Can someone please tell me what “conservative” even means?

Yes, I can. (You are not the first to ask, and my husband and I had to develop general explainers when we have lived overseas because American conservatism is distinctive for its many factions and for the US press muddying the term.) I’ve written it up most recently in my Iron Ladies explainer, and this is a modification.

Painting with a broad brush, there are fiscal conservatives who prefer balanced budgets, low decefits, smaller bureaucracy; social conservatives who are pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-nuclear family, and limited government, constitutional conservatives, who advocate for originalist interpretations (query, Randy Barnett for specifics of that term) of the Constitution including the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, smaller government, local government, federalism. These categories do not always overlap. In fact, one is usually primary, sometimes to the exclusion of others. For instance, some primary social conservatives have no use for the limited government conservatives and would leglislate morally from the bench or DC. There are far fewer of them than constitutional conservatives who happen to have socially conservative views, but they are concentrated in the DC network bubble, are well funded, and the opposition finds it in their interest to promote them as the face of conservatism. Fiscal and limited government conservatives exist as well. In very general terms, they are the Libertarians. Overlay all of this with the complete foreign policy spectrum of isolationist to interventionist.

When the media uses the term “conservative” they often do so with a heavy implication of social issues even though they are only a fraction of the American conservative makeup.


Teacher of life admin and curator of commentary. Occasional writer.

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Leslie Loftis

Teacher of life admin and curator of commentary. Occasional writer.