What does it mean to be conservative? Well, the classic definition is “one who is disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., and to limit change.” And that definitely applies to those who consider themselves political and social Conservatives (with a capital “C”) and resist or actively oppose changes to the status quo in America today.
But if the status quo is based on sexual and racial inequality and unfair treatment of the poor and the powerless, why would anyone want to maintain it? Basically, for one of two reasons:
1. the current status quo benefits their group (the wealthy, whites, men) and change could undermine their social and financial advantages, or
2. the current status quo actually harms their group but questioning the beliefs they grew up with is frightening or uncomfortable.
Getting the first type of Conservative to consider and support cultural changes that give more respect and opportunity to powerless groups is extremely difficult. Because it’s a tough sell to get someone to champion social policies that reduce their power and their prestige by spreading it around a little more.
But it can also be difficult to get the second type of Conservative to support change, because it feels like a sin or a crime to question “traditional values.” Because if you don’t believe in the complete package, no matter how terrible parts of it may be, you won’t have anything left to believe in at all. But where is it written that a thinking person can’t hold strong beliefs on many issues and still support progressive change on others? Values are not mutually exclusive!
To accept the basic equality of all people and support a system that truly offers equal opportunity and equal protection for all regardless of one’s sex, race, religion, or age should not require any lessening of one’s values. Believing in strict rules, hard work, honest dealings, commitment to family, church attendance, etc. should never keep one from also considering that there are some “traditional values” that aren’t right and need to be changed. If traditional values require sexual inequality in home or workplace, racial segregation, lack of access to contraceptives, a workforce that can barely make ends meet, etc., then those particular values definitely need to be reexamined.
We Americans pride ourselves on our independence, but too may are unwilling to step outside their comfort zone when it comes to considering social change. We pride ourselves on our generosity of spirit, but are unwilling to listen to the other side of an issue or find a middle ground that benefits the most people. But I think Americans are capable of great things! So maybe it’s time to understand that we CAN be both conservative and progressive. We can hold tightly to the values that encourage us to be better people (honesty, kindness, hard work, fair play) and still support progressive values of equality for all at home, at work, and at play.