Time to Take Back 'Conservative' From the Right

Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, George W. Bush, and the rest are not real conservatives.

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For those who like Bob Dylan's song lyric, "Good-bye is too good a word, babe," let's infuse it with fresh political relevance: "Conservative is too good a word, babe." To wit, "conservative" is too good a word for Fox News, for the Tea Party movement, and for upstart Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich, the Republican party elder statesman whose idea of governance was to shut the federal government down. Each in its own way is trying to undermine our democratically elected government. It's not just that they don't fight fair; it's also that they say and do some sordid stuff.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on the Tea Party.]

"Conservative," as I argued yesterday on the Huffington Post, confers a veneer of respectability that none of the above deserve. Sporting a bowtie doesn't get you into the true conservative club. And the list goes on.

Sadly, "conservative" is too good a word for Chief Justice John Roberts, who despite appearances and assurances to the contrary, has led the Supreme Court in a radical new direction, treating money as a form of free speech in campaign finances and striking down state gun laws. Ditto for Rush Limbaugh and the (very largely) white male listeners to his poisonous prattle.

Nobody on the airwaves defies the concept of "conservative" quite as openly as Limbaugh. Then there's the case of Laura Ingraham and her mean-girl twin, Ann Coulter. Both write anti-Democratic screeds in which they take pratfalls on every page, reaching their right-leaning audience: mostly composed of angry, white, well-off, middle-aged men.

This faction gets its share of political representation, but it is often referred to as "conservative" in the mainstream media, just as Fox News is often referred to as "conservative media" by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post and on the networks. For example, some Republican senators plan to vote against Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court. Along the way they criticized the late great civil rights lawyer and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the constitutional commerce clause as a vehicle for civil rights legislation. To be clear, these mischievous senators are not conservative, nor was the campaign to run an Agriculture Department employee who spoke to the NAACP out of town on a railroad. (It almost worked.) Conservative is too good, too honorable a word for them.

Language makes all the difference in seeing things as they are. To clarify the core meaning of "conservative," it means to protect political traditions and institutions, to burnish longstanding customs in culture and society, to cherish precedence and dignity; and not to welcome change too soon. That outlook, most eloquently stated by the thinker Edmund Burke in reaction to the French Revolution, wishes yesterday, today, and tomorrow to look pretty much alike. Violence and upheavals and anything that threatens stability of the ship of state are frowned upon. Lindsay Graham, the South Carolina Republican senator, got it right by saying he would vote for Kagan because election results should be honored and respected. Hurrah!

[See who supports Graham.]

The American people survived eight years of an activist president who started two wars of choice, disregarding the usual ways of doing things. Truly, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and their men were anything but conservative. But they got some cover with that shield. Now the American people are trying to pick up the pieces with a president and government that won, fair and square, in a legitimate verdict. You'd think after the shambles of the Bush presidency, these faux-conservatives would have the decency to hide in a corner of the public square. I for one recommend an old-fashioned Puritan stockade for this crowd--you can't get more harshly conservative than that.

Then at least they'd know whereof they speak.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on Dick Cheney.
  • See who is donating to your member of Congress.
  • See 10 reasons why Sarah Palin would be a bad president.