Is a conservative just a liberal who’s been mugged?
Did I get your attention? Get you on your guard? The boldface sentence above is one that has been quoted for years as a flippant way of “explaining” how one group becomes converts to the other. Young, carefree people, with their implicit disregard for their own mortality, are liberals. They believe that people are usually good at heart, and that most want to share in the bounty of the world with those less fortunate. A mugging (or some equally unpleasant intrusion by “reality”) snaps them out of it. They henceforth recognize that they are in a dangerous, unequal, Darwinian world, and that no paradise of equality and brotherhood is imminent. They therefore come to their senses and become conservatives, the better to preserve their wealth and their place in society. so, it becomes a natural thing for people to become more conservative as they age or become more prosperous.
Alternatively, as many of us were taught in school during the 1950’s and 60’s, the difference between the two groups was one of interpretation. Faced with the task of maintaining government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” and following the Constitution, in every decision, every dilemma, and every draft of every new law or government program, each group, followed a sort of paradigm. In each case the individual asked him/herself one of two questions.
1. Does the Constitution say I can do this?
2. Does the Constitution prohibit my doing this?
Those who preferred to govern by question 1 were conservatives. Those who governed by question 2 were liberals. Isn’t that simple? Well…actually, no, it was never quite that simple, but it served to delineate Franklin Roosevelt as a liberal, vowing to use every power explicit or implicit in his oath and description of office to confront the horrors of the Depression and World War II, while Herbert Hoover and his unshakeable belief in the invisible hand of the free market and a cautious hand on the tiller, as a conservative.
Fast forward a few decades, to the era of Richard Nixon (whose influence seems destined to outlast not only him but everyone who was alive when he flourished), who saw an opportunity for branding, even before that term was widely used. His domestic opponents, the primarily anti-war crowd but also others who came down on the wrong (from his viewpoint) side of just about any issue were liberals, people who upset the equilibrium of large segments of American society by forcing racial integration onto the society at large, or questioning the morality, or indeed, the utility of the Vietnam War. (Don’t raise your hand, I know the original escalation of US involvement in Vietnam came under Democratic administrations. Nixon’s painted opposition to it as disreputable at best…thus fudging loyalty to the President with loyalty to the country, and protest with something nearly treasonous.) So, when the President called you a liberal, you were demeaned.
So, by extension and repetition in the intervening decades, “liberal” became nearly a curse word, and by contrast, those who thought of themselves as “conservatives” were the self-appointed guardians of the American way. Modern political campaigns are based largely on the theme of not letting anyone else define your candidate; the conservatives did a much better job of seeing the advantage in self-definition. You almost never hear one candidate sneeringly defining his opponent as a conservative, while calling an opponent a liberal is meant to get the villagers and their pitchforks marching.
In 2015, “conservatives” largely are people who deny science to claim climate change is an elaborate hoax; clamor for more domestic surveillance in the name of national security; endlessly predict the imminent end of Social Security; claim that “free trade” will cure all that ails the economy; and damn any effort to raise the minimum wage because it will “kill jobs.” There are many more examples. So, liberals, with the exception of Bernie Sanders, cringe for fear of being labeled, the more progressive of the two major parties seems bent on nominating for president a centrist with way too many Wall Street ties, and “conservatives” work tirelessly for the goals of people like Grover Norquist (taxophobia); the Koch brothers (drill, baby, drill); unhinged, harsh evangelicals like Mike Huckabee (who proudly supported that poor stage prop of a county clerk in Kentucky to insinuate he would stop America’s slide into depravity); the “fortress America” crowd who think we can kill for peace; and others. Herbert Hoover, I think, would be embarrassed. Though he died unrepentant about the Great Depression, since in his mind, the Constitution left him powerless to do much about it, and he did not cause it directly, he believed strongly that it would end without government intervention. Being unrealistic is not a sin, and advising people that they are always in danger from a political party is not a very honorable tactic. These are not virtues, either.