The Reverend Jesse Jackson just came to our area to speak at an event by a local foundation. We are used to the reverend’s explanation of our nation’s history and he delivered it. His sermon/pep talk soon degenerated into another expected road, an attack on conservatives:

“Conservative America is a contradiction in terms…America by definition is a liberal idea…We make room for the locked out and rejected. We are a liberating, emancipating nation by definition.”

You know what?  He is right, to a point. America indeed was built on the emancipating idea of liberty. The liberal idea is at the heart of what constitutes our “city over a hill.” The problem he has, and most Americans share, is a problem of definitions. Unfortunately, we are at a stage in our intellectual life where some words have been redefined to the point of incoherence. If you are not a “liberal”, you are a “conservative” and that is about it. What the words really convey is lost in today’s debate so much that a man like Jackson, who is not a liberal at all, can be portrayed as the quintessential role model for liberalism. This lack of substance is shared by people belonging to a wide array of ideological groups, from Rush Limbaugh to Barak Obama.

“Throne and altar” conservatism survive in Europe for long, tied up to the feudal system and the birth of nation states where the prerogatives of royalty merged with the power of churches to maintain a caste system based on loyalty, land, faith, and tradition. Against such system, there developed a new understanding of society of society where political freedom was highlighted and the subject gave way to the citizen. Likewise, the despised man of commerce began to exert greater influence as the feudal synthesis broke apart. The free man in a free society emerged, not without much resistance.

Translated to the revolutionary milieu of America, the liberal idea blossomed. Political freedom, individual freedom and economic freedom gave way to the greatest experiment of liberty since men appeared in the realm of history. The liberal was a man who understood himself as a free individual, called to pursue his well being without guaranties of success. His opportunity to pursue happiness was safeguarded by his rights to life and liberty and the assurance that the state was sidelined and tamed by specific and narrow constitutional provisions. He could believe as he saw fit and he could work hard to earn his bread; his property was truly his and he chose what to do with it.

To make a long story short, that liberal idea was gradually corroded by a new vision of society creeping over the face of liberalism. The assault was such that the true liberal began to see himself as one attempting to recapture the initial vision, trying to preserve it against the encroachment of a modern understanding; hence, the word conservative. Of course, conservatism itself can be viewed in varied ways and, as all things do, has admitted new understandings. It remains true, however, that the lost liberal idea is now in need of being conserved.

Thus, Jesse Jackson can call himself a liberal but of a very different sort, definitely not the liberal he pretends to be, one who is aligned with the founding’s liberalism. His modern liberalism is collectivist in the economic realm and permissive in other areas. For the most part, it has detached itself from a social consensus and an overarching realm of values that gave birth to our nation.

He may better call himself a “Progressive” but that term itself is problematic.  Whatever he calls himself, however, it remains untrue that the kind of liberalism he defends is the one he portrayed as the defining value of our nation. The contradiction in terms lies not in conservatism but in his brand of liberalism.