NEW YORK – Whenever I hear people on America’s Republican right call themselves “conservative,” I experience the mental equivalent of a slight electric shock.
A conservative is someone who, in the tradition of the eighteenth-century English parliamentarian Edmund Burke, believes that the established order deserves respect, even reverence. A liberal, by contrast, is someone ready to alter the established order in pursuit of a vision of a better world.
The Whig historian of the nineteenth century Thomas Macaulay described this difference well. There were “two great parties” in England, he wrote, which manifested a “distinction” that “had always existed, and always must exist.”
On the one side were liberals, “a class of men sanguine in hope, bold in speculation, always pressing forward…and disposed to give every change credit for being an improvement.” On the other were conservatives, “a class of men who cling with fondness to whatever is ancient, and who, even when convinced by overpowering reasons that innovation would be beneficial, consent to it with many misgivings and forebodings.”