Conservatism or political conservatism can refer to any of several historically related political philosophies or political ideologies. There are also a number of Conservative political parties in various countries. All of these are primarily (though not necessarily exclusively) identified with the political right.
Among the significant usages of the term "conservatism" are:
1. Institutional conservatism or conservatism proper - Opposition to rapid change in governmental and societal institutions. Some might criticize this kind of conservatism by saying that it is anti-ideological for emphasizing tradition over ideology.
More controversially, one might add to this list:
4. Business conservatism - Support for business and corporate interests (or, as those on the left would typically say, the capitalist class). See also neoliberalism, laissez-faire, trickle-down economics.
5. Conservative as a mere synonym for right-wing.
6. Compassionate conservatism - George W. Bush's self-declared governing philosophy.
This article discusses all of these usages, except for compassionate conservatism, which is described on a separate page.
Table of contents
An Introduction to Conservatism
In terms of the political spectrum, Conservatism can be contrasted on the one hand to radical right-wing political philosophies or movements such as fascism and to certain reactionary movements, and on the other to progressivism, modern liberalism, communism, and socialism.
Institutional conservatism is, by definition, not revolutionary, but the other forms of conservatism can, at times, be rather revolutionary. Consider for example, the extreme changes of policy wrought by the administration of social conservative Ronald Reagan in the United States, often proudly referred to by his supporters as the "Reagan Revolution."
Because social and institutional conservatism consist, broadly speaking, of support for traditional political views and values, what might be conservative in one society might be quite radical or reactionary in a different time and place. For example:
- Institutional conservatives in the United States are generally opposed to expansion of publicly funded medicine, but institutional conservatives in most European countries would be equally loath to cut their national health programs back to US levels.
- Social conservatives in China sometimes view Christianity as a suspect alien cult, while social conservatives in most western countries have strong ties to Christian tradition.
Conservatism as a political philosophy
For both social conservatives and institutional conservatives, conservatism is a philosophy. For social conservatives, it is primarily a social philosophy and only secondarily a political philosophy; for institutional conservatives, it is the other way around.
Social conservatives are sceptical, at best, of social change. They may, at times, seek rather strong government intervention to prevent social change. A good example from as of 2004 contemporary US politics is the issue of gay marriage: most social conservatives appear to be ready to amend the US constitution in order to defend marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. An institutional conservative could readily find him- or herself on either side of this issue, sceptical of changes in the institution of marriage, but equally sceptical of amending the constitution to address a social issue.
Despite these differences, both insitutional and social conservatives have philosophical principles in common, as discussed in the following sections.
Institutional Conservatism as non-ideological
Attempts at defining "conservatism" run into an immediate problem. Institutional Conservatism, by definition, is sceptical of plans to re-model human society after an ideological model. 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 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 also 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 futility of attempting to drive human society based solely on principles of pure reason, and the necessity of humility in the face of the unknowable. Existing institutions have virtues that cannot be fully grasped by any single person or interest group or, in Burke's view, even any single generation: in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke referred to "the living" as "the temporary possessors and life-renters" or "the commonwealth and laws... that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society."  In the conservative view, 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. 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.
Social conservatism and traditionSocial conservatives emphasize traditional views of institutions such as the family and church. For example, social conservatives would typically define family in terms of formal marriage and kinship, and would oppose innovations in the institution of marriage. They are less likely than others to consider unmarried heterosexual couples, even those with children, as families. Similarly, they are quite unlikely to consider gay couples as families, even if they are raising children. Beyond this, heterosexual social conservatives are unlikely to wish to see the definition of marriage extended to include same-sex marriage, while gay social conservatives are prominent among those advocating same-sex marriage: for the latter, it is a way of (at least potentially) tying their own lives more firmly to a traditional social structure. Similar comments could be made about other unorthodox family structures or about allowing gays to adopt children. In religious life, social conservatives are likely to reject any reinterpretation or modification of what they see as traditional beliefs in areas of morality and biblical scholarship.
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.
Social conservatism and an adherence to certain religious or moral traditions may also be a component of politics that are otherwise generally considered left-wing. For instance, some Communist organizations and regimes have been very puritanical with respect to sexuality, arguing, for instance, that homosexuality was a bourgeois vice. Conversely, those who are conservative in the anti-ideology sense discussed above. While they may (or may not) embrace traditional values in their personal lives, they are strongly opposed to government imposition of these values, or any other government intervention into the private lives of citizens.
Although often conjoined to social or institutional conservatism, fiscal conservatism is less of a broad philosophy and more a matter of support for the principle that it is not prudent for governments to take on major debt. It is also, sometimes, extended to a broader "small government" philosophy.
Fiscal conservatives are not necessarily conservative in other respects, nor are they necessarily on the political right. For example, many libertarians, who often claim to transcend the left-right spectrum, are fiscal conservatives. In recent US history, the Clinton administration was more fiscally conservative than the Reagan administration, but certainly less "conservative" in any other common sense of the word. It is also important to note that fiscal conservatism relies greatly upon works of classic liberal authors, such as Adam Smith.
Fiscal conservatism is often described by supporters of right-wing parties as a positive point of the right; left-wing parties are accused of "taxing and spending", and running up debt. As seen above with the example of the Reagan administration, or as seen with Jacques Chirac's administration of France from 2002 onwards, right-wing parties may have fiscal policies that are far from being fiscally conservative: they may, for instance, choose to cut taxes while not cutting spending, or to spend on military procurement and aids to corporations.
Perhaps the most problematic use of the term "conservatism" is the use of the term to refer to a large swath of specifically pro-business politics.
The interests of capitalism and a free-market economy do not necessarily coincide with those of conservatism as a political philosophy. At times, aspects of capitalism and free markets have been profoundly subversive of the existing social order, as in the enclosure movement and other changes that have replaced a traditional agrarian society with agribusiness, or of traditional attitudes toward the proper position of sex in society, as in the now near-universal availability of pornography.
Despite this, and despite the fact that large business interests have not at all times been allied with "conservative" politics and politicians, there is a widespread tendency to refer to almost all specifically pro-business politics as "conservative". The one sense in which this is clearly true is that in a world dominated by business and corporate interests, it is conservative to support the continuance of that domination, just as it was once conservative to support absolute monarchy or the association of church and state.
Many young entrepreneurs, especially those who support free market economics, can be both conservatives or modern liberals. An example is CEO Richard Branson, who shares in modern liberal ideologies while remaining committed to capitalist free market principle.
"Right-wing" is not necessarily "conservative"
Although some people (mainly on the political left) use the terms "conservative" and "right-wing" interchangeably, many on the political right have little in common with most conservatives.
Social conservatives and (especially) institutional conservatives are generally opposed to sudden and radical change, almost as much so when that change comes from the right as from the left. For example, conservatives would generally keep quite distant from right-wing groups in some European republics that wish to restore a monarchy, or with those in America who wish to formally establish Christianity as a state religion, and would generally characterize these people as something other than simply conservative. That is not to say that there would never be coalitions of interest with such groups, just that both sides in such a coalition would recognize that they were dealing with a partner with a different politics. In practice, in European parliamentary systems, conservatives are at least as likely to ally with centrist groups or even some on the left rather than with certain portions of the right. A good contemporary (as of 2004) example of this is the 2002 French election, where conservative Jacques Chirac was quite comfortable accepting the support of even Socialists against Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National.
Conservatism and FascismWe have already remarked that conservatives tend to strongly identify with nationalist movements. To speak of nationalism, of course, is to call to mind the ugly history of Fascism. Is there a difference between conservatism and Fascism?
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, with their strong propensity toward 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 merely 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.
Conservatism and conservationAlthough 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. (see "Greens and Libertarians" - external link)
Conservatism and critical theoryA 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 movementsContemporary political conservatism -- the actual politics of people and parties professing to be conservative -- in most western democratic countries is an amalgam of social and institutional conservatism, generally combined with fiscal conservatism, and often containing elements of business conservatism as well. As with liberalism, it is a pragmatic and protean politics, opportunistic at times, rooted more in a tradition than in any formal set of principles.
It is certainly 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 much of the "deficit hawks" of the United States Democratic Party. In general use, the unqualified term "conservative" is often applied to social conservatives who are not fiscal conservatives. It is rarely applied in the opposite case, except in specific contrast to those who are neither.
It can be argued that institutional conservatism is justifies preserving the current state of things, whatever that may be. Thus, in a communist country, institutional conservatives are communists; in a mercantilist country, institutional conservatives are mercantilists; in a social-democrat country, institutional conservatives are social-democrats; in a feudal country, institutional conservatives are for feudality; in a libertarian country, institutional conservatives are libertarians. Still, 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 the rhetoric of "conservatism", in practice, self-declared conservatives in power are often agents for change. The Reagan administration in the US and that of Margaret Thatcher in the UK both professed conservatism, but during Reagan's term of office, the United States radically revised its tax code and ran up record deficits to support a military buildup, while Thatcher (among other things) dismantled several previously nationalised industries and made major reforms in taxation and housing; furthermore, both took, or attempted, significant measures to reduce the power of labor unions. In less recent history, the Reform Act of 1867, supported by Conservative UK Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was the single greatest expansion of the franchise in the UK prior to women's suffrage.
Political memory can be of various durations, and the traditions which a given set of conservatives support can sometimes be of relatively recent invention. The contemporary conservative concept of family, centered on a married couple and their children rather than a more extended structure, is, at most, a few centuries old. Western democracy itself is a late eighteenth century invention. Corporate capitalism is even newer. The notion of race-blind meritocracy now embraced by many US conservatives as an alternative to affirmative action is itself an idea that would have seemed quite radical to most US conservatives in the 1950s (but obviously for different reasons).
- Personal responsibility.
- General opposition to "big government" policies or state economic interventionism.
- Anti-communism, including a belief that the former Soviet Union was an "evil empire".
- 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 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 Bismarck'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 fundamentalists. 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 most conservatives 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 support for traditional morality vs. opposition to government intervention in the private realm. 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.
Intellectual conservatism in the United States
In United States intellectual circles, there are several distinct types of conservatism. Among these are:
- Neoconservatism, many of whose most prominent figures are of Jewish background and are former liberals or even former socialists, primarily from the Northeast or the West Coast, whose politics turned sharply to the right from the 1960s onwards. They are almost uniformly free-traders and strong supporters of Israel.
- Neoconservative publications: Commentary, The Public Interest, First Things (although this last has expressed controversial attitudes towards religion and against separation of church and state that many other neoconservatives reject).
- The Paleoconservatives, by contrast, originated away from the coasts. Choosing their self-designation deliberately to contrast to "Neoconservative", the "Paleos", they are almost uniformly from Christian backgrounds. They are far more socially and culturally conservative than the "Neos", more inclined toward issues like states' rights, often opposed to free trade, and overtly suspicious of the "Neos'" often liberal or socialist backgrounds.
- The elitist intellectual conservatism of William Buckley and the National Review, quite far to the right in most respects but also taking some pains to distance itself from the paleoconservatives, whom it has been known to charge with bigotry, and especially with Anti-Semitism.
As has already been remarked, libertarians generally agree with conservative views on the economy, but they disagree on social issues. However, there are some libertarians, such as Lew Rockwell or Murray Rothbard, whose views on social or cultural issues are closer to conservatism; these are sometimes called "paleolibertarians."
Conservatism in the United States electoral politics
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; also, in varying degrees at various times over the second half of the twentieth century, numerous conservative white southerners left the Democratic Party and (in most cases) became Republicans. One of the most prominent examples would be Strom Thurmond.
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 system 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 the Europeans consider to be puritan attitudes towards sex and drugs (particularly alcohol).
History of conservatismThe 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. It was not institutionally adopted until the Congress of Vienna where the ideology of conservatism reached the forefront of European society.
The Congress of Vienna was only the beginning of a conservative reaction which was bent on containing the liberal and nationalist forces unleashed by the French revolution. Prince Metternich and most of the other participants at the Congress of Vienna were representatives of the ideology known as conservatism. Conservatism generally dates back to 1790 when the most well known figure of conservatism Edmund Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France . Burke, however, was not the only kind of conservative Joseph de Maistre a Frenchman was the most influential spokesperson for a counterrevolutionary and authoritarian conservatism. De Maistre believed in hereditary monarchies because they would bring "order to society" which was in short supply in his eyes after the chaos of the French Revolution. Despite any differences most conservatives held to some general principles and beliefs.
- *Obedience to political authority
- *Organized religion was crucial to social order
- *Hated revolutionary upheavals
- *Unwilling to accept liberal demands for civil liberties and representative government and nationalistic aspirations generated by French revolutionary era.
- *Community takes precedence over individual rights
- *Society must be organized and ordered
- *Tradition remained the best guide for order.
- John Quincy Adams
- John C. Calhoun
- Winston Churchill
- Benjamin Disraeli
- Barry Goldwater
- Alexander Hamilton
- John Randolph of Roanoke
- Ronald Reagan
- Margaret Thatcher
Popular press and media
- Glenn Beck
- Pat Buchanan
- William F. Buckley
- Ann Coulter
- James Dobson
- Dinesh D'Souza
- Jerry Falwell
- Steve Forbes
- Sean Hannity
- Herbert Hoover
- David Horowitz
- Brit Hume
- Michael Johns
- Charles Krauthammer
- Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn
- G. Gordon Liddy
- Rush Limbaugh
- Michelle Malkin
- Michael Medved
- Sun Myung Moon
- Peggy Noonan
- Grover Norquist
- Oliver North
- Robert Novak
- Barbara Olson
- Fred Phelps
- Diane Ravitch
- Pat Robertson
- William Safire
- Michael Savage
- Phyllis Schlafly
- Laura Schlessinger
- Edmund Burke
- Alexis de Tocqueville
- Milton Friedman
- Friedrich Hayek
- Alexander Hamilton
- James Madison
- John Stuart Mill
- Ludwig von Mises
- Ayn Rand
- Adam Smith
- Leo Strauss
- American Enterprise Institute
- Common sense conservative
- Conservative Party (UK)
- Conservative Party of Canada
- Christian Democratic Union of Germany
- Heritage Foundation
- John Birch Society
- Neoconservatism (China)
- Neoconservatism (United States)
- New Right
- Old Right
- Reagan Doctrine
- Religious right
- United States Republican Party
- Albert O. Hirschman. 1991. The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. Cambridge, MA: The belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674768671 (cloth) and ISBN 067476868X (paper). (As of 2004, this book is out of print.)