Everyone’s got an opinion on what’s wrong with American politics today. Talk radio’s to blame, or maybe the internet. Definitely, the other guy is to blame, every time. But what if the problem is that we just don’t know much anymore?
Sounds crazy: We live in an age where we have more information at our fingertips than ever before. But the more I look around, the more it seems like we don’t even understand what words mean, starting with the definitions of the two most basic political viewpoints: Conservative and liberal.
The meanings of these two words were fairly stable over the past century. To be conservative meant one was skeptical of abrupt change — when the world lurched forward, you tried to pump the brakes. It didn’t necessarily mean that one was opposed to change, but rather that one wanted to slow change down a little, make sure that it would actually improve things.
Conservatism meant that you held tradition dear, believed in institutions. You believed it was important to do the best you could with what you had, to, yes, conserve. It meant you believed in individual responsibility, but the inherent strength found in a community. You believed a good leader was one who governed from a place of moral authority. You believed America was, is and would always be a “City on a Hill.”
To be liberal meant that you were open to more rapid change, and willing to blow past traditional values if it helped to foster individual liberty. It meant that you favored freer trade, but believed that government could be the solution to many of society’s problems. You believed in more democracy, and not less; expanding freedoms for everyone.
Neither perspective was bad; I’d argue both are inherently good — and that you really can’t have one without the other. Real conservatives need liberals to keep pushing the envelope a little bit. And real liberals know they need conservatives to stay grounded.
The two perspectives aren’t just complementary; they’re symbiotic. In my decidedly amateur view, it’s why politicians of both parties used to be able to better get along with each other outside of Congress. They deeply believed in their worldview, but understood how necessary their opposites were.
Up through the 1960s, these definitions more or less held, and you found liberals and conservatives in both major political parties. By the 1990s, you found few “liberal” Republicans, and few “conservative” Democrats. And it seems to be about that time that the words themselves started to lose meaning.
At the national level, both parties seem to have adopted the traditionally liberal idea of rapid change. National health care would be a large departure from our norm, but so is restricting immigration to a trickle. Pushing completely away from fossil fuels is an enormous change, but so is an abrupt departure from renewables.
So much of what we call liberal and conservative today bears little resemblance to what those words mean, and we’re all worse off for it. A great many of our neighbors buy into reactionary beliefs as being liberal or conservative, when really, they’re neither. Vladimir Putin recently declared liberalism “obsolete.” Conservatism, by its traditional definition, is essentially dead at the national level. We’ve traded worldviews for parties, ideas for tribes.
The only hope, really, is in local politics. In Wood County, we’re lucky to have some real-life conservatives and honest-to-God liberals still around — people who seem to understand the necessary give-and-take between two decent, honorable viewpoints. The reactionary, doctrinaire, absolute party loyalty creeps in from time to time, but doesn’t rule the day here, yet. Let’s make sure it doesn’t.