Security Policy has, since its founding in 1988, operated as a non-profit, non-partisan organization committed to the time-tested philosophy of promoting international peace through American strength. It accomplishes this goal by stimulating and informing national and international policy debates, in particular, those involving regional, defense, economic, financial and technology developments that bear upon the security of the United States. "

The web site contains an extensive set of pointers to articles and reports about various world situations. It's hard to tell whether there is a slant one way or another.

Free Conservatives

"Where Freedom Rings"

"Is a website dedicated to the free expression of conservative ideals and principles in a world that too often seems to be gripped in the tentacles of political correctness, confusion, disinformation, and derision of anything "conservative". "

The site largely collects pointers to conservative news sources, and runs a message board full of conservative chitchat.

The artistic flavor leans heavily on the American Flag and Eagle motifs.

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