The word conservative gets bandied about a lot in U.S. politics, but as I mentioned last week, there are few individuals in this country whose conservatism is not partly influenced by liberalism, which is decidedly not a conservative ideology. It’s worthwhile to understand where this word comes from and how it is used politically.
The gist of conservatism is right in the word: conservatives want to preserve the traditional direction of society. That said, conservatives are not entirely resistant to change; they simply want it to come slowly. They also have a fundamental distrust of human reason. Where liberals trust in the individual to make the best choices for themselves (even if it does lead people to be assholes sometimes), conservatives understand humans as flawed and not necessarily able to reach the best decisions.
The father of conservatism (if there can be a father for an ideology that is more a state of mind than anything) is Edmund Burke. Burke, who funnily enough was an advocate for the American revolution, wrote in response to the French revolution. He believed that the rights of the individual rejected the idea that people are woven together in a “social fabric.” Part of what brings people together is not a social contract, as liberals believe, but instead customs and traditions. Because people are maybe a little dumb, they need these traditions and government to restrain them. Because all of these things fit together in complex and important ways, you cannot radically change them willy-nilly.
Conservatism values order, stability, and continuity in a society of connected individuals. The obstacles to these values are radical ideas and general human idiocy.
Because conservatism is about conserving, what we conserve can change. For Burke, it was the natural aristocracy, while for early American conservatives, the aristocracy became replaced with propertied rich dudes.
In the United States, conservatism is thrown about often to mean Republican, but there are many Republicans who are probably more traditionally liberal than conservative (as per our discussion last week). It’s probably easier to understand the word in the plural since there are a lot of different things one might want to preserve. This is best explained when you hear someone describe themselves as socially conservative but economically liberal – not trusting in a radical restructuring of social institutions, but also trusting that people make the best economic decisions for themselves.
In the United States, conservatism is synonomous with the religious right and now with the Tea Party. We can consider the Tea Party conservative because they want to conserve what they see as the original intent of the Constitution. This is, of course, interesting, since a conservative at the writing of the Constitution would have wanted to preserve an entirely different set of ideals.
The word conservative is so vast in its application that it can be applied to just about any political perspective at any time. There are probably few old-fashioned conservatives who support a natural aristocracy, but there are many today who support keeping what Burke called the “little platoons” of family and property aimed toward tradition rather than change.
Next week, we’ll explore a word that conservatives really dislike: socialism.