Conservatism is a political philosophy whose chief characteristic is an avowed tendency to resist rapid change and to support traditional norms. The term is much used in the context of politics – either to describe movements which attempt to preserve aspects of the status quo, or, more specifically, to describe a particular ideology of this sort in the Western countries. Conservatives are the counterpart to radicals and revolutionaries.

Conservative, as a descriptive word, is generally opposed to progressive, or more specifically to liberal, socialist or revolutionary ideologies. It is often used as a synonym for right-wing, though there are significant right-wing movements that are far too reactionary to be properly considered Conservative.

Political conservatism is, broadly speaking, support of traditional political views and values. Consequently, what might be conservative in one society might be quite radical in a different society. In addition, in some cases people who regard themselves as conservatives may advocate quite radical reactionary changes to the status quo.

Table of contents
1 Conservatism as an anti-ideology
2 Conservatism and tradition
3 Conservatism and Fascism
4 Conservatism and conservation
5 Conservatism and critical theory
6 Conservative political movements
7 Conservatives in different countries
8 History of conservatism
9 Conservatism in the United States
10 Famous conservatives
11 See also
12 External links and references

Conservatism as an anti-ideology

Attempts at defining "conservatism" run into an immediate problem. Conservatism, by definition, is sceptical of plans to re-model human society after an ideological model. It is more a habit of mind than a doctrine. As such, it is easier to define conservatives in reference to what they oppose than what they support.

While the word Conservatism is often used to simply describe the attitude of supporting how things as they currently are, it can also refer to a social doctrine originated by Edmund Burke. Burke wrote at a time when European thinkers were beginning to develop the ideology of modernism, which emphasizes progress guided by reason. Conservatives are not opposed to progress per se, although they are often more doubtful about it than followers of many other ideologies. Conservatives do not reject reason completely, but they place much more emphasis on tradition or faith than is common in other schools of political thought. According to the author of the Conservatism FAQ, the essence of conservatism is "its emphasis on tradition as a source of wisdom that goes beyond what can be demonstrated or even explicitly stated."

The conservative world view emphasises the unknowable. Existing institutions have virtues that cannot be fully grasped by any single person or interest group. An attempt to modify the complex web of human interactions that form human society for the sake of some doctrine or theory runs the risk of running afoul of the iron law of unintended consequences. Conservatives attempt to remain vigilant against the possibility of moral hazards.

Rather, the conservative embraces an attitude that is deeply suspicious of any attempt to remake society in the service of any ideology or doctrine, whether that doctrine is libertarian, socialist, or developed from some other source. They see history as being full of disastrous schemes that seemed like good ideas at the time. Human society is something rooted and organic; to try to prune and shape it according to the plans of an ideologue is to invite unforeseen disaster. Conservatism is more of a mindset than a doctrine. It is ad hoc by necessity. It is easier to say what it is not, than to define it. Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind envisions a conservatism that is as hostile to the levelling wrought by the market economy as it is to the plans of socialists and social reformers.

Conservatism and tradition

Conservatives emphasize traditional views of institutions such as the family and the church. Generally speaking, they are less likely to consider unmarried couples, even those with children, as families. On the issue of homosexuality, they are quite unlikely to consider gay couples as families, also even when they have children. They usually oppose the adoption of children by gay couples, and they are extremely unlikely to countenance legal recognition of gay or other unorthodox family structures. In religious life, they are likely to reject any reinterpretation or modification of traditional beliefs, such as in areas of morality and biblical scholarship.

The relationship of political conservatism to the religious right is a perennial source for commentary. It could be argued that the religious right is scarcely conservative: it is instead a movement for social reform with a strong ideological basis, wishing to remake society through forced obedience to its version of Christian values. The religious right is called conservative primarily because there is a strong element of nostalgia in its plan for social reform; it sees liberal, secular society as deviating from a better world that it believes used to exist. Its plan to remake the world involves reviving an older vision. Were reactionary a neutral term, it would apply here.

A similar tension might be said to exist between conservatism and patriotism. Conservatives, out of their respect for traditional, established institutions, tend to strongly identify with nationalist movements, existing governments, and the military. Conservatives often believe that these institutions embody admirable values like honour, duty, courage, and loyalty. They are independent sources of tradition and ritual pageantry that conservatives tend to admire. They suspect their political opponents of being too open to foreign influences, and too intellectually remote and elitist to feel nationalistic pride. In admiring these institutions, conservatives may be less attentive to the fact that these institutions are often the causes for major social change; and that they tend to break down regional differences and local customs, and mix together people from widely differing regions and backgrounds.

Conservatism and Fascism

To speak of nationalism, of course, is to call to mind the ugly history of Fascism. Is there a difference between conservatism and Fascism? Some liberals will be tempted to say no.

But conservatism, at its root, is an attitude of political and social quietism. The big plans of the Big Man, the noisy and levelling mass movements, the Führerprinzip, and the personality cults that are central to most systems that are called Fascist totalitarianism ought to be deeply unsettling to the conservative mindset. In history, it is a regrettable truth that some conservative traditionalists have been drawn to Fascist movements. Some may have admired the moral and military renewal that Fascist leaders promised. Others may have only thought Fascism a more palatable alternative to socialism. Conservatism stands for learning from the mistakes of the past, and primum non nocere is an essential conservative principle. Almost all contemporary conservatives vow that they "won't be fooled again."

Conservatism and conservation

Although the conservation movement has roots in social conservative anti-commercial values, the relationship between political conservatives and green politics is uneven. Some on both sides, with very solid anthropological and other scientific backing, view ecological conservation and respect for traditional lifeways as a part of fiscal conservativism and necessary to preserve traditional values. Others note the generally socially liberal and sometimes radical accounting reform, monetary reform and education reform goals of Greens and conclude that they have nothing in common with conservatives. In the UK, a Blue-Green Alliance is an alignment of these "green" and "right" forces, although in the US the terms Green Republican or Green Libertarian have come into use to imply the same. Dan Sullivan has written on the convergence of Libertarian and Green views in the USA.

Conservatism and critical theory

A large body of writing has been produced by the critical theorists associated with the Frankfurt School, vaguely critical of the "hegemony" of "late capitalist" "discourse." At least a part of the agenda of this body of doctrine, especially as it relates to multiculturalism, and objects to the steamrollering of local folkways by the commercial media originating in affluent urban societies, seems to be fundamentally aligned with cultural conservatism. This, too, is a world-view that is sceptical of the claims of modernism to represent unalloyed progress, and is sceptical of the claims of any ideology to represent anything but the selfish will of the ideologue.

But although the literary critical theorists seem to have abandoned Marxist dialectical materialism in exchange for a neo-Platonic idealism based on a postulate of universal social construction, conservatives are understandably leery of its Marxist origins, its pervasive moral relativism, the egalitarianism that seems to be its only moral absolute, its harping on race and gender roles, and its fascination with the "transgressive". Still, it may be that the chief dividing line between these two critics of modernism is the lack of a shared jargon.

Conservative political movements

Contemporary political conservatism, in most western democratic countries has two important aspects:
  • Fiscal conservatism: the support of a traditional economic system of a place (or of an idealized version of such a system, perhaps never fully realized).
  • Social conservatism: the support of traditional values, i.e., morality, and particularly of religious morality; also, support of governmental restrictions on personal behavior with an aim of upholding traditional values.

It is possible for one to be a fiscal conservative but not a social conservative; in the United States at present, this is the stance of libertarianism. It is also possible to be a social conservative but not a fiscal conservative. At present, this is a common political stance in, for example, Ireland and among some American leftists.

Some have claimed that conservatism is the attitude or lack thereof that justifies whatever state of things currently are. In a communist country, conservatives are communists; in a mercantilist country, conservatives are mercantilists; in a social-democrat country, conservatives are social-democrats; in a feudal country, conservatives are for feudality; in a libertarian country, conservatives are libertarians. Yet this cannot be the whole story; there is an independent justification of the attitude of conservatism, which tends to favour what is organic and has been shaped by history, against the planned and artificial. Some commentators have argued that despite the movement's rhetoric, it has been an agent for change, and the traditions which it supports are in fact of relatively recent invention. [links/references?]

Within the United States, there are several distinct elements to conservatism. The Neoconservative movement originates in American liberalism, primarily from the Northeast or the West Coast, but is marked by a significant move to the right from the 1960s onwards. Palaeoconserativism, by contrast, originated in other parts of the United States; its proponents are unlikely to have once been liberals.

Conservative views on the economy often overlap with those of libertarians, but they disagree with the libertarian position on social issues. However, there are some libertarians whose views on social or cultural issues are closer to conservatism than most libertarians are, such as Llewellyn Rockwell or Murray Rothbard; these are sometimes called paleolibertarians.

Other strands of conservatism have been influenced by the counterrevolutionary Catholic thought of figures like Joseph de Maistre, and the distributism of G. K. Chesterton and the French traditionalists (e.g. Henri Corbin). Some conservatives positions originated from the Frankfurt School, after taking (like the neoconservatives) a turn to the right — such as the editors of Telos.

Paleoconservative publications: Modern Age, Chronicles
Neoconservative publications: Commentary, The Public Interest, First Things (has expressed controversial attitudes towards religion and against separation of church and state that many other neoconservatives reject).

In the United States and western Europe, conservatism is generally associated with the following views:

  • Personal responsibility
  • General opposition to "big government" policies or state inverventionism
  • Support for Judeo-Christian religious and moral values.
  • Support for strong law enforcement and strong penalties for crimes.
  • Restraint in taxation and regulation of businesses.
  • Support for a strong military, and well-defended protected borders with regulated immigration
  • Support for drug prohibition.
  • Opposition to (or support for lessening) many state-run social programs such as welfare and medical care
  • Opposition to policies such as affirmative action and multi-lingual education which can be perceived as un-patriotic or government favoritism of minority groups.

Conservatives differ widely on some issues as well. For example, many support open international trade, while some support some form of protection for domestic business such as import tariffs.

Conservatives in different countries

What constitutes conservative politics and policies, obviously, will depend on the traditions and customs of a given country.

In the United States, most persons who call themselves conservatives believe strongly in the Second Amendment and are deeply opposed to gun control. In many other industrialized democracies, guns are strictly regulated - in Japan and the United Kingdom it is extremely difficult for a private citizen to own firearms, and the conservative movements of those countries do not generally favor changing these laws. It is likely that most conservatives in those countries would actively oppose a movement to make gun ownership as unregulated as it is in the USA.

The concept of social conservatism may in some countries, for instance in Continental Europe, represent a paternalist interest for the social conditions of the people, exemplified by Brismarck's reforms on old-age pensions and health insurance, and in other countries represent the promotion of traditional values and religious morality.

In non-democratic countries, conservatives may be the advocates of the existing non-democratic government. For example, in China the conservatives are the leading Communist party officials, while in Iran the conservatives are the hardline Islamic fudamentalists. In these nations, the "conservative" label characterizes people who are against sudden and radical changes in the form of government and believe that the nation is best served with a focus on stability rather than on political or economic revolution.

In Latin America, conservatives traditionally aligned with the Roman Catholic Church, against separation of church and state, against extending voting rights to descendants of Native Americans, and against public education. As in the USA and many other parts of the world, during the 20th century mainstream conservatives gradually moved their positions to closer to that of the traditional liberals. In Latin America, with the more liberal clergy of the post Vatican II era, conservatives are less strictly aligned with the Church, but continue to afirm what they consider traditional Catholic values.

Conservative goals can vary not only between countries, but in the same country over time. Many conservatives (see Dixiecrat) in the USA once supported enforced racial segregation, but no mainstream conservative today (see United States Republican Party) would advocate this position.

Although some conservatives generally today agree on the value of free markets and reducing regulation (although to a much lesser extent than favored by libertarians), there is great disagreement on moral questions. Many conservatives feel it is proper for government to take strong actions against homosexuality, abortion, and drug abuse. Other conservatives are concerned that such actions constitute unwarranted intrusion on personal freedom.

History of conservatism

The modern split between conservative and liberal can be traced back to the English Civil War and the French Revolution. Broadly speaking, the predecessors of the conservatives tended to be opposed to the revolution and changes in the monarchy, and conversely for the predecessors to the liberals. Early conservative thinkers included Edmund Burke who argued forcefully against the French Revolution.

Although conservativism shares a common historical root, the beliefs of different conservatives have diverged so that it is difficult to state what constitutes conservative doctrine except in the very broadest terms, and different conservatives will often strongly disagree among themselves.

In this sense conservatism is not a consistent ideology per se, and does not refer to any particular idea, unless a reference is given as to the country and times considered.

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Conservatism in the United States

In the United States, the Republican Party is generally considered to be the party of conservatism. This has been the case since the 1960s, when the conservative wing of that party consolidated its hold, causing it to shift permanently to the right of the Democratic Party.

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In addition, many United States libertarians, in the Libertarian Party and even some in the Republican Party, see themselves as conservative, even though they advocate significant economic and social changes - for instance, further dismantling the welfare settlement or liberalising drug policy. They see these as conservative policies because they conform to the spirit of individual liberty that they consider to be a traditional American value.

On the other end of the scale, some Americans see themselves as conservative while not being supporters of free market policies. These people generally favour protectionist trade policies and government intervention in the market to preserve American jobs. Many of these conservatives were originally supporters of neoliberalism who changed their stance after perceiving that countries such as China were benefitting from that system at the expense of American production.

Finally, many people see the entire American political mainstream as having reached a conservative consensus, with the federal government being run by successive "Republicrat" and right-wing Republican administrations. In support of this theory, they point out that the only recent Democratic President (Bill Clinton) was from the moderate, conservative wing of the Democratic Party. They also suggest that many progressives are switching to the Green Party and thus leaving the electable mainstream.

Americans are often stereotyped by western Europeans as conservative due to their religious and right-wing tendencies as well as what they consider to be puritan attitudes towards sex and drugs (particularly alcohol).

Famous conservatives

Political leaders

Print and media


See also

External links and references