Consider a story this week in the Financial Times about the views of Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer. According to the FT's Washington correspondent, Scalia speaks for "radical Republicans" because he wants to interpret the constitution literally. Meanwhile, Breyer represents the "moderate Democrats" because he "offers a more pragmatic vision: Judges should consider not just ancient words but modern consequences, he said, adding that courts should try their best to interpret the law in ways that 'are consistent with the people's will.' "
This has, um, exactly everything wrong. Saying that the courts should follow the Rousseauian General Will of the people isn't "moderate" at all - indeed, it's a form of radicalism. Meanwhile, saying that we should follow the strictures of our written constitution and laws is definitionally conservative. And conservatism and radicalism are opposites.
In 1957, Samuel Huntington wrote a fabulous essay titled "Conservatism as an Ideology," in which he noted that conservatism lacks an inherent ideal. "No political philosopher has ever described a conservative utopia," wrote Huntington. Unlike socialism, Marxism and Islamic fundamentalism, conservatism merely aims to preserve that which is deemed worth preserving in a given society. As Huntington noted, bona fide "conservatives" in America, Great Britain and Portugal each want to conserve very different things. A "conservative" in Saudi Arabia wants to preserve their crapulent monarchy. Similarly, a "conservative" in the Soviet Union would want to preserve the rule of the Politburo. Meanwhile, someone in contemporary Russia who wanted to restore the Soviet system would properly be called a "reactionary."
But here in America, a conservative is someone who wants to preserve those institutions and ideals enshrined in the Constitution. For example, a "conservative" at a liberal university would be someone who wants to preserve what they love about that university. Pym Fortuyn the gay libertine politician who was murdered in Holland for saying he wanted to limit immigration from Muslim countries so he could keep the party going was, in effect, a conservative. Similarly, this is why Huntington and philosophers like Friedrich Hayek argued that America might be the only place in the world where conservatives were the real defenders of liberty because they wanted to preserve our classical-liberal institutions.
Yes, in a sense it would be easier if progressives and other leftists never coopted the word "liberal," which historically means someone in favor of a limited government and maximized economic and political freedom. But I am not optimistic that the media or academia will ever lift a finger to clarify the confusion over all of this. It's just too easy to describe the bad guys as conservatives and the conservatives as bad guys.