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`CONSERVATIVE' AND `LIBERAL' CARRY TOO MUCH CONNOTATION

If politicians could stop throwing mud along with sticks and stones for awhile they could raise the election to a new high. In fact a new high could be reached by the slingers just calling each other new and improved names. While sticks and stones do break bones, names can also hurt, especially in the political arena when a name becomes a label and a perfectly good word becomes pejorative. New and improved names would include a replacement for "conservative," which was bad in the old days of "Goldwater for President" but is good in the current context.

The problem is that while "liberal" has become as nasty as "liar," "conservative" seems to have been redeemed and is no longer paired with nasty "reactionary" or "radical" as when Goldwater was a presidential candidate. It seems unfair that "liberal" and "conservative" are not either equally nasty or equally neutral. Word definitions change enough that at least one publisher markets a "Dictionary of Changes in Meanings" along with 16 other dictionaries. NCT Publishing notes that this reference book "charts the sense developments of more than 1,300 words, explaining the various meaning that have evolved and illustrating the differing usages with a large number of quotations." Surely this dictionary would include "conservative" as a changed word.It may be that every word really has two meanings. One meaning is the denotation and carries no emotion. The other meaning is the connotation and carries the feeling. It is the connotation that charges a perfectly good word with invective, or spite, or envy, or affection and romance. This is why GM, Ford, and Chrysler don't just sell "cars." They use names that carry emotion and sell Cougars, Cadillacs and Stealths. These words are labels designed to make us feel.

In England, the term "conservative" is more than a political label with a connotation. It is the name of the party that replaced the Tory party, which was active during the 1600s through most of the 1800s.

In the United States the term "conservative" seems to have lost some of its pejorative connotation. This makes it a poor label for politicians who wish to brand opponents in an effort to narrow the opponents constituency. To call someone a "conservative" does not seem to be as derogatory as calling someone a "liberal." In fact in Utah two of the candidates for congress in a three-way race are vigorously arguing about who is the most conservative in the context that more conservative is better than less conservative.

This seems a bit strange since the first English Conservative, Benjamin Disraeli, wanted the working class given the right to vote and sponsored social legislation, the Reform Bill of 1867, that favored workers. It would be an unlikely conservative today who would champion social legislation and be perceived as the best friend of labor. The definition of "conservative" has changed since then.

I found it interesting that my encyclopedia used John Adams and Alexander Hamilton as examples of early conservatives and Thomas Jefferson as an example of a liberal. Most of us seem to blur these distinctions and lump all Founding Fathers into one category and label them as either liberals or conservatives according to the current favorable definition.

The excesses of the French Revolution were at least responsible for the conservatism of Adams and Hamilton, who argued that social change to some extent should be within a traditional framework rather than as the result of revolution.

What makes the use of the word "conservative" so confusing today is the fact that most who label themselves as conservative seem to oppose all but minimal government regulation of the economy. This is a liberal idea. What they seem to advocate is a return to the very liberal economic ideas of Adam Smith and the 1800s.

Conservatives today may be trying to have it both ways as they define themselves. While they want to place emphasis on traditional values and rely on the past as the ultimate source of goodness, wisdom and stability, they also want to be perceived as having new approaches. They seem to claim that we need new old ideas. The old ideas worked and were somehow lost and now we need to return to the values of the past.

One change is that the notion of inalienable rights used to be a liberal idea. Now it seems to be the idea of the conservatives who see us as losing some of these rights.

Since the word "conservative" seems to have lost its negative sting as its meaning has changed, perhaps nominations are in order for a replacement word that feels bad. We need a word as nasty as "liberal." The new word has to be made nasty the way "liberal" was made nasty and must be an easy label to pin on the bad Republicans. That way we'll all be even again for awhile and will all be able to call each other names with equal venom. The other aproach would be to teach our youths to recognize when a word is a label and teach that neither "conservative" nor "liberal" means bad or good.