Why I Reject the Terms “Conservative” and “Liberal”

There are many in this country who find politics to be rather sad. It is said that the public’s congressional approval has fallen to the single digit percentile. Many find the childish games of congressmen and presidents deeply wearying. Some believe that “moderates” are in fact in the majority but do not have the same voting organization as others do. Whatever the case, I know one thing: I reject the bi-polar, binary construction of political theory. I spoke of this in another essay, and I’d like to reiterate it here. I believe it is harmful in many ways, here are a few:

1. When you label someone and their ideas, it’s easier to dismiss both

“Oh, you’re with that group? Oh, you spend time with those people? Oh, you talk about that stuff? No, I’m not going to listen to you. You’re a _______.”

Because of all the labeling and division, only certain groups seem to have certain ideas. These ideas are branded and people become close minded. So “liberals” are pro-welfare, pro-environment, pro-choice, anti-war, and pro-tax for the rich. “Conservatives” are pro-tax cuts, pro-life,  and pro-war. But what is it that makes any one of these ideas truly “liberal” or “conservative”?  To large extent, I believe, these are abstract constructs that mean little. Certain ideas are classified as one way or the other by the media, corporate elites or the groups themselves. People who are caught up with the labels end up narrowing their mind to only think in certain categories, as depositing every thought into either good (whichever group you are) and bad (whichever group you are not).

As any teacher would tell a student, or any parent a child, the world is not that simple. The world is more complex than to be able to place everything into either an all-good or all-bad category. This, however, can be done if one thinks as little as possible. And if one thinks as little as possible, one is the most judgmental and close-minded as well. We can’t get anywhere unless people start using their brains and actually connecting with people from the “other side.” You have to stop labeling yourself and labeling them. You have to see the good in others. You have to work together. That’s what being a human being in society is all about.

2. “Conservative” ideals must always work with “liberal” ones, and vice versa

Moreover, I would argue that the so-called “conservative” values must always work with the “liberal” approach in order to be effective (and vice versa). For example, let us define “conservative” as keeping principles the same, and define “liberal” as changing the society. If we look at it this way, we can see that in every generation, the principles must stay the same, but their application must change.

Let’s take an example we can all agree on: slavery. This began in the 16th century and picked up speed as the US’ agribusiness took off in the 17th and 18th centuries. Now this was condemned from the beginning by the cultural elder—the pope of Rome—in the 15th century by applying the principles of the Judeo-Christian values (which would later turn into our modern human rights ideology). However, other popes did not condemn slavery (or even promoted it), and the detestable practice continued to grow.

Most of the abolitionists were Christians who believed in certain principles—conservative—but were seeking to change the society—liberal. There were other Christians who owned slaves and tried to argue that it was morally good to be a slave master. They wanted to deny the basic principles of humanity—not conservative—and keep the society protecting the status quo—not liberal. However, when the Christian abolitionists—and their non-Christian allies of course—banded together as conservative liberals (or liberal conservatives), they were able to conquer the evil in society—first in England in 1833, then in France, then again in the United States during the Second Civil War as well as elsewhere.

The racist systems and mentalities that have pervaded this country since slavery have been a battle against the conservative liberals (or the liberal conservatives) who want to apply the principles and change the society with those who wish to keep the racist systems in place and not change (non-liberal, non-conservative nothings). This takes us through the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement, all the way to the New Jim Crow of today.

Every new generation must take the wisdom from their parents—principles of humanity—and then apply them in a new way to change the society they live in, to make it more perfectly conform to the principles of life. In other words, to be a liberal conservative or a conservative liberal. I would argue that this process between generations is the process by which societies develop and progress. There must be a healthy amount of conservatism—preserving the principles of human value—and liberalism—changing the society to reflect those principles.

3. Conservative liberals and liberal conservatives must work together to fight the powers that be

There are many important things we can agree on—toppling the American Empire, providing assistance to the poor, caring for mothers and their children, giving homes to the orphans, and safeguarding equal opportunity for everyone to secure their needs. However, the “power that be,” (that is, the non-conservative, non-liberal nothings) wish only to keep all of those things in place so that they continue to be in power.

Most of us can agree, I hope, that these corporate elites are corrupting our country and have prevented even a semblance of “democracy.” But I would argue that this problem goes back to the beginning of the country. There were already designs about the framers of the Constitution to keep the people in place so that a certain status quo would not be threatened. This is argued in Charles A. Beard’s groundbreaking work of 1913, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, which points out that all the framers of the Constitution were business and legal elites who compromised with each other to form a system to control their interests. At the same time as the Constitution was being framed by these elites, a massive popular revolution was beginning led by poor debtors and Revolutionary War veterans fighting against oppressive taxes and asking for relief from poverty and debts. The people’s militia refused to fight these revolutionaries (since they sympathized with them) and a group of business elite had to raise their own army to crush the revolution. Does our popular myth of the Constitution include this important historical detail?

A few months later, after the Constitution had been written and was being debated in the wake of the crushing of the popular revolution, one of its principle authors (James Madison, Federalist #10) wrote about the need for factions to divide the country so that they could not unite and overthrow the status quo:

The increased variety of parties comprised within the Union, increase this security [against one party oppressing the rest]…The influence of factious leaders [like the recent revolution] may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

Did certain framers seek a democratic society in which different common people moderately exchanged with one another and came to consensuses about making laws for the common good? Perhaps. Did certain other Framers seek to safeguard the people from uniting against the status quo? Perhaps.

The concept that corporate elites should control the masses was given a stronger development with the work of men like Walter Lippman and Leo Straus of the early 20th century, who believed that the elite should concoct popular myths to control the people and “manufacture” their consent, since they couldn’t be trusted on their own to do what’s best.[1] When the divisions become passionate, are we being distracted intentionally from something else? For example, is the focus on the George Zimmerman case a distraction from other cases which deeply challenge the status quo of American Empire, like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden?[2]

But perhaps this concept seems outlandish to you. I hope that this does not obscure the greater point I wish to make—that we must come together. If you do not agree with this interpretation of US history, please keep an open mind and share your own thoughts.[3] I’m not going to label you or judge you, and I only ask the same from you.

4. This bickering is juvenile

Ultimately I always go back to my students. My children teach me everything I need to know, it seems, about the society we live in. They constantly get in fights about nothing and bicker about the smallest things. I try my best to teach them to work their problems out and come together. It’s embarrassing, frankly, that as an adult I’m trying to teach children to act better than our Congress does. But children are very capable human beings, and can learn quickly, given the right environment and the right support. But who’s teaching the Congress? Only the next generation has the answer.

[1] For an introduction into this history, see Adam Curtis, The Power of Nightmares and Noam Chomsky, Media Control.

[2] See investigations of this from the past from Infowars.com Patrick Henningsen here, or from the Daily Sheeple here, or share your own.

[3] Mr. Howard Zinn makes this interpretation of the framers in his People’s History of the United States, following Mr. Beard’s thesis. See Mr. Zinn’s work, page 97.

Written by Timothy Flanders
SJS Contributor

Timothy Flanders is an educator who works in inner city public and private schools teaching programs to uplift the youth. He served for two years as an AmeriCorps member with Camp Fire in the public schools of Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is currently working on a Master’s Degree in Christian reconciliation from the Catholic University of Ukraine. In college he helped found an intentional community in his city and continues to search for ways to live justly in the United States. To this end, he created this cooperative blog.

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This post was originally published @ http://novaviavitae.org/why-i-reject-the-terms-conservative-and-liberal/ and has been syndicated with permission of the author. 


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  1. Jeremy October 16, 2013
  2. Timothy Flanders October 17, 2013

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