The Conservative Tradition in America

By Charles W. Dunn; J. David Woodard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
The Problem of Defining
Conservatism

What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried,
against the new and untried?

ABRAHAM LINCOLN1

A political culture is a patterned way of thinking about politics and government. The American political system is supported by a culture that fosters a sense of civic duty, takes pride in the nation's constitutional arrangements and provides support for the exercise of essential civil liberties. Although Jesse Jackson and Ronald Reagan, Ted Kennedy and William F. Buckley, Jr., Paul Simon and Jesse Helms differ on specific issues of public policy, they still have much in common. Even these political adversaries agree that the two-party system is important, that there should be free speech and the competition of ideas, and that one should respect the opinions of others. A political culture consists of the fundamental assumptions citizens have about how the political process should operate. It is the "rules of the political game" for the social order.

A political ideology differs from political culture by emphasizing what the political process should accomplish or do. How government and politics should function may find conservatives and liberals agreeing, but what government and politics should do customarily finds them differing. Their respective goals and desired results lead one to want to ban abortion, the other to support it; one to oppose passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, the other to desire its adoption; one to oppose new taxes, the other to support them. For political scientists, liberalism and conservatism are ideologies, meaning that they provide a guide for how the government should function. Not always are the differences between the two as crystal-clear as the examples above, but the tendency among ideologues is to disagree on major public policy questions.

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