In our American society that is divided into the supposedly opposing ideologies of conservatism and liberalism, we cannot benefit from either ideology unless we understand what they really are, not just what they are asserted to be. The American brands of conservatism and liberalism are very different from their traditional, historical forms. Throughout most of the world, conservatism has historically sought to conserve the existing political and social order. What that traditionally meant was to protect the existing autocratic rulers such as monarchs, despots, and religious hierarchies. This is the historical context of Europe and most of the world. Liberalism, on the other hand, traditionally has sought to elevate the rights of individuals above the powers of rulers and is thus generally opposed to conservatism. In modern, international news stories, conservatives might be ayatollahs or dictators, while liberals might be professors or journalists. In that non-American landscape where the word ‘republic’ is often a euphemism, the ancient struggle in which liberalism is good and conservatism is evil still prevails.
Traditional liberal ideas created the rights and liberties of the Enlightenment that the founders of the United States embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Thus, traditional liberalism honored the rights of individuals, while traditional conservatism honored the power and stability of strong government.
At the time of the American Revolution, Americans were divided into revolutionaries, being traditional liberal, and loyalists, being traditional conservative. After the Revolutionary War, the remaining conservative loyalists melded with the liberal winners. Thus, post-Revolutionary War America was traditional liberal. The modern division between American conservatives and American liberals grew out of the politics that followed.
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In the early 1800s, an element of that traditional liberal society sought to preserve the strict constitutional rights of individuals and enforce the strict constitutional limitations on the Federal Government. They came to be known as conservatives. They sought to preserve the existing American political structure of minimum government and maximum freedom. Thus, a segment of traditional liberals evolved into American conservatives, who were actually more liberal than the remaining traditional liberals. Those remaining liberals had opted for a stronger government, a traditional conservative position. Such expansion of powers was, however, clearly beyond the intent of the ratifiers of the Constitution as documented in detail by writings of the ratification period.
American conservatism hearkens back to American founding principles. Unlike traditional conservatism, its heroes are not kings, emperors, and popes. They are Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, and Madison. These were all liberals in their era because they rose up against the monarchists of Europe who tried to transfer their monarchies to the Americas.
They forged their liberal principles into the United States of America, the only nation rising out of the colonies of the Americas that rejected the traditional roles of ruler and ruled. In the process, they upended the definitions of liberals and conservatives. Those revolutionary liberals, whom American conservatism honors today, believed in personal freedom protected by a strong—but tightly limited—government.
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Modern America is immersed in globalism to a degree that early Americans could never have imagined. Part of that global culture is to see conservatives as the evil past and liberals as the hope for the future. As the view of American conservatism has been globalized, the evil features of global, traditional conservatism have fouled the image of American conservatism.
Now here is the irony of the conservative/liberal divide in America. Liberalism hearkens back to those same heroes and those same principles of the conservatives, but with one important difference: personal freedom is not protected by a strong but tightly limited government, but simply by a strong government—strong enough to achieve the perceived goals of liberalism—in a perfect world where we need not fear government. But the world is not perfect, and this less-limited government is destroying the “deal” that We The People had with government leading up to the ratification of the Constitution.
As strong as our Constitution is—including the Ninth and Tenth Amendments—the very concept of a tightly limited, “federal” government has been lost in the two-century struggle for control of the unprecedented, American wealth-generating machine. The concept of limited powers was not just an issue of the Constitution; it was the issue. It was, in fact, the issue of the entire American Revolution.
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Since the 1770s, American conservatives and liberals have swapped their core principles. American conservatism today stands for the traditional liberal values of personal freedom with a minimal, decentralized federal government. American liberalism stands for the same values but with a stronger, far-reaching national government. This evolution has taken place slowly without many people, especially the younger generations, being aware of the shift.
The transfer of the limited-government principle from the liberals to the conservatives, plus the maligned image of those conservatives promoted by modern liberal institutions, have led to our present condition of an out-of-control national government.
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