It’s hard to tell whether Andrew Sullivan’s puzzlement – about why conservatives don’t recognize what Sullivan sees as Obama’s fundamentally conservative nature – is genuine or Socratic, but the matter seems simple to me: most Americans who identify as “conservative” aren’t conservative in the sense Sullivan intends.

“Conservative” has multiple meanings, distinguished by having different antonyms:

An Oakeshottian conservative wants to moderate the pace of change and to proceed incrementally and experimentally rather than suddenly. This is Sullivan’s meaning. The antonym of “conservative” in this sense is “radical.”

A traditionalist conservative is someone who prefers old ways to new. (In the extreme, this can mean opposing the growth of knowledge that might threaten traditional beliefs.) The antonym is “progressive.”

An authoritarian conservative distrusts the use ordinary people make of personal freedom and favors strict social controls over individual behavior. The antonym is “liberal.”

A particularist conservative is unashamed about favoring his own interests and values, and those of his family, neighborhood, ethnicity, and nation over those of outsiders. The antonym is “universalist” (or “liberal” in another sense of that term).

A market conservative likes capitalism and distrusts regulation and state production. The antonym imagined by such conservatives is “socialist.”

There is no word I know of to define the sort of person who prefers hierarchy to equality, and in particular who both supports the maintenance of the current hierarchy and opposes both social mobility and the leveling of status gradients. Under current U.S. conditions, that mostly means favoring the rich over the prosperous, the prosperous over the middle class, the middle class over the working class, and the working class over the truly poor. Call these “hierarchical” or “plutocratic” conservatives, as opposed to “egalitarians.”

Obama, as I read him, is indeed Oakeshottian rather than radical, but he is also moderately progressive rather than traditionalist, quite liberal rather than authoritarian, reasonably universalist, and purely pragmatic about regulation and state production. But most of all, Obama is strongly egalitarian: he wants both more social mobility and gentler status gradients. That’s the feature of health care reform that the plutocrats really hate, however much they maunder on about death panels and stifling innovation: it’s a twelve-digit-per-year income transfer downwards.

The current Republican party is radically reactionary rather than conservative in any ordinary sense of that term: how else could you explain wanting to destroy public education? It’s traditionalist to the point of obscurantism, and it’s deeply, deeply hierarchical and plutocratic. (The tension between the obscurantist traditionalists and the plutocrats – who favor technical progress and economic change, and many of whom believe in personal liberty, at least for themselves and those like them – keeps popping out.)

Obama – precisely because of his Oakeshottian virtues – is these people’s worst nightmare. Of course his skin color is offensive to them, since it challenges the strongest status gradient of all. But their hatred of him is more than skin-deep, and it’s by no means foolish.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.