Conservatism lends itself to misunderstanding because its political designation is easily confused with popular usage. To be conservative in the sense of preferring the familiar to the unfamiliar is a common form of behavior. Since this attitude toward life is universal, it issues from no necessary political commitment. For any person, even the most bohemian, not to develop a settled habit or a lingering attachment would be almost inconceivable. However, it is possible to conceive of persons having such habits and attachments and yet being radical in his or her politics. That would have been true, for instance, of Adolf Hitler. Equally, to be conservative in the sense of wishing to maintain a position of authority, privilege, reverence, or wealth is another universally recognizable form of behavior that issues from no necessary political commitment. It would be exceptional for someone who has achieved or inherited such powerful status not to want to secure it. This would have been true, for instance, of Joseph Stalin. Both of these popular meanings of conservatism—as shorthand for individual or social characteristics—are inadequate to understanding conservatism in politics. Both of them are primordial in their instincts, general in their applications, and empty of content.
Conservatism in politics, on the other hand, is a relatively recent historical phenomenon, particular in its significance, and as a consequence has a distinctive, if differentiated, character. Conservatism is best understood as a set of propositions about the activity of governing, defined against those radical ideologies with roots in eighteenth-century speculation, like liberalism and socialism, that were to have such a profound effect on world history in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is opposed to grand schemes for the political emancipation or salvation of humankind to which such radical speculation can lead. Conservatism advocates limited ambitions in politics, argues that the aspiration of government should be modest, and emphasizes the value of continuity in the state. Conservatives believe that government can be authoritative only when it is limited, modest, and continuous. If it were possible to identify a distinctive desire uniting all forms of conservatism, it would be the desire to be left alone to enjoy the benefits of a well-ordered society. As the nineteenth-century British prime minister Lord Salisbury (Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil) once put it, conservatism is like a policeman: if there were no (radical) criminals to protect against, there would be no need for it. However, conservatives will not be left alone.
Restricting the scope of politics in this manner has made conservatism appear at odds with the promise of modernity. Certainly, any political project to remove evil from the world is for the religious conservative an act of impiety, just as any project to perfect humankind is for the secular conservative an act of dangerous folly. The difficulty remains that these fundamental criticisms of modern hubris are easily dismissed as nostalgic, self-interested, and most damning of all, irrationally prejudiced. If conservative irrationalism can be ascribed to any particular failing, it is thought to be the presumption of resisting historical progress. In this view, conservatism and modernization are antithetical, since to be modern is to assume history to be linear and its meaning to be emancipation from ignorant custom. That is an audacious concept of politics that understands traditional restraints to be obstacles to manifest destiny.
Conventional historical wisdom has been that the event that transformed these terms of political argument was the French Revolution. That convention is a sound one. The main currents of European intellectual life were drawn into the revolution, and out of it emerged the modern narrative of progress versus reaction, improvement versus obstruction, and reason versus tradition that was to shape political reflection in the course of the following two centuries. This has been an influential narrative and a persuasive one. In its light, conservatism at best serves as a prudential brake on the wheels of change, at worst as an insufferable denial of human development. In neither case is it thought to involve anything of substantial value or intellectual significance. Nevertheless, the temptation to interpret conservatism as "antimodern" should be resisted, for to be conservative does not entail a passive acceptance of the status quo. Rather it involves a critical encounter with what exists. Conservatism was itself a nineteenth-century neologism for a modern, novel, self-conscious disposition in politics and as such is a contemporary of socialism, liberalism, and nationalism. Its meaning has been given by modern experience and its content by the recurring expression of certain principles in the work of thinkers alarmed into reflection by revolutionary activity. Conservatism, in other words, has a history, not a nature, and that is an insight owed to the Irish "philosopher in action," Edmund Burke (1729–1797).
If Burke is taken to be paradigmatic of conservative thought, it is by attribution rather than by design. Burke drew on a large repertoire of ideas, such as the social-contract tradition of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704) and the skeptical conventionalism of David Hume (1711–1776), and marshaled them like a great melodist to challenge the abstract "speculatism" of the French revolutionaries. Writing from within a culture of constitutional monarchy that had only recently and precariously secured its legitimacy (albeit with the loss of the American colonies), Burke's intent in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is to warn against the implications of revolutionary principles, which he thinks are as subversive of good government as they are of bad. If society is indeed a social contract, it is a contract "between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born," and in that formulation Burke tries to make safe two of the potentially radical loose ends bequeathed by Locke. Political society, Burke argues, is not dissolvable according to demands made by the present generation, and the "tacit" consent of contemporaries is assumed because of their inherited obligations and future responsibilities. Burke does refer these obligations and responsibilities to laws of nature, but he is aware that nature can be a false friend. It is those very "natural" rights, so beloved by revolutionaries in France, that he dismisses as being incompatible with the "real" rights of political society. For Burke, to "follow nature" is not a radical invitation to rebel against society but an injunction to accept one's "second nature" as a dutiful member of a historically achieved political order. Since history is a record of experience and since all practical knowledge is a product of experience, history supplies a sufficient guide to political activity. From that empiricist rather than natural-law premise, Burke proposes that prudence, circumstance, utility, convenience, and respect for order provide the proper conditions for liberty, while abstract theorizing delivers the condition of "rational despotism."
For some, this committed Burke (and conservatism) to an "organic" theory of society. That is an understandable interpretation, but a degree of caution is required because the argument is more subtle and the content less mysterious than the expression "organic" sometimes implies. Burke's notion of the constitution assumes an arrangement in which order and liberty presuppose one another. It assumes that the individual is part of and has meaning within a social order of classes or estates and that the state is an authoritative expression of that social order. The "little platoons" of immediate identity are functional to stability because their education in local and social affection forms the basis of patriotism. On the one hand, the state cannot be absolute, for its existence depends on the life of its parts and it has a duty to secure them. On the other hand, reasons of state cannot be reduced alone to the protection of the rights of individuals. If revolutionary theorizing would dissolve these historical associations into dust and make social relationships as evanescent as the "flies of summer," Burke's model was not an alternative blueprint. Unlike the revolutionary's vision of France as "nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble anything he pleases," Burke is defending what he takes to be the actual life of the British state, monarchical, aristocratic, and constitutional.
The paradigmatic conservatism of Burke's thought lies in its evocation of sympathy for what is enduring in a political association. While revolutionary politics proclaim a profound incompatability between the values of the people and the principles of traditional structures of government, Burke proclaims a deep congruence. Tradition, which is shorthand for a politics of congruence, emerges from his work as an important value in conservative politics. Conservatism puts the idea of tradition to work in defense of the political order. It seeks to encourage people to accept the world around them, for it just happens to be the world in which we do live and it is one that sets limits to political change. In the British case, the ability of the political order to secure its authority through prolonged periods of economic and social change appeared to confirm Burke's maxim that a state without the means of reform is without the means of its own conservation. It also appeared to confirm his assumption that the advancement of civilization owes more to the advantages of stability than it does to the pursuit of abstract rights. In the conduct of reform, continuity is secured because improvements are never wholly new and what is retained is never wholly obsolete. Of course, the reconciled condition that conservatism proposes is reconciliation within the ideology itself and not necessarily reconciliation in experience. It is possible to conceive of reality as being seriously at odds with the ideology.
This was the case for conservatives in France, where, unlike the happy condition of Britain, the experience and effect of revolution had disconnected the state from what they believed to be the true spirit of society. This compelled thinking through with passionate intensity questions of order and legitimacy, and it fostered a politics that made fundamental distinctions between what is true and what exists. In this case what mattered was the fractured rather than the coherent relationship between political structures and spiritual truth. The legitimacy of those who had usurped power in the name of reason could never be secure against the consecrated authority they had displaced. The task of conservative political argument was to recall people to their true allegiance by clarifying the principles that had been forsaken.
For Joseph-Marie de Maistre (1753–1821), the French Revolution represents divine retribution for the sins of the godless Enlightenment and the "century of blasphemy" that had preceded it. One consequence of that blasphemy is the rationalist misconception involved in the creation of a written constitution. The true constitution is not to be found in the fine words of such a document but in the public spirit that should animate it. For de Maistre, "what is written is nothing." The constitution is divine in origin, and only when one acts in harmony with God can his or her actions be creative. Once separated from the Creator, people's actions are rendered negative and destructive. The rule of number, implied by popular sovereignty, has nothing to do with the rule of justice and would ultimately prove to be self-destructive. This is what the course of revolutionary history reveals to conservatives—a succession of failed constitutions of increasing perniciousness and impiety. That disastrous history is as much the fault of the internal corruption of the ancien régime as of the arguments of the philosophes. Ironically then, the revolution will serve as a necessary purgative and will lead to the inevitable, because divinely ordained, restoration of monarchy, religion, and nation. That dissociation between the social and the political as well as the theocratic justification for the restoration of the ancien régime is also found in the work of Louis de Bonald (1754–1840). Monarchy and church, throne and altar, will together bring back into harmony the body and spirit of the nation that the French political revolution had willfully divided. It will, moreover, defeat secular nationalism and replace it with ultramontane Catholicism.
Like Burke, de Maistre and de Bonald associated the terror and the chaos in France with the new, rapacious, self-seeking, revolutionary elite, and they formulated a sociology as well as a pathology of revolution to account for it. They recall to attention the monstrosity of humankind when liberals may prefer to flatter humanity, and they remind one that original sin may be a better guide to modern history than natural goodness. Nevertheless, there are a number of problems with their denunciation of revolutionary presumption. Like radicalism, their thought conveys a profound alienation between what is and what ought to be and, like radicalism, presents itself as a science of politics with a blueprint of restoration as grandiose as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Moreover, de Maistre's celebrated recommendation that if "you wish to conserve all, consecrate all" is a proposition that transforms the sacred into human artifice, as impious to the true faith as the revolutionary consecration of the cult of the Supreme Being. The intelligent reflection necessary to make the case for conserving all tends to corrode the myths upon which traditions depend and collapses conservatism into very unconservative reaction.
If conservatism in Britain defended the congruence and conservatism in France demanded the restoration of harmony between the social and political orders, then conservatism in nineteenth-century Germany aspired to bring together an idea of the social and an idea of the political. Here revolutionary France in all its horrible fascination was instructive, demonstrating not only the radical dangers of popular sovereignty but also the military effectiveness of national unity. A romantic evocation of the cultural and racial characteristics of the Volk existed alongside a statist philosophy of realpolitik. Both were to contribute to an aggressive nationalism favored by those who thought German culture threatened by alien influences and by those who thought its state insufficiently powerful. If these tendencies are present in some measure in all conservative politics, they were to take a radical and racist turn in twentieth-century German history when combined in the detraditionalized, de-Christianized, alienated, genocidal (and so unconservative) shape of National Socialism.
A very different sort of reconciliation is provided by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), whose philosophy courageously addresses the central problem of modernity—the idea of progress—that conservative thought either chose to veil (like Burke) or to deny (like de Maistre). The conservative suspicion of progress is that it denies the present in pursuit of the future. A restless and limitless ambition for change, based on an abstract model of human experience, makes modernity into a political project to be implemented rather than a process (for good and ill) to be understood. The French Revolution was such a political project, and Hegel attempts to map the lineage and the lineaments of the modern state in order to contain the destructive potential of the ideal of emancipation (that Hegelianism was not the project of modernity, the fulfillment of which demanded a new science of revolution, was well understood by that most insightful student, Karl Marx). On the conviction that the rational is actual and the actual is rational, Hegel argues in The Philosophy of Right (1821), the "plain man like the philosopher takes his stand." The task of the philosopher is to reveal the rationality of the common-sense intuition of the plain person. Hegel does not approve an institution on the basis of Burkean prescription—that its survival alone is sufficient justification of its rationality—but on the basis of its conformity with the rational self-understanding of the age. Such rationalism and historicism sit uneasily with conservative traditionalism, which often despises the self-understanding of the age and believes that the best reason for a practice is that no reason need be given. Despite his philosophical ambivalence, Hegel's appeal to the conservative is twofold. His reflections satisfy the need to feel that the enjoyment of present liberties is meaningful and should not be sacrificed to some abstract "ought to be." They also satisfy that deep desire to arrest the disturbing uncertainties of modern life within stable political institutions. Ironically, it has been these emotional satisfactions rather than his rational metaphysical system that constitute Hegel's enduring attraction to conservative thinkers.
The Challenge of the Modern
If there has been a specter haunting conservatism in modern times, it is the specter of "mass society." The fear of mass society is a product of two related possibilities. The first is the disintegration of traditional allegiances in the name of liberation and personal freedom. Since conservatives hold that such allegiances are the condition of identity, the consequence would be the loss of individuality. Liberalism, ironically, promotes the death of liberty. The second fear concerns the manipulation of that disintegration by ideologies that promise material satisfaction in return for absolute political power. Having destroyed individuality, mass society would demand abasement before the secular image of its collective power, the state. Socialism, ironically, promotes the death of the social.
In the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century, conservatism defended property, religion, and family as bulwarks against the feared drift to "mass" society in which the decencies of civilized life would be subverted by popular barbarism. This disposition helps to capture what is distinctive about the conservative idea of the nation, the one form of popular politics to which it not only adapted but which it also helped to define. For conservatives, the nation is understood as a political community united in acceptance of the legitimacy of traditional political arrangements. The "people" is not some abstract category but the historic nation in its regional and social variety, with its traditional beliefs, particular affections, and long-standing prejudices. To be conservative is another way of professing one's sympathy for the "real" character of the nation, and like de Maistre, conservatives would agree that they have met the French, English, Germans, or Americans but have yet to meet "Humanity."
In rejecting the universal claims of radical politics, conservatism has been compelled to identify exactly what it is that makes the nation distinctive. What differentiates conservatism from right-wing ideologies is the nature of that distinctiveness. In right-wing thought the idea of the nation serves to mobilize the people in order to assert its distinctive purity, honor, and greatness. In conservative thought, the idea of the nation serves to foster piety toward its distinctive social and political institutions. This differentiation has nothing to do with the intensity of national feeling. It has to do with the source of national feeling. Right-wing thought locates it in the will of the people. Conservatism locates it in the inherited practices of a way of life and has been concerned to limit the popular will in the name of tradition and order. In Europe between the two world wars, conservatism was outflanked by radical right-wing movements because an appeal to tradition and order appeared irrelevant in conditions of economic collapse and social disintegration. The sense of political decadence made an ideology of popular salvation, like fascism, a powerful alternative to traditional conservative patriotism. Britain was the exception, and the experience of British conservatism was thought to illustrate the distinction between the politics of the moderate right and the politics of the extreme right.
While the drama of modern European history has been taken to be exemplary of this difference, an American illustration is more appropriate. Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. considered that the great achievement of American politics has been the replacement of the idea of the sovereign people with the idea of the constitutional people. "The warmth of their republican genius must somehow be cooled; the confidence in their own sovereignty, which is responsible for the factiousness of democratic majorities, must be restrained" (Mansfield, p. 57). The practice of constitutional politics educates democracy in the responsibilities of government, in particular the need to limit power in order to enjoy life, liberty, and happiness. All elements of government "are derived from the people but none of them is the people," and populism, with its tendency to deny limit and constitutional constraint, is just as subversive of good government as any other species of radicalism (Mansfield, p. 55). This does not imply that there are no elements of populism in conservatism or that conservative politics has not appealed to its prejudices against innovation. However, conservatism's suspicion of political enthusiasm of all kinds makes it uncomfortable with the fickleness as well as the hubris of popular opinion, especially when it proclaims itself to be "the moral majority."
Resisting democracy, defending tradition.
Of course, resisting the claims of democracy in the name of limited constitutional politics can be interpreted as an offense to modern sensibility, and defending tradition in a world of rapid change can be seen as either irrelevant or willfully ignorant. Conservatism always faces an enormous challenge in making these ideas persuasive in a world of programmatic politics. It appears insufficiently purposeful to those who are seeking a political faith and insufficiently principled to those who are seeking an alternative to radicalism. To such critics, conservatism is always right, but its inability to be proactive also means that it is always wrong. For example, Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992) thought conservatism incapable of offering "an alternative to the direction in which we are moving" because it does not and cannot indicate another direction (p. 398). Since Hayek famously believed that the socialistic path along which society was moving was the road to serfdom, then clearly conservatism, for all its useful maxims, would not do. This attitude helps to distinguish conservatism from that other species of recent politics, the New Right.
What Hayek assumes is the modernist belief in history-as-project, and this makes politics into an engagement between projects, either a capitalist one or a socialist one. That modernist assumption, at the heart of New Right dogmatics about liberty and choice, finds systematic expression in neoconservatism. Indeed, some of the leading neoconservatives, like Irving Kristol, have radical political backgrounds. Their contribution in the last half of the twentieth century was to provide a systematic critique of "big government" and its policy failures and to show that the market was not only compatible with moral values but also more efficient in the delivery of social goods. Neoconservative arguments helped transform the political climate in the 1970s and 1980s and contributed to the intellectual defeat of socialism. However, there does exist a tension in neoconservatism between market fundamentalism and conservative skepticism. As Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990) once argued, a plan like Hayek's to end all planning is still a species of rationalism and one with which conservatives can only feel uncomfortable. It abstracts the market from the institutional and cultural traditions necessary for its flourishing, and for the skeptic, conservatism does not have a project to realize. That is its strength and not its weakness, for it properly designates the restricted competence in human affairs of such projects like market liberalization. If conservatism has an attitude toward capitalism, it is the endeavor to sustain those conditions that favor the political economy of freedom, a very different notion from the minimal state.
Postmodernism, human rights, and multiculturalism.
If in the early twenty-first century revolutionary ideologies like communism no longer threaten, arguments in favor of egalitarianism and the aggrandizing state have taken a new shape. As a result, conservatism has been obliged to engage with new discourses, such as postmodernism, human rights, and multi-culturalism. In 1959 Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) wrote that distinction and difference had become private matters of the individual and that simple insight, with its contradictory effects, continues to have profound implications for conservatism. Traditionally, of course, conservatism held distinction and difference not to be private matters at all but to be ones of public significance. According to Robert Nisbet, this is the key to understanding the conservative sociological imagination, where such differences, articulated in social institutions like Burke's "little platoons," mediate the relationship between the state and the individual.
The trend toward privatization has disordered that notion in two ways. First, the contemporary state has come either to absorb many of the functions of these institutions, like the educational responsibilities of churches, or to incorporate them into centrally determined policy networks. Second, it has become attractive for the individual to retire into a private world and to cede public duties to the care of professionals. The consequence of both aspects is an expansion of state influence that many conservatives do believe is inimical to individual freedom and social autonomy. For the conservative, the old radical dynamic that required a straightforward faith in state-fostered egalitarianism to be achieved through the redistribution of wealth between social classes has been replaced by a politics of inclusion that requires a rather contradictory faith not only in cultural "difference" but also in the redistribution of "worth" between social groups. The dynamic in this case is toward the removal of all obstacles in the way of social inclusion, and the motor is a refurbished language of abstract rights.
This new politics is understood to be yet another strategy to achieve the utopian objective of radical democracy, and conservatives believe that the only way it can be realized is by calling on the state to implement an ever-expanding body of entitlements. The influential neoconservative critique of modern liberalism has its roots here, and the concern is that the emphasis on rights will weaken the informal bonds of society and permit the state to become dangerously intrusive in the lives of citizens, destroying the distinction between public and private. Diversity is officially "celebrated," but what is fostered is a culture suspicious of independent thought or behavior or "political incorrectness." This is reminiscent of what George Santayana (1863–1952) once called "vacant liberty." Santayana's problem with the prescriptions of liberalism is its high-minded egalitarianism of respect, which he believes to be at odds with the very pluralism it seeks to promote. For Santayana, unlimited toleration would achieve the "euthanasia of differences," and as a consequence everybody "would be free to be what he liked, and no one would care to be anything but what pleased everybody" (p. 449). This anticipates a common, two-pronged, conservative criticism of contemporary liberalism. First, liberalism defends difference only in theory but cannot really come to terms with it in practice when it discovers that goodwill alone is not enough. Second, it is actually intolerant of dissent from political correctness and seeks to impose a modern version of "rational despotism." Two strands of conservatism, the civil and the cultural, can be identified in response to contemporary political trends.
Conservatism: Civil and Cultural
Civil conservatism draws on a recognizable tradition of limited politics. On the one hand, it proposes that government should not plan the lives of citizens or be an instrument of their collective enlightenment but should uphold a framework of law. On the other hand, it argues that the rights of civil society should not be translated into claims on public expenditure but should be valued as the condition of self-reliance and creativity. Limited but authoritative government remains the proper complement to a society of "difference."
This understanding owes much to the work of Oakeshott, who in turn owes much to Hobbes. Indeed, Oakeshott's celebrated essay "On Being Conservative" draws its inspiration from a distinctive reading of Hobbes's Leviathan. Commentators seduced by his poetic description of conservatism as a preference for "the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss" (Oakeshott, 1991, p. 408) sometimes fail to note that Oakeshott believes this disposition to be inappropriate "in respect of human conduct in general" (p. 415). However, conservatism does remain appropriate in respect of government, all the more so indeed in a modern society that puts so much store by its individualism.
Governing, for Oakeshott, "is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises" (1991, p. 429). The philosophic basis of this view of government is explored in On Human Conduct (1975). This text has provided fruitful reflection for a diverse range of thinkers seeking a method to secure political legitimacy in contemporary multicultural societies and who identify a common threat to civility in utopian liberalism. Noël O'Sullivan, for example, has attempted to develop a vision of "formal politics" where the bond of association "is neither an agreed end, nor personal approval of the ruler and his actions, but acknowledgement of the procedural considerations which confer authority" (pp. 204–205). He argues that formal politics does not mean a commitment to liberalism but rather a rejection of the sort of "programmatic politics" with which modern liberal politics has become associated. The problem with the formal politics favored by civil conservatives is that it may be (ironically) too abstract and too detached from public sentiment to engage the loyalty of citizens. Certainly, it appears very distant from that sympathy for a traditional way of life normally associated with conservative politics.
Cultural conservatism, by contrast, assumes that a sense of unity rather than diversity is the foundation of political legitimacy. As Roger Scruton argues, the civil vision discounts "prejudices," and for Scruton (as for Burke), prejudices are those prepolitical affections, such as a sense of national belonging, upon which a stable political order depends. As he succinctly expresses it, "Unity is, in the normal instance, social rather than political, and ought also to be national" (1990, p. 54). This sets out a clear skeptical agenda for conservatism on issues—such as immigration, feminism, multiculturalism, and human rights—that are thought to present challenges to the substance of national identity. This cultural conservative agenda can be distinguished from that of the extreme right because of its respect for the conventions of established institutions. The great difficulty with it is that the social unity it assumes is a contentious one and, far from being self-evident, presents an easy target for those who would dismiss conservatism as nostalgic and elegiac. Contemporary conservatism, then, remains an ambiguous identity, a hybrid of civil and cultural elements.
In a century of ideological extremism like the twentieth century, conservatism often appeared something of an affectation and marginal to the march of history in which the advancing forces of modernization were thought certain to rout the retreating forces of conservatism. Insofar as many people have lost faith in the "grand narratives" of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, like Marxism and other emancipatory ideals, then the conservative disposition may no longer appear so reactionary. Since conservatism never subscribed to the grosser forms of the modernist faith, contemporary skepticism comes as no surprise to it. However, as befits a philosophy of modesty and imperfection, conservatism cannot assume a final victory.
See also Authoritarianism ; Change ; Fascism ; Liberalism ; Monarchy ; Radicals/Radicalism ; Totalitarianism .
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——. "The Politics of Ideology." In The Structure of Modern Ideology, edited by Noël O'Sullivan, 188–212. London: Edward Elgar, 1989.
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"Conservatism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/conservatism
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“Conservatism” is a word whose usefulness is matched only by its capacity to confuse, distort, and irritate. Since the patterns of thought and action it denotes are real and enduring, and since no substitute seems likely to be generally accepted, “conservatism” will doubtless have a long life as a handy, if dangerous, tool of social science. Scholars who use it lie under a severe obligation to be as exact as they can ever be in the handling of words that are encrusted with tradition and saturated with emotion. In particular, they must recognize, and thus distinguish among, the uses of this word that have become fairly standard in the years since World War II. There are, it would appear, four such uses.
Temperamental conservatism. Conservatism, by one definition, is both the “natural” and the culture-determined disposition to resist dislocating changes in a customary pattern of living and working. It describes, crudely and yet effectively, a temperament or psychological stance, a cluster of traits that are on daily display by most men in all societies. The important elements in the conservative temperament would appear to be habit (what William James called “the enormous fly-wheel of society, and its most precious conservative agent”), inertia (a force that often seems to be as powerful in the social world as in the physical), fear (especially fear of the unexpected, the irregular, and the uncomfortable), and emulation (a product of both fear of alienation from the group and a craving for its approval).
All these traits of character flourish with particular vigor among some of the most unfortunate, insecure, and expendable groups in society. One may speak with propriety, if also with pity, of the conservatism of the poor, the conservatism of the aged, and the conservatism of the ignorant, At the same time, one must assign a high value to the conservative temperament in the pattern of social survival and even of social progress. A community made up entirely of men engaged in the quest for security and order would be dreary, decayed, and perhaps even cruel, but a community that counted no such men would be a scene of anarchy. Neither the division of labor nor the maintenance of law and order, neither the gathering of knowledge nor the transmission of experience from generation to generation would be possible if the conservative temperament, especially as it is transformed into the imperatives of organization, were not an active force in the lives of men.
Situational conservatism. Conservatism, by a second definition, related to the first, is an attitude of opposition to disruptive change in the social, economic, legal, religious, political, or cultural order. It describes, somewhat less crudely and somewhat more effectively, a pattern of social behavior, a cluster of principles and prejudices that are on daily display by many men in all developed societies. The distinguishing mark of this conservatism, as indeed it is of any brand of conservatism, is the fear of change, which becomes transformed in the political arena into the fear of radicalism— in this instance, the radicalism of men who propose to “make the world over,” or at least to “improve” it at the expense of old values, institutions, and patterns of living. Situational conservatism is not confined to the well-placed and welltodo. Persons at all levels of being and possessing may lament change in the status quo. For reasons that range from the intuitive to the pragmatic by way of the traditional, many men in developed societies can be counted upon to express a highly personal sense of satisfaction and identity with the established order. One happy home of situational conservatism is the upper reaches of society; another is the land. Where these two shaping forces come together, as in the situation of an English duke, the result can often be a caricature of conservatism.
Somewhat unfortunately for the reputation of both temperamental and situational conservatism among social scientists, as well as for the reputation of social science among political conservatives, several studies of political behavior have tended, despite repeated disclaimers of ill intent, to equate conservatism with authoritarianism, obscurantism, racism, fascism, alienation, maladjustment, and “the closed mind.” Some social scientists have elected to probe the dark frontier between politics and personality by constructing a spectrum that runs from an extreme labeled “conservatism” to an extreme labeled “liberalism,” and then, by eliciting and tabulating responses to questions designed to reveal attitudes toward controversial social and personal problems, to place the persons questioned —be they workers in Detroit or criminals in San Francisco or citizens chosen at random in Liverpool—along the scale. It is revealing that “liberal” responses to the questions of even the most fair-minded students of political behavior are almost always given “plus” values in the resulting tables and scales, while “conservative” responses are tagged with the ever so slightly tainted “minus” sign.
The prototype of such studies was carried through by T. W. Adorno and his associates and was published as The Authoritarian Personality (1950). The question may well be raised whether this kind of study has not done damage to the image of conservatism and rendered the word itself suspect among many social scientists who hitherto found it useful and not at all pejorative in content. In any case, much careful research must be done before political and philosophical conservatism can be linked causally with the unpleasant aspects of temperamental and situational conservatism that are assumed to form this polar phenomenon known as “the closed mind.”
Political conservatism. If we bring together in imagination a goodly number of conservatives of temperament and situation, then thrust them into the hurly-burly of active politics, we move naturally toward a third definition of conservatism that is roughly synonymous with the worn but still convenient label “the Right.” Most persons who talk of conservatism mean political conservatism, that is to say, the aspirations and activities—most of them defensive rather than creative—of parties and movements that celebrate inherited patterns of morality and tested institutions, that are skeptical about the efficacy of popular government, that can be counted upon to oppose both the reforming plans of the moderate Left and the deranging schemes of the extreme Left, and that draw their heaviest support from men who have a substantial material and psychological stake in the established order.
Political conservatism is a phenomenon which, if we stretch the definition beyond the boundaries of common sense, is a universal of organized society. One may find, if one seeks them intensively enough, political conservatives in every country and culture. One may even say that since conservatism is essentially the defense of a going society, the leaders of the Soviet Union are conservatives. This, however, is to ignore both the history and logic of this phenomenon, which comes fully to life—as does its great partner and adversary, liberalism—in the civilized political and cultural struggles of the open, ordered, constitutional society. The Tories of Great Britain, the Republicans of the United States, the Gaullists of France, and the Christian Democrats of a half-dozen European countries are conservative parties in the most meaningful sense, the Liberal Democrats of Japan and the Swatantra party of India in a rather less meaningful sense, the Communist party of the Soviet Union in no sense at all except the arbitrary or whimsical. The political situation in which they lived and wrought made it fully possible for Herbert Hoover, Stanley Baldwin, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Konrad Adenauer, Sir Winston Churchill, and Charles de Gaulle to act as conservative statesmen, but we would not easily find counterparts of such men in most parts of Asia and Africa.
A distinction should be made, although it is often impossible to maintain in politics, between the two classic political positions of the Right: conservatism and reaction. Reaction is the position of men who sigh for the past more intensively than they celebrate the present and who feel that a retreat back into it is worth trying. While the conservative, a man essentially at rest, may indulge from time to time in reveries of 1945 or 1928 or 1896 or even 1788, he is generally well adjusted, psychologically as well as programmatically, to “a world he never made.”
The reactionary (or, as some might prefer, the restorationist), a man in motion, refuses to acknowledge that whatever has been settled must henceforth be considered good or at least tolerable, and he seems willing to erase some laws, scrap some institutions, even amend his nation's constitution, so that he can roll back the social process to the time at which his countrymen first went foolishly astray. The restorationist should not be confused with the violent reactionary, who, like the violent revolutionary, seems ready to shed blood and to subvert all order in pursuit of his immediate ends.
There is, it can be seen, an essential relationship—or perhaps nonrelationship—between conservatism and revolution. The historic mission of political conservatism in the West has been not to defeat but to forestall revolutions, not to crush but to anticipate them. Conservatism in a truly revolutionary situation is a politics of delusion; a society that bursts into revolution will not be able to smother it by conservative means. The conservative is above all a man of order, and a shattered society has no place for him. To speak of conservatism in France in 1792 or Russia in 1917 or Cuba in 1962 is to speak of political arts that no man could have practiced. The explosion of a genuine social revolution is rather certain evidence that political conservatism has never flourished in a community or, if it has flourished as an important movement, has failed in its mission.
Political conservatism is a posture, whether adopted by individuals, classes, or parties, that is increasingly difficult to maintain in the twentieth century. In many parts of the world—for example, in totalitarian countries like the Soviet Union and Hungary, unstable countries like Colombia and Peru, and only half-formed countries like some of the new states of Africa and Asia—genuine conservatism as a political force can hardly be said to exist, and persons who might make excellent conservatives in more ordered societies must choose between the nihilism of “standing pat,” the frustration of trying to recreate a dead past (which may never have existed in the first place), or the cryptoradicalism of riding the tiger of revolution. Even in those parts of the world in which the politics of tradition, wealth, and aristocracy has been a historic force—for example, in Great Britain, the United States, Canada, France, Japan, and the Scandinavian countries—conservatives are sorely tried by the pressure of events over which neither they nor, as it often seems, any men seem to exercise effective control.
The political conservative is almost always the prisoner of the social process as it is embodied in the traditions and institutions of his country, and thus the foil of those men who, knowingly or un-knowingly, keep the process in motion. They act; he only reacts—except on those rare occasions when he can emulate Benjamin Disraeli and “steal the Whigs' clothes.” If they act as liberals, if the social process moves steadily but not explosively, his reactions can take the form of conservatism. But if they act as radicals, if the process begins to speed up sharply, his reactions must aim beyond mere preservation and at restoration. If, as now seems to be the case all over the world, the pace of history gets out of control, the conservative can no longer fall back on the simple, instinctive acts of conservation. He, like the liberal, must reason and discriminate; he, like the radical, may have to plan and gamble. The “conservative as reformer,” the right-wing politician who tries to outpromise liberals in the area of welfare legislation, is an uncomfortable man. The “conservative as revolutionary,” the traditionalist who acts “radically” to preserve the crumbling values and institutions of his community, is no conservative at all. Small wonder that many conservatives in Western countries have turned away from politics to fight the good fight of tradition in such areas as art, criticism, and education.
In no country in the world is the dilemma of the true conservative, the man who wants to be neither a reactionary nor a pseudoliberal, more poignant than in the United States. For many reasons—the suddenness with which both democracy and industrialism came to stay as the American way of life, the absence of such comforting relics of a more ordered age as an established church or a monarchy, the crushing of self-conscious aristocracy by the forces of an upstart plutocracy, the feebleness of political and theoretical radicalism (to which men of status and substance could react creatively)—conservatism has never flourished in America as successfully as it has in Great Britain. Now that the kind of social change resulting from automation and the reach for space has become the style of the American way of life, the true agents of change—the business and managerial classes— are proving conclusively that sponsorship of social revolution and opposition to political reform can go hand in hand. The dilemma of the American conservative will never be more dramatically demonstrated than it was in the career of Henry Ford— in his personal habits and opinions the most conservative of men, in his influence upon America one of the most marvelous agents of profound and protracted social change the world has ever known.
Conservatism as philosophy. Beyond the conservatisms of mood and deed, yet almost always relating directly back to them, is the conservatism of thought. As a philosophy dedicated to the defense of an established order, and also to the leadership of certain groups or classes within the order, conservatism is an important intellectual force in most countries of the West. In the years since World War ii, a season of disillusionment over the broken promises of the once-ascendant liberal tradition, conservative and pseudoconservative thinkers have been more active than at any period in the past two centuries.
Wherever it is an intellectual force, conservatism has earned its measure of respect and influence the hard way. Unlike the radical or liberal, the genuine conservative engages reluctantly in political speculation. The most famous conservative statesman of the twentieth century, Sir Winston Churchill, steadfastly refused, for all his literary skills, to reflect upon and write down the principles that animated his career. The mere intention to spin out a theory of conservatism is somehow an unconservative impulse, and the pursuit of this intention carries a person dangerously far from that simple social piety, that hesitation about poking a finger into the “cake of custom,” that is the essence of the conservative point of view. There would seem to be a few grains of truth in the observation of many critics that a conservatism in search of clear-cut principles is a conservatism already in retreat.
Whether it is, in fact, in retreat or on the attack in the realm of politics, conservatism is flourishing in the realm of ideas, and one must recognize the existence of a core of principles that is the common property of the moderate Right wherever it flourishes as a legitimate force. These, it would seem, are the persistent themes of the philosophers of modern conservatism:
The existence of a universal moral order sanctioned and supported by organized religion.
The obstinately imperfect nature of men, in which unreason and sinfulness lurk always behind the curtain of civilized behavior.
The natural inequality of men in most qualities of mind, body, and character.
The necessity of social classes and orders, and the consequent folly of attempts at leveling by force of law.
The primary role of private property in the pursuit of personal liberty and defense of the social order.
The uncertainty of progress, and the recognition that prescription is the chief method of such progress as a society may achieve.
The need for a ruling and serving aristocracy.
The limited reach of human reason, and the consequent importance of traditions, institutions, symbols, rituals, and even prejudices.
The fallibility and potential tyranny of majority rule, and the consequent desirability of diffusing, limiting, and balancing political power.
One could go further with this catalogue, for example, by taking note of the conservative preference for liberty over equality, the conservative insistence that education must discipline before it can liberate, the conservative delight in such phrases as “the tragedy of history” and “the inadequacy of politics,” and the conservative celebration of the prudent man and the ordered society; but the principles listed would seem to be the essence of self-conscious conservatism in the twentieth century.
Two points should be noted about the list. First, it is a series of abstractions, and since conservatives express a horror of abstract thinking each of these ideas must be referred back to a particular society and tradition. Second, in the special case of the United States, society is confidently progressive and the dominant tradition happily democratic, indeed liberal. As a result, the philosophy of conservatism in modern America is a jumble of crosscutting answers to the persistent questions of political theory, especially the question of where the line is to be drawn between the rights of the individual and the demands of the community. Deep inside the shell of his half-Jeffersonian, half-Hamiltonian ideology, however, the American conservative nurses principles and prejudices that are closely related to those of conservatives in other, less self-consciously democratic countries.
The conservatism of Burke. These considerations lead to a discussion of the most famous brand of philosophical conservatism, the school of political thought identified with Edmund Burke. This conservatism sprang to life in the turmoil of the 1780s and was especially a reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution. Although men as separated in time and purpose as Aristotle, Cicero, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, and John Locke had created essentially conservative systems of political thought, Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is properly considered the purest source of consciously conservative principles. Other important events in the birth of this conservatism were the industrial revolution, which made change rather than stability the style of the social process, and the Enlightenment, which put reason in place of tradition as the surest guide to human conduct. The result was the emergence of a political faith that celebrated the beauties of stability and tradition.
The conservatism of Burke has been and remains a Western phenomenon, a philosophy peculiar to the Atlantic community and some of its extensions throughout the world. Indeed, although it has loyal adherents in many countries, this conservatism has held continuous sway as a major political and intellectual force only in Great Britain. It has not flourished as it might have in France or Germany or Italy because, among other reasons, there has not been sufficient agreement among the men of the Right as to what institutions and values they want to conserve. It does not flourish as it once did in the United States because, among other reasons, democracy and industrialism have swept so much more powerfully, abruptly, and successfully over the American scene than they have over any other country of the West. While John Adams could be a conservative in the style of Burke and serve as president of the United States, his real and spiritual descendants—Henry Adams, Brooks Adams, Irving Babbitt, Ralph Adams Cram, Paul Elmer More, and, more recently, Russell Kirk— have been cast, as Kirk himself has admitted ruefully, in “the role of Don Quixote.”
At its present stage of development, this conservatism is prepared to defend most of the values and institutions of the West. The conservatism of Burke, as it is proclaimed in the writings of his political and intellectual heirs, is full of doubts about the goodness and equality of men, the possibilities of progress, and the wisdom of the majority—that is to say, about the democratic dogma —but it has long since accepted constitutional democracy as the only viable alternative to the totalitarianisms of Right and Left. The Burkean conservative has learned to suppress his persistent antidemocratic urges and to give new definitions, and thus a new influence, to such cherished concepts as tradition, order, and aristocracy. It must be remembered that he draws his inspiration from the Whiggish Burke, not from the reactionary Joseph de Maistre; his concern is ordered liberty, not order pure, simple, and at any cost. If he is a democrat by chance rather than choice and is gripped by a mood of pessimism rather than optimism about the prospects of democracy, he is nonetheless a democrat.
Whether as a pattern of personal behavior, a cluster of social attitudes and prejudices, a force in the realm of politics, or an enveloping way of life and thought, whether as a phenomenon to be found on display by individuals, classes, interests, sections, parties, or even entire nations, conservatism bids well to be a major force in the latter part of the twentieth century. Even as great winds of social change sweep across the world and make it more difficult for men to think and act as conservatives, the desire to discipline change, if no longer to arrest it, becomes, paradoxically, an ever more powerful urge. If conservatives can no longer afford to repeat after Lord Falkland that “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change” (White  1957, p. 127), or after Samuel Johnson that “most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things” (Rossiter 1962, p. 51), they can at least insist, in the admonishing words of Disraeli, that those men who would pile change upon change and reform upon reform be properly deferential to “the manners, the customs, the laws, the traditions of the people” (White  1957, p. 127). It is their task to prove to an always doubting world that conservatism is an essential part of any pattern of ordered liberty.
For an introduction to conservatism as a behavioral phenomenon, see the many references in Bassett 1952. Also consult Adorno et al. 1950, in conjunction with Christie & Jahoda 1954; McClosky 1958, with attention to the comments of Kendall 1958 and Frisch 1958; and Rokeach 1960.
For histories of conservatism as a political and cultural phenomenon, see Kirk 1953; Auerbach 1959; Graubard 1961; and Viereck 1956.
For modern classics of philosophical conservatism, see Eliot 1939; Oakeshott 1962; Strauss 1953; Lippmann 1955; and Ortega y Gasset 1930.
For sympathetic modern expressions of the conservatism of Burke, see Kirk 1956; Viereck 1949; White 1950; Cecil 1912; and Hogg 1947.
For general studies of conservatism and social science, see Nisbet 1952; Huntington 1957; Mannheim 1953; and Rossiter 1962. The last has an extensive bibliography on pages 310–327.
Adorno, T. W. et al. 1950 The Authoritarian Personality. American Jewish Committee, Social Studies Series, No. 3. New York: Harper.
Auerbach, Morton 1959 The Conservative Illusion. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Bassett, T. D. Seymour (bibliographer) 1952 Radicalism and Conservatism. Pages 368–375 in Donald D. Egbert and Stow Persons (editors), Socialism and American Life. Volume 2: Bibliography; Descriptive and Critical. Princeton Studies in American Civilization, No. 4. Princeton Univ. Press.
Burke, Edmund (1790) 1955 Reflections on the Revolution in France. New York: Liberal Arts.
Cecil, Hugh R. H. 1912 Conservatism. London: Williams & Norgate.
Christie, Richard; and Jahoda, Marie (editors) 1954 Studies in the Scope and Method of The Authoritarian Personality. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.
Eliot, T. S. (1939) 1940 The Idea of a Christian Society. New York: Harcourt.
Frisch, Morton J. 1958 On McClosky's “Conservatism and Personality.” American Political Science Review 52:1108–1111.
Graubard, Stephen R. 1961 Burke, Disraeli and Churchill: The Politics of Perseverance. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.
Hogg, Quintin M. (Lord Hailsham) 1947 The Case for Conservatism. London: Penguin.
Huntington, Samuel P. 1957 Conservatism as Ideology. American Political Science Review 51:454–473.
Kendall, Willmoore 1958 Comment on McClosky's “Conservatism and Personality.” American Political Science Review 52:506–510.
Kirk, Russell (1953) 1960 The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. 3d ed. Chicago: Regnery. → First published under the title The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana.
Kirk, Russell 1956 Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: Essays of a Social Critic. Chicago: Regnery.
Lippmann, Walter 1955 Essays in the Public Philosophy. Boston: Little.
McClosky, Herbert 1958 Conservatism and Personality. American Political Science Review 52:27–45.
Mannheim, Karl (1922–1940) 1953 Essays on Sociology and Social Psychology. Edited by Paul Kecskemeti. London: Routledge.
Nisbet, Robert A. 1952 Conservatism and Sociology. American Journal of Sociology 58:167–175.
Oakeshott, MICHAEL 1962 Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. New York: Basic Books.
Ortega y Gasset, Jose (1930) 1961 The Revolt of the Masses. London: Allen & Unwin. → First published as La rebeliñn de las masas.
Rokeach, Milton 1960 The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations Into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems. New York: Basic Books.
Rossiter, Clinton 1962 Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion. 2d ed., rev. New York: Knopf. → The first edition was published in 1955.
Strauss, Leo 1953 Natural Right and History. Univ. of Chicago Press.
Viereck, Peter 1949 Conservatism Revisited: Revolt Against Revolt. New York: Scribner.
Viereck, Peter 1956 Conservatism From John Adams to Churchill. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.
White, Reginald J. (editor) (1950) 1957 The Conservative Tradition. New York Univ. Press.
"Conservatism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/conservatism
"Conservatism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved March 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/conservatism
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The term conservative is derived from the word conserve, and in a political sense is often used to indicate a desire to preserve existing political and social arrangements, institutions, policies, or customs. This conception of conservative leaves as a critical defining question what it is that one is seeking to conserve.
Both European and American conservatism contain numerous strands, but share some points of commonality. To a significant extent, both developed as a response to revolutions from the Left, the violent revolution of the guillotine in France in the 1790s and the peaceful revolutions of New Deal economics and counterculture social mores in the United States in the 1930s and 1960s. Both European and American conservatism have been imbued with a strong sense of anti-utopianism and a greater deference for religion, tradition, experience, and property than that found on the Left. On many other scores, however, the two versions of conservatism—or some of their constituent strands—are quite distinct. Those strands are defined by the question of whether they are a subset of liberal democratic politics or a reaction against it.
Representing one pole of European conservatism was Edmund Burke (1729–1797), the English parliamentarian who wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. Reflections embodied not so much an ideology as an anti-ideology, a marked preference for experience, tradition, decentralization, and prudence over the abstract theorizing that drove the French Revolution and that, Burke predicted, would lead to a new and unconstrained form of despotism. Burke favored evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, change, though he supported the moderate American Revolution. He also favored a trustee model of representation consistent with his fear of mass democracy unchecked by moderating institutions. In essence, Burke advocated the conservation of liberal society though caution and prudence. Directly descended from Burke, nineteenth-century British conservatives like Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) called for “Tory democracy,” reforms aimed at giving the lower classes a greater stake in the preservation of traditional English liberty. This conservatism retained, to some extent, an aristocratic and paternalistic cast.
The other pole of European conservatism was starkly reactionary, calling for a restoration of absolute monarchy and Catholic faith summed up in the slogan “throne and altar.” Chief among these clerical monarchists were Count Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821) and Louis de Bonald (1754–1840). Where Burke extolled ordered liberty, Maistre and Bonald were content with order. In his Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions (1810), Maistre argued against rationalism in politics. He held with Burke that attempting to remake society on the basis of abstract conceptions through such devices as a declaration of rights or a written constitution was foolhardy (and often destructive). Human society was too complex to manipulate in that way. However, to Maistre, absolutism, tempered by religion—the combination of “Pope and executioner”—was the solution for social instability.
In nineteenth-century Germany, the antirationalist and clerical romantic school—heavily influenced by Maistre, but both political and literary in character— developed among thinkers like Adam Muller, K.L. von Haller, Joseph von Radowitz, and Karl von Vogelsang, idealizing the German Middle Ages. At the same time, Joseph von Gorres, a former supporter of the French Revolution, swung around to embrace Maistre’s theocratic vision. His Gorres circle of thinkers was important in German intellectual life at midcentury, and some argued that it contributed to subsequent German and Austrian authoritarianism.
Also clustered nearer to Maistre’s pole than to Burke’s, a strand of extreme nationalism appeared in the late nineteenth century, though its ultimate form arguably represented a repudiation of traditionalist conservatism rather than a completion of it. In France, Maurice Barres (1862–1923) and Charles Maurras (1868–1952) advocated nationalism as the sole source of social rootedness and authoritarianism as the means of expressing that nationalism. Maurras, unlike both Barres and traditional conservatives, embraced mass agitation and atheism and ultimately veered into fascism. More directly influencing national socialism, Heinrich von Treitschke (1834 – 1896), author of German History in the Nineteenth Century (1879–1894), advocated a blunt philosophy of racial nationalism, power, and militarism, themes at odds with the mainstay of European conservatism.
Clustered around Burke’s pole were a variety of thinkers whose aim was not restoration of the Middle Ages but the ennobling and conservation of European liberty in one form or another. Like Burke, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville (famous for writing Democracy in America in the 1830s and Ancient Regime and the Revolution twenty years later) was supportive of popular constitutional government and evolutionary change but cautioned against democracy’s potential for excess. Indeed, it is an interesting conceptual question whether Tocqueville should be considered a liberal conservative or a conservative liberal. To the French revolutionaries, egalitarianism and liberty went hand in hand. To Tocqueville, the two values could easily conflict, as local liberty and individual difference might be sacrificed to a single-minded pursuit of equality. Tocqueville thus called for countervailing features like freedom of the press, independent courts, local government, a strong civil society, and Christian morality to preserve liberty.
Another school focused on economic liberty. From Adam Smith in the eighteenth century to the Austrian school of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek in the twentieth, these thinkers shared an appreciation for private property, decentralization of power, and organic evolutionary change. While far removed from Maistre, they were compatible with Burke and Tocqueville. Hayek assaulted central planning in his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, in which he argued that central planning invited both tyranny and economic inefficiency. Hayek preferred to call himself a liberal, but in the context of the rise of both democratic and totalitarian socialism, must be (and usually was) counted a conservative.
In between the poles, Clemens von Metternich served as foreign minister of the Habsburg Empire from 1815 to 1848 and was a key figure in the Congress of Vienna, the 1815 diplomatic conference in which the kings of Europe agreed on a framework to keep the peace after the Napoleonic wars. That framework relied on the defense of monarchy and the suppression of radicalism. Although Metternich is widely criticized as a reactionary, he was also cosmopolitan and pacific and advised the Hapsburg emperor to grant more constitutional rights to Hungary and other outposts of the empire. He called his philosophy “conservative socialism”: socialism defined as organic social unity in preference to atomistic individualism, a notion that defined much of European conservatism. Metternich’s secretary Freidrich Gentz translated Burke’s Reflections into German, wrote widely himself, and shared Metternich’s cosmopolitanism.
In postwar, increasingly secular, Europe, both extreme nationalism and clericism withered; Maurras fell with Vichy France, and the last European outpost of Maistre was arguably Franco’s Spain. Rather, the conservatism of the last half of the century was dominated by figures influenced most by the Burkean pole’s paternalistic offshoot (the British statesman Winston Churchill [1874–1965], who sought to model himself after Disraeli), by its free-market offshoot (Britain’s Margaret Thatcher or Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi), or by Metternich’s cosmopolitanism (Germany’s Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl and other European Christian Democrats).
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a Latin American conservatism arose that largely paralleled its European counterpart. After independence, Maistre dominated, as conservatives promoted close church-state connections and centralized state authority. The twentieth century saw a divide between Maistre’s conservatism, reflected in extreme form in the Argentinean junta among others, and a free-market, neoliberal conservatism more comfortable with Burke and Smith. (The Chilean military dictatorship incongruously melded Maistre’s politics and Smith’s economics.) In contrast to Europe, however, the Burkeans seemingly gained the upper hand only in the last fifth of the century.
Historian Louis Hartz famously argued in 1955 that there were no true conservatives in America, only rival species of liberals. Nevertheless, American thinkers as disparate as the anti-federalists, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and John Calhoun have sometimes been labeled “conservative.” Modern American conservatism, however, grew out of opposition to the New Deal and the rise of the welfare state. Its first mobilization took the form of the American Liberty League in the 1930s, consisting of an alliance between Republican businessmen and Jeffersonian Democrats. This nascent conservatism drew on a belief that the New Deal threatened constitutional principles by centralizing power, undermined the free enterprise system, and corrupted the civic virtue of Americans. If equality was the first value of the New Deal, the chief aim of these conservatives was the preservation of Lockean liberty. Like Hayek, President Herbert Hoover long argued that he was the real liberal, as he—not Franklin Roosevelt—had remained true to the tenets of limited government and free markets that defined classical liberalism. Senator Robert Taft (R-OH), though sometimes dubbed “Mr. Conservative” by contemporaries, fell in this category as well.
A number of other influential figures came to advance free-market economics and limited government. Among these was Nobel economist Milton Friedman, whose Chicago school advocated “monetarism”—an emphasis on free markets and control of the money supply—as an alternative to liberal Keynesianism. Though not as libertarian as the Austrian school of Hayek and von Mises, Friedman favored limits on government spending, taxing, and regulation, as well as school vouchers and a negative income tax as an alternative to welfare. In the 1970s, a school known as supply-side economics was advanced by economic thinkers like Arthur Laffer, Robert L. Bartley, and Jude Wanniski. The supply-siders emphasized improved incentives for work and investment. While differing on many specifics, the revived schools of free-market economics agreed that political liberty and economic liberty were intertwined.
A second strand of conservatism was skeptical of mass politics and abstractions like natural rights, and was concerned with the decline in importance of religion and traditional social forms and morals. The postwar traditionalists were anticipated in some respects by a school known as Southern Agrarianism (Richard Weaver, John Crowe Ransom, and others), whose unhappiness with industrialism and materialism was laid forth in their 1930 manifesto I Take My Stand. Traditionalism’s most noteworthy spokesmen in the 1950s were Willmoore Kendall and Russell Kirk, the latter of whom argued his case for “the permanent things” in The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot (1953). Unlike many of the constitutionalists and the libertarian-leaning economists, these thinkers were not averse to the label “conservative.” While these traditionalists may have been the most European strand of American conservatism, none were enamored of authoritarianism. Indeed, their fear was that tyranny would result from the collapse of virtue that they diagnosed. The traditionalists sought refuge for liberty in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of liberty rather than in natural rights, and what they sought to conserve above all was Western civilization.
A third strand of postwar conservatism consisted of a strong anticommunist movement. While Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) is perhaps the best-known, and most notorious, anticommunist conservative of the era, anti-communism was widely shared by millions of Americans who were concerned by the totalitarian character of Leninist ideology, the international threat posed by the Soviet Union, and the penetration of domestic communism into American social and governmental institutions. Key intellectual figures in this movement were the former Trotskyite James Burnham and former communist Whittaker Chambers. Chambers testified against State Department official and Soviet spy Alger Hiss and wrote the widely read book Witness (1952) to chronicle his religious and political conversion. Anticommunism was an essential glue, appealing both to the religious scruples of the traditionalists and the limited government views of the economic conservatives.
While not part of the broad public resurgence of conservatism, other rightward intellectual currents of the time were represented by anti-utopian philosophers such as Leo Strauss (1899–1973) and Eric Voegelin (1901–1985). Strauss looked to classical Greek philosophy for guidance to the good life and best society. Voegelin fashioned a philosophy emphasizing experience and both the transcendence and limits of humans.
The conservative movement as a coherent force was forged in the mid-1950s when the three major strands of conservatism coalesced. A key moment in that effort was the founding by William F. Buckley of the conservative journal National Review in 1955. National Review advanced what became known as fusion, a conception of conservatism that balanced and wove together the three strands.
While the conservative movement was coming together at the intellectual level, it was also gaining at the grassroots level. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican presidential campaign recruited tens of thousands of conservative volunteers into Republican politics and shifted the party to the right. Goldwater was the first major American political figure in the postwar era to embrace the label “conservative.” In his 1960 book Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater laid out a “fusionist” doctrine that was economically free-market, politically constitutionalist, vehemently anticommunist, and religiously grounded. It was also populist in the style of the English Whigs, the “country party” that regularly took the “court party” to task for its elitism, corruption, and autocratic tendencies. After Goldwater’s landslide defeat against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, many commentators concluded that conservatism as a political force in America was finished.
However, developments in the 1960s and 1970s from stagflation to moral permissiveness to Soviet advances abroad made the conservative critique seem increasingly plausible. At the same time, three new ingredients were added to the stew of American conservatism. One was the growth of black intellectual conservatism represented by thinkers like economists Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, social commentator Shelby Steele, and future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Another was the development of neoconservatism in the form of figures such as Midge Decter, Nathan Glazer, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and Ben Wattenberg. Neoconservatives were typically once-liberal intellectuals who had shifted significantly to the right on the ideological spectrum owing to concerns about Soviet expansionism and cultural issues. While limited in number, the neoconservatives also added considerable intellectual heft to the conservative movement through organs such as Commentary and The Public Interest.
Finally, a new mass movement of social and religious conservatives arose to complement the traditionalist intellectuals. This movement was distressed by what it perceived as the moral breakdown of American society and the role of government policy in abetting that breakdown. Ultimately known as the “religious right” or the “Christian right,” it was catalyzed by the Supreme Court’s abortion, school prayer, and obscenity decisions, the fight over ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and rules proposed by the Internal Revenue Service during the Carter administration that threatened the tax-exempt status of many Christian schools. Mass organizations like the Moral Majority and, later, the Christian Coalition formed to promote socially conservative policies.
The growing strength of American conservatism helped lead to the 1980 and 1984 presidential victories of former California governor Ronald Reagan, by then the unquestioned standard-bearer of the conservative movement. Reagan, like Goldwater, promoted a populist blend of free market economics, cultural conservatism, and anticommunist nationalism, though without Goldwater’s harder edges. Although falling short of many of his goals, Reagan achieved a significant rightward move in public policy and forged a strong Republican electoral coalition that contributed to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and to Republican electoral successes in the early twenty-first century.
Nevertheless, when President Bill Clinton successfully stymied many of their policy departures after 1994, many conservatives searched for a new approach. In his 2000 campaign and subsequent presidency, George W. Bush offered what he called “compassionate conservatism,” a reorientation of conservatism that would accommodate big government rather than trying to curtail it, and would institute reforms aimed at making it more accountable and more subject to citizen choice.
In Europe, a considerable distance separated Burke from Maistre, and a vast gulf divided Burke, Tocqueville, and even Metternich on one hand from the outliers Maurras and von Treitschke on the other. Even within the narrowed range of postwar European conservatism, divisions remained, for example between free-market Thatcherites and their more paternalistic and statist Tory compatriots in Britain. Arguably, not as much distance has divided American conservatives, who largely agreed that what they wanted to conserve was the synthesis between Lockeanism, biblical republicanism, and classical Western civilization that they held to be essential parts of the nation’s heritage. Nevertheless, they have differed about what themes to emphasize, and have often differed over specific means. The more libertarian-leaning of the economic conservatives have an uneasy relationship with the social/cultural conservatives. Those traditionalists who eschew natural rights have clashed with other conservatives who defend the natural rights paradigm. Even the monetarists and the supply-siders have engaged in sometimes bitter disputes. When some post-Reagan conservatives argued for a conservatism grounded not in limited government but in promotion of “national greatness” or of a more accountable form of big government, this innovation brought vehement opposition from others. George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism was at the center of that debate.
American conservatism has been more populist and dynamic than its European counterpart, and less paternalistic, aristocratic, authoritarian, and clerical. There is no influential American counterpart to the tradition of Maistre, let alone Maurras. However, the gap between the continents has narrowed substantially as postwar European conservatism shifted decisively in favor of its Burkean pole. Reagan’s kinship with Thatcher in the 1980s illuminated an increasing convergence in favor of a conservatism that seeks to preserve the (classical) liberal polity against more radical challenges at home and abroad.
SEE ALSO Black Conservatism; Liberalism; Neoconservatism
Buckley, William F., Jr., and Charles R. Kesler, eds. 1988. Keeping the Tablets: Modern American Conservative Thought. New York: Harper & Row.
Burke, Edmund, and Isaac Kramnick. 1999. The Portable Edmund Burke. New York: Penguin.
Goldwater, Barry M. 1960. The Conscience of a Conservative. Shepherdsville, KY: Victor Publishing.
Hayek, Friedrich A. von. 1944. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kirk, Russell, ed. 1982. The Portable Conservative Reader. New York: Viking Penguin.
Kirk, Russell. 1989. The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot. 7th ed. Chicago: Regnery.
Nash, George H. 1996. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. 2nd ed. Wilmington, DE: ISI Press.
Viereck, Peter. 1956. Conservatism from John Adams to Churchill. Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand.
Andrew E. Busch
"Conservatism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/conservatism-0
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CONSERVATISM. A national political and intellectual movement of self-described conservatives began to congeal in the middle of the twentieth century, primarily as a reaction to the creation of the New Deal welfare state, but also in response to the alleged erosion of traditional values and the American failure to win a quick victory in the Cold War. Among the factions within this movement, traditionalists typically stressed the virtues of order, local custom, and natural law; libertarians promoted limited government, laissez-faire economics, and individual autonomy; and militant cold warriors sought primarily to combat communism. Despite these internal differences, by 1960, conservatives had formulated a coherent critique of liberalism and built a network of political activists. In 1964, they mobilized to win the Republican presidential nomination for Senator Barry Goldwater and, subsequently, remained a major political force.
Although this late twentieth-century movement stands out in its size and success, from the outset, American life was influenced by men and women who, by some plausible standard, can be considered conservatives. Modern conservative thinkers sought to legitimate their own worldviews by discovering precursors in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. Liberals responded that conservatives were merely stringing together an incongruous list of heroes for a nation whose history was, in a broad sense, liberal. Conservatives themselves often acknowledged the dilemma. Disagreeing among themselves about the essential features of modern conservatism, they offer differing evaluations of plausible precursors. Thus, any account of a conservative "tradition" is inherently problematical.
Early American Conservatives
Few modern conservatives honor the Loyalists, whose commitment to order led them to oppose the American Revolution. Rather, Edmund Burke, a British Whig who supported the cause of independence but despised the French Revolution, is typically cited as the intellectual founder of American (or Anglo-American) conservatism. The Constitution wins praise from modern traditionalists for protecting private property and limiting democracy, and its foremost authors are rightly credited with skepticism about human perfectibility. In the late eighteenth century, however, a charter that established a republic and barred religious tests for office hardly looked conservative. Moreover, skeptical of the strong central government latent in the Constitution, libertarians sometimes hail the Antifederalist defense of local prerogatives and insistence on a Bill of Rights.
While a handful of libertarians look back favorably on Thomas Jefferson, most modern conservatives scorn his optimistic view of human nature and enthusiasm for the French Revolution. They find the leaders of the Federalist Party, which rose and fell in competition with the Jeffersonian Republicans, much more appealing. Certainly, the Federalists valued hierarchy, order, and religious fidelity more than equality, democracy, and tolerance. Yet the party was by no means unambiguously conservative by modern standards. Alexander Hamilton's economic program sanctioned federal intervention, not laissez-faire, to foster capitalist development. John Marshall's jurisprudence grudgingly yielded to legislative expressions of the popular will. Furthermore, the second generation of Federalist politicians tried to save the party in the 1810s by muting their public critique of democracy.
Equally problematical is the relationship between modern conservatism and the Whig Party, which rose and fell in competition with the Jacksonian Democrats. Especially in New England, the Whigs were more likely to value decorum, orthodox Christianity, and deference to authority. The party insisted that it was preserving the moderate democracy of the nation's founders against the usurpation of power by "King Andrew" Jackson. Prominent Whigs, including Daniel Webster, even called themselves conservatives. Yet the Whig record falls short of the modern libertarian or traditionalist ideal. The party not only advocated federal appropriations for "internal improvements," but also pioneered flamboyant electoral politics in the "hard cider" campaign of 1840.
The Civil War and Conservative Politics
The antebellum South produced a distinctive intellectual conservatism in which a critique of unfettered democracy, federal power, and bourgeois individualism was increasingly tied to a defense of slavery. In the writings of James Thornwell, William Trescott, and George Fitzhugh, the slave South remained within the mainstream of Christian civilization, while the free North was capitulating to "ultraism" in the form of infidelity, socialism, and women's rights. At the same time, John C. Calhoun adapted the founders' republican ideas to protect southern interests. According to Calhoun's doctrine of the "concurrent majority," the two foremost factions in the United States—the slave states and the free states—had a right to protect their basic interests. Accordingly, the Constitution should be amended to provide for two presidents, one from each section and both armed with the veto.
Defeat of the South in the Civil War facilitated the rise of what the political scientist Clinton Rossiter called "laissez-faire conservatism." The leading ideologist of this persuasion, William Graham Sumner, adapted social Darwinism to the American scene. Not only did the fittest survive to acquire great wealth, Sumner contended, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a competent few also maximized its productive (hence, moral) use. In a democracy, the less fit majority tried to capture the state in order to redistribute or redirect wealth. But no government could administer wealth as wisely as the industrialists and entrepreneurs who created it.
Not only did the dour, secular Sumner decline to think of himself as a conservative, but he also recognized that laissez-faire conservatives fell short of his limited government ideal. The Federalist and Whig belief in social stewardship did steadily erode with the disappearance of those parties. Yet late nineteenth-century Republicans in particular advocated both protective tariffs and federal expenditures for internal improvements. In order to strike down popular legislation that impinged on property rights, laissez-faire conservatives increased the power of at least one branch of the federal government: the judiciary. Similarly, it is ironic that the hundreds of vetoes cast by conservative Democrat Grover Cleveland in order to limit regulations and expenditures actually enhanced the power of the presidency.
What is usually called the Progressive movement has been particularly perplexing to modern conservatives—and with good reason. As libertarians lament, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and others who rode the bipartisan tide of reform created the regulatory state. Traditionalists regret that they also rallied "the people" against so-called special interests. Yet progressive Republicans and Democrats were sufficiently nationalistic in their social views and restrained in economics to preclude the creation of an explicitly conservative party. Furthermore, seeking to limit the influence of "unfit" ethnic and racial minorities, many Progressive reformers supported less democratic forms of municipal government and the disfranchisement of African Americans.
The New Deal and the New Conservatives
World War I, the subsequent red scare, and the cultural conflicts of the 1920s combined to move the political center of gravity in a more conservative direction. The major party presidential nominees were more skeptical of the regulatory state than Roosevelt or Wilson had been. Social critics and social scientists assailed the excesses of mass democracy. Organizing to protect their ways of life, diverse cultural conservatives promoted "100 percent Americanism," defended Prohibition, campaigned against the teaching of evolution in public schools, and expanded the Ku Klux Klan into the largest nativist organization in American history.
Culturally, conservative literature and criticism flourished, too. During the nineteenth century, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and many lesser writers affirmed tradition, order, and authority rather than economic development and democracy. Their post–World War I counterparts included the irreverent pundit H. L. Mencken, the "new humanists" Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, and the Nashville Agrarians.
The Great Depression and the New Deal finally produced a clear and durable left-center-right political spectrum. Proponents of the welfare state, in calling themselves liberals, typically supported the Democratic Party and followed Franklin D. Roosevelt. Opponents complained that Roosevelt had stolen that honorable label to camouflage his socialism, but they nonetheless came to call themselves conservatives. Conservative attacks mixed laissez-faire conservatism with venerable fears of federal control and corruption. Few defended laissez-faire more zealously than the former Democrats who led the anti-New Deal Liberty League. Although the question of federal intervention in the economy was central to sorting out the political spectrum, conservatives also thought that Roosevelt's Jewish, Catholic, and cosmopolitan followers fell short of being 100 percent Americans, as did his activist wife, Eleanor. Starting in 1937, southern Democrats—incensed by the New Deal's mild concessions to African Americans and Roosevelt's attempt to expand the Supreme Court—joined northern Republicans in an informal conservative congressional coalition to fight further expansion of the welfare state.
A distinct far right crystallized during the 1930s. Senator Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin, and lesser activists agreed with conservatives like former President Herbert Hoover and Senator Robert Taft that the New Deal was bureaucratic, corrupt, and un-American. But far right activists not only placed a higher priority on revitalizing (as opposed to conserving) what they considered to be the American way of life, but sometimes also favored economic redistribution. Most of them rooted their politics in theologically conservative versions of Christianity, and many embraced anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. To liberals and radicals, this far right looked like an American fascism.
World War II and the Cold War heightened fears of disorder and subversion, energized a religious revival, and strengthened the congressional conservative coalition. Leaders of the modern conservative movement that began to coalesce in this hospitable environment ranged from irresponsible demagogues like Senator Joseph McCarthy to impressive thinkers like the traditionalist Richard Weaver and the libertarian economist Milton Friedman. No intellectual was more important than William F. Buckley Jr., who provided a forum in National Review magazine for attacking what he called President Dwight Eisenhower's "dime store New Deal." In 1960, Buckley took the lead in founding the Young Americans for Freedom, which became a base for the Goldwater campaign. While warding off liberal charges of "extremism," the modern conservative movement set its own boundaries to the right by repudiating anti-Semites, the John Birch Society's conspiracy theories, and segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace. Staunch conservatives typically opposed civil rights legislation as a violation of states rights and local custom. Equally important, the residual fear of military intervention abroad that had marked Robert Taft and Herbert Hoover subsided as conservatives demanded victory in the Cold War.
The political polarization of the 1960s and early 1970s strengthened conservatism. Racial conflict, secularization, liberalizing sexual mores, and the stalemated war in Vietnam War alienated many moderate Democrats, especially white southerners and working-class Catholics. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford drew these groups into the Republican Party, even as many conservatives denounced both presidents for compromising with congressional liberals and the Soviet Union. During the late 1970s, Democrats also lost support within two other constituencies. Jewish "neoconservative" intellectuals thought Jimmy Carter too hard on Israel and too soft on the Soviet Union. Theologically conservative Protestants discovered that this "born again" Baptist president was more liberal than they had thought. Such fundamentalists and evangelicals formed the bulwark of the New Christian Right. The leading organization of this kind, the Moral Majority, was led by the Baptist minister Jerry Falwell.
The election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980 brought significant change to modern conservatism. The Republicans were now clearly the more conservative major party. Yet Reagan's conservatism was more complicated than Goldwater's two decades earlier. While Reagan denounced big government, promoted tax cuts, and undermined labor unions, his administration ran record deficits and only slightly diminished the welfare state. He celebrated religious faith in general but gave scant support to New Christian Right efforts to ban abortion or restore prayer to public schools. A large military buildup and strident anticommunist rhetoric were intended to weaken the Soviet Union. Ultimately, however, Reagan accepted a version of détente as a means to end the Cold War.
Post–Cold War Conservative Identity
Post–Cold War conservatism was marked by a loss of focus, internecine disputes, and false starts. The New Christian Right leader Pat Robertson ran an ineffective race for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. Conservative Pat Buchanan challenged President George H. W. Bush's renomination in 1992, primarily because Bush had agreed to a tax increase. Bush's defeat by Bill Clinton, a supporter of affirmative action, gay rights, and abortion, brought temporary unity to conservative ranks. In 1994, assailing Clinton's advocacy of national health insurance as well his cultural liberalism, Republicans under the leadership of Representative Newt Gingrich won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years. During 1998–1999, conservatives spearheaded the unsuccessful effort to remove Clinton from office for lying under oath about his sex life. Adapting old arguments, traditionalists and New Christian Right clergy presented Clinton as a symbol of corrupt cultural relativism in general and the moral decline of the 1960s in particular.
This campaign not only dissipated energy on the right, but also revealed many conservatives as self-righteous and hypocritical. George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 by advocating a practical and ecumenical conservatism that welcomed women, blacks, and Hispanics to the cause. Aside from a few traditionalist intellectuals and the staunchest fundamentalist Christians, there was no coherent conservative movement to Bush's right.
Allitt, Patrick. Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950–1985. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Brennan, Mary C. Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Buckley, William F., Jr., ed. American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970.
Dillard, Angela D. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? Multi-cultural Conservatism in America. New York: New York University Press, 2001.
Doenecke, Justus D. Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979.
Genovese, Eugene D. The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Hodgson, Godfrey. The World Turned Right Side Up: A History of the Conservative Ascendancy in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Kirk, Russell. The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. 7th rev. ed. Chicago: Regnery, 1986.
Lora, Ronald. Conservative Minds in America. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1971.
Nash, George H. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. New York: Basic Books, 1976.
Patterson, James T. Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal: The Growth of the Conservative Coalition in Congress, 1933–1939. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1967.
Rossiter, Clinton L. Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion. 2d rev. ed. New York: Vintage, 1962.
"Conservatism." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/conservatism-0
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Although conservatism in the United States did not become a generally coherent intellectual movement until the close of the American Revolution (1775–1783), it had strong roots in the colonial era nonetheless. The planter societies of Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina, especially, were governed for the most part by principles that were solidly conservative— respect for religious establishments, aristocratic constitutions, a recognition of corresponding rights and duties, and guarantees for the protection of property, particularly property in land. Even the colonies founded upon dissent, such as the New England settlements and Pennsylvania, became relatively conservative very shortly after they acquired considerable population and wealth.
At their core, "conservative" debates in the colonies were really disputes between two political factions of Whigs, both attached to the Whig idea of liberty, but differing over views of the colonies' relationship with the Crown (England). For both of these groups, fears of political excesses, economic egalitarianism (equal rights and privileges for all), and cultural vulgarity defined conservatism politically and culturally. Neither of these factions was radical, although some leveling elements were contained in the faction that, at the time of the American Revolution, came to be known as "Patriots." The triumph of the Patriots in the Revolution expelled from America what little Toryism (support for allegiance with Britain) had existed there, and along with it some of the moderate Whigs. Many scholars view the American Revolution as simply a War of Independence—a revolution, in the words of consummate conservative Edmund Burke, "not made, but prevented."
In general, the United States Constitution retained a fundamentally conservative core. It expressed principles intended to conserve justice, order, and liberty in the United States: arrangement of political checks and balances, restrictions upon power, respect for individuality, and protection for private property and the rights minorities. James Madison (1751–1836), the primary author of the Constitution, feared mass tyranny and spoke of the danger of majoritarian rule and elective tyranny.
For the most part, the political contests of the early years of the Republic were long and often times heated debates between two conservative interests—the mercantile and industrial interests of the North, and the agricultural interest of the South. President John Adams (1797–1801) in the North and President James Madison (1809–1817) in the South, dominated these political interests during the early national period. But gradually, Jacksonian democracy and the slavery debate began to divide the nation and tear at the conservative core. Statesman John Randolph (1773–1833) and politician John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) spoke eloquently for the agricultural interest, while orator and statesman Daniel Webster (1782–1852) spoke for Northern conservatism.
During the Gilded Age (the period after the American Civil War through the 1920s), political principles were often neglected in the face of growing materialism. But things began to change quickly during the Progressive era. The term "progressive" captured the sentiment of the age, and represented to many what was best about the nation. But what counted as "progressive" politically was debated. Conservatives, insurgents, socialists, and modern liberals all claimed to be progressive. By the 1910s, however, the predominant political usage of the term came to be associated with political reformers who supported the expansion of the regulatory powers of government as a means to lessen societal problems. Conservatives believed their programs offered the best hope for true political progress. John William Burgess, a political scientist at Columbia University, and his colleague, Nicholas Murray Butler, argued that "limitations on the power of government" were themselves progressive and that relaxing those limitations (as the progressives desired) would be at the expense of individual civil liberties. Freedom of choice, Butler maintained, could only be maximized through restrictions on governmental activism.
The American Liberty League became the greatest voice of political conservatism during the New Deal era. During its six-year existence, the American Liberty League gained support from some of the wealthiest businessmen and professionals in the United States. Among them were Irénée du Pont of the Du Pont Company; Nathan Miller, head of U.S. Steel Co.; Edward F. Hutton of General Foods; and John Jacob Rascob, former director of General Motors and onetime head of the Democratic Party. Among other disillusioned Democrats active in the League were two former Democratic presidential candidates: John W. Davis, who lost to Calvin Coolidge in 1924, and Alfred E. Smith, who lost to Herbert Hoover in 1928. The American Liberty League offered conservative criticism of the New Deal. Its stated purpose was "to defend and uphold the Constitution . . . [and] to teach the duty of government to protect individual and group initiatives. . . ." Claiming that the New Deal threatened the constitutional system of checks and balances by concentrating power in the chief executive, the American Liberty League also opposed the New Deal's monetary policy, its deficit spending, its progressive taxation of businesses, and its efforts to enlarge government in general. Though the American Liberty League suffered from its popular image as a club for millionaires and did not gain wide popular support, its membership reached almost 125,000 at its height in 1936. The League fell apart after President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (1933–1945) decisive electoral victory that year.
With the emergence of the United States as a global power after World War II and the rise of the Soviet Union as a nuclear threat, the conservative movement shifted its focus. It abandoned its isolationist position in foreign policy, which was incompatible with its militant anti-communism views. The right was also critical of foreign aid and distrustful of American involvement in the United Nations. It was libertarian in its view of economics, opposing taxes, government regulation of business, government spending, and social programs. It was also socially traditional, stressing moral order and maintenance of the community.
After the election of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), a conservative president, the right found itself in a position of power that it had not held for decades. Its advocates, like William Buckley Jr., became television personalities, and the movement gained a respectability that it lacked in the 1960s, when its presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was successfully branded as a dangerous extremist. Later, even a Democratic president William Clinton (1993-) declared that "the age of big government is over," an essentially conservative message. It was during Clinton's first term that the Republicans, the more conservative of the two major parties, took control of both houses of Congress. Conservatives also saw the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and nearly worldwide rejection of socialism that followed as their victories. Nevertheless success also brought dissention. Conservatism became divided into two camps. There were libertarians who emphasized a laissez-faire economic policy, and social conservatives, who felt strongly about issues like abortion. The ability of these two groups to find common ground will be an important factor in the future of the movement.
See also: Laissez Faire
Bennett, David H. The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Forster, Arnold, and Benjamin R. Epstein. Danger on the Right. New York: Random House, 1964.
Himmelstein, Jerome L. To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Kirk, Russell. The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1986.
"Conservatism." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/conservatism
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conservatism, in politics, the desire to maintain, or conserve, the existing order. Conservatives value the wisdom of the past and are generally opposed to widespread reform. Modern political conservatism emerged in the 19th cent. in reaction to the political and social changes associated with the eras of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. By 1850 the term conservatism, probably first used by Chateaubriand, generally meant the politics of the right. The original tenets of European conservatism had already been formulated by Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, and others. They emphasized preserving the power of king and aristocracy, maintaining the influence of landholders against the rising industrial bourgeoisie, limiting suffrage, and continuing ties between church and state. The conservative view that social welfare was the responsibility of the privileged inspired passage of much humanitarian legislation, in which English conservatives usually led the way. In the late 19th cent. great conservative statesmen, notably Benjamin Disraeli, exemplified the conservative tendency to resort to moderate reform in order to preserve the foundations of the established order. By the 20th cent. conservatism was being redirected by erstwhile liberal manufacturing and professional groups who had achieved many of their political aims and had become more concerned with preserving them from attack by groups not so favored. Conservatism lost its predominantly agrarian and semifeudal bias, and accepted democratic suffrage, advocated economic laissez-faire, and opposed extension of the welfare state. This form of conservatism, which is best seen in highly industrialized nations, was exemplified by President Reagan in the United States and Prime Minister Thatcher in Great Britain. It has been flexible and receptive to moderate change, favors the maintenance of order on social issues, and actively supports deregulation and privatization in the economic sphere. Conservatism should be distinguished both from a reactionary desire for the past and the radical right-wing ideology of fascism and National Socialism.
See R. Kirk, The Conservative Mind (rev. ed. 1960); J. Habermas, The New Conservatism (1989); T. Honderich, Conservatism (1991); C. Robin, The Reactionary Mind (2011).
"conservatism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/conservatism
"conservatism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved March 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/conservatism
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That said, modern conservatism tends to draw on two somewhat contradictory intellectual strands, namely the organic conservatism of the Middle Ages and the libertarian conservatism of writers such as Edmund Burke. The former harks back to the medieval ideal of the close-knit local community, a stable social hierarchy with rank ascribed at birth rather than achieved (see ASCRIPTION), dominated by aristocratic paternalism towards the poor, and a network of reciprocal rights and obligations linking benevolent master and deferential servant (see DEFERENCE). By comparison, Burke (an eighteenth-century English political theorist) favoured laissez-faire economics, unregulated capitalism, and minimal state intervention in economic affairs. Whereas organic conservatism emphasizes ‘one nation’, libertarians endorse the individualism of autonomous individuals following their own self-interest, usually on the grounds of individual freedom, social justice, and (long-term) collective welfare.
These strands have proved difficult to reconcile in the long term. (Burke himself also wrote a passionate defence of the organic political and social traditions of eighteenth-century Britain, denouncing the French Revolution, and thus setting the trend in this respect.) Modern conservatives have grappled to balance the two and offered a full range of hybrids. An excellent account of the difficulties inherent in this exercise, illustrated by reference to the history of political conservatism and the Conservative Party in Britain, is Robert Eccleshall's essay on this subject in his Political Ideologies (1984).
"conservatism." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/conservatism
"conservatism." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved March 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/conservatism
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- Apley, George scion of an old Boston society family, he exemplifies its traditions and remains in old-fashioned mediocrity. [Am. Lit.: The Late George Apley in Magill I, 499]
- Conservative party British political party, once called the Tory party. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 632]
- Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R) conservative society of female descendants of Revolutionary War soldiers. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 132]
- elephant symbol of the Republican party. [Am. Hist.: Misc.]
- John Birch Society ultraconservative, anti-Communist organization. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 1421]
- laissez-faire political doctrine that an economic system functions best without governmental interference. [Politics: Misc.]
- Luddites arch-conservative workmen; smashed labor-saving machinery (1779). [Br. Hist.: Espy, 107]
- Republican Party U.S. political party, generally espousing a conservative platform. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 424]
- Warbucks, Daddy espouses a reactionary law-and-order society threatened by decadence, bureaucracy, and loss of Puritan virtues. [Comics: Berger, 84]
"Conservatism." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/conservatism
"Conservatism." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Retrieved March 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/conservatism
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During the 1980s, some sociologists built on New Right ideas to argue that their discipline had come to be dominated by the domain assumptions of a Leftist or Social Democratic political agenda, being implicitly opposed to the market and obsessed by issues of inequality. In one of the most elegant of such critiques, Peter Berger offers fifty propositions about prosperity, equality, and liberty, which link the attainment of all three closely to the aggressive pursuit of a free-market capitalism (see The Capitalist Revolution, 1986).
"New Right." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/new-right
"New Right." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved March 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/new-right
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"conservatism." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/conservatism
"conservatism." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved March 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/conservatism