Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Stop Calling These People ‘Conservative’

By Paul Gottfried, Chronicles

Two years ago, Gracy Olmstead, a journalist who writes on farming and farming communities, partnered with Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) to compose a list of those whom she and the Institute view as “conservatives.” Of the now deceased figures who appear on Olmstead’s list, very few of them have any connection to anything identifiably conservative. Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, and the Catholic socialist Dorothy Day would likely have been puzzled to find themselves on such a list of commendable conservatives, as would Hannah Arendt. Although I admire Arendt for her study of totalitarianism, I have no idea in what sense she was a conservative—she certainly went ballistic when the GOP nominated Goldwater in 1964.

Yet Olmstead tries to get around this classificatory problem by telling us the following:

Several of the thinkers, activists, and writers listed above were viewed as progressive during their lifetime because of their willingness to critique and call out corruption, to question the powerful, and to come alongside the vulnerable and disenfranchised. But a conservatism that will truly last and build a beautiful legacy must draw these people into its canon and learn from them.

This admission got me to thinking about whether Olmstead is confusing two categories of human beings who should be kept distinct: those whom she personally likes and those who belonged to the right. Like ISI, Olmstead is not necessarily on the right but trying to use the “conservative” label to describe those whom she thinks we should approve of.


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