What does it mean to be more conservative? The most common meaning would appear to be one who advocates some variation of the political Right—the Republican party platform, allegiance to Trump, deep suspicion of ethnic minorities—ferociously and with the least amount of tolerance for dissenting views.
We might say then that someone who supports building a border wall that’s fifteen-feet high is conservative but someone who demands it be twenty-feet high, paid for by Mexico, and include armed sentries, searchlights, trip wires, and high voltage along the perimeter to be even more conservative. More conservative and very conservative have come to mean those who hold some ill-defined political ideology on the Right with extreme vigor and ferociousness. It’s less about what they actually believe than how ruthlessly they demand what they want.
As a CPA who’s audited governments for over a decade I have seen firsthand how those who shout the loudest how we need to drain the swamps! are nowhere to be found when it comes time to meticulously examine the actual complexities involved in attempting to reduce government inefficiencies and eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse. For far too many, being more conservative isn’t about finding solutions; it’s about self-righteous reveling in denouncing woefully over-simplified problems.
Enter the Moderate
These days it’s easy to forget conservatives are not radicals. But the traditional understanding of conservatism was quite different from its common usage today. As the word implies, it meant someone who is not given to radical measures; someone who literally takes a conservative approach. There is another worldview that advocates a more measured approach: the political moderate (or centrist) isn’t given to extremism on the Left or the Right. Recognizing the dangers inherent in extremism, they advocate a middle-approach.
Both a conservative or centrist approach can be understood to mean the same thing in that they both repudiate radicalism and extremism. But an approach is only an aspect of one’s worldview, not the entirety of one’s worldview. Defining any political worldview is a challenging task as it encompasses an entire belief system. But the worldview of a moderate/centrist is even harder to define because it can only be understood by comparing it to other competing worldviews.
Just as it would be difficult—perhaps impossible—to comprehend silence if we had never heard sound, we can’t very well say what a moderate believes apart from the political culture they dwell in. A moderate in a society where the majority of the population believe all their problems can be blamed on the Jews and the biggest disagreement centers on whether the Jews should be exterminated or simply fined is not the same as a moderate in a society such as ours. The middle approach in each of these situations is radically different.
To complicate matters further, a moderate can simply mean one who is distrustful of the other political parties or ideologies around them and—perhaps—apathetic or disdainful of the politics in general and, therefore, believes that claiming to be a moderate absolves them of political labels they detest. But this tells us nothing about what a person actually believes. For our purposes here, we’re interested in how a conservative worldview might differ from a centrist worldview; not how people who claim to hold a political worldview differ from those who claim they don’t.
The Synergy of Centrism
Some simply define centrism as the sum-total of all non-extremist viewpoints. If it can be assumed that all non-extremist viewpoints have an element of truth and value to them, then a centrist may hedge their bets by declaring all viewpoints equally valid and, therefore, settle for whatever approach lands them smack dab in the center of it all.
This concept may be visualized on the notorious Five-Dimensional Political Compass:
The internet is replete with political quizzes that attempt to tell you where you’d land on the Five-Dimensional Political Compass. Those whose answers are a composite of authoritarian, libertarian, liberal, and conservative points of view will land somewhere in the middle and be declared to be a moderate.
This is sheer nonsense.
This approach labels both those with multiple extremist views and those with multiple non-extremist views moderates. A person who believes in both white supremacy (radical nationalism) and that the government should abolish private property (communism) is not a centrist, even if those extreme Right and Left political viewpoints net to zero. This explains, in part, why groups such as national populists seemingly sprung out of nowhere to form Trump’s base. Where did these people come from? They had always been there but were wrongly identified as moderates due to their support of both issues on the Right (such as tighter immigration control) and the Left (protectionism).
What’s more, political worldviews can’t be boiled down to a checklist of political policy questions. There isn’t a spot on the graph for people who are uncomfortable with dogma that doesn’t take nuance or trade-offs into account. For example, this quiz asks whether our laws should be based on our religious beliefs and values like the 10 commandments. But it doesn’t express what that means. Does it mean we’d derive our value system from a religious heritage to understand complex relationships such as the nature of humanity and natural rights? Or does it mean we’d attempt to impose a theocratic rule on society taken directly from Scripture? Those are radically different ideas that can’t simply be addressed with a yes, no, or maybe.
In our effort to wrap our head around abstract concepts such as political worldviews, we naturally tend to oversimply things. It’s understandable why we do this—in order to make sense of the competing worldviews we have to hold some image in our mind of a concept. We do this with God all the time—envisioning some bearded, old man in a blindingly white robe sitting upon a golden throne. And the results are equally problematic, silly, and unhelpful.
Quantifying the Unquantifiable
Political philosophy should never be reduced to a sliding scale of Left vs Right, or absolute anarchy vs absolute tyranny. It is true many of our political ideas may exist in this spectrum, but it doesn’t follow that they exist only on this spectrum. We wouldn’t say that because people could be thought of as either more introverted or extroverted we would know all there is to know about someone if we could simply determine where they existed on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. We can’t reduce people to sliding scales or five-dimensional graphs any more than we can worldviews. The information is helpful, but significantly incomplete.
How then is a conservative different than a moderate? The difference has less to do with which political policies they advocate or how strongly they hold their convictions, but in their understanding of the nature of humanity and the role and necessity of institutions. The moderate has much in common with the conservative (which we will explore in Part 2) and a few important differences (which will close with in Part 3).