28 April 2008

Yes, but 'Conservative' in Which Sense?

Just started a subscription to the Atlantic Monthly... enjoying it, getting some perspectives on things I otherwise wouldn't be. Gets me thinking, if nothing else.

In the May '08 issue, Jonathan Rauch writes about John McCain's conservative credentials. In doing so, he falls prey to what, to me, is one of the more annoying tendencies in the media today: failure to distinguish between the multiple possible meanings of a term, in this case 'conservative'.

'Conservative', to my mind, has two main senses: 'social conservative' and 'fiscal conservative'. Rauch's piece seems to focus exclusively on the former sense, whereas from what I recall most of the main "McCain's not a real conservative" criticism has come from those folks more concerned with the latter sense. Further, Rauch invokes another sense of the word, what I'll call 'temperamental conservatism', wherein one believes that policy change should only occur incrementally, and radical shifts in law or policy are to be avoided. Again, I don't disagree with the concept, just the implementation.

(Incidentally, I have this sort of problem with the usage of a lot of other terms... it's not just conservatism. I'm confident that one of the major problems with political discussion today is a failure to establish common terminology and definitions before engaging in debate. This is hard in the sound-bite news culture we're dealing with today, but I think taking steps toward such clarity would be very much worth the effort, if enough people could be convinced to do so. :-P )

In any event, the piece is admittedly a pretty minor example of this sort of conflation/confusion. But, it brought to mind my frustration with this imprecise use of terminology, and so here we are.