Can You Name Three Great Conservatives?

POUNDS and law geek have been battling it out in the last thread, and I invite all those interested in a bright argument to review those exchanges. POUNDS, I should have you know that I’ve promised law geek that I will appoint him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court just as soon as I’m elected president, so please keep that in mind.

Watching those two battle it out reminded me of an argument that POUNDS used to have with any and all comers about the greatness, or lack thereof, of political conservatives.

Put simply, according to POUNDS, there aren’t any, because conservatives fight change, while liberals embrace it. The people who are remembered as great leaders are those who shook up the establishment, he would say. You can’t do that if you’re protecting the status quo.

Because of that, he insisted, it was impossible to name three great conservatives. He’d give you one freebie – Benjamin Disraeli – and then insist that it was impossible to round out the list. I tried, though – I put Ronald Reagan on my list, and then I threw in Dwight Eisenhower. POUNDS rightfully found Dwight Eisenhower to be pretty thin gruel as far as great conservatives go, although I didn’t want to admit that, at the time, I had no idea who Benjamin Disraeli was. (The first and only Jewish Prime Minister of Great Britain. Wikipedia article here.)

Anyway, this greatly disturbed me at the time, but as I’ve mulled it over lo these many years, I’ve come to realize that POUNDS was, intentionally or not, running an intellectual bait and switch.

The first definition of “conservative” from dictionary.com is as follows:

Conservative: adjective:
1. disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.

Using that definition, then POUNDS is absolutely right. But notice that this definition doesn’t contain any real political ideology. If your traditions and institutions are solidly Leftist, then you can be termed a “conservative” if you act to preserve them. Thus, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms were undermined by a botched military coup in 1991, the media labeled those behind the coup as “hardline conservatives” in the Soviet Government. Same with Tiananmen Square in ’89 – it was supposedly “conservative elements” in the Chinese government that used tanks to mow down the pro-democracy demonstrators.

Looking at these examples, unless you questioned the underlying definition of the word “conservative,” you’d think Leonid Brezhnev and Ronald Reagan were essentially the same person.

And let’s take another look at Reagan, shall we? By this first definition, can he truly be termed a “conservative?” One who wants to “preserve existing conditions” and “limit change?” The guy came in and radically altered how Washington did business, both domestically and overseas. They didn’t call it the “Reagan Revolution” for nothing. Newt Gingrich in 1994 overthrew 40 years of Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives and turned the status quo on its head entirely. How is that “limiting change?”

The fact is that the word “conservative” also has another definition in the political arena, one that reflects a worldview of limited government and skepticism of statist solutions. It has nothing to do with “resistance to change.” It has everything to do with faith in the private sector, not the government, to produce the kind of solutions that will be of most benefit to society. If the US continues to move toward European-style socialism, then you’re going to see a growing number of political conservatives screaming for change with ever-increasing volume.

If they were alive today, how many of the founders would be registered Democrats? You think Washington and Adams and Jefferson would be thrilled with the metastasization of the state? And even by POUNDS’ initial definition, Lincoln could still be termed a great conservative – true, he took the radical step of freeing the slaves, but he did so largely to achieve the goal of holding the union intact. To “conserve” the union, if you will.

Sadly, too many Republicans have abandoned second-definition conservative ideology at the altar of first-definition conservative intransigence – preservation of power over principle, of status quo over small government. It’s time the Republican party got revolutionary again. THAT would be a change I could believe in.

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Three Great Conservatives: Making My List

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