Mists of mystification: The confusing words “conservative” and “liberal” often mean the opposite of what they seem to.

“The enemy isn’t conservatism. The enemy isn’t liberalism. The enemy is bullshit.” Lars-Erik Nelson

There is a major political divide between those who commonly label themselves “conservatives” and “liberals.” Barry Goldwater had a fairly clear vision of conservatism that has been largely lost. He defined it as “economic, social, and political practices based on the successes of the past.” He wrote that the conscience of a conservative was “pricked by anyone who would debase the dignity of the individual human being.” He later said he should have said, “pricked by anyone or any action that debases human dignity.” When asked, “Doesn’t poverty debase human dignity?” he replied, “Of course it does,” and added that “If family, friends, and private charity cannot handle the job, the government must.” Finally, he said, “Politics is the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order”—an almost perfect statement of an “individual libertarian” outlook. (That perspective is defined below.)

“Liberals,” as the word was typically used in the 20th century, trust reason and intellect to find new solutions to problems that old solutions have not dealt with well. They emphasize compassion, kindness, decency, equality of opportunity, political equality, and the welfare of ordinary working people. They are more inclined to support government action to realize positive social goals than conservatives, with special emphasis on eliminating discrimination against people who are poor or different from the majority. They tend to be more suspicious of big corporations than of big government, and favor government regulation to protect people’s health and well-being. (Oddly enough, in the 19th Century, “liberal” meant just the opposite—it meant those who favored big business dominance and government support for big business over working people.) “Progressives” have a lot in common with liberals, but are more likely to oppose foreign wars and to try to defend Earth’s ecosystems against pollution and dissolution.

In recent decades those labels have become so misleading that I use them only with quotation marks. The quotation marks mean, “Don’t believe almost anything you think this label means.” My dictionary defines conservative as “holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation.” It defines liberal as “Open to new behavior or opinions and favoring maximum individual liberty in political and social reform.” But these days those definitions often get turned upside down. In my region, many “liberals” tend to want to keep the towns and countryside pretty much as they have been, while many “conservatives” bulldoze every living thing to bare earth and build huge new suburbs and business and shopping developments—in other words, they make radical changes. The “liberals” are more likely to be content with modest lifestyles, while the “conservatives” are more likely to build palatial homes and multiple very pricey vacation retreats and spend lavishly on upscale cars. It’s just plain crazy to speak of those who are maiming ecosystems as “conservative,” and equally crazy to label those who are trying to stop that damage as “liberal” or “radical,” because the very opposite is true: Those who are trying to protect the good health of an ecosystem are acting conservatively, and those wanting to change it quickly and in large-scale ways are acting radically. The explanation, of course, is that by “conservative,” people often mean conserving their privileges, wealth, and status –or their knee jerk ideologies– rather than conserving real things in the world.

The Keystone XL pipeline is an example. It would carry oil 1,700 miles from Canadian tar sands (the most environmentally destructive, climate-hostile of all methods of oil extraction)—is that itself “conservative?”) from the facilities of multinational corporations that own the rights to extract the oil to a refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, which would export much of it\. It would not even help solve the U.S. energy problem. Who opposed the pipeline? Above all, farmers and ranchers in Nebraska and neighboring states afraid that pipeline leaks would pollute the precious Ogallala aquifer (vital for drinking water and agriculture) and oppose the U.S. government seizing their land and giving it to a Canadian oil consortium. To me that’s pretty conservative. But Shell oil, Valero oil, Exxon-Mobil, Koch Industries, the French oil company Total, and the Saudi Arabian government tried to paint themselves as the “conservatives” in that contest, and paint the farmers and ranchers as the radicals. Those companies spent about 37 times more supporting the pipeline than was spent by citizens who opposed it. It’s an airtight case that the oil companies were really the wild screaming radicals in that contest. (Kudos to President Obama for vetoing XL and to the thousands of citizens who pressed him to do so, from withholding campaign contributions to demonstrating on the White House lawn, where hundreds were arrested.) Similarly, Valero and another Texas oil company, Tesoro, tried to hoodwink California voters into passing a 2010 ballot measure that would have scrapped that state’s strongest law preventing air pollution. There also, calculated misuse of the “C” word turns everything upside down.

“Conservative” may mean conserving old vested interests, beliefs, attitudes, and habits. It is less often applied to conserving practices that protect and enhance people’s freedom, equality, and opportunity. Too bad.

With “liberal” we need to ask, “liberate what, or whom?” “Liberalize what restrictive rules, laws, or procedures? (That’s often important to business, and is a first-rate idea when the restrictions are not really protecting anything or anybody.) With “progressive,” the questions are “progress toward what? In what ways?” The term can be used for progressing in directions that neither you nor I would like at all. In that context it is as meaningless as “reform.” For instance, we could “progress” toward a more lenient or a more restrictive immigration policy. Many “social liberals” favor the former, while many “liberal environmentalists” favor the latter. The generic labels do not tell us much. And there is the additional confusion that until the Twentieth Century, “liberal” meant allowing big business unlimited power, both domestically and in international affairs. In the latter case, that included access to the armed forces to further its agendas.
For the most part I find all these terms to be conceptual toxic waste that leaves people confused and befuddled about the realities that underlie them. I prefer to bury them and be much more specific and precise in our thinking, discussion, and action.


• Be very suspicious of these and other vague generalities and metaphors. Often such terms are meant to trigger conditioned emotional responses that short – circuit direct awareness and critical and creative thinking. Instead, we can speak more precisely, so that people respond to specific concrete events and policies instead of emotionally charged, knee-jerk, muddleheaded catchphrases that lump disparate items together.

• Develop a nose for bullshit, even when it is consistent with your inclinations. For starters, be on your toes for blatant contradictions. For instance, “’Senator Schmucko will lead the fight against big government spending and taxes, and he’ll protect your security by voting to build twelve new aircraft carriers and thirty new nuclear submarines.”

• Warren Buffett’s remark about integrity applies to the politicians we hire to be our legislators and presidents as well as to businesspersons. Richard Nixon was an example of a brilliant man who lacked integrity. Had he developed that quality in himself, he could have been an excellent president. We need to put the element of character high on our list when we elect people to public office at all levels.

This blog is lifted and slightly retwritten from The Radical Wrong . . . Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln & Others Refute Right – Wing Extremists. (There are a number of free downloads at the site, and you can get the whole thing as an e-book for $4.24 to $4.95. )

Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. . . The means of defense against foreign danger have become the instruments of tyranny at home. If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy. –James Madison