The Word Conservative is Meaningless

I hate the word conservative. The word is meaningless these days as it means wildly different things to different people. People will call themselves conservative and honestly, I am not even sure what they mean by it anymore.

Ask some and the words conservative/Republican are synonymous. If you are a Republican, you are inherently conservative politically. It doesn’t matter what you actually believe, you are part of a certain segment politically and therefore part of a certain “team.”

For some, conservative means agreeing with Donald Trump about everything. That means you are a conservative if you fall into the category of hardcore Trump fan. Because to those who hold this belief, everything Trump says is red meat conservatism for the movement.

For some, conservative means generally supporting limited government, gun rights, and “traditional values” views on social issues. This means supporting low taxes, pro-life legislation, freer access to guns, and opposition to same-sex marriage.

For some, conservative means they are supportive of widespread modifications to the government to limit federal power, return power to the states, and focus entirely on fiscal issues.

For some, conservative means being George W. Bush.

For some, conservative means being militantly anti-illegal immigration and sometimes being militantly anti-immigration in general. See Buchanan, Pat.

The truth is, in the end, when you look at the root of the word, conservative should have a different meaning. To support conservative views is to support slowness to change. You are trying to conserve something, generally traditional type of governance or, in other words, the status quo. Wild and major changes should not be part of a conservative viewpoint. That stance should be the path of least resistance – doing less to ensure things don’t change. The way things currently operate tends to work, from this perspective, and to propose massive changes will upset the apple cart and cause unforeseen ripple effects. That’s actually a definition of conservative from a very literal perspective.

What does that mean pragmatically? A conservative in this sense would not want to overturn the ACA as there are unforeseen consequences to that and so we must keep things as they are. A conservative would be opposed to major changes to military procedures as the way they currently operate seems to work. They would have opposed repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because they wanted to study it before doing so to ensure the change was done slowly, methodically, and without causing major unforeseen impacts. A conservative would be generally opposed to major spending hikes, but also major spending cuts until they could adequately understand all the potential impacts. They would be slow to change and quick to say “Hold on, let’s talk this over and really study this issue further.” William F. Buckley, the American right-leaning pundit, referred to conservatism by saying, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” That’s the definition I’d go by to call someone a conservative.

The problem is, as I’ve stated up front, that everyone has a different definition. So, let’s stop with this and go back to basics. If you are opposed to major changes and would rather we slow down or stop entirely, then you’re conservative. If you are not, then let’s use a different term.

Say you believe in small government. Say you are pro-life or pro-choice. Say you are mostly libertarian. Say you believe in strict enforcement of immigration laws. Admit that you think everything Trump says is right and that’s your political stance. Let’s define ourselves a bit more specifically because the word conservative these days is entirely meaningless.


Note: The word liberal is equally meaningless. The term liberal in a literal sense means to be open to new ideas and to support maximized freedom, liberty, and equality for each person. However, the same issue holds true as with conservative. Liberal to some can mean anything from libertarian to generic Democrat to socialist to communist to anti-Republican to Bernie Sanders. I hate the way we change political terms to meet our own political agendas. Let’s stop doing it and just be honest about people’s viewpoints…

About the Author

Matthew Newman

Matthew Newman is a Christian environmental engineer (Professionally licensed in Maryland). He’s also a husband, beard aficionado, Dad of four beautiful children, blogger, and all around geeky guy from Baltimore County. When he’s not chasing his kids or working, he’s probably asleep.

4 Comments on "The Word Conservative is Meaningless"

  1. How I’ve understood the two terms is that “conservatives” want to limit, i.e. conserve, the government’s involvement in people’s lives, while “liberals” want the government to be more, uh, liberal in their use of power to help people out. Granted, my knowledge of the intricacies of politics and my desire to acquire such knowledge are effectively zero so I fully admit I could be completely wrong on this.

    But yeah, the words get misused pretty badly. Honestly I feel like all political labels are pretty junk; they slap a blanket over a given person’s beliefs without considering the various nuances in their thoughts on a multitude of subjects.

    • Matthew Newman | July 28, 2017 at 3:44 pm | Reply

      And that sometimes turns into the definition. However, it all falls apart as people call folks like Hillary Clinton conservative for not being adequately “liberal” per their definition or John McCain liberal for not being adequately “conservative” per their definition. It’s where terms like RINO come from. The truth is we’re all a grand mix of views and very few of us are purely one thing or another. And the way we throw around the terms, usually insultingly, is draining.

  2. I blame postmodernism and the ideology behind neoliberalism for this ‘words mean whatever I want them to mean’ trend. It makes discussing anything nearly impossible as this ideology says my internal truth is just as true as anyone else’s truth, until I’m confronted with theirs…then mine is always right. What was an annoying philosophical school has run wild to the point that words are undefinable now, and the social mindset of extreme individualism branded as progressiveness is making any kind of consensus reality impossible. Ugh.

    Actually my desire to actually know what we are talking about and make sure we are working from the same definition is probably why I’ve had socialists/leftists on the internet call me a conservative! Even though Marxism is meant to be materialist. Truly every camp has fallen victim.

    In any case, as always I appreciate your political posts and ability to deploy logic and critical thinking when it seems to be largely out of fashion in politics and everywhere else.

    • Matthew Newman | July 28, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Reply

      Thanks for the response. I try to come across this as pragmatically as I can.

      And you are right on a lot of this. A big problem is that a person’s ideology becomes so intertwined with being a part of a “team” that those on the “other team” must be awful, evil, or bad. This assumption that people who disagree with you are the enemy is making politics so much worse. I’ve seen so many kind, insightful, and intelligent people burned out by this side of politics and when the good people leaving – it only leaves the scum who love this nonsense and perpetuate it further.

      When we talk to each other and are willing to disagree without being disagreeable, we get a lot further.

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