What Does It Mean to Be Conservative?

For better or worse (mainly worse) when it comes to working American theories of government there are two lines of thought that have dominated the political arena.*

One of these belief systems is tied to the Republican Party, but as this election has demonstrated in painful detail, people are at odds over what being a conservative Republican actually means.

I’ve written before that political loyalty is more determined by personality than chosen intellectual beliefs. With this in mind, I’ve broken down what we typically mean when we describe someone as conservative using the umbrellas of culture, practice, and ideals.

What being conservative means culturally:

  • Christian (or religious)
  • Morally traditional
  • Higher income bracket
  • Typically reside in less urban areas

What being conservative means practically:

  • Supporting gun rights
  • Support of a large military
  • Oppose gay marriage and abortion
  • Skeptical of political feminism
  • Oppose illegal immigration

What being conservative means ideally:

  • believing the government should leave people alone with their bad selves

Here’s the official definition of conservatism  according to Merriam Webster’s:

  • belief in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society
  • dislike of change or new ideas in a particular area

Paul Shlichta,  writing for American Thinker, puts it this way:

  • Conservatism – all men are equal but not necessarily good
  • Liberalism – all men are good but not necessarily equal

I asked the Twittersphere what they thought being conservative meant. Here are a few responses:

Nowhere is this desire for a return to the way things were more evident than the Republican Presidential candidate’s slogan. His entire campaign is based on the belief that America needs to return to a lost state of greatness.

This nostalgic desire for a distant past is practically inseparable from the modern Christian perception of original sin.* The conservative struggle to return America to a former state of greatness mirrors the current Christian understanding of fallen, sinful humans trying to get back to a perfect God.

This election has helpfully boiled down this narrative and clarified what conservatives truly value by highlighting what they are willing to compromise. Morals have become less important than strong, vocal opposition to liberal opponents. It appears that conservatives are willing to compromise on abortion, gay marriage, and international trade policies as long as they maintain the right to free speech and can prevent immigrants from entering the country.

The contradictions between what conservatives claim to believe in and the realities they vote for makes it difficult for someone like me—young, trying to make informed political decisions—to align herself with them. As a group, conservatives currently stand for nothing but dissatisfaction with the current form of government. This stance does little to differentiate them from liberals who are also extremely unsatisfied with the government.

As an ideal, conservatism rests on a hesitation to place too much trust in the government. It’s an ideal that makes a lot of sense to me, but I’m hesitant to prioritize voting for an ideal rather than a reality. American conservatism in practice is a hot mess I want little to do with. I’m wary of the contradictions and mindless outrage it encourages.

What I find most depressing about all of this is our apparent inability to change. A tenet of both conservative and liberal theories is ensuring freedom—of course, the details of this are drastically different on both sides, but most would agree that a crucial part of this freedom is choosing a political belief system in the first place.

But if our political associations are indeed motivated primarily by innate personality traits, then this foundational choice is nothing but a mirage. I have a natural tendency to trust my own conscience and question authority. It’s a personality trait that also leads me to distrust government institutions. Accepting this natural tendency as the foundation for my political beliefs means I don’t have to assess these sociologies honestly. It also means there’s little reason to worry about changing people’s minds because the political party that can attract the most common personality traits will win regardless of the strength of their political platform. I find this unacceptable, but just because it’s unacceptable doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

In my next post I’ll be looking at what it means to be liberal. Got thoughts? Comment below or send them to thinkcuriouser@gmail.com.

*There’s many more complex and nuanced political theories that get less attention for a lot of reasons, one of the most interesting being that the most partisan are also the most outspoken

*It’s important to acknowledge that this is the current Christian perspective, but is certainly not the only historical view Christians have taken


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