What, exactly, IS a "conservative"?
We're seeing a lot of supporters of Paul Hinman dismissing Diane Colley-Urquhart as a "phony conservative". Meanwhile, PC supporters seem determined to paint Hinman as a "scary social conservative". Wildrose Alliance officials, for their part, are quick to point out that their party is a "fiscally conservative, socially moderate party" - which might be news to those vocal few among their supporters who are so quick to cry "moderate is another word for liberal!!!".
Moderate. Liberal. Conservative. Progressive. Red Tory. Blue Tory. These labels are supposed to make it EASIER for the voters to figure out what these candidates and parties stand for?
The catalyst for this post, though, was a post I read (and commented on) over at The Alberta Altruist, entitled "Calgary Glenmore How Conservative Is It?". It's a good question, and one with a lot of levels... in order to be a "conservative riding", do the voters in Glenmore need to be fiscal and social conservatives both? Or can you be a fiscal hawk and social moderate and still be called conservative? How about a social conservative who's cut from the tax-and-spend cloth? The conservative "coin" as we understand it has 2 sides - do they both need to come up "blue" to call someone a "real conservative"? Does it, in fact, only have 2 sides? Why aren't there "environmental conservatives", since environment is neither purely social NOR purely economic?
And even if you have all the answers to the paragraph above, what does it MEAN to be a "conservative", anyhow?
The root word, of course, is "conserve".
Conserve, from the Latin "conservare" (to strongly keep watch, to strongly maintain) - modern usage "to save for later use"; "to protect an environment".
So, right off the bat, we see that a "conservative" is someone who wants to protect and maintain things... in order to maintain something, it must be previously established, so we're probably looking at "traditional values, historic social institutions, and the environment". Plus fiscal policy, which we'll tackle at the end.
Not all traditional values, mind you, are necessarily worth protecting - and a lot of them will see modern "conservative" politicians running as fast as possible in the other direction - such as the subjugation of women, slavery, and paedophilia. All of these were accepted - and, depending on which part of the world you're looking at - even encouraged at some point. However in this more enlightened age, nobody (and I mean NOBODY) with any credibility at ALL would even THINK of accepting or encouraging that sort of garbage. So... just because it's how they thought a hundred or a thousand years ago doesn't NECESSARILY make it a "traditional conservative value". There are no legitimate conservative federal or provincial political parties that I know of who are in favour of any of those 3 examples - and yes, that includes subjugation of women. Stephen Harper does NOT have a secret plan to take away your right to choose and chain you to a stove-top. Stop it.
The "traditional values" that make up the foundation of "social conservatism", then, seem to be the values that western liberal (eek! There's that WORD!) democracies share: Respect for the rule of law, the sanctity of the family unit, the defence of individual liberties, and the absolute rule of democracy. The devil, of course, is in the details. Respect for the rule of law and individual liberties were tossed aside in defence of the state in the latter years of the conservative G.W. Bush presidency. The sanctity of the family unit is all fine and good, but what if MY family unit has 2 husbands and no wife? Most would agree this is hardly the family unit that most self-described social conservatives have in mind.
The democracy thing is a bit of a sticking point, too... many conservatives in this country want to overhaul the Senate of Canada, to make it more equitable to their own regions... and yet, the parties of the left want things to stay as they are. In effect, the conservatives are pushing for change, while the liberals defend the status quo, and our current democratic parliamentary system. So is democracy a purely conservative value? Does being in favour of free votes or fixed election dates make one a conservative by default? I submit it doesn't... which is a point that Preston Manning tried to make repeatedly while he and his party, founded on the simple principle that our system needed to change to ensure democratic fairness, were demonized as "conservative neanderthals".
It's important to note here, too, that being unable or unwilling to call one's self a "social conservative" does NOT, in fact, mean that you are fundamentally OPPOSED to social order, families, individual rights and the democratic process. It's not an "all or nothing" deal, despite what some of the "true believers" would have you think.
Historic social institutions are an interesting kettle of fish, particularly in Canada. Most "conservatives" in western democracies are republican - meaning, they prefer that the final executive power in their system of government lay in the hands of a person or persons whom have been elected by the people over whom they are ruling. In Canada, though, a sizable number - I'd submit, the majority - of conservatives prefer that we maintain our connections to the British Crown. This is another of the "moving targets" in conservative thought... in the early 1800's, to be a "conservative" meant that in all likelihood you wished for the maintenance or re-establishment of the rule of a monarch in your nation - that monarchy being an historic social institution. In the time since, democratic ideals have replaced monarchism as the social institution in much of the western world - indeed, an American conservative would scoff at the idea that his monarchist friend from Ontario be considered "conservative".
So, conservatives from different parts of the world are not necessarily all the same in their defence of social institutions, because those institutions are different depending on where you go. A conservative in British Columbia would be appalled at the institutions a conservative in Saudi Arabia would defend. A conservative in Manitoba would be considered a far-left wing-nut in Minnesota. And Barack Obama's "neo-soviet liberal heath-care policies", in the hands of a Canadian politician, would be called "draconian neo-conservative anti-medicare hog-wash".
And medicare, by the way, is the perfect Canadian example of the moving target that is "historical social institutions"... Medicare has been in place now for 43 years. At some point in the not-so-distant future, defence of Medicare is going to suddenly find itself listed on some anonymous blogger's manifesto of "conservative virtues", because Medicare itself will be an historic social institution. Like the monarchy. Or hating the Toronto Maple Leafs. Or the metric system. Something we can all bond over, from coast to coast.
The other "social institutions" that conservatives will generally tend to defend include: The nuclear family, resource-based industries, small business and agriculture, national unity, free trade, provincial economic autonomy, and Judeo-Christian faith-based values.
Again, the refusal to support ALL of the above-listed initiatives and institutions does not automatically exclude someone from being a "true conservative"... a conservative who has considered the issue and has decided he can not support free trade is not a liberal - he's a conservative who is against free trade. There are Muslim, pagan, and even atheist conservatives. There are conservatives who are also environmentalists. Which brings me to my next conservative litmus test...
Nation, no matter how you slice it, no matter how you define a conservative by their social stances or their fiscal ones, there's one issue that all conservatives should, by their very nature, agree on: Preservation and responsible use of the environment. Conservatives should, in effect, be conservationists.
You're a fiscal conservative? Great. Explain to me why we don't cut all the trees down at once - we'd make more money that way in the imeediate short-term, right? Even if you're a hardcore fiscal conservative, you have to accept that the best conservationists we've got in this country - our ranchers, farmers and foresters - are also some of the most devout conservatives. You CAN be both... you can value the economy AND ensure a sustainable environment at the same time. You can exploit natural resources without destroying the environment - and, if you take good care of the land, water and air, you can exploit those resources AGAIN at next year's harvest. Money, as they say, cannot be eaten.
You're a social conservative? Fantastic. Explain to me how poisoning the environment for future generations is a good, traditional, conservative value. Conservatives, after all, want to ensure that their children are given the opportunity to grow, learn and thrive. They need a healthy place to live in order to do that. We can "exercise our dominion" over the land, and the beasts, without poisoning the land and wiping out all the beasts. Remember: We have not inherited the world from our forefathers - we have borrowed it from our children.
Conservatives in Europe have already embraced the Green cause, and made it their own. Keeping the land and water clean, reducing waste, saving money on clean-ups, ensuring a healthy environment for future generations - those are considered conservative ideals in Europe. Conservatives on this side of the pond shouldn't hesitate to follow the parade, just because they're afraid of angering their resource-company donors. Are the big oil and energy dollars going to go to the "tax big businesses into the ground" crowd on the other side of the political spectrum?
It doesn't matter whether you agree that climate change is a man-made, or man-exacerbated, phenomena. It doesn't even matter if you still steadfastly refuse to stop calling it "global warming", even though the rest of us stopped using the term 10 years ago, since some areas are seeing a dramatic drop in temperature rather than a rise (a drop is just as bad). Argue the science all you want. Taking care of the ONLY planet we have access to, just makes good, conservative sense. You don't kill the Golden Goose. You don't eat a fish that you found dead in the lake. You don't drink downstream of the herd - or of the tailing pond. You don't crap where you eat.
What's more common-sense, more conservative, than that?
The last conservative pillar, or sub-classification if you like, is the "fiscal conservative". Now, in these tough economic times (tm), EVERYONE likes to fashion themselves as a "fiscal conservative". What does this fiscal conservatism actually entail? Well, in a general sense, it means you "try your best not to waste the taxpayers' money". This can be achieved through minimizing the government's involvement in the ownership of corporations or privitizing existing government assets, promoting efficiency and minimizing waste, going into defecit only as a last resort (and paying back the money PRONTO), and lessening the corporate and personal tax burden as far as possible.
As I said, this "fiscal conservatism" is the one pillar that everyone from every remotely conservative corner of the politisphere is clinging deperately to these days, trying to convince the voter that they are the best choice to not take more than they need from each paycheque, or spend more than is necessary, in the current economic climate. Indeed, to an outsider it seems that even the Alberta Liberals are fashioning themselves as a "fiscally conservative" party, forcing Albertans to choose between 3 parties all claiming to be fiscally conservative.
Of course, in this scenario, the only party that can be attacked on its record is the one that has held power - and, since the world's economy has gone into what Montogmery Scott would call the "waste extraction unit", the same policies that 4 years ago would have been "fiscally conservative" are now decried as "reckless tax-and-spend liberalism". The alternative, taken in the name of seeming to be a committed fiscal conservative, would be to dramatically cut the public workforce, making an already bad economic situation worse (adding 10,000-or-more people to the ranks of the unemployed for the sake of not having people call you names is hardly a responsible solution to an economic crisis).
So, where does this leave us?
The problem with these labels is that we can bestow them on ourselves, other can bestow them on us as compliments or condemnations, and they can exclude us from the labels for the same reasons... "he's no neo-con" can be a compliment, while "she's not a real conservative" can be meant as a reason NOT to vote for someone. "I'm a fiscal conservative" is impossible to prove without a voting record, and "I'm a social conservative" could mean anything from "I think the government has no place in the bedrooms of the country" to "I think we should bus all the homosexuals to Massachuesetts".
So, since anyone can call anyone else anything they like (it's called "free speech" - I exercise it a lot - A LOT, according the future Mrs. Savage, and contrary to the loud imaginings of a very vocal minority, no HRC has ever come to my door with a roll of duct tape), and it's almost impossible to prove who is right and who is wrong about the labels, of what value ARE they, truly?
What does it MEAN when you say someone "isn't a true conservative"? They don't like free trade? They buy their gas at Petro-Canada? They read daveberta?
As I understand it, the accusation that a person isn't a "true conservative" comes from the old definition of a "conservative" as marching in lock-step with the 2 pillars of conservatism: Fiscal conservatism, and social conservatism. Someone who wanders, in fact or in the other person's imaginings, from either can't be a "true blue conservative".
Being a "conservative" isn't like being a Roman Catholic, though. If you stray from the dogma or the teachings of the movement, a bishop can't simply appear and excommunicate you. Supporters of another party can't kick your party out of the conservative club, and supporters of another candidate can't declare that you aren't a conservative simply because they disagree with you. Well, they CAN, and they DO, but it's about as legitimate as "my dad can beat up your dad".
I'd propose, though, that just as the simple "left-right" axis of my grade-school social studies class is no longer relevant to the realities of a 3-dimensional political world, so too must the over-simplification of the "conservative" label as "social and fiscal" go the way of the dodo.
To this one mind, the mind of the Enlightened Savage, a Canadian conservative is someone who finds themselves agreeing with most, but not neccessarily ALL, of the following:
- Traditional values that make us a vibrant civilization should be respected and protected, including respect for the rule of law, respect for the sanctity of the family unit (however you define it), individual rights and freedoms so long as they don't infringe on the right of others to live in dignity, and the selection of our leaders through a transparent and fair democratic process.
- Historic social institutions that add to our quality of life or our sense of identity and self, such as social welfare, public education, a healthy and sustainable agricultural sector, universally accessible healthcare and equality of opportunity (but not necessarily outcome) should be maintained and strengthened, while encouraging the citizens of Canada to participate in the economy as consumers, employees, and employers.
- Responsible and sustainable economic development should be encouraged within the context of a clean and healthy environment. Recycling, limiting waste, promoting efficiency in consumption of fossil fuels and other resources, long-term planning, researching new energy and environmental technologies and protection of the water table should be priorities that effect not just our standard of living, but also our economy and our quality of life.
- Government fiscal policies should provide for a strong public service infrastructure through which the above can be implemented. Taxes collected from the citizenry are not government funds, but rather the trust of the people, and must be treated as such. Waste must be limited, and efficiency promoted. No more tax than is necessary should be collected, and excess taxes should be returned to the taxpayers. Short-term deficits should only be entered into as a last resort, and debts should be cleared as soon as possible (not as soon as convenient - as soon as possible).
If THOSE 4 points above were how we ALL agreed "conservative" was going to be defined... then I think we'd all have a much better idea about someone's policies when they called themselves a "conservative".
So... that's what *I* consider the "anatomy of a conservative".
How about YOU?
(hint: post a comment)