What is a Conservative?

Over the past several days, I have been pondering a question. It seems to be something of a “rabbit hole.”
What is a Conservative? What are the characteristics of a Conservative?
If one takes the definition from a dictionary it seems easy to understand: “Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.”

That has been the meaning for years. Abraham Lincoln observed: “What is conservativism? Is it not the adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?” Before Lincoln, Benjamin Disraeli commented that “Conservatism discards Prescription, shrinks from Principle, disavows Progress; having rejected all respect for antiquity, it offers no redress for the present, and makes no preparation for the future. ”

Woodrow Wilson opined that “A conservative is someone who makes no changes and consults his grandmother when in doubt.” Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned how to walk forward.”
“White collar conservative flashin’ down the street, pointing that plastic finger at me, they all assume my kind will drop and die, but I’m gonna wave my freak flag high.” Even Jimi Hendrix understood something about the conservative persona.

What then is a conservative? “To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” ― Michael Oakeshott. Bobby Kennedy uttered the now famous words “some people ask why, I ask why not?”

That, however, does not get at my unease with “conservatism” as we have come to know it. What we see today is something more than a desire to turn back the clock to a more familiar time. It is more than wanting to live with familiar instead of stepping out and exploring an unknown tomorrow.

I ran onto a quote from John W. Dean that begins to get at my concern. “Social conservatism and neoconservatism have revived authoritarian conservatism, and not for the better of conservatism or American democracy. True conservatism is cautious and prudent. Authoritarianism is rash and radical. American democracy has benefited from true conservatism, but authoritarianism offers potentially serious trouble for any democracy.” It is what now fills the vacuum between the old conservative movement and what we now have in the self-described conservative camp.

Alexis de Tocqueville spoke to the concern when he stated “I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.” His fear can be seen playing itself out in the revisionists movements today. “Change is not what we expect from religious people. They tend to love the past more than the present or the future.”― Richard Rohr

The natural conservatism of institutions is deeply rooted in the desire to survive, and that desire colors and limits the way they read the Bible and how they see God functioning in the world.” ― Michael Spencer. Two insightful comments.

It seems that we are not dealing with the conservatives of my parents time. No, we are dealing with a very different breed of human conjuring. The desire to rule not govern, the desire to reinvent social contracts with limitation clauses regarding the “undesirables”, as defined by those in control.

Authoritarianism was something I studied in college but never thought I would live to see it threaten the freedoms our Nation was built on.

Some, including myself, have used a worn out label – Fascism – to name these wannabe rulers. Call it what you will – but know it, understand it.
Resolve to defeat it!

Don Nelson


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