Very often in political discourse, the labels liberal/progressive are juxtaposed with conservative/traditional (or variants thereof). But there are numerous instances where these terms become misleading, not only due to various connotations associated with them, but because the denotation of each word may not adequately describe the position on either side.

Take the educational choice movement, for example. To the extent that this multifaceted phenomenon can be called a unified “movement,” its defining characteristic migth well be identified as the upsetting of the current status quo. That is, homeschool, private school, and parochial school advocates alike are dissatisfied with the American public education system, and to varying degrees and in varying ways care calling for reform.

And yet those in the school choice movement are typically identified as “conservatives” or “traditionalists” while those opposing the privatization of education are said to be “liberals” or “progressives.” If we view the institutions of public education as the object of criticism and praise in this discussion, we quickly see that these labels are misleading.

The school choice initiative is essentially a progressive movement with respect to the instantiated structures of public education. Whether through vouchers, tax credits, or other policy means, the aim is to radically change the way in which education is delivered to American children.

Contrariwise, those opposed to these projects are conservative with respect to the education establishment. Any threat or hint of change is vociferously engaged. The current state of affairs must continue.

Now of course many in the school choice movement have reforming or progressive views on education precisely because they tend to be more “conservative” on issues of prior logical or ethical importance. And it is this tension present in the name “conservative” that is illustrated well by Russell Kirk when he writes, “The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.”

In his essay on “Ten Conservative Principles,” Kirk writes that this tenth principle balances traditional and progressive tendencies:

The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.

We see that the labels “conservative” and “liberal” can be misleading on their face, and so that without a deeper understanding of the principles of each mindset, these labels can be inadequate. The public discussion of these issues must be informed by a more comprehensive analysis, both explaining and moving beyond this conservative/liberal dualism.