“Can I still call myself conservative?”

Simplistic labels can be problematic when applied with the complexities of both human nature and politics are involved.

What sort of person calls themselves a conservative?

How conflicted are they? Ask those who supported Colin Craig and his Conservative Party in New Zealand, or Roy Moore in the recent election in Alabama in the USA.

In a column at NY Times Bret Stephens asks: Can I still call myself conservative?

The answer depends on your definition.
Here’s one I’ve always liked: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” said the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. To which he added: “The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
Conservatives used to believe in their truth. Want to “solve” poverty? All the welfare dollars in the world won’t help if two-parent families aren’t intact. Want to foster democracy abroad? It’s going to be rough going if too many voters reject the foundational concept of minority rights.

And want to preserve your own republican institutions? Then pay attention to the character of your leaders, the culture of governance and the political health of the public. It matters a lot more than lowering the top marginal income tax rate by a couple of percentage points.

What is ‘a conservative’? It depends on how it is applied – in general or as a political leaning, or as a member of a political party.
Oxford defines it:

1 Averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values.

‘they were very conservative in their outlook’

So theoretically someone who held on the traditional socialists  values and was averse to change could be described as conservative.

1.1 (of dress or taste) sober and conventional.

‘a conservative suit’

Again that could apply to anyone across the political spectrum. James Shaw dresses quite conservatively (as do just about all male MPs and most female MPs in the New Zealand Parliament).

2 (in a political context) favouring free enterprise, private ownership, and socially conservative ideas.

That combines two distinctly different attributes. Someone who favours free enterprise and private ownership may not have socially conservative ideas. Roger Douglas and David Lange’s government from the 1980s were quite radical in the way they introduced free enterprise and private ownership policies, and were supposedly a left wing government.

‘Conservative’ can be applied as a description of someone’s specific opposition to change, but as a political label I think it’s far too fuzzy to be very useful.

And at times it is quite contradictory – Craig’s and Moore’s behaviour was at odds with their conservative label. Leader of the Conservative Party British Theresa May acted unconservatively in calling for an ill-fated snap election, and the UK exit from the European Union is not conservative, it will mean a large amount of change for the UK.

Specific behaviour can be described as conservative. Views on a specific policy can be conservative – I have more conservative views on law and order (in particular sentencing) and the use of binding referenda than Craig’s Conservative Party.

But anyone who labels themselves a ‘Conservative’ will soon find their ideals compromised. Much like a ‘Socialist’ would, especially in a country like New Zealand where most political views tend to be quite moderate – a pragmatic blend of conservatism, socialism and a few other isms.

I see myself as conservative in some ways, for example I willingly and happily got married – but as it was my second marriage after the first became practically untenable some conservative people may frown.

Maybe I could agree with one label – antilabelism.


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  1. artcroft

     /  2nd January 2018

    Burke said something like “A conservative is a person with a disposition to preserve the best married to an ability to improve the rest “. It always sounded good to me.

    • I like that one better artcroft.

      I feel the descriptions in this piece are too narrow. I have always called myself a liberal. I realise now that it is on the classic sense and that modern liberalism is quite something else.

      I feel that like ‘Progressive’ it’s a word that has been been hijacked and it’s context changed to embrace a newly risen emboldened left through compliant and agreeable media bias. This leftism/new liberalism is varied, the US ( more modern liberal)and Euro models ( more Marxist model) diverge at a number of points, but there are some importance central tenets that tend to frame the millennial influence..

      Liberal cultural views are the binding threads among millennials ( after 1980s) and they are obviously the future. They have no truck with anti-gay, racist messaging and they embrace diversity, even normalise it. Campuses worldwide reinforce this and the divide that most rears it’s head now is that young people don’t understand that tolerance means sitting back and gritting your teeth while people you believe are hateful say hateful things. In the USA it’s clear that the first amendment means something quite different to them than it does to an older generation. This holds across the ditch with countries like Germany bringing in and enacting stringent anti-hate laws.

      Just reinforcing artcroft definition then. Never been one to throw the baby out with the dishwater.

    • adamsmith1922

       /  2nd January 2018


    • Blazer

       /  2nd January 2018

      This definition is better…a Conservative is someone who adores the status quo,someone who has learned to pretend that,they actually have ..emotions.

    • Patzcuaro

       /  2nd January 2018

      Sounds more like the definition of a liberal.

      • Gezza

         /  2nd January 2018

        The meaning of the term “Liberal” is so confused it’s meaningless, imo. It has complete opposite definitions.


        A supporter of liberalism, a political philosophy founded on ideas of liberty and equality

        Classical liberalism, a political or social philosophy advocating the freedom of the individual, parliamentary systems of government, nonviolent modification of political, social, or economic institutions to assure unrestricted development in all spheres of human endeavor, and governmental guarantees of individual rights and civil liberties

        Conservative liberalism, a variant of liberalism, combining liberal values and policies with conservative stances, or, more simply, representing the right-wing of the liberal movement

        Economic liberalism, the ideological belief in organizing the economy on individualist lines, such that the greatest possible number of economic decisions are made by private individuals and not by collective institutions

        Social liberalism, the belief that liberalism should include social justice and that the legitimate role of the state includes addressing issues such as unemployment, health care, education, and the expansion of civil rights

        Liberal, an adherent of a Liberal Party

        Liberal democracy, a form of government based on limited majority rule

        Liberal Democratic Party, a common name for political parties around the world

        Liberalism (international relations), a theory of international relations based upon co-operation and mediation rather than power politics

        European liberalism

        In the U.S., the term liberalism can refer to either of the following:
        Modern liberalism in the United States, the contemporary manifestation of the ideology



  2. sorethumb

     /  2nd January 2018

    Johnathon Haidt says conservatives and liberals are like yin and yang but [because of the Gramscian tactics of the left ] conservatives have been purged from humanities and social sciences.


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