Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What’s in a Name?

Here is another confusing thing that happened to me as a student in France.

For some reason the teacher of my Spanish class was talking to us about the French Revolution. Since I was the only American in the class, she was interested in my take on it. I shrugged (a Gallic habit I had picked up) and stated what I thought was the obvious, that the rise of Napoleon as emperor was essentially an undoing of the French Revolution. France had traded a monarchy for a republic and then for another monarchy.

The teacher seemed totally surprised by this. What I hadn’t yet grasped was that the French believed—or were taught to believe—that Napoleon was actually the fulfillment of the revolution, that he was the man on a white horse who had risen to save the country. It didn’t seem to matter that he wore a crown, the same as Louis XVI.

History is full of bait-and-switch political movements, i.e. leaders and parties who promise something new and then deliver the same old stuff with a different face.

Last week I traced the history of the word “liberal” and attempted to figure out how the word went from its original meaning to its current one. The next question is why this happened.

Why did people who were essentially advocating major government involvement in the economy twist and torture the language to apply the word liberal to themselves—when their ideas were the exact opposite of what “liberal” had meant up until that time? Since I wasn’t there, I can only guess. But my guess is that the word liberal, which embodied personal liberty, had a very positive connotation and that it was easier to sell an idea if you could attach a popular label to it. It is the sort of linguistic jiu-jitsu normally associated with George Orwell.

But let’s get back to the question I ended with last week. Has the word “conservative” gone through a similar evolution as the word “liberal”? After all, the original meaning of conservative in England was someone who steadfastly defended traditional institutions like the monarchy, the Church of England and the British Empire. What is the relevance of the word in America, where there is neither a monarchy nor a state church?

In the American version of conservatism, the Constitution is the institution that is defended. A conservative will argue that the Constitution should always be consulted and followed as literally as possible. Amplifications, as provided by court interpretations, are to be discouraged—except for ones that enforce particular social values that the particular conservative endorses.

The problem with generalizing about conservatives is that they—no more or less than modern liberals—come in a wide array of flavors. You have your so-called paleoconservatives, who tend to be seen as nativist and isolationist; your neoconservatives, who favor active intervention abroad; your social conservatives, who are focused on issues like traditional marriage and abortion; and fiscal conservatives, who mainly just want the federal budget balanced. To confuse things further, libertarians—who just want the government to do the least possible—also tend to get lumped in with conservatives.

I am old enough to remember when both the Democratic and Republican parties each had conservative and liberal wings. Sometimes individual politicians transcended political boundaries all by themselves. You could have a Democrat who was for expensive social programs but wanted a strong military or a Republican who wanted to balance the budget but also have strong civil rights and environmental laws.

Today the two parties are obviously more polarized than they used to be. Yet there are still spectrums of opinions within each of them—even though each side does its best to paint the other as monolithic and extreme. But the spectrums are now mainly contained, respectively, within the left and right ends of political thought. On the Democratic side, the “wings” basically break down into specific advocacy groups: labor unions, civil rights groups, environmentalists, feminists and ivory tower academics advocating more centralized government.

In a way, the central political battle today is still the same one that was being fought in the 18th century. How much authority and control will the government (then a monarch and/or church, now a rather large federal administration with ever-growing spy technology and coercive power over its citizens) have versus how much liberty will the individual have? Whichever side you choose, it is essentially a leap of faith—either in the benevolence of those in power or in the behavior of individuals.

Either way, it is faith in the individual and distrust of a powerful government that make some within the conservative spectrum think (probably correctly) that they are now the true liberals, in the classical sense of the word.

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