What is a Conservative? And what is a Liberal?*

What is a Conservative? And what is a Liberal?

Labeling oneself a Conservative in 2019 is not the same as actually being a Conservative, certainly not in a 1980’s philosophical sense, a period which many remember recognize as the golden age of flourishing American Conservatism. 21st Century Republican politicians paint their positions with the broad brush of ’80’s Conservativism because they honestly believe they are practitioners of that Conservativism for vote-getting political reasons. Those positions all too often have little in common with classical Conservative values. The same is true of Democrats who proudly call themselves Liberals. Their political approach is to a significant extent more extreme than the policies pursued by 20th Century Liberal icons Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson and Clinton. Today, there is a broad spectrum of American politicians who call themselves Conservatives, and a similar spectrum of American politicians who call themselves Liberals … but aren’t … who don’t share the values of or adhere to the principles pursued by their precious few classical Conservative and Liberal colleagues. A philosophically-Conservative American would be someone in a William H. Buckley/Ronald Reagan mold. A philosophically-Liberal American would be someone in the LBJ/WJC mold. Both would recognize that democracy – and specifically American democracy – has succeeded and will continue to succeed only by compromise consensus … and that there are more commonalities than differences between American Conservativism and American Liberalism. Capable politicians should subsume their egos and should be working together on those commonalities … and bridging the differences … and not inflaming them.

How many of today’s Republican leaders can realistically compare themselves to a Buckley or a Reagan? How many Republican leaders exalt Conservatism over political expediency … or support – let alone sponsor – legislation that seeks to accomplish Conservative goals rather than serve as vote-getters?

How many Democratic leaders practice Liberalism instead of politics? How many pursue legislative solutions with their similarly-enough-minded colleagues … on both sides of the aisle? How many are working for a future where American politics is driven by classical Liberalism and not populism?

In short, how many elected officials work towards solutions instead of their own re-election? Perpetual electioneering, with perpetual invective, doesn’t further democracy. To the contrary. It furthers extremism, internal strife … and ultimately anarchy. The job of an elected official is not to get re-elected. It’s to further the interests of constituents … and of the nation as a whole.

American democracy has thrived on its two-party system. Its success can be attributed to the ability of the two Parties to frame their differences … and compromise them. The two-party system distinguishes America’s democracy from all others … and has made it the most durable of all democracies. Trouble has arisen when the two sides Parties failed to find ways to work together.

Americans have become philosophically and politically fractured, with one-issue voters selecting candidates and, in so doing, setting extremist agendas. This has created intra-Party instability and moved the two Parties further apart … and further away from their Conservative and Liberal roots. Social media have widened differences by reducing access to, interest in, and the ability to hear or appreciate other points of view. The result is that diatribe is trumping dialogue … encouraging extremists with the loudest voices to scream the loudest. Labels of Conservative, Liberal, Republican and Democrat have mutated into slogans. What is heard most often is name-calling. Facts no longer seem to matter. Nor do time-tested, consistent philosophies.

Classic Conservatism, in a Bill Buckley sense, has three essential elements: fiscal restraint; a belief in traditional American values; and a belief in a strong national defense. There’s a surprising amount of overlap between the Buckley brand of Conservatism and the JFK/LBJ/WJC brand of Liberalism. During the golden age of American democracy, those overlaps were discussed … and elected officials worked together to realize their benefits, emphasizing the overlaps over the invective. The goal was a better America, not a sinecure job-for-life.

Fiscal Conservatism has its foundation in low taxes, limited government, modest government spending, balanced government budgets, and minimal government debt. Conservatism relies on a Darwinian approach to free market capitalism whereby the government takes a back seat to capitalism, providing only a limited, incentivized safety net for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Conservatives willingly accept a separation of classes based on economic effort success and failure.

Traditional Conservative American values include an emphasis on individual liberty – that is, minimal interference by the government in the lives of Americans (which also is the cornerstone of libertarianism) –, strict Constitutional constructionism with a balance of Federalism with States’ rights, and adherence to historical American values (marriage, sexuality and religion). A Conservative’s definition of national defense necessitates a globalist/internationalist approach to dealings with foreign countries, strong democratically-centered military alliances, and retention of a powerful armed forces with global reach.

Traditional American Liberalism argues for an active problem-solving role for government, rather than a laissez-faire one – that is, a more paternalistic, less Darwinian approach. To reduce inequality and protect civil liberties, Liberals believe in funding government programs that shrink class warfare differences, advocating higher, more progressive taxes to pay for those programs. Their Conservative colleagues prefer lower government spending and lower, flatter taxes. When it comes to government budgets, the difference between Liberals and Conservatives therefore is in the extent of funding and the level of taxation. Both are fans of balanced budgets and, historically, both have pursued Keynesian economic policies. With a modicum of effort, there has been and there clearly could be common ground between economic Conservatives and economic Liberals. The success of the bipartisan welfare compromise legislation of the 1990s confirms that this is so. It is only with unreasonable partisan politicking that common ground slips away … and compromise becomes a victim of politics.

Liberals emphasize individual rights – similar to Conservatives’ emphasis on individual liberty. While Conservatives define individual rights as, for example, the right to bear arms, Liberals use the same definition to support abortion and marriage rights. Both sets of beliefs rely on the same philosophical underpinnings.

Liberals differ from Conservatives in favoring a living Constitution over a strictly-construed one, arguing that this is the pragmatic approach to a changing world. The Supreme Court has grappled with this difference any number of times. The historical solution has varied with the balance of Justices on the Court. The best decisions have been those by Courts selected by Presidents from one Party with Senate majorities from the other Party, compromise creating a balanced and reasoned Supreme Court. Unbalanced Courts, of which there have been a number, over time regain their balance.
This is a part of the American democratic cycle.

Traditional American Liberalism has a long history of supporting a powerful, global American military. Liberal Democratic Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson were anti-isolationists, responsible for America’s involvements in Korea and Vietnam, and Conservative Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon (also anti-isolationists) for the peace treaties that followed. Until recently, there has been little to separate the foreign policies of truly Conservative and truly Liberal Presidents. As a result, America owes its foreign policy success to the consistent practices of both Parties’ Presidents.

That is, until recently. We all know how much things have changed.

Unfortunately, 21st Century invective dominates the airwaves, marginalizing traditional Conservatives and traditional Conservative programs … with the same effect on traditional Liberals. The currently-charged political climate enables extremists who falsely declare themselves true Conservatives or true Liberals. A mild example of Republican inventive that “Liberals are generous with other people’s money, except when it comes to questions of national survival” belies the reality. Liberals indeed have been generous with public money, but they also have been wedded to a strong national defense. Bill Clinton, with the active complicity of a Conservative, Republican majority in Congress, managed to build both a strong military and finance entitlements programs – and leave office with a balanced budget and a manageable, though increased, national debt.

There is much common ground to be found … but only if extremists at both ends of the political spectrum can be sidelined. Immigration policy over the past 75 years was not a source of contention between Conservatives and Liberals, Republicans and Democrats. It now is a polarizing issue that has created “sides.” While true Conservatives and true Liberals might agree that “Immigration without assimilation is invasion,” they also would agree that “E Pluribus Unum [one out of many] defines America.”


*┬® Copyright 2019 by William Natbony. All rights reserved.

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