The media have adopted a new and dangerous convention. People who are radical in their goals and methods are routinely mislabeled 'conservative.'
Ted Nugent is described as a 'conservative' in pieces reporting that he believes President Obama to be a "subhuman mongrel" who leads a "Nazi" administration.
Edmund Burke, the patron saint of real conservatism, must be spinning in his grave when Sarah Palin is called 'conservative.' This is the lady who relishes in going rogue and did a Madame Defarge by putting a bullseye on Gabby Gifford.
The Tea Party is 'conservative' even when it is closing down the government and recklessly bringing the U.S. to the very brink of economic default. 'Tea Party' and 'Conservative' are in fact a contradiction of terms -- the 'Tea Party' recalls a moment of revolutionary defiance, not of conservative negotiation and cooperation.
The governor of Texas threatens to secede from the United States and also to destroy our traditional barrier between church and state, but is nonetheless referred to as a conservative.
It goes on and on. Pick up any newspaper and you'll find numerous similar examples.
In what way is this relabeling new? Fifty years ago, when Fred C. Koch helped found the John Birch Society, it was rightly considered to be a radically right, somewhat wacko group. His sons David and Charles, creators of its direct descendant, the Tea Party, can now pursue the very same policies masquerading under a 'conservative' label that has been generously bestowed by a submissive press.
How is this relabeling dangerous? The media have carelessly allowed radicals to disguise their radicalism. The words 'conservative' and 'radical' carry powerful psychological connotations and important political implications. Their misuse has important consequences.
Here is a definition of conservative:
holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion. Synonyms: traditionalist, conventional, orthodox, old-fashioned, dyed-in-the-wool, hidebound, unadventurous, set in one's ways. Antonym: radical.
Conservative connotes safe, if a bit dull and stodgy. Conservatives understand that things are the way they are for powerful reasons related to human nature, institutional logic, and historical precedent. Conservatives believe that attempts at radical change, however well intended, are apt to have dreadful unintended consequences. Real conservatives are always alarmed by dramatic breaks with traditions or leaps into the unknown. Change is necessary and inevitable, but must be done carefully and with respect for the precedents of the past and the risks of the future.
Here is a definition of a radical:
a person who advocates thorough or complete political or social reform; representing or supporting an extreme section of a political party. Synonyms: revolutionary, revisionist, Antonyms: reactionary, moderate, conservative.
Radical connotes disruptive, dangerous, and impatient with the status quo. Radicals are willing to break dramatically with past and gamble the house on their ideology and/or their self-interest.
By these definitions, Ted Nugent, Sarah Palin, David Koch, Charles Koch, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Newt Gingrich are all reckless radicals. Mislabeling them as conservative legitimizes their recklessness and creates the misleading psychological mindset that they are trying to preserve, protect, and honor American traditions.
A gradualist, checks-and balances, compromise approach to change has kept our country stable. In contrast, the Tea Party members are willing, even eager, to throw out the tea -- exhibiting remarkable disrespect for time-honored American institutions and for the people who support them. They are rebels storming the barricades, not defenders of the faith.
Ironically, the cool and carefully calculated Barack Obama is a classic conservative in temperament and policy, with just some minimalist progressive leanings.
History is filled with the wreckage caused by radicals on both the left and right. Radical revolutions swallow themselves and cause great collateral damage to the institutions and people caught in the crossfire.
The burden of restraining the radicalism that now infects a significant portion of the Republican Party falls on its truly conservative elements. John McCain did this when he defended President Obama from the town hall slur that he was a terrorist. John Boehner did this when he recently voted against the radicals in his own party who were again threatening default.
But too often, the true conservatives in the Republican Party have found it temporarily expedient to knuckle under to the enormous monetary pressure and ruthless political blackmail exerted by its radical right. Fearing political suicide, they remain silent and paralysed when their better angels must know they are selling out the soul of their party and risking the welfare of the nation.
The mainstream media has cooperated in this legitimizing of wolfish radicalism -- misleadingly cloaking it with conservative sheep's clothing. They need to get this straight. But even more important would be some adult supervision from the right-wing media outlets. The Wall Street Journal and Fox News are playing with fire when they encourage the radicals to be radical.
Everyone has a shared interest in protecting us from radicals whatever their stripe. This country functions well only when governed from close to the middle.