Conservatism is an approach to politics and life which many Americans simply do not understand. They often associate conservative thought with intolerance and selfishness. While there are, no doubt, intolerant and selfish conservatives, conservatism as a political mindset necessitates neither intolerance nor selfishness. A person can be a card-carrying conservative and be tolerant of many types of diverse people and lifestyles. Similarly, a person can be a compassionate, other-oriented, and giving individual without relinquishing his or her status as a conservative. In fact, there is nothing about the core values of conservatives which makes them any less human or humane than persons of other political persuasions.
So what is the essence of conservatism in America and how are conservatives different than members of other political groups?
To understand the conservative mind, it is essential to visualize conservatism as a philosophy built on two founding principles: freedom and responsibility. These two values have such a symbiotic relationship in the conservative mind that each is almost undefinable without reference to the other.
While conservatives place tremendous value on freedom they also recognize that the discipline of responsible behavior is the key to preserving freedom. Responsibility is the price we must all pay to live in a free society. As responsibility erodes so too do our freedoms.
Many criticize conservatives for protecting the status quo and pushing for "sameness." This is an interesting twisting of the truth. It is true that conservatives tend to honor the status quo and are quick to reject sudden, dramatic social change, but this position is not based on the need for sameness. American conservatives are wary of any change which could undo what they consider to be the finest political system the world has ever known. They would rather live with imperfection than risk everything on drastic, idealistic crusades.
Conservatives are willing to accept inequalities and differences among people. All they ask for is the freedom to choose, the freedom to compete, and the freedom to risk. There can never be any real sameness in a world where individuals determine their own unique destinies.
The sameness which conservatives do insist upon is that all citizens act responsibly and accept the consequences of their actions. Some might read this and dismiss it as common sense, but it is in no way a common thought process among American liberals. In fact, conservatives often wonder if liberal America asks anything of its citizenry. It seems that in the liberal approach to government, the more mistakes people make, the more bad choices people make, the more unwilling people are to pull their own weight, the more the government should somehow compensate, and even reward, these people for their irresponsible behavior.
This is a very fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives believe that everyone should have the opportunity to make something of his or her self, but it is up to the individual to use that freedom wisely. Liberals take the rather demeaning stance that people are not capable of making decisions for themselves, they need to be led, guided, supported, coddled, and constantly provided with excuses for their failings. In the liberal mind if someone fails it is always some injustice, syndrome, or malevolent entity which is to blame, but blame is never attached to the person doing the failing. There is a complete absence of individual responsibility.
While the liberal might expect his or her children to be responsible, self sufficient, respectful, productive, principled, future-oriented, self-controlled, and capable of using common sense, the same liberal will never expect these things of the general citizenry. This is what makes conservatives so different, we do, and always will, expect these things of all citizens. That is the essence of conservatism in America: individual responsibility in an atmosphere of freedom.