of a Conservative
May 2, 2003
By Ernest Partridge, The
Like a pending execution, the discipline of editing and writing
for a political website concentrates and focuses the mind.
And so, after a year and a half of writing and publishing
some fifty or so political articles for various progressive
websites, I have come to the startling conclusion that I
am a Conservative!
Now hold on a moment - don't touch that mouse! Hear me out!
This insight comes into focus as I explore the full implications
of Websters' definition of "Conservatism" - "preserving what
is established" and the "disposition to oppose change in established
institutions and methods."
According to this definition:
A Conservative cherishes and defends the founding documents
of the American Republic - the Declaration of Independence,
the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
Accordingly, a Conservative defends free expression
- in speech, the press, assembly - as guaranteed by the First
Amendment to the Constitution.
Additionally, a Conservative insists upon due process
and protection of the individual from excesses and abuses
of law enforcement. In particular, the Conservative opposes
"unreasonable searches and seizures" (Fourth Amendment), double
jeopardy, and self incrimination (Fifth Amendment), and "cruel
and unusual punishment (Eighth Amendment). In addition, the
Conservative affirms "the right to a speedy and public trial"
and the right to confront accusers and "to be informed of
the nature and cause of the accusation" (Sixth Amendment).
While respecting the doctrinal differences amongst religions,
the Conservative endorses "traditional values" that are
taught by all the great world religions: tolerance, mercy,
charity, compassion, moderation, peacemaking.
Conservatism vs. "conservatism"
I suspect that the reader might sense where all this is
There seems to be a disconnect between the Conservatism
here described (in part), and the program of a political faction
that chooses to call itself "conservative," but which I prefer
to call "right-wing" and "regressive."
For example, the Founders might look somewhat askance upon
the restriction of free expression evident today in the corporate
media, and upon the retaliation upon individuals who exercise
this right - individuals such as Phil Donahue, Tim Robbins,
Bill Maher, the Dixie Chicks, and other citizens who choose
to ignore Ari Fleischer's warning to "watch what they say."
Nor would the Founders be pleased to learn of the Justice
Department's violations of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth
Amendment rights of several American citizens - violations
upheld by "conservative" appellate judges.
About these clear and explicit violations of the founding
principles of our Republic, the (so-called) "conservatives"
are generally unperturbed. Moreover, the aforementioned "traditional
values" - tolerance, mercy, charity, compassion, moderation,
peacemaking - are not conspicuous in the behavior of many
self-described "conservative" individuals, nor in the policies
of the allegedly "compassionately conservative" Bush Administration.
But there is more, as we continue our list:
A Conservative believes in free markets and free enterprise,
and thus upholds anti-trust laws and various government regulations
designed to maintain free and open competition. The right
wing (self-described "conservatives"), on the other hand,
have no use whatever for "government interference" in big
business activity. Do they prefer "free enterprise" over monopolies?
Ask the founders of Netscape. Or ask the more than forty broadcast
corporations that have either been absorbed or forced out
of business by the remaining ten media mega-corporations.
(See Robert McChesney, The Global Media Giants, FAIR,
Channel). Unfortunately, as history testifies, free enterprise,
unregulated and unconstrained, tends naturally toward monopolies
- in other words the free market contains within itself the
seeds of its own destruction.
A Conservative believes in maximum personal liberty,
consistent with "like liberty" for all. (John Stuart Mill).
The right wing fails to appreciate that "maximum liberty"
for the wealthy, privileged and powerful, often infringes
upon the liberties of the less fortunate. Once again, "like
liberty" is protected by the rule of law, the right to vote
("consent of the governed"), and by legitimate popular government.
A Conservative is suspicious of "big government,"
and thus insists upon a separation of powers, a legislature
that represents the interests of the public rather than campaign
contributors, and restraint of government assaults upon personal
liberties along the lines prescribed by the Constitution and
the Bill of Rights.
Accordingly, a Conservative insists that it is not the
business of government to promote particular religions, or
to interfere in the private lives of citizens.
A conservative believes that it is the function of the
courts to interpret established law with due regard for legal
precedent (stare decisis). Nowhere in the Constitution
or in the body of law is the Supreme Court entitled to appoint
the President of the United States, nor is it permitted to
make law from the bench and then announce arbitrarily that
the decision of the Court "limited to the present circumstances,"
as was the case in Bush v. Gore (December 12, 2000).
A Conservative demands responsibility and accountability
- of persons, of corporations, of institutions, and of government.
There are no exceptions allowed for "well-placed individuals"
(e.g., Ken Lay, Dick Cheney), or firms (Enron and Global Crossing),
or governing administrations (regarding, for example, access
to information, fiscal responsibility, etc).
A Conservative opposes offensive and "pre-emptive" wars
- a sentiment unequivocally endorsed by George Washington,
who counseled against "unusual antipathies" toward other nations.
This is a sentiment fully endorsed by Jefferson, and Madison,
among other founders.
A Conservative is time-conscious - of history and its
bestowals, and of responsibility to future generations.
Thus a Conservative will not, through budgetary deficits and
through unsustainable environmental policies, mortgage and
despoil the future for the generations that follow.
A Conservative cherishes the legacy of the past - in
science, literature, the arts, and communal institutions -
and seeks to preserve them through education accessible to
all, and through public facilities such as museums, concerts,
libraries, and media. Thus a Conservative does not dismiss
science and learning when "inconvenient" to special interests,
or contrary to uninformed "gut feeling." Moreover, a Conservative
regards the burrning of library records and the looting of
museum collections as catastrophic losses to civilization,
and not merely "stuff" that "happens."
A Conservative respects language, as a means of encoding
knowledge and conveying information, and thus refrains
from distorting language in order to employ its as a tool
of manipulation, mendacity and evasion.
From this, and much more, it follows that the right wing
in general, and the Bush Administrations in particular, accord
themselves undeserved merit when they describe themselves
as "conservatives." In a word, most self-described "conservatives"
Is the Conservatism described above just another name for
libertarianism? I would suggest that this Conservatism is,
so to speak, a "semi-libertarianism." This Conservative endorses
the libertarians' insistence upon personal autonomy, privacy,
liberty and responsibility. However, when it comes to economic
and social applications, this Conservative parts company with
While the libertarian may claim endorsement of "the like
liberty principle," he fails to appreciate that his program
of radical personal autonomy and an unconstrained free market
leads to severe restrictions on the liberty of others. In
addition, the libertarian falsely regards a well-ordered society,
with shared values, civil peace and with an educated work
force, as a free gift to which nothing is owed in return for
its health and maintenance. (For a defense and elaboration
of these points, see my "The
New Alchemy," "With
Liberty for Some," "Perilous
Optimism," and "In
Search of Sustainable Values").
As many readers will have noticed, I have borrowed this
title "Conscience of a Conservative" from a book by (more
accurately, ghost-written for) the late Senator Barry Goldwater.
Shortly before his death, Goldwater commented to his successor,
John McCain, that today his views would be to the left of
the mainstream of the Republican party. In fact, I have many
disagreements with the political views that Goldwater held
during his active political life, though I much respected
his honesty and integrity. Goldwater's position could generally
be characterized as libertarian, and thus my agreements and
disagreements with him are generally parallel to those remarked
above, concerning libertarianism. If his views, and even more
his character, were reflected in the Republican party today,
the political debates would be lively and productive, but
much more important, we would once again enjoy the civility
and sense of public service and responsibility that are essential
to good government.
What then of Liberalism? If this account of Conservatism
is essentially correct, then the polar opposition of Liberalism-Conservatism
is no longer tenable. By and large, both Liberals and Conservatives
(properly so-called, as above) are natural allies, as Conservatives
defend the historical, institutional and moral basis upon
which the Liberals might seek to improve conditions today,
and aspire to a better tomorrow.
That being so, authentic Conservatives and liberals can
and must join together in common opposition to "the far right"
- that malignant political ideology that dishonors the past,
despoils the present. and leaves a ruined and bankrupt wasteland
for the future.
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer
in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He
publishes the website, The
Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website, The