Back in my undergraduate days, one of my political science professors semi-jokingly explained the difference between our (the United States) political system and the Soviet system: “they have one political part, we have one more than that.” While this was obviously a oversimplification, he did make a very good point. After all, while we do get a choice, it is a rather limited choice between the Republican or the Democrat.
Because the United States has but two truly viable parties, this tends to create an ideological compression in which people are often forced to pick a party that does not reflect the range of their beliefs. While this is true of the Democrats, this was especially evident as the Republicans went through the process of selecting their 2012 candidate. To be specific, this process has made it rather clear that there are at least two distinct types of conservatives that have been compressed under the tent of one party.
The first type is the fiscal conservative. Being a fiscal conservative is generally taken to involve being conservative about taxation and government spending. To be more specific, fiscal conservatives favor keeping both of these at a minimum.
While I typically get branded as a liberal, I am actually a fiscal conservative: I favor lowering taxes and government expenditures to a minimal level consistent with the government fulfilling its legal and moral duties (such as defense). I am also against wasteful spending, corruption, and pork. As might be imagined, the disputes tend to get started when it comes to the matter of defining the legal and moral duties of the state.
The second type is the social conservative. Being a social conservative is generally taken to involve the idea that one should conserve (or preserve) “the way things were” and thus avoid change in social areas. The social areas include things such as religion, morals, race-relations, gender roles and so on. As might be imagined, there are degrees of conservatism in this area. Some folks tend to regard almost any change in the social areas as suspicious and would prefer to keep everything as it was. Others are considerably more flexible and focus on conserving what they regard as good, but are willing to accept certain changes. Of course, a “conservative” who is too willing to accept change (even good change) runs the obvious risk of becoming a liberal or even a progressive.
In a limited sense, I am a conservative: I am quite willing to conserve what is good and I am against changing things without justification. This is, of course, a reasonable position: to infer that past idea, morals and values are incorrect simply because they are old is just as fallacious as assuming that they are correct just because they are old. After all, the age of such things (unlike milk), at least by itself, has no bearing on their goodness or badness. As might be imagined, being a conservative in this sense is not what people usually think of when they think of what it is to be a conservative. After all, someone who thinks that something should be conserved on the basis of rational arguments for its goodness just seems to be, well, rational. As such, a mere willingness to conserve what is both old and good does not seem to be enough to count as a social conservative. The question is, of course, what more is needed.
While some might take the easy path and try to define conservatives against a straw man version of the liberal, that would be rather unfair and not exactly reasonable. It would, of course, be equally unfair to present a straw man version of the conservative. That said, given that the political vocabulary is so limited in this regard, it might be rather hard to avoid creating straw men. In fact, the ideological compression caused by the United States’ two party system might make straw men inevitable.
The easy and obvious approach is to regard social conservatives as people who regard the way things have been in the social areas as being correct. Naturally, if they claim that such things are good because they are old or traditional, they are committing the classic fallacy of appeal to tradition. If they prefer such things because of their psychology, then this says why they believe what they do, but does nothing to support the correctness of said beliefs. After all, if they just like the old and dislike the new, this does nothing to show that the old is good and the new is bad. It just says something about their mental states. To use the obvious analogy, the fact that I have some preference for music from my college days does not entail that the music of today is inferior or bad. Likewise, the fact that some folks prefer the music of today to the music of that time does not prove that the music of the 1980s is inferior.
To avoid falling into fallacies, a conservative of this sort would need to argue that the traditional values are better than the liberal alternatives based on grounds other than mere tradition. That is, they need to show that the traditional values (as they see them) are good, rather than saying that they are good because they are traditional. Of course, this would make such people contingent conservatives. After all, their commitment would be to what is good rather than what is merely traditional and this would leave open the possibility that they could accept “liberal” values as good. Unless, of course, it is a matter of necessity that traditional values are always better than the liberal values. The challenge then, obviously enough, is to account for the initial goodness of today’s conservative values-after all, there are various much older values that they replaced.
It is, of course, somewhat tempting to take “liberal” and “conservative” as being marketing and rhetorical terms rather than having much value in categorizing political views. After all, people who identify as liberals take being a liberal to involve the virtues of tolerance, acceptance and so on while regarding conservatives as clinging to an unjust past out of fear of change. In response, those who identify as conservatives often see themselves as defending what is good and holy from the depravity of the godless liberals and their agenda.