Why Are You a Conservative or a Liberal?

An interviewer asked if The Poet’s Eye was liberal or conservative? This is always a trick question, so I looked at him with my most withering gaze before saying, “Perhaps in my weaker moments.”


Of all the words in the English language, the only two that I can think of that have more possible meanings than liberal and conservative are ‘love’ and ‘whatever.’ A modern teenager can imbue the word Whatever with an entire dictionary of meanings depending on usage, inflection, tone of voice and combined hand gestures or facial expressions. It’s a one word language in itself. The words Liberal and Conservative are likewise a pair of Isotoner gloves, one size fits all. They mean anything and nothing. I have a theory that you can determine how liberal or conservative a person is by the way they pronounce the words liberal and conservative. If we measure the degrees of disdain, disgust and dismissal in a person’s voice when he says these words we can at least tell with which adjective he identifies himself.

You could define liberal as ‘forward thinking’ ‘flexible’ ‘without constraint’ and you can define conservative as ‘cautious’, ‘reserved,’ ‘favoring the status quo,’ but these refer to personal temperament and don’t always apply logically to politics or economics.

When our Founders gathered in Philadelphia to hammer out the Constitution that today’s conservatives revere nearly as a holy object, those founders were, to a man, considered to be liberals by contemporary terms. The ideas of limited government and individual rights and economic freedom were called liberal ones in those days. The term liberal has been through the looking glass several times since then. It’s anybody’s guess what it means. Conservatives often equate it with socialism or communism. Liberals are more likely to use the term in its Enlightenment context and define themselves as the enlightened ones. Being a liberal could mean as little as liking John Lennon tunes.

At the most fundamental level, the conflict between liberal and conservative is the conflict of the individual versus society. When the needs of the individual and the needs of society come into conflict, whose interests come first? Most of us would answer that the needs of society should come first. The classic liberal assumption is that society is based on a bond of common needs, Some of these needs yield best to cooperative effort. Communities and governments are the means we devise to deal with those needs. The hard conservative line at this basic level is pure individualism or ‘every-man-for-himself and let the strong dominate the weak because it’s the natural order of things’ point of view. Technically, as soon as you accept the social contract, you are a liberal.

Jesus Christ was a leftist revolutionary. He taught that forgiveness and brotherhood were the ways to heaven and that it did us little good to heap up wealth in this life, therefore property should be shared. In other words, he was a commie. Pontius Pilate was a liberal, trying to please his masters and keep peace among his subjects. The Jewish priests were the conservatives in the story, interested in preserving their power or the status-quo. My point here is that all of these political labels have various meanings according to the context of time and place. Even knowing that, it still amuses me to see conservatives so vociferously clamoring to ‘get back’ to the Constitution, a document drafted by liberals.

Jefferson was a liberal who today would probably be thought of as a conservative. Some would still call him a revolutionary. His writings indicate that he fully expected a new American Revolution every thirty years or so. He saw that tyranny was even more terrible when embodied in systems or institutions rather than in a monarch or dictator. Institutions have necks that won’t as easily fit the guillotine. We sought a system of laws to avoid being ruled by the whim of tyrants. Some feel that this system has in turn also become an oppressor. The current cries for ‘smaller government’ are an expression of this feeling of oppression that the fundamentalist Tea Party movement appeals to and exploits.

Somewhere around the time that my voice started to change, I read Barry Goldwater’s conservative manifesto for the times, Conscience of a Conservative. It’s a thin little book whose simple straightforward language seemed sensible to my tweenie-bop mind. Goldwater’s ideal of the rugged individual as the bedrock of American excellence appealed to my pre-analytical mind. I was obsessed with myself like all adolescent sociopaths and looking for affirmation in my own quest for individuality. So I became a Young Republican. I read all of Ayn Rand’s books. I interviewed Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, for my school newspaper. I was a regular rookie intellectual and hated those wicked, incentive-killing communists and their evil flying monkeys, the socialists too. Then I grew up.

By the time I was eligible for the draft, the scope of my reading had widened to include McCluhan and Chomsky and Abbie Hoffman, Watts and Leary. I was confronted with political realities which included the possibility of my death in a rice-paddy half-way around the world. There was a major political sea-change in our country. The counter-culture caught my imagination. I took LSD and joined the SDS. Naturally the combination of anarchy and cosmic consciousness ruined me for normal politics forever after but in a few short years I had pretty well cruised the dial on the liberal-conservative radio. I had nowhere else to go but into the nothingness of Buddhism where the Middle Way showed me that conservatives and liberals alike were ridiculous cartoon dogs worrying the opposite ends of the same bone. It’s an hilarious spectacle really, and perfect for cable TV, but most people are sort of like I am, ‘liberal’ when we are talking about Our money and ‘conservative’ when we are talking about My money.

Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
—Phil Ochs

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