Saturday, March 12, 2005

Social Security, Liberals and Conservatives

While I'm on an etymology kick, let's take a look at these three terms.
I've written a lot about Social Security recently. I believe passionately that it is a program worth preserving -- in fact, that it represents the best impulses of our society. The words "social" and "security" are both Latinate. "Social" comes from socialus, meaning united or living with others; "security" from se cura, free from care. The use of the words to designate a program to help assure that the elderly living among us are adequately provided for is, I think, an appropriate and even graceful construct.
Now let's look at the word "liberal." Again, it's from the Latin, in this case liberalis, meaning noble, generous and pertaining to a free man.
And "conservative"? It's from the Latin conservare, meaning to keep or preserve.
As political terms, both liberal and conservative came into use in the years following the French revolution, as ways of describing those who promoted political freedom and those who favored restoration of the clerical and monarchical order.
So, from its first political usage, conservatism had to do with putting power in the hands of the church and an absolute ruler. It had to do not with keeping an existing political system, but with reversion to a previous one. Today's American conservatives sometimes argue that their goal is less government, but their adherance to the French term to describe themselves suggests a goal of more concentrated power, power vested in the hands of a small ruling class rather than handed over to the populace.
Interestingly, the first conservatives also used a tactic much in favor among today's American right: The charge that liberalism is equivalent to lawlessness. Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that in a purely political sense, the word "liberal" was first flung as a pejorative by these French conservatives at their opponents. Sound familiar?
Whether the etymology of the two words is consistent with their use in political discourse is a topic that could be (and is) argued endlessly.
For a jaded perspective, it's always worth checking in with Ambrose Bierce, who in his wonderfully funny Devil's Dictionary, provides the following definition:
"Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as
distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others."

But in looking at the two words and their history in political usage, I think the following definitions could be considered accurate:
Conservativism is the desire to keep existing power structures in place, and to concentrate that power, to keep it from being diluted, spread out.
Liberalism is the desire to share political power throughout the populace, to encourage participation in political life by as many as possible.
This is consistent not only with the origin of the political designations in post-Revolutionary France, but, I think, with recent American history. The Civil Rights movement is the strongest example, but efforts by conservatives in recent elections to suppress voter registration and by liberals to expand it to minorities, ex-felons and the like fall into place as well.
I would like to make clear that only relatively recently have the terms liberal and conservative come to be closely aligned with the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. Forty years ago, liberals and conservatives were distributed widely throughout both parties, and many Republicans could boast of strong support of liberal initiatives like Civil Rights. But one of the legacies of the Reagan revolution in 1980 was the wresting of control of the Republican party by its most conservative elements -- in particular the religious right and the anti-tax absolutists.
Party affiliation is a tactical positioning, a way of aligning oneself with an organization that in general supports one's political goals.
Liberalism and conservativism are philosophical positions.
I have written harshly about the party loyalty of the few remaining liberal Republicans -- Christine Todd Whitman, John McCain, Olympia Snowe and others, who have maintained party loyalty despite their increasing isoluation from their party's prevailing views. I think that in siding at critical moments with a party that no longer either subscribes to their views or welcomes them, they damage the political causes in which they believe. And in winning their local elections by voicing their own views, then siding nationally with a party that rejects them, they display a level of political hypocrisy that I believe needs to be addressed.
The parties of today are no longer the parties that existed when they came to political adulthood. They need to move on. Neither party is a big tent any more. And I think that's probably a good thing in the long run. Let's have parties that truly address political philosophies, and let's use our political forums -- the U.S. Congress and the various state legislative bodies -- as places of discussion and compromise.
I would be far from heartbroken if a third, centrist party, emerged that turned all of our political organizations into minorities that had to form tactical alliances on specific issues. Maybe we would end up with a real, vibrant political life in this country.
So, I started out this posting with a discussion of the etymology of Social Security. How does that play into this discussion? Well, given the definitions I proposed for Liberalism and Conservatism, I think Social Security can be defined politically as Liberalism at its best. Senior citizens have become one of the most important, politically active demographic groups in this country because of this program that has helped to ensure that their economic needs are provided for, giving them time to read, study and act on political issues. The alternative -- seniors struggling for survival and comfort -- would limit their ability to engage in the political freedoms we value as a nation. It would restrict political life to a subset, those whose creature comforts were guaranteed. Damaging the Social Security system would, in effect, disenfranchise large numbers of seniors.
We do not want this to happen. And that potential effect needs to be understood.
Those of us who proudly call ourselves liberals need to fight to ensure that liberal programs such as Social Security survive so that its recipients have the time and strength to participate in our political processes.