Gadfly Bytes -- April, 2002
Conscience of a Conservative
By Ernest Partridge
We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more
perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility,
provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and
secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do
ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of
Preamble to the US Constitution.
Conservatism: The practice of preserving what is established;
disposition to oppose change in established institutions and
Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary
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
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,
Conservative endorses “traditional values” that are taught by all the
great world religions: tolerance, mercy, charity, compassion,
Conservatism vs. “conservatism”
I suspect that the reader might sense where all this is leading.
There seems to be a disconnect between the
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
Nor would the Founders be pleased to learn of the “Justice
Department’s” violation 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,
Global Media Giants,
Media Matters). 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
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.
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,
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
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” aren’t..
Is the Conservatism described above just another name for
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 the libertarian. 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
Liberty for Some,”
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.
Copyright 2003, by Ernest Partridge