The founding fathers looked at it differently. To the right was anarchy, to the left was tyranny. Labels like “Liberal” have very little to do with dictionary definitions, as does “Conservative”. “Conservatives” should be in favor of things like conservation of the ecology and wildlife, liberals should be championing the rights of the individual over the rights of an oppressive government. Neither seems very true today.
And he’s right, at least to a point. That’s a deep irony.
We hear a lot about rights from the Right. Original Intent. Second Amendment rights. How the proposed healthcare reform process is a government intrusion on our rights.
Yet modern conservatism, as expressed in the actions of the Bush administration, in Republican Party state and national platforms, in the discourse on talk radio and cable news, in letters to the editors, in demonstrations, even in the occasional murder of a doctor, is very much about the government limiting personal rights.
Some examples of personal, legal and civil rights which conservatives eagerly support wholesale abrogation of through government intervention:
For fear of terrorism:
- Conservatives favor torture (in direct contradiction of two centuries of American values, as well as any sense of morality or ethics)
- Secret trials with closed evidence
- Indefinite imprisonment without trial
- Indefinite imprisonment past the expiration of sentencing
- Suspension of habeas corpus
In the name of promoting specific religious beliefs (contra the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of religion for all):
- Forced pregnancy (through denial of family planning services and abortion access)
- Criminalization of private sexual behavior
- Denial of civil and legal rights to entire classes of persons (opposition to gay marriage)
- Destruction of educational standards and opportunities (mandating counterfactual Bible-based teachings in biology and other subjects)
- Establishment of specific religious practices (mandating school prayer)
Perhaps most ironically of late, many of the people who are braying loudest about forbidding any government influence in healthcare decision-making are the very same people who want government to ban abortion — one of the most important healthcare decisions a woman can make. The hypocrisy of this is breathtaking, albeit largely unacknowledged.
In every one of those cases, liberals stand foursquare in favor of individual rights against the conservative urge to promote government interference in our personal liberties. Many of those threatened or denied are explicitly delineated in the Constitution. (And to be fair, it is the shame of the Obama administration that they have not moved quickly to roll back so much of the damage the Bush administration did in this regard.)
Conservatism is a movement which famously doesn’t “do nuance.” Many conservative leaders are proud of their unwavering principles. This in turn leads to absolutism in rhetoric and policy. From there it’s a short road to condemning liberals for pushing for gun control or healthcare reform as limiting individual rights.
Yet to my eye, modern conservatism is largely defined by a strong desire to limit the rights of others. The classic signifiers of conservatism — fiscal prudence, small government, limits to foreign adventuring — are long lost in the Reagan and post-Reagan era of the GOP. Except for their fixation on reducing tax levels, the Republican party and American conservatives have betrayed their traditional values for the comfort of taking away the rights of other people in order to help themselves feel safe, feel holy, feel American. (Or, as Interrupting Gelastic Jew recently said, “I’m scared, so take away that guy’s rights please!.” Pretty much the Bush administration’s statement of principle with regard to terrorism.)
You can’t take away rights, just because you disagree with someone, or they make you feel icky, or they violate the commandments of your particular religion, or because they’re poor or the wrong skin color. That’s why we talk about “rights”, instead of “privileges”. Yet conservatives, who fixate loudly on the rights they value for themselves, consistently campaign for wholesale abrogation of the rights of others.
All of this has been a bad bargain for conservatives, and a truly horrid bargain for American society as a whole. The rhetorical absolutism of which conservatives are so fond, their collective disdain for nuance, is voided by their own contradictions, as a result robbing cherished conservative principles of intellectual honesty or consistency. There’s a hell of a lot of that much-despised nuance embedded in the tension between stated conservative principles and the rhetoric and actions of conservatives.
To point back to Bara’s comment, the definitions of our political labels have changed, radically so, even in my lifetime. As a liberal, as an American, as a human being, I’d really like to keep my rights safe from conservative America. My rights and yours, including the rights of all my conservative friends despite themselves.
I can’t help but hope that conservatives themselves would like the same thing, if they listened to their own reality instead of their rhetoric.