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What It Means To Be Conservative


It appears that most people frequently throw around terms like liberal and conservative, but the terms are used in many different ways, some of the most notable being political in origin; these large differences in use cause these terms to be excessively broad and vague. When many people hear the word conservative, the first thing that may come to mind is an old, rich bureaucrat that is in favor for of low taxes and a large military budget or someone who is stubborn with their old habits and unwilling to make changes. Both of these stereotypes have negative connotations; while these stereotypes may be rooted in some level of truth, they are large and likely unfair generalizations. Someone who is conservative is an individual who is moderate and traditional.


It is evident that even people who are conservative themselves sometimes do not wish to be “labeled” in such a way due to common view of the word conservative. This is clear as Adam Schiffer explains the term “conservative Democrats”, “I argue that many contemporary conservative Democrats lack the ideological sophistication to make such a change. Instead ‘conservative’ is the discordant element of their partisan-ideological identification.” (Schiffer 294) This is not the only deciding factor in how even those who are conservative avoid the conservative label, however. An ICPSR article on General Ideological Orientations states that, "The effect of ideology on the presidential vote occurs for several reasons. Ideology affects positions on specific issues. For example, voters who are strong conservatives are likely to take conservative positions on new issues as they arise. As discussed above, positions on specific policy issues influence how voters cast their ballots in presidential elections, so this influence is one path by which ideology affects the vote. Ideology also may influence party identification, which is another path of influence. Finally, voters may have a general ideological perception of a candidate, even if they are unsure about the candidate's position on specific policy issues, and this general perception may influence their vote." Like the presidential vote that occurs every four years, people may not want to be considered “conservative” because of their desire to remain affiliated with their political party, as seems to be an issue for the conservative Democrats and others.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines conservative as "Characterized by a tendency to preserve or keep intact or unchanged; preservative." or "Characterized by caution or moderation; (esp. of an estimate) purposely or deliberately low." Viewing moderate as a part of conservative is one step close to a more complete definition. Dictionary.com defines moderate as “Being within reasonable limits; not excessive or extreme: a moderate price”, or “Not violent or subject to extremes; mild or calm; temperate: a moderate climate”, or “Opposed to radical or extreme views or measures, especially in politics or religion”, or “One who holds or champions moderate views or opinions, especially in politics or religion.” It is quite apparent from these two definitions that conservative is not an inherently a negative word. Being conservative means that you are moderate and use caution, which can often be useful, especially in delicate matters in which jumping to conclusions or being too quick to decide can have unfavorable consequences. Being seen as a conservative by some may be negative, but many would agree that opposition to radical or extreme political or religious views can easily be essential in a stable and functioning government.


The American Heritage Dictionary defines conservative as "1. One favoring traditional views and values. 2. A supporter of political conservatism." While this definition may at first glance appear straightforward and quite inclusive, it is certainly not without flaws. Someone who is conservative does not mean that that person is automatically a supporter of political conservatism. They may not actually support political conservatism, even though they have conservative views; this is already clear as mentioned with the dilemma concerning \"conservative Democrats\", who do not wish to be viewed as or grouped with Republicans. A conservative individual will likely favor traditional views and values of some kind, but what kind of views and values are we talking about here? They quite certainly might be political in origin, but they do not have to be. And whose traditions would the conservative people this definition mentions be supporting? Are they supporting the traditions of just their own culture or of all the cultures around the world? This definition is not very useful in getting at the heart of these issues.


Possibly what the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of conservative lacks in depth can be found in another source. In Webster's New International Dictionary Unabridged defines conservative as "1: having the power or tendency to preserve in a safe and entire state: PRESERVATIVE, 2 a: of or relating to a political party, point of view, or philosophy that advocates preservation of the established order and views proposals for change critically and usu. with distrust, or 3 a: tending or disposed to maintain existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions : opposed to radical or basic changes : exhibiting minimal change : TRADITIONAL". This definition proves to be the most specific yet. This definition hits the mark to some extent for the main points of what makes up a conservative. The first definition of preservative is however certainly irrelevant within the context of this definitional subject matter; for all intents and purposes it would be nearly the same thing as traditional. Like all the previous definitions, Webster’s New International Dictionary Unabridged stresses on defining conservative as being traditional. While the third definition does mention something that could be construed as being moderate, based on Dictionary.com’s limited definition. It fails to reach to the necessary extent, in my experience, an essential point about being conservative: moderation. Moderation can also be a balanced view or outlook on certain issues. Two out of three of these definitions more than just hint at moderation, but they do not include this seemingly fundamental characteristic.


Conservative can be twisted around to mean many things, but there are main characteristics which are definitely fundamental to its definition. Simply put, these are moderate, having a balanced outlook and frequently being opposed to extreme views, and traditional, wanting to keep traditional views and values, usually of one’s own culture.


Works Referenced

1. "Conservative." The Oxford English Dictionary of the English Language. 2005.

2. "Conservative." The Webster's New International Dictionary Unabridged of the English Language. 2005.

3. "Conservative." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. 2000.

4. "General Ideological Orientations." 2005. The Inter-University Consortium For Political And Social Research. 23 August 2005 <http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/SETUPS/notes/ideology.html>

5. “I’m Not That Liberal: Explaining Conservative Democratic Identification.” 2000. Adam J. Schiffer. <http://www.jstor.org>

6. "Moderate." Dictionary.com. <http://www.dictionary.com> 2006.

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