A few first thoughts on the meanings of liberal (really liberalism) and conservative.

The present time is, as Francis Fukuyama has argued convincingly, the end of history and the triumph of liberalism. And he might have said, given the triumph of liberalism, really a kind of liberal democracy, that the left/right, liberal/conservative and other such divisions are no longer valid, and that the world is coming together at the center.

Now there are those, perhaps even a majority of the literate citizens of the world, who don’t swear by what I now choose to call the triumvirate of liberalism: free trade, individual liberty, and the Rule of Law. One of those who doesn’t swear, at least about this, is the present Republican candidate for President, Donald Trump. And this, not his insensitive and bullying behavior regarding women, minorities, and just people different from himself, is the main reason I will not vote for him. In fact I’ve already voted and I voted for Hillary Clinton.

Didn’t we love, and in my own case still love the Wild West for the first two tenants of liberalism, free trade and  individual liberty? And it wasn’t just our own attachment. The West in the form of Western films has conquered the world, and in doing so has taught the world, as well as our children, a good part of what we meant and still mean by individual liberty. But also the West has shaped our thinking about free trade, because the Wild West was a lot about trading, about exchanging goods with the native Americans, about the ranchers and fur traders, and eventually the farmers, making mutually beneficial trade agreements among themselves.

What about the third tenant or characteristic of liberalism, the Rule of Law? For a long time the people of the West were without the Rule of Law. And I’ll admit that much of the attraction of the West came from the absence of law,  and also the absence of that bane of modern life, countless regulations. Sure there were the lawmen of the West, the Seth Bullocks, Pat Garretts, John Hughes, Heck Thomases, Bill Tilghmans, Wyatt Earps, Bat Mastersons, to name just a few  that come to my mind from the thousands of these representatives of the first law of the land.

But the lawmen were not enough. As we have seen it would take eventually the Federal government itself to quiet the fears of the more timid members of society, to secure by the Rule of Law  the lives of women and children, as well as to secure and assure while welcoming the tens of thousands of new immigrants who have always come here for the freedom and opportunity to work, with the result that the wealth of the whole country has grown substantially.

It is ironic that the Tea Partiers who would make a claim for their own higher morality are in fact partnering during the current presidential election  with the altRight, those crazies who among other things are monopolizing the talk on talk radio, talk radio being without a moral standing, and without reason and common sense, as well as partnering, although they would deny it, with the bigots, the racists, the climate change deniers, and partnering also , although they would deny this too, with the Republican candidate for President.

It is ironic that all these groups  calling themselves some kind of conservatives (whatever that means) would hold onto their own individual liberties, even if it means allowing one of their own to carry a concealed gun in a University of Texas lecture hall (why, Wyatt Earp himself wouldn’t have permitted that).

But now, instead of being satisfied with their own freedom, instead of marveling at the degree of freedom which we all enjoy in this country, they are convinced (conspiracy theorists all of them, along with their talk radio partners) that they are being pushed to the side, their own freedom, and jobs, threatened by newcomers to the country (immigrant families with children much like their own ancestors), threatened by the trade deals with other countries that have in fact no less enriched the TeaPartiers than all of us, threatened also as they say by the rule of Law,  threatened by the very  government programs intended to help, everyone of course, but in particular those who for whatever reason are unable for short or longer periods of time to help themselves.

These Tea Party conservatives and altRight talk show crazies would be free themselves to do whatever they wanted, while at the same time not allowing the country to help those in need. In their hands the word welfare, a beautiful word in my opinion, has become a dirty word. Also, and whatever else they may be they are not even true conservatives.True conservatives would always be for helping those in need, and in this regard certainly no less than the liberals. In fact we ought to stop using the names, liberal and conservative, at least until we know what we mean by both.

The following passage, from Foreign Affairs of Nov-Dec 2016, I take from a capsule review by G. John Ikenberry of Duncan Bell’s new book, Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire. This just one more of a spate of recent articles that have got me thinking about the meaning of liberal, liberalism, and conservatism, all three ideas still very much alive and very much in need of clarification. This blog a first attempt. Others to follow.

The liberal tradition has long had a deeply fraught relationship with imperialism. In the late nineteenth century, British liberals embraced free trade, individual liberty, and the rule of law, while also defending the United Kingdom’s empire. In recent decades, liberal internationalist ideas have found their way into arguments in favor of humanitarian intervention, preemptive war, and campaigns to spread democracy—all of which critics often deride as imperialism in new guises. Bell’s masterful study represents one of the best efforts yet to untangle the many ideological and political knots that bind liberalism and imperialism. In a series of rich intellectual portraits of leading Victorian-era thinkers Bell shows that most British liberals at that time saw empire as a necessary—or even vital—part of the liberal project that “civilized” states were pushing forward. Only much later, after two world wars and long struggles against fascism and communism, did the liberal vision became a more universal secular creed whose ideological and political principles could be reliably seized on by opponents of empire.

One thought on “A few first thoughts on the meanings of liberal (really liberalism) and conservative.”

  1. I stumbled across an article a few weeks ago that I didn’t think much of at the time (and thus misplaced) yet made a point that has stuck with me until now. The idea it set forth was that the vast majority of Americans, and by extension humanity, generally approach politics with a selfless mindset. Although it sounds mundane, it was thought-provoking to hear.

    People who claim to oppose “welfare” are not actually opposed to the idea of helping the disadvantaged; they genuinely think that the policies of liberal government will harm those they care about. I myself am inclined to believe that people vote with others in mind over themselves. Alienated blue-collar workers casting their votes for Donald Trump are certainly concerned about their job security, that is true, but they also feel compassion for their fellow man, their coworkers, and indeed, their own families.

    It has been lamented that the 2016 election has spent no time on policy. It is written off as a direct effect of the anger of uneducated voters overpowering strategy for real solutions. I’ve come to believe that that breed of anger is better defined as a misguided, but well-intentioned, desire for stability as a community rather than as an individual. The alt-right “conservative” white man checking off Trump/Pence on his ballot is thinking about keeping his wife, children, friends and colleagues safe from an imagined immigrant threat – he doesn’t think that he personally is going to get mugged by a “bad hombre” but the mere idea that it could happen to anyone frightens him.

    This is a wonderful post, Philip! You hit the nail on the head with the talk show bit, and it’s the exact reason that this conflict of definition and “fluid truth” is our reality. In just three days now, we’ll get to see just how deep it runs. I’m so, so grateful to you for building a school with such a marvelous teacher-student dynamic that lets us discuss modern-day issues like this – how amazing the internet is!

    Best regards,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s