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Theory in Depth
Theory in Action
Analysis and Critical Response
Topics for Further Study
See Also


Conservatism is generally more reactive than proactive. It is more the presentation of collective responses to other principles and tenets than a collection of its own pure ideologies. Politically, opposing forces are most often called liberal, or favoring reform, and conservative, favoring the preservation of existing order or law and/or cautiously regarding proposals for change. Either term generally refers to an orientation toward facts, laws, policies, or events.

Conservative political tenets vary by country. Whereas socialism and fascism imply certain universal principles, conservatism promotes more parochial continuation. British conservative Lord Falkland once said, "When it is not necessary to change, then it is necessary not to change," begetting the more common, "If it's not broken, don't try to fix it." More moderate conservatives might cautiously change any practice or policy that seemingly has worked successfully for so long. In the alternative, conservatism supports returning to "traditional" or inherited political platforms and tenets as an argument for change.

who controls government? Elected officials, with some appointed

how is government put into power? Popular vote of the majority

what roles do the people have? Vote for representatives

who controls production of goods? The owners of capital

who controls distribution of goods? The owners of capital

major figures Edmund Burke; Ronald Reagan

historical example Great Britain in the 1980s

But historical repetition itself defines what is considered "traditional." Therefore, political conservatism can survive only where governments have been established long enough to secure social, economic, or political traditions. General characteristics include support for the "status quo"; cautiously considering or resisting change; and relying upon traditional values. Conservative ideology has been called "the right" or "right–wing" segment of a theoretical political continuum which radical, reformative, and "liberal" elements define on the left.

Conservative or liberal inclinations are products of one's educational, social, and political environment. Conservative or liberal bias in the media, educational institutions, the courts, and global affairs can greatly affect daily life and one's independent beliefs. One does not often hear about socialistic, communistic, fascist, collectivist, or totalitarian biases in schools or media. One may often hear, however, that conservative or liberal bias has affected a certain policy, rule, decision, vote, or presentation of facts. Under such polarization, there is a tendency to label all political ideas wanting reform or change in government as "liberal." Conversely, any notion that supports continuing the controlling force or government is considered conservative, even if it means maintaining the status quo of an existing "liberal" government: Everything is relative. In any group of two or more persons discussing or arguing the merits of change, the voice of cautious resistance will be deemed conservative.

Historically, political conservatism in the United States has been most often associated with the Republican Party in an essentially bi–partisan system. On the other hand, and although other political parties have appeared sporadically, the Democratic Party has been most often identified with liberals wanting substantive government change to accommodate social needs. Labels, however, are deceptive. In an effort to capture more votes, political candidates have increasingly muddied partisan political waters. Thus, the constituency may often have to decide whether to elect an apparent liberal Republican or conservative Democrat. There are conservative liberals, liberal conservatives, progressive Republicans, and reactionary Democrats, so party labels often reflect political strategy more than ideology, generating more confusion.


1215:      Magna Carta (The Great Charter) established under King John at Runnymede, England, giving birth to English political and civil liberties.

1787:      "Great Compromise" at Constitutional Convention in 1787, establishes U.S. House of Representatives and Senate as representing national and federal principles, respectively.

1790:      Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France" forms the basis of conservatism.

1854:      Republican Party, evolved from the Whigs, forms in the United States to oppose the Democratic Party.

1940:      Winston Churchill becomes prime minister of Great Britain and will lead country through World War II.

1940s–1950s:      "McCarthyism," a period of intense conservatism in the United States marked by anti–Communist fears and criticism of liberal social policies, named after Senator Joseph McCarthy.

1955:      The periodical National Review emerges, directed by Yale University graduate William F. Buckley, Jr., with anti–Communism, anti–federalism, individualism, and libertarianism its central issues.

1979:      Margaret Thatcher of the Conservative Party, urging a reversal to Great Britain's economic decline and a reduced role of government, becomes prime minister.

1980:      Ronald Reagan, campaigning on such traditional themes as family and American pride, elected U.S. president and serves two terms.

2000:      George W. Bush elected U.S. president.

U.S. President George W. Bush (1946– ), attempting to bridge political gaps, has extolled "compassionate conservatism." In this century, partisan politics and "labels" may diminish as the U.S. attempts to establish parameters of conservative and liberal policies and principles.


Since conservatism generally does not involve strict adherence to tenets but rather the continuation of those in place, there is no tangible origin. Still, in every country in which government has existed long enough to establish social, economic, or political traditions, there will most likely be some form of conservative element in its legislative or executive ruling bodies, or in opposition. The emphasis here is on the Western Hemisphere.

Several world figures, such as Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), Cicero (106–43 B.C.), Saint Augustine (354–430), Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–1274), Richard Hooker (1554–1600), and John Locke (1632–1704), have pioneered conservative political thought. But Edmund Burke (1729–1797) is considered the founder of modern conservative thought. His "Reflections on the Revolution in France" (1790) form the basis of conservatism as a distinct political ideology. Burke's form, however, has been, and remains, a Western phenomenon, and continues to defend most values of Western society. Thus, over the years, the United Kingdom and the United States have become the greatest proponents of conservatism, and even between these two great powers, conservative principles have differed substantially.

Great Britain

The United Kingdom consists of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland; the first three constitute Great Britain. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the area was politically organized under the old feudal system, which entailed large–scale grants of land by William the Conqueror (c. 1027–1087) to his Norman followers. These followers were to become the dominant element of the country's nobility. But the Anglo–Saxon influence contributed to the establishment of English political and civil liberties granted by the Magna Carta (The Great Charter) under King John (1167–1216) at Runnymede in 1215. As one provision in the Carta declared, "The barons shall elect twenty–five of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to them by this charter."

England's Parliament is descended from the original councils of these barons, feudal landlords, and high–ranking clergy who advised the king on various matters. In the late thirteenth century, additional members of the Great Council were elected from town shires. A bicameral "Parliament" evolved, consisting of members appointed by the king (House of Lords), and elected tradesman, noblemen, guilders, educators, and merchants (House of Commons). From those councils and sessions came the differences in opinions that eventually led to further factions and parties within the House of Commons.

Great Britain's Conservative Party traces to the founding of the Tory Party in 1689. Ironically, the term first applied to Irishmen who, dispossessed by the English in the mid–seventeenth century, became bandits. It then became, sequentially, a term for any marauder, an Irish Catholic royalist, and a supporter of James II (1633–1701). After 1689, it applied to any member of the English party that initially opposed the "Glorious Revolution" during which King James II was dethroned in a bloodless battle, and his daughter and son–in–law, William (1650–1702) and Mary (1662–1694) of Holland, were invited to assume the throne. Thus, Tory resistance to this change in events may have contributed to their eventual association with conservatism. The Tories were to grow into the party that always supported the monarchy and opposed political reform. Their fear of having the French Revolution repeat itself in England directly relates to their conservative stance of upholding law and order. The Tory Party eventually split into Liberals and Traditionalists, losing their political hold to the Whigs for many years. The terms Tory Party and Conservative Party are often used interchangeably.

The Whigs, short for "Whigamore," one of a body of seventeenth–century Scottish insurgents, were formed in the 18th century as opposition to the Tories. They favored high tariffs, more parliamentary control, and liberal interpretation of laws and charters. Britain's Liberal Party is the heir to the old Whig Party. Following World War I (1914–1918), the Labour Party displaced the Liberal Party as the main opponent to Britain's Conservative Party.

The Roots of Conservatism in America

In the United States, one must look to its founding fathers to understand American political theories, institutions, and moral order. Eventually, as an America independent of England began to form, so also did the rudiments of conservative versus liberal political thought, and their association with certain political parties. Party names and affiliations shifted, mostly the result of conflicting conservative and liberal opinions within.

In colonial America, anyone who could read was certain to have one book: the Bible. This unified New England pilgrims who may have otherwise differed. They established their commonwealth according to the Ten Commandments and it is fair to say that contemporary American democratic society rests upon inherited Puritan and Calvinistic influences. As Clinton Rossiter observed in Seedtime of the Republic: the Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty, from this Christian heritage comes "the contract and all its corollaries; the higher law as something more than a brooding omnipresence in the sky; the concept of the competent and responsible individual; certain key ingredients of economic individualism; the insistence on a citizenry educated to understand its rights and duties; and middle class virtues, that high plateau of moral stability on which, so Americans believe, successful democracy must always build." The influence of New England Puritan Christianity and the work ethic of later immigrants from Western Europe were the underlying forces in establishing the rudiments of the America's capitalist democratic republic. It also served to influence the ordered liberty and principles found in the U.S. Constitution.


Edmund Burke

Noted politician, writer, and statesman Edmund Burke was the son of a Dublin attorney. He abandoned his own law studies in favor of literary work. After serving briefly as Secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham in 1765, Burke entered parliament as a Whig, a member of the people's party. These were times of great upheaval, marked by coercion of the American colonies, and accompanying corruption, extravagance, and reaction. Burke, who greatly respected the wisdom of the ages, fought for liberty in his writings and speeches. But the key element in his early and best works was that liberty must relate to order. This required a sound, constitutional, and consistent statesmanship that enlarged the bounds of liberty only with caution. To him, a nation was a great living society, its constitution an exquisite balance of social forces, premised on complex relations and history interwoven with its institutions.

In the mid–1770s, Burke spoke against proposals to tax the American colonies and to regulate the government of Massachusetts. He did not dispute that the imperial government had the right to take such actions, but he did question the worthiness of such rights. To make his point, Burke delivered two impassioned speeches in the House of Commons: one dwelt on the matter of American taxation by duties and the other urged a reconciliation between the imperial Parliament and the colonies. When the American War for Independence did come, Burke opposed it; he perceived it a danger to the liberties of the colonies, and, therefore, of all English subjects.

The French Revolution, which began in 1789, was the most conspicuous development to coincide with Burke's career. In 1790 he published Reflections on the French Revolution as a warning to fellow English subjects and admirers that the loss of monarchy and liberty could also occur in England, as it had in France, if preventive action was not taken. This most famous of his works went into an eleventh printing before the year ended and served to create an English response to the French Revolution.

Burke retired from political life soon after his son Richard died of consumption (tuberculosis) in August, 1794. In 1796, he opened a neighborhood school school for foreign and immigrant children who would not otherwise have been educated. Early the next year his health began to decline, and he died on July 9, 1797. Despite a move to have him interred, with public honors, in Westminster Abbey, Burke's own will stipulated he be buried in the yard of the parish church of Beaconsfield.

Because the balance and tranquility of a great nation took so many years and so many components to achieve, Burke always argued against hasty change. He believed that only cautious and delicate adjustment to accommodate pressing events should be attempted, lest the unraveling of latent or unknown components that contributed to the whole would inadvertently cause its demise. Burke's writings inspired many monarchs and leaders through their own confrontations with revolution or reform. His defense of preserving existing institutions and orders became the foundation for Western conservative thought.

The Constitutional debates Yet, there were early political and cultural divides. This is apparent from the constitutional debates between the Federalists, who were essentially nationalists, and the Anti–Federalists, who rallied against strong central government in favor of state power. Both sides, however, were concerned with preserving liberty, having just fought a war to protect it. The Federalists believed there were enough checks and balances in the Constitution as written to protect liberty. The Anti–Federalists wanted the Constitution to spell out specific liberties. Between 1787 and early 1788, five states (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut) had ratified the Constitution as written. Massachusetts was the first holdout. The Federalists penned a series of 85 papers composed for publication in New York newspapers under the title of "The Federalist," hoping to sway public opinion. Of the papers' three main authors, Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), James Madison (1751–1836), and John Jay (1745–1829), Madison, in "The Federalist No. 10," argued persuasively for a strong federal government. They said:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States: a religious sect, may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it, must secure the national Councils against any danger from that source: a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union, than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular country or district, than an entire State.

But the Anti–Federalist Patrick Henry (1736–1799) of Virginia rebutted:

The first thing I have at heart is American liberty, the second thing is American Union. The rights of conscience, trial by jury, liberty of the press, all your immunities and franchises, all pretensions to human rights and privileges, are rendered insecure, if not lost, by this change so loudly talked of by some… You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your Government.

The Bill of Rights The Anti–Federalists wanted a Bill of Rights written into the Constitution. Ultimately, the Federalists proposed ratifying the Constitution as written, with adding a Bill of Rights the first order. This compromise enabled Massachusetts and all other states, except Maryland, to ratify. The document took effect June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state.

George Washington (1732–1799) himself understood well the importance of his Anti–Federalist adversaries. He wrote,

Upon the whole, I doubt whether the opposition to the Constitution will not ultimately be productive of more good than evil; it has called forth, in its defence (sic), abilities which would not perhaps been otherwise exerted, that have thrown new light upon the science of Government, they have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them in so clear and forcible a manner as cannot fail to make a lasting impression….

The Constitution of the United States of America had its first ten amendments, now commonly called the Bill of Rights. So much contention and debate had occurred among the States that Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), asked by a citizen what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had proposed for the country, replied, "A republic… if you can keep it." America's political system invites the free expression of opposing and diverse views, a right so fundamental that liberty would have little meaning without it. As Washington said in 1789, "The sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are… deeply and finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."

Neither the Constitution nor its framers contemplated separate political parties as playing a role in the legislative process. Under the "Great Compromise" reached at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the delegates agreed that a House of Representatives would represent the "national principle," while the Senate would be an expression of the "federal principle." The Federalists had succeeded in having their proposed Constitution ratified, with the addition of the Bill of Rights; Washington was unanimously voted in as a non–partisan first president, and Federalist sentiments controlled the nation's first Congress. John Adams, the second president, was a strong Federalist. But starting with Thomas Jefferson, the third president and an Anti–Federalist, many of America's first presidents were "Democratic Republicans," including James Madison and James Monroe after Jefferson. It was not until 1828 that the Democratic and Republican parties split into two under Andrew Jackson, who called himself a Democrat and the Federalist Party was dissolved.

Hamilton's views Fundamental differences even ran through Washington's cabinet, between Jefferson, the secretary of state, and Alexander Hamilton, the treasury secretary. Jefferson, an aristocratic Virginia planter and landowner, considered himself a progressive proponent of the "European Enlightenment" movement and fully supported the French Revolution. He defended local government and viewed rural society as the bearer of democratic sentiment in a struggle against the commercial aristocracy of cities. Jefferson became increasingly conservative in his political sentiments, remaining essentially against centralized government and eventually, international commerce.

Hamilton, by contrast, admired the British constitution and staunchly opposed the French Revolution. The House as well as the Senate, upon receiving Hamilton's first financial plan, began to exhibit a spirit of partisanship. Hamilton and his followers banded together as Federalists, and their opponents, representing agrarian (land–owning) aristocracy, led by Jefferson and Madison, became known as Democratic Republicans in 1792.

Hamilton and his followers, meanwhile, inspired the eventual creation of Henry Clay's National Republicans and Whigs. Decades later, a formal Republican Party was formed from the Whigs in 1854 to

oppose the Democratic Party. This ended the American factions of Whigs and Tories, inherited from England. American Whigs supported the Revolution; American Tories opposed it. Since 1832, the Tories were considered the conservative party, and remained so in England (opposite the Whigs, and later, the Labour Party). In America, however, the Republicans (the prior Whigs) eventually became known for their conservatism.

Progressive movement Later in that century, a group calling themselves "populists," or "People's Party," most prominently led by William Jennings Bryan, made Jefferson their hero, even though they advocated such policies as public ownership of utilities which would have horrified Jefferson. The Populist Party formed to represent agrarian interests in the presidential election of 1892. They advocated a more equitable distribution of wealth and power, big business and small independent businesses, a graduated federal income tax, and an increased currency with free coinage of gold and silver.

The Progressive Movement also aligned with Jeffersonian Populists, particularly in the Midwest and South. Jefferson had previously interpreted "Whig" to represent those in favor of change, and "Tory" to mean those opposed to change, that is, conservative. Those supporting change do so in the name of progress, hence the term "progressive." Throughout the late nineteenth century, the Progressive Movement fought for state ownership of railroads and utilities, hoping to break up monopolies and cartels hostile to rural farmers who relied on rail for shipment of their grains and produce. They also tended toward isolationism, non–interference in world affairs, and opposed imperialism on both moral and practical grounds. They promoted support for local government as a means to prevent wealth and political power from concentrating.

In the early twentieth century, however, the Populist and Progressive movements again splintered. A new progressivism, associated with Theodore Roosevelt and eventually Woodrow Wilson, was taking hold. This more liberal progressivism tracked similar events and times occurring during the Industrial Revolution in England. It promoted nationalism and imperialism, and saw American involvement in World War I as an opportunity to centralize economic control.

Later, during the lengthy period when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) controlled a Democratic administration, anti–New Deal conservatives and old–time Progressives united again in their opposition of World War II. They also wanted the repeal of the income tax amendment and passage of an amendment to prohibit deficit spending. The Roosevelt administration opposed them and attempted to rally support by labeling them German sympathizers and "Copperheads." But the attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, nearly ended the argument for isolationism and the increasing threat of Communism sent the isolationists into decline. The only part of conservatism that continued after the New Deal and World War II was a suspicion of big government and big business. This thinking was eventually referred to as the post–war "Old Right."

Conservatism After World War II

Still another shift occurred when Ohio Republican Senator Robert Taft (1889–1953) took over as the political leader of the Old Right. Taft was anti–Communist, favored free enterprise, and opposed most of New Deal social welfare legislation. Because the American conservative movement had changed ideologically so many times, the post–war Old Right stood out for its commitment to local liberties and local government, and a concerted dislike for the "collectivist" modern state. American conservatism of the 1940s and 1950s attracted big–business Republicans and other heirs of Alexander Hamilton, but was still under libertarian influence that opposed war, conscription, and imperialism.

From the turn of the century to the 1950s, there had been an increase in administrative consolidation. Government now controlled wages; the national civil service had grown tremendously; executive and congressional authority had empowered labor unions; and federal and state taxes had steadily increased to pay for all this. It appeared to conservatives that old– fashioned libertarianism had become endangered in its own country of origin. Big Government and Big Brother now ruled. The turn of events in post–war England was even more dramatic, when socialists swept to power in the summer of 1945. The newly elected Labour government entered Parliament and sung the "Red Flag" and other songs the revolutionary left had popularized starting in the 1930s.

Anti–Communism and opposition to Soviet imperialism became the driving forces of post–war conservatism. In 1955, the periodical National Review appeared. Directed by Yale University graduate William F. Buckley, Jr., the periodical's central issues of anti–Communism, anti–federalism, individualism, and libertarianism were to shape American conservative politics during through the 1960s and beyond.

Post–war conservatism began during these years and coincided with the Cold War against the Communist Soviet Union. Clearly the galvanizing influence of this conservatism was American anti–Communism, generally called the "Red Scare." President Harry Truman (1884–1972) used the Communist threat to justify his administration's Marshall Plan, the European recovery program following World War II and an economic boost for American industry. Truman concurrently appeared before Congress to request extra funds to create congressional subcommittees to investigate and round up Communist insurgents within U.S. borders.

In a 1962 editorial for National Review, Buckley defended the House Committee on Un–American Activities and other congressional investigations by appealing to the notion of a "clear and present danger" to America were Communism left unchecked. Buckley balanced libertarian constitutional rights of freedom of speech with the threat of atom bombs and Marxist revolutionaries. Likewise, National Review writer Will Herberg, a Jewish theologian, wrote, "It is only when 'un–American' propaganda becomes a part of a conspiratorial movement allied with a foreign enemy, bent on the destruction of our nation, of freedom, and of Western civilization that it becomes a proper subject for congressional inquiry, disclosure, and legislation." Thus, the influential Buckley and his colleagues actually helped promote the conservative premise of maintaining the free–enterprise system against the Communist threat.

Civil rights movement As the conservative movement entered the 1960s, it widened its focus and became more polarized against the growing civil rights movement. To diehard conservatives, the movement represented the destruction of communities that to date had been free of bureaucratic control. They resented government social engineering and considered it an abridgement of their private rights of contract and association.

But separating principle from policy created yet another splintering. There was internal dissent over civil rights, particularly feminism and what was seen as black radicalism. Orthodox libertarians also differed over strong laws regarding pornography. A "fusion" and alignment of issues occurred. Conservatism in America came to represent all of these: economic libertarianism, cultural traditionalism, strong local government, and militant anti–Communism. This fusionist concept united both libertarian and traditionalist factions and became the vital center of what came to be known as neo–conservatism.

This time marked the era of the new Campus Right as well. By the late 1950s, Yale had become a breeding ground such conservative activists as Buckley. In his first published book, God and Man at Yale (1951), Buckley protested the pervasive liberalism of Yale's professors. Catholic universities such as Fordham, Notre Dame, and St. John's in New York became important centers of conservative activity. The Catholic component of the intellectual right defended anti–Communist and anti–secularist views and promoted activism to stamp out these threats. They assumed strong positions of political and global involvement to save America Communism's threatening spread. These views separated them, however, from the Southern and Midwestern Protestants, whose foreign policy views were still isolationist. The abortion controversy surfaced in the 1960s after mothers who had taken thalidomide drugs gave birth to deformed babies. Again, the Catholic and Protestant conservatives splintered over this issue, the Catholics being patently anti–abortion. Irish–American Catholics also rallied against liberal social policies such as forced busing. Racial tensions, court–ordered busing, and violent crimes during the 1960s started to move traditionally Democratic Catholic communities in the North toward the conservative Right. Concerned about the expanding welfare system, they demanded harder eligibility tests for welfare recipients.

The conservative movement of the 1960s promoted economic deregulation, a strong military commitment, and a vigorous struggle against Soviet power. Republican Party presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's (1909–1998) ultra–conservative platform

included notions of a "breakdown of moral fiber in the United States," a big–government conspiracy theory, and an ominous forecast of a Communist takeover of the country. Big business, nonetheless, withheld support from Goldwater–type purists, fearing the loss of lucrative contracts with an expanded federal government and civil service. In 1964, big business backed the more liberal Republican, Nelson Rockefeller (1908–1979). Goldwater won the Republican nomination that year, but lost the November election to incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973), who was completing the term of assassinated President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963). About this time, the Christian libertarian, Frank Meyer, who continued to prophesize until his death in 1972, warned that a conservative political majority would again rise in America when its citizens realized the harm liberal policies had caused to their constitutional and moral legacies.

The next political crisis was the Vietnam War, which also started in the mid–1960s. Involvement in the war had divided the nation, torn between conservative and liberal sentiments. A liberal Democrat had gotten the U.S. into the war, it was argued, so Republican President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) would end it. Nixon, however, resigned in 1974 during preliminary impeachment hearings following the Watergate scandal. The old conservative distrust of big government returned, but this time, it involved one of their own.

The Reagan era For the 1980 presidential race, California Republican Governor Ronald W. Reagan (1911– ) was the conservatives' dream candidate. As president, he was optimistic and humorous, his manner easy. Amid recession, he spoke of economic growth and hope. Reagan spoke firmly about containing Soviet and Communist expansionism. He was comfortable with his traditional views of family and American pride. He revived national pride and helped unite an economically troubled people. The economy during his administration (1981–1989) embarked on a twenty–year growth pattern that did not slow down until after the millennium, and big business supported him all the way. Conservatism was back in vogue.

Reagan, like Goldwater, spoke of a "moral crisis of our times," and during his administration extreme right conservative organizations such as the "Moral Majority" surfaced. Ironically, for all the great things that Reagan did for the name "conservative," the term became increasingly associated with the extreme religious right, a stereotype that also carried into the millennium.

Reagan's rise also spawned different kind of populism, according to Richard Viguerie, publisher of Conservative Digest. In a commentary for the National Review in 1984, Viguerie wrote, "To say that every populist is a demagogue is as wrong as accusing every conservative of racism," he wrote. "The 1980s–style populists I describe in The Establishment vs. the People are anti–racist, compassionate, anti–Communist, future–oriented, and grounded in traditional values while sympathetic to libertarianism."

George Herbert Walker Bush (1924– ), vice president under Reagan, was elected in 1988. Although there was no scandal associated with Bush's term, liberal forces were brewing. Out of virtually nowhere came Arkansas Democratic Governor Bill Clinton (1946– ). From 1993 to 2001, Clinton occupied the White House during continued economic prosperity. Many of his liberal policies, however, such as admitting China into the World Trade Organization, drew fire from conservatives, and his intentions for a national health plan never materialized.

In the contested presidential election of 2000, Republican George W. Bush, son of the former president, defeated Clinton's incumbent vice president, Al Gore (1948– ). Bush pledged to govern with "compassionate conservatism," a call to return to the private sector, in voluntary social and faith–based settings, the business of social welfare. Priorities rapidly shifted, however, on September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center in New York was destroyed, killing several thousand people in the worst act of terrorism known to America. The Pentagon building outside Washington D.C., in a simultaneous attack, was also severely damaged.


True political conservatism argues that the survival of any institution such as marriage, the pledge of allegiance, or free enterprise, means it has successfully served a need. Accordingly, its continuation is necessary for that society or government. Conservative statesman Benjamin Disraeli once argued that constant change should at least defer to "the manners, the customs, the laws, the traditions of the people." That notion is at the heart of true conservatism. Conservatism is acutely sensitive to the cost of radical change or reconstruction; until the full consequences are understood, such changes may lead to harmful, unintended consequences or other negative or unanticipated effects.

Conservatism vigorously defends the premise that not all people are equal. It supports the idea that all people are created equal with regard to personal freedoms and rights. But it argues strongly for the inherent inequality in talent and initiative. Conservatism considers it a folly to try to level society by social engineering. Accordingly, attempts to distribute wealth evenly or give equal say to those who have earned no vested interest in a matter are clearly suspect.

Persistent themes of traditional conservatism include a universal moral order sanctioned by organized religion, the primary role of private property and a defense of the social order. On the other end is the criticism that true conservatism is interested only in maintaining existing inequalities or restoring lost ones.

The Conservative Split

Traditionalists and reformers differ on issues, but still consider themselves overall conservatives. As President Ronald Reagan once quipped after being confronted with differences among his aides, "Sometimes our right hand doesn't know what our far–right hand is doing."

Traditionalists and libertarians splintered following World War II. One of the key thinkers of that period was Richard M. Weaver (1910–1963), who defended the old, agrarian hierarchical values of the antebellum South. The agrarians argued that a strictly commercial society and civilization, divorced from the land and from tradition, lacked the necessary traditional and spiritual roots to survive. "Southern" conservatism took on its own character, still resenting a strong central government that had taken away states' rights to secede from the Union, to maintain a slave population and to engage in commerce without federal interference. They would have concluded similarly on their own, they argued, but the issue was the federal government telling them what to do. As Reagan said, "The nine most terrible words in the English language are 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"

Russell Kirk (1918–1994), who admired Weaver, attempted to define American conservatism as having existed and sometimes dominated Anglo–American culture since the late eighteenth century. Kirk's conservatism paralleled the nineteenth century British version in proclaiming that social hierarchy was necessary for world order. There were also re–affirmations of the divine sources of traditional morality, and a strong belief that property and freedom were inseparable. Kirk adopted and re–promoted many of Edmund Burke's original views about the natural law doctrine. Kirk found further support in the writings of two Harvard University alumni, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. Ultimately, a shared distaste for social engineering and manipulation united traditionalists and libertarians; their shared beliefs included economic libertarianism, social/cultural traditionalism, strong local government, and militant anti–Communism.

Their most common theme was the moral and social good of private property. There was a general support for private enterprise. By the mid–1950s, libertarians and traditionalists regarded personal liberties as virtually incompatible with a welfare state. Communism, therefore, became their nemesis.

John Kekes, in his book, A Case for Conservatism, calls the source of conservatism "a natural attitude that combines the enjoyment of something valued with the fear of losing it." According to Kekes, all political theorists agree that certain political conditions are necessary to benefit citizens. Those include general civility and equality, freedom, healthy environment, justice, and peace. Kekes argued that even though these conditions are important to all political theories, liberals and conservatives differ by priority. The conservative premise that there are latent effects of social, economic, and moral policies not always readily apparent, and that changing them without understanding their relationship to the whole system may inadvertently alter things for the worse.

Common to conservative thinking has been affirming the need for an orderly, disciplined, unequal society that benefits from appropriate leadership. All political ideologies, arguably, would desire an orderly, disciplined society. The "unequal" element separates conservatism from liberal socialism. Differences among conservatives have focused on exercising "appropriate leadership." For free–market conservatives, society consists of a hierarchy of talent and achievement, in which an entrepreneurial minority reaps the rewards of its hard work, which gives the minority the incentive to continue creating the prosperity that ultimately will benefit many. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925– ) called this the "trickle down" effect.

Patrician conservatives Patrician conservatives, by contrast, might argue continuing the hierarchy of privileges and obligations, but also safeguarding the majority from capitalistic excess. This requires a delicate balance of laws and protections, because "hand–outs" discourage individual responsibility and negate work incentive. Likewise, those who work hard and succeed would lose the incentive, were their wealth distributed to those who did nothing to earn it.

Both views, however, support the need for a solid framework of law and order which counteracts human weaknesses. These flaws weaken society and tear it apart. The key to rewarding capitalistic venture is apparent. But it is harder to find just the right formula to provide minimum protections for the less fortunate without removing their incentive to change their lives. Thus, social welfare programs or a "welfare state" in which government takes on the responsibility for caring for the needy is viewed narrowly and cautiously. For patrician conservatives, each man is responsible for his or her own life, and only those incapable of earning an honest living should receive economic aid.

Some critics challenge that conservatives are also more likely to resist changes to the U.S. Constitution—one dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Conservatives, believing in responsibility for one's own life, resent shifting such responsibility to government. Pure conservatism supports the idea of equality in man's basic inherent rights, but not in talents, resources, or in benefits achieved through hard work.

Over the years and mostly as a result of twentieth–century immigration and urbanization, the country's growing diversity contributed greatly to disparate views about government's role. One can start to see the connection of these events to the development of American conservatism and liberalism. What is also apparent is the fallacy in trying to attach labels to partisan political views. America's early Republicans were reformers and revolutionaries. But in the early twenty-first century, the Republicans were generally viewed as the more conservative of the two major parties. Historians have attempted to attach such categories as "neo–conservatism," "American conservatism," "the New Conservatism," and "the New Right." Each term, however, relates to a period when the issues of the time were redefining political conservatism. But conservatism more recently has usually referred to economic conservatism and social traditionalism.

The Essentials of Conservatism

Conservatism endeavors to preserve the existing order or the continuance of existing institutions, principles, and policies. Its cautious resistance to change is premised upon the belief that would–be reformers do not fully comprehend the interrelationship and interdependency of their proposed change upon other elements of the larger system in which it is a component. English statesman Edmund Burke is most often credited with inspiring the form of conservatism that has its roots in the Western Hemisphere. American conservatism, although vacillating on a continuum, is generally characterized by economic conservatism (maintenance of a free–enterprise system without government interference) and social traditionalism (the upholding of values and principles as envisioned by the founding fathers).


Perhaps nowhere has conservatism established deeper political roots than in the Western Hemisphere. Wherever the politics of tradition, wealth, and aristocracy have been a historic force, one will find a strong conservative presence in government. Examples include the Tories or Conservative Party of Great Britain, the Republican Party of the United States, the prior Gaullists of France, the largely dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan (which, despite its name, is conservative), and the Swatantra Party of India.

Similar polities exist in other countries. In Italy's May 2001 general election, the right–of–center alliance known as the Casa delle Liberta (House of Freedom) prevailed over the center–left coalition which had ruled the country for the five previous years. In Switzerland, run for more than a century with the Liberals governing and the Conservatives in opposition a four–party coalition known as the "magic formula" now runs the government. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has created a parliament. Its two main political forces are the conservative right's Yabloko and a loose coalition of liberal parties known as the Union of Rightist Forces (URF). Iran has suffered relatively bitter power struggles between conservatives and reformers since 1989.

Conservatism in Great Britain

Britain produced the most famous conservative statesman of the twentieth century, Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965). Twice elected prime minister of the United Kingdom, Churchill conveyed the image of invincible strength and carried his nation through World War II with admirable resolve. He distinguished himself from pre–war Conservative leaders who wanted to negotiate appeasement policies with Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). Churchill refused Hitler's offers and organized one of the boldest military strategies ever. Together with Allied forces, Britain held off the Germans.

The war, however, had devestated Britain. Then, in one of the most striking reversals in political history, Churchill's Conservative Party was soundly defeated by the Labour Party in the general election in July, 1945. Rather than a personal vote of censure against Churchill, the defeat was probably a reaction against twenty years of Conservative rule, a desire for social reconstruction, and uncertainty about the aggressive international policies espoused by the Conservatives. He easily won a seat in his new district of Woodford, which he held for the last nineteen years he spent in Parliament. He immediately resigned as prime minister. The resulting Labour government passed a National Insurance Act and a National Health Service Act.

Churchill, as leader of the opposition from 1945 to 1951, continued to enjoy a worldwide reputation and warned the Western democracies to stand firm in the face of the growing threat of the Soviet Union. Churchill's speeches created a storm of protest and controversy in the West, but events soon confirmed his views of world events and the rapidly developing Cold War. The Conservatives won a narrow victory in 1951, and Churchill was returned to his position as prime minister.

One positive aspect of conservatism was that Britain's Conservative Party did not alter any of the social welfare programs enacted by the Labour Party in the late–1940s—although the Conservatives probably did not do so because they had no mandate, not

much money to spend, and the programs were popular and were working in the relative prosperity of the early–1950s. More so than the Labour Party, however, the Conservatives wanted to maintain a colonial presence on many of Britain's possessions around the world, but economic problems at home and the waves of independence ferver rendered this impossible, and the British Empire continued its rapid decline.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's leadership in the Conservative Party enjoyed a clear majority from 1979 through 1990. Thatcher vowed to reverse Britain's economic decline and reduce government's role in the economy. Her policies included abolishing free milk in the schools, curbing trade union power, expanding private–sector roles in health services and pensions, and deregulating some sectors to break up monopolies. Thatcher is also remembered for her strong position over the Falkland Islands, which Argentina and the United Kingdom both claimed during a crisis in 1982. When Argentine forces occupied the islands, Thatcher's government sent troops to defeat them. Thatcher, despite high unemployment rates, led the Conservatives to a sweeping victory in the parliamentary elections of 1983, bolstered mostly by her successful Falkland Islands policy.

Eventually, even influential figures in Thatcher's Conservative Party resisted some of her changes, especially the controversial poll tax and her negative attitudes toward the then European Community (EC). John Major, a New Democrat, replaced her in 1992. Ultimately, the reign of the New Democrats was short–lived when the Labour Party, downtrodden and traditionally identified with the poor and the public–housing tenants, built a more dynamic image around new leader Tony Blair (1953– ). His party remained in control in 2001.

America's Own Breed of Conservatism

Democracy and industrialism proved more potent forces than Edmund Burke's principles. And America had its own signature conservative, Henry Ford (1863–1947). The quintessential capitalist and automobile manufacturer was the most conservative of men in his personal habits and opinions. Known for his anti–union labor policies, he employed spies and company police to prevent workers from unionizing his Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. He promoted Christian values and principles among his laborers, and monitored personal habits and lives, such as discouraging smoking and alcohol, and providing family housing, counseling, and community events. He also published a weekly journal, the Dearborn Independent, which contained several anti–Semitic articles in its first issues. Ford, however, won respect as an inspiration for change.


Sir Winston Churchill

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, the famous British prime minister, soldier, and author, was the quintessential conservative. Churchill, born into a military family and educated at private schools in England with unremarkable academic achievement, was first commissioned as an officer in the 4th hussars and served his time in India and the Sudan. After resigning his commission, he made a name for himself as a journalist after writing about his own capture, imprisonment, and escape from the Boers. He was elected to Parliament in 1900 as a Conservative, but switched to the Liberal Party and was appointed, respectively, as undersecretary for the colonies, president of the Board of Trade (1908), home secretary (1910), first lord of the admiralty (1911), minister of munitions (1917), secretary of state for war and air (1918), and colonial secretary (1921), where he helped negotiate the treaty that created an Irish Free State.

Churchill eventually returned to the House of Commons and became prime minister in a Conservative government. He enjoyed great success and faced harsh criticism for many of his ideas and policies. He was a great orator and war leader whose resolve and refusal to appease Adolf Hitler was an important fortifier for European resistance, and ultimately contributed to the Allied victory in World War II. Churchill despised all forms of totalitarian and Communist governments, and steadfastly believed in the moral superiority of democracy and its eventual triumph. He warned the House of Commons in 1935 not only of the importance of "self–preservation but also of the human and the world cause of the preservation of free governments and of Western civilization against the ever advancing sources of authority and despotism." Churchill, who coined the expression, "Iron Curtain," was the first to warn the U.S. of the threat of Soviet expansion. An eloquent and talented literary writer, Churchill won the Nobel Prize in Literature for The History of the Second World War. He resigned from office in 1955 due to poor health and died ten years later. Churchill remains the most admired hero of many politicians, including U.S. President George W. Bush and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.


Forever linked to extreme post–war conservatism is Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (1908–1957), the man ultimately responsible for the label "McCarthyism." His U.S. Senate tenure occurred during the Cold War and America's fight to rid itself of Communism. In her book, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History With Documents, author Ellen Schrecker described the shift from American tolerance for Communism to American antagonism. She noted that comparative tolerance grew out of a World War II alliance with the Soviet Union, but turned into an aggressive stance against Communism, premised mostly upon the growing hostile relationship with the Soviet Union following the war. In the first five years after the war, the Soviet Union attempted government takeover of the countries it had helped liberate from Hitler's regime during the war. It overtook Poland's government in 1945, pressured Turkey and Iran in 1946, partly instigated the Greek Civil War in 1947, caused the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the blockade of Berlin in 1948, and detonated an atomic bomb one year later. Peaceful coexistence no longer appeared viable, and the United States remained the only free nation strong enough to stave off

Communist aggression. The world actually hovered on the verge of another world war. Moreover, the threat of internal infiltration of Communist party members and spies caused near panic in America.

As Schrecker wrote, "An important element of the power of a modern state is its ability to set the political agenda and to define the crucial issues of the moment, through its actions as well as its words." This is particularly important when we consider the difference between conservative versus liberal interpretation of the perceived "Communist threat" to the world or to America in the 1940s. In any event, the threat was real, and based on real evidence, and it is true that individual Communists who had infiltrated the government did steal secrets. It is also true that Communist agitators had infiltrated America's labor unions. However, the response to the threat bordered on frenzy and serious violations of civil liberties. In the late 1940s, for example, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began to round up foreign–born Communists and labor leaders for deportation and detention without bail. It has been argued in retrospect that the Truman administration, fearing a Republican Congress that might not allocate enough funds for anti–communist activities or the Administration's foreign policy programs, exaggerated the Communist threat. In March 1947, the president went before a special session of Congress and pled the case for the assessment of Communist infiltration within American society. Congress then created the House Un– American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate the extent of the perceived threat. The institutions which best exemplify the McCarthy era were these congressional investigative committees.

Red Scare begins Politically, the move backfired. In 1947, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972) testified before the HUAC and created such fear of an internal Communist threat that the Republican–dominated Congress launched an all–out attack on anti–American sentiment and activity. Communists were summarily dehumanized and transformed into ideological criminals. Protecting the nation from this danger became the American political theme of that era, which continued well into the 1950s.

The First Amendment's freedom of speech and press does not protect those preaching the violent overthrow of the government. Therefore, Congress, under the HUAC, began a concerted effort to investigate, expose, and prosecute Communist sympathizers. Communist labor leaders were involved in many highly publicized strikes in U.S. defense industries. Although the Communist–dominated Fur and Leather Workers union posed little threat to national security, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) as well as various maritime unions, were of more concern. The politically left–led union leaders became the subjects of investigation and exposure, and many, along with other party leaders, were prosecuted and incarcerated for alleged anti–American activity. The government also implemented an anti–Communist loyalty–security program for government employees in March 1947. Major prosecution trials of espionage agents such as Alger Hiss and Ethel (1915–1953) and Julius (1918–1953) Rosenberg received enormous publicity and enhanced the credibility of a real threat to the country. The notorious spy cases of the early Cold War period seemed to punctuate J. Edgar Hoover's contention that "every American Communist was, and is, potentially an espionage agent of the Soviet Union." The Smith Act trials of the top leaders of the American Communist Party in 1949 helped the U.S. government unify all the anti–American themes to bolster its contention that the Communist Party represented an illegal conspiracy under Soviet control and direction.

Using these events to punctuate their criticism of the liberal social policies of the New Deal during the previous Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, conservative politicians, mostly Republican, accused the Democrats of being soft on Communism. Congressional investigating committees, such as McCarthy's Permanent Investigating Subcommittee of the Government Operations Committee, and Senator Pat McCarran's Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, paralleled the activities of the HUAC. But "McCarthyism" stood for the publicizing or directing of accusations of disloyalty, regardless of evidence.

McCarthy goes too far McCarthy directed his attention to the media and the educational systems because they were viewed as shapers and molders of public opinion. One by one, Hollywood producers, actors, and artists, as well as college educators, were subpoenaed to testify before the congressional subcommittees about their knowledge of and/or affiliation with the Communist Party. Hollywood blacklisted actors who named their colleagues. Witnesses who refused to testify were prosecuted for contempt of Congress, labeled "unfriendly witnesses," and stigmatized equally. The work of the Congressional subcommittees trickled down to state and local levels with their own Un–American Activities Committees. Private employers cooperated in the probes, resulting in public exposure of Communist sympathizers, who then lost their jobs and generally faced ostracism from a patriotic public.

The official manifestations of McCarthyism— public hearings, FBI investigations, and criminal prosecutions—ultimately proved mild compared to the horrors of Stalin's Russia. Nonetheless, in retrospect, they have negatively represented conservatism in the extreme. The government's characterization of the Soviet/Communist threat invoked the criminal justice system and enhanced the American public's perception of domestic Communists as criminals. However, according to Schrecker, even at its peak, the Communist Party had a high turnover rate, and by the early 1950s, most party members had actually quit. The "Red Scare" resulted in numerous violations of civil liberties and freedoms of those whose ties with Communism may have been only incidental or not threatening to the United States.

Here again, is another application of conservative versus liberal sentiment. Extreme conservatism may favor incidental or mild abridgments of civil liberties as a necessary price to secure free enterprise and a way of life that nurtures such freedoms. Alternatively, liberalism believes personal freedom and liberty trump the needs of national freedom from foreign or internal threat. In retrospect, McCarthy–era critics call it the worst kind of conservatism. On the other hand, conservative politicians argue that such tactics would not have been necessary but for the lax policies of liberal politicians and/or the socialistic policies of the New Deal. They argue that such policies ultimately created an environment in which workers felt they were entitled to equal shares of economic prosperity, regardless of personal input. The ultimate fall of Communism and the Soviet empire during the late twentieth century, and a commensurate rise in global free–enterprise systems and governments, emphasize their point.

Ultra–Right Conservatism

Important to the application of the freedom of speech and association to extremist groups, such as the Communist Party, is that they may enjoy First Amendment protections, even if their views are repugnant to some or outside the mainstream. If Communism is associated with liberal socialism near one extremity, then ultra–conservative groups such as the Moral Majority and John Birch Society might occupy the other end. These groups have grown over the years, particularly stimulated into activism during periods of comparative liberal political thought. Many of them have targeted a growing federal bureaucracy and the recovery of perceived lost liberties and/or freedoms (not to be confused with the work of the ultra–liberal American Civil Liberties Union).

Private citizen Robert Welch (1899–1985) founded the John Birch Society in 1958 to preserve and promote America as it was originally established: a Constitutional Republic. It embodies what is perceived as extreme right–wing conservatism, even though many Americans not part of the Society's membership agree with its principles. Because the Society refers to the country's Judeo–Christian heritage and moral values, it is often criticized as having a religious agenda or representing the Christian Right. Yet, looking to the country's history, the values the Society promotes are similar than those the new republic promoted in the late 1700s: a belief in the family as the primary social unit, a support for a free–market system and competitive capitalism, and a protection of the personal freedoms the original framers of the Constitution contemplated.

John Birch (1918–1945) was a Christian missionary the Chinese Communists killed following World War II. His death symbolized for the Society a unified resistance to a "new world order," a love for freedom, and the rejection of totalitarianism "under any label." According to the Society's Internet website (, its members believe "that the rights of the individual are endowed by his Creator, not by governments…"

In America's early days, the John Birch Society may not have been able to accommodate the number of persons clamoring to join such an organization. But in the twenty–first century, the multiplicity of cultures, values, and religions within the United States has alienated the Society from those who favor diversity. Despite the Society's invitation to "individuals from every walk of life and from all ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds" who share a love for liberty, the Society remains stigmatized as representative of an ultra–right minority attempting to turn back the clock. For example, attitudes toward the "family" as a primary social unit have changed tremendously, particularly in the last century, when single parenthood, one–parent families, and homosexual marriages affected many lives. Another issue polarizing the Society against more "liberal" conservatives is the Christian theme, admittedly representing the majority of citizens and the country's heritage, but no longer considered "politically correct" within a diverse contemporary citizenry. This serves as a good example of the changing nature of conservatism and its relevance to time along a continuum: what was once considered mainstream thought later becomes threatened and must be defended.

Media Bias

Another important consideration affecting the balance of conservatism versus liberalism in the U.S. is the presence or absence of media bias. Over the years, various accusations have been directed at both sides, claiming that the media attempts to advance its own political agenda by slanting the news. There is apparently some truth in this, straight from the media itself. In The Media Elite, authors S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Linda S, Lichter summarized the results of their interviews with 238 journalists from the entire spectrum of mass media. This included reporters, editors, executives, anchors, correspondents, and department heads from America's most influential media outlets: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS, among others. The results, though dated, (1990), tend to support what many have claimed for years. A majority, 54 percent, described themselves as left of center. Only 17 percent described themselves as right of center. While 56 percent responded that they believed their colleagues were on the left, only eight percent responded that their colleagues were on the right.

Moreover, journalists' descriptions of themselves on a wide range of social and political issues revealed the following: 90 percent believed in abortion rights; 75 percent believed homosexuality is not wrong; 53 percent believed adultery is not wrong; and 68 percent believed government should reduce the income gap.

The criticism against a biased media is, of course, that the American people deserve to know all, and not select, facts on any given issue, and that journalists should be compelled to impartially present them. Eva Thomas, Washington bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, commenting on House Speaker Newt Gingrich's (1943– ) charge that the media was biased, noted, "Particularly at the networks, at the lower levels, among the editors and the so–called infrastructure, there is liberal bias." And Bernard Goldberg, CBS News correspondent, wrote in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, stated that the liberal bias in the media is so "blatantly true that it's hardly worth discussing anymore." It's usually not something the media plans to do—or is necessarily even conscious of doing. Goldberg added that bias is something that comes out of reporters naturally, whether they like it or not.

According to a 1996 Freedom Forum/Roper Center survey of 139 Washington–based bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents, 89 percent voted for Democrat Bill Clinton. (Figures for the 2000 election were not yet available.) Richard Harwood, former assistant managing editor and ombudsman for the Washington Post, also noted in 1996 that, while the majority of American journalists do their best to remain impartial, "the journalist without those allegiances is rare indeed…"

Conservatism in the Courtroom

One of the most important ways in which conservatism affects the daily lives of Americans is reflected in political appointments to judicial posts, particularly those by U.S. presidents of justices to the higher federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Since these are appointments for life, they are not taken lightly.

Only federal judges, and a handful of state judges, are appointed for life, barring impeachment. In all other states and in local governments, most judges are elected and reelected by popular vote, and for a specific term. In the abstract, it has always been the desire to make judges, in the words of John Adams's Massachusetts constitution, "as free, impartial and independent as the lot of humanity will admit." But in a political system where social issues define party politics—and where jurisprudence largely affects social issues—alignment and/or labeling is inevitable. A judge, whether elected or appointed, assumes his or her post based on how others perceive he or she will run the bench—conservatively or liberally. Nowhere is it more important that a justice stay politically independent than on the U.S. Supreme Court, for the "supremacy clause" of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution makes the Constitution and treaties "the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby." The top court has the final opinion on Constitutional interpretation.

A president's conservative or liberal leanings, however, may greatly affect his judicial selections. Of course, the Constitution provides a check and balance power of review and confirmation by the Senate for each presidential selection.

The Supreme Court decides some of society's most profound issues, and its ideological makeup during any era may affect decisions on sensitive matters: rights and protections of the unborn, rights of minorities, rights of speech and personal freedom, employee rights, the rights of the accused, rights of the incarcerated, and rights of non–citizens and aliens, among others. Although conservative or liberal leanings may suggest bias in interpreting a law or constitutional provision, a minimum of four other justices would have to agree in order to carry a majority in a decision.

Although a Supreme Court decision may be labeled conservative or liberal, there is a distinction between political conservatism and judicial conservatism. Politicians make the laws; justices interpret them. When the terms refer to court decisions, conservatism usually means a narrow interpretation of existing law, limited most often by the plain or express language contained therein. This is sometimes called "strict constructionism." Conversely, courts rendering what may be labeled as a liberal opinion in any matter have broadly interpreted the plain language of a law in order to fit the specifics of the case before them.

Conservatism of justices In one sense, the conservatism of justices parallels true conservatism more so than that of politicians. Justices and judges are extremely hesitant to interpret a law in such a way that it undermines the original legislative intent; in fact, they will often go beyond the arguments made by attorneys in the case, and take it upon themselves to seek the legislative history of the law in question. This is true even if a more liberal or broad interpretation may be more just or favorable under the certain sets of facts before the Court. A court of law has no power to alter or amend existing law, and many times it will state in its opinion that the litigants need to seek legislative rather than judicial relief, i.e., consult their local state representatives or senators to discuss amendments to the written law. However, courts may and often do find certain laws to be unconstitutional under state or federal constitutions, and such a decision by the highest court with jurisdiction over the matter renders the previous law void. And if, in retrospect, a court deems an earlier decision has had far too liberal or conservative effects when applied to other situations, it will attempt to delineate or contain that decision in a subsequent one.

Thus, often in subsequent cases that would require the application of the same law or decision, but with a different set of facts, the Supreme Court will chip away exceptions to the general rule, resulting in a more narrow application of its earlier decision. Although the Supreme Court is empowered to reverse its own decisions, it rarely does. The justices take ultimate care that their decisions are legally and constitutionally sound.

Miranda rights Take, for example, the case of Miranda v. Arizona (1966), in which a liberal Supreme Court held that confessions or responses accused persons gave when law enforcement officials interrogated them could not be used as evidence in court unless the accused had first been advised of such legal rights as not speaking and having legal counsel. These have since been generally called "Miranda rights." While this decision may have been constitutionally sound at the time, the reality of its sweeping effect and/or its application to real cases convinced many Americans that perhaps the Court had been a little too liberal in its constitutional interpretation of the rights of the accused. As a result of the Court's decision, repeat offenders and many persons accused of violent and/or heinous crimes were being released from custody or incarceration. This could have been because of some minor technical oversight or stress–induced mistake on the part of an arresting officer who may have failed to fully advise an accused person of his or her rights.

Since 1966, the Supreme Court has invoked Miranda many times, making exceptions or clarifying the general rule. In the 2000 case of Tankleff v. Senkowski, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Martin Tankleff, convicted of murdering his parents in Belle Terre, New York. Tankleff claimed that his confession, given after he was read his Miranda rights, was nonetheless tainted by police questioning that occurred before they advised him of his rights. This case established no legal precedent.

Supreme balance Conservatives and liberals try to affect the Supreme Court through congressional pressure to increase the number of justices on the Court. Since justices are appointed for life, members of Congress often want to neutralize the effect of sitting justices. The most recent attempt came during the Clinton administration. Even though Clinton had already nominated two justices during his tenure, liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933–) and Stephen Breyer (1938–), Congress considered a measure to add two more. Ostensibly it was argued as a measure to reduce a backlog of cases, but in reality it was an attempt to affect the conservative/liberal balance. Congress has the constitutional authority to fix the number of associate justices on the Court; the current number under the chief justice is eight. This most recent attempt to increase the number failed.

In fact, the nine justices who sat on the court going into the new millennium may represent one of the most balanced groups of justices ever to sit concurrently. Three are known conservatives, three are known liberals, and three often provide the "swing vote," which may carry the Court one way or the other in a given case.

William Rehnquist, originally appointed as associate justice in 1971 by a conservative President Nixon, was nominated chief justice by Reagan in 1986. He is known for his hard–line conservative position on most constitutional matters. Another conservative is Clarence Thomas (1948– ), whom Bush the elder nominated in 1991. Antonin Scalia (1936– ), nominated by Reagan, took his oath in 1986. He is the third traditionally conservative justice sitting on the top court.

Ginsburg, nominated by Clinton in 1993, is widely known as a liberal. So is Breyer, appointed in 1994 to replace Harry Blackmun (1908–1999). The third liberal justice is John Paul Stevens (1920– ). Conservative President Gerald Ford (1913– ) nominated him to the top court in 1975. After his appointment, however, he shifted to the left.

Although Reagan appointed justices Sandra Day O'Connor (1930– ) and Anthony Kennedy (1936– ), in 1981 and 1988, respectively, they have, in fact, proved to be middle–of–the–roaders, often taking moderate stances independent of any other justice. This has also been true of David Souter (1939– ), a Bush nominee in 1990. Souter, Kennedy, and O'Connor, therefore, play particularly important roles in delicate decisions the public may erroneously perceive as conservatively or liberally biased.

The Court faced such an accusation following its decision in the Bush–Gore presidential campaign of 2000 involving as many as 15,000 absentee ballots from Florida's Seminole County. The U.S. Supreme Court found that the manual recount of votes ordered by the Florida Supreme Court violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution by treating voters' ballots differently and by conducting it erratically and arbitrarily without proper standards. The media wasted no time labeling judicial players by race, party, and political and personal preferences. Over the years, Democratic governors had appointed all seven Florida Supreme Court justices. But the U.S. Supreme Court comprised a mix of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. When the majority ruled against the Florida court, some liberals in the media were openly skeptical about an undercurrent of a "results–oriented" majority seeking a high–minded legal rationale to front their own political leanings. The Supreme Court, however, simply but firmly denied the inference.


In his essay entitled, "Conservatism Is a Vital Political Ideology," found in Politics in America: Opposing Viewpoints, Heritage Foundation president Edwin J. Feulner Jr. attributed to conservatism the conquering of Soviet Communism, the promotion of democracy throughout the world, and the strengthening of the U.S. economy. Feulner argued in his essay that the governments of Eastern Europe were turning to conservative Americans and their free–market ideas

for advice. In Warsaw and Prague, Feulner said, the people wanted capitalism, not lectures on capitalist exploitation.

In an opposing viewpoint entitled, "Conservatism is a Declining Political Ideology," Democrat David Dinkins, former New York mayor (1989-1993), argued that with the fall of the Soviet Union, conservatism lost its cause, i.e., in Dinkins's words, "No Enemy, No Energy." He also blamed the fear of Communism for "block[ing] the path to progress here at home." Said Dinkins:

The conservatives regaled us with tales of resurgence while the rest of the world went whizzing by. So now we can remember the touching speeches and sentimental images of the 1980s while we travel across roads and bridges that are crumbling, to take our kids to schools that aren't teaching, to prepare them for life in a global economy that suddenly threatens to leave them behind…Military might [has become] the sole measure of national security, leaving no room in our calculation of American strength for infant mortality, literacy, or economic opportunity.

Conservatism ran into some problems in the 1990s, particularly in the United States. It was a belief held by many people—many registered voters—that conservatism was an ideology of the rich, and the 1992 election of Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton was in part a rejection of conservative politics. When the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994 it often led to policy standoffs with the president which resulted in government shutdowns, and opinion polls showed that people sided with Clinton. "Given the political excitement in the 1980s, the governmental failings of conservatism in the 1990s are nothing short of astonishing," wrote Alan Wolfe in an article in the June 7, 1999 issue of The New Republic. Conservative figures such as Pat Buchanan (1938–), Newt Gingrich, and Bob Dole (1923–) were stereotyped as politicans who looked out for big business while not showing much concern for ordinary people facing economic hardship. Sometimes the stereotype was justified, often it was not, but it stuck. Indeed, when George W. Bush campaigned for president in 2000, his platform called for the toned–down version of conservatism which he labeled "compassionate conservatism." This softening of the conservative image may have given Bush the extra boost he needed in one of the closest elections in American history.

Out of Touch?

Of course, the most consistent criticism of conservatism is that its resistance to change has resulted in it being outdated and out of touch with the real world. Liberals may argue that a demand for change is simply a corrective measure to bring forward a lagging conservatism that has been left behind. For example, the British public, through the media, expressed its wish for a more personable and approachable monarchy, especially during the time immediately following the death of Princess Diana (1961–1997). Conversely, a majority of the British public confirmed its continued belief in the monarchy, its heritage and tradition, and its maintenance as a British institution.

In economic policy, the general conservative attitude toward a laissez–faire capitalism or free enterprise system has always been under attack by a concerted minority. The problem has been that both conservatives and liberals support such a system, and the dissenting minority is also comprised of both conservative and liberal elements of political following. This mingling with the opposition has manifested on other fronts as well—on issues such as abortion, affirmative action, foreign policy, social welfare, and taxation.


Ronald Reagan

Conservative presidents may come and go, but President Ronald Reagan was responsible for such terms as "the Reagan Revolution'' and "Reaganomics." Although liberals in the media used these terms pejoratively, the extended period of economic growth and stability that followed his presidency gave credence to his principles and empowered a revitalized conservative constituency in America.

Born in 1911 in Tampico, Illinois, Reagan won a scholarship to Eureka College, where he majored in economics. He was president of his student body, played football, and was captain of the swimming team. After graduation, Reagan became a radio sports announcer in the Midwest and eventually moved to film acting. In over a quarter of a century of acting, Reagan played in more than fifty films and served as a television host. As president of Hollywood's Screen Actors Guild, he became embroiled in disputes during the McCarthy years over communism in the film industry, and his political views shifted from liberal to conservative. He tried to purge suspected Communists from the movie industry and took a strong anti–Communist stand when testifying before the House Committee on Un–American Activities. Promoting American conservatism around the country, Reagan was elected California governor in 1966 by a winning margin of nearly a million votes.

In 1980 Reagan was elected president, winning 51 percent of the public vote and a ten–to–one margin in the Electoral College. He was perceived as a forceful leader who called for a return to patriotism and traditional morality, and who would restore prosperity to an economically ailing nation. After taking office, Reagan made good on his promises to cut back on big government and taxes, strengthen national defense, curb inflation, overhaul the income tax code (1986) and stimulate economic growth. He shepherded the 1981 Economic Recovery Act. His "supply–side" economics policy intended to stimulate citizen spending on goods and services with money saved from reduced taxes. At the end of his administration, America was enjoying its longest recorded period of peacetime prosperity without recession or depression. Reagan's administration, however, was marred by the "Iran–Contra" affair, a political scandal involving secret weapon sales to Iran in return for support in freeing U.S. hostages held by Lebanese terrorists friendly to Iran. Ostensibly, the moneys earned from the weapon sales were diverted to Contras fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Reagan denied any knowledge of these secret activities.

When he left office in 1989, opinion polls confirmed Reagan as one of the most popular presidents of the twentieth century. However, when a recession hit the United States in 1991, many critics blamed the policies of Reaganomics in the 1980s. In 1994, Reagan announced that he was battling Alzheimer's disease, and by doing so brought much attention to the illness.

The New Right

Historians and partisan politics have attempted to rectify these muddles by creating subgroups and attaching newer names to the ideology, such as "neo–conservatism," "American conservatism," "the New Conservatism," and "the New Right." However, each of these terms ultimately relates to a particular historic period when the tenets of political conservatism were again being re–defined by, and re–oriented to, pressing issues of the time. For example, critics have argued that following the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union (a declared victory for conservatism), there was no cause celebre to unite conservative forces anymore. But to twenty–first century American conservatives, high crime rates and financial returns on investments were of greater concern than Communism. The fall of the Soviet Union was remote and not palpable, perhaps of more interest to their aging parents than to them.

Moreover, although conservatives have historically been referred to as the political "right," this can no longer be true because those that want to maintain the status quo actually oppose radical "neo liberals" who want to establish a world–wide system of laissez–faire capitalism. Still further, some conservatives actually support and defend certain institutions of a welfare state. The distinction between conservative and liberal views must now necessarily be made on an issue–by–issue basis. General stereotypes and labels have become increasingly less accurate, and characteristic parameters of conservative ideology continue to shift.

This, in turn, pressures political parties in a bipartisan or multi–partisan political system to more clearly distinguish themselves from their competitors or opposition, which, in turn, creates a more adversarial campaign and election system. In a government such as that enjoyed in the U.S., free speech allows two or more sides of an issue to be freely argued, though with special–interest lobbying. But the system has checks and balances. A conservative or liberal president has veto power over Congress, and Congress can override a presidential veto. Judicial rulings of constitutional provisions ensure that no radical new law abridges the rights of the people.

The National Motto

Perhaps a poignant example of the ebb and flow of conservative versus liberal forces in the United States is the sometimes anecdotal, sometimes vociferous arguments over the country's motto. In 1956, the U.S. Congress enacted a law declaring the national motto of the United States to be "In God We Trust." Although the motto had existed de facto for more than one hundred and fifty years prior, it had never been officially codified into law. The motto is now codified at 36 U.S.C. 302. In fact, America's history is replete with other references to God and Providence, only some of which have come under such attack.

Our country, undeniably, was formed on Christian principles. For about two hundred years, this created no palpable problem, as the majority of Americans were primarily of Western European Christian heritage. Any protest directed at the symbol or motto of America would have been unthinkable. But the great immigration influx of the twentieth century has made America more consisting of multiple cultures, races, and peoples. Conservatives would argue that it does not matter where you came from, that now you are an American, and you must live according to American tradition and heritage. Liberals would argue that the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution require that America accommodate the cultural heritages of its newcomers and minorities, who may find such references to God as contrary or even repulsive to their own beliefs. But the real bitterness centered on a majority of Americans still identifying with Christianity in the twentieth century, and resenting a small but vociferous minority attempting to usurp their American heritage. The tensions created when applying old traditions to a newer multi–ethnic, multi–cultural population are all too apparent.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never expressly ruled on the constitutionality of our national motto. When asked to rule, however, it has let stand the decisions of several U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal (one level down from the Supreme Court) that have upheld the constitutionality of the motto, essentially on grounds of historical significance and heritage.

Still, on April 25, 2000, a three–member panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled 2–1 that the official motto of the State of Ohio, "With God All Things Are Possible," was unconstitutional. The motto, which was unanimously adopted by the state in 1959 (Ohio Revised Code Section 5.06), existed for years without ado, along with the state wildflower, the state animal, the state coat of arms, and the state song. However, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), representing a single plaintiff, Reverend Matthew Peterson, had challenged the motto in 1997.

Extreme conservatism can be as harmful as radical liberalism. Unbending or uncompromising attitudes, whether conservative or liberal, have limited appeal in any society. It has been partly a media phenomenon that has been responsible for creating stereotypes of conservative Americans as ultra– right–wing religious fanatics. In reality, that is as far from the truth as promoting the perception that all liberals are revolutionaries who wish to agitate Americans toward socialistic totalitarianism. Both extremes do not speak for the vast majority of Americans (and politicians) who vacillate along a continuum of association according to their own views and beliefs.


  • Both conservative and liberal governments have enjoyed extended periods of economic wealth and prosperity. In the United States, both Republican and Democratic parties have produced successful administrations. During such times, dissention between conservatives and liberals has often been exaggerated or instigated only to accommodate the need to polarize political platforms. Nothing in the U.S. Constitution either requires or suggests the need for partisan politics. How is it, then, that partisan politics have come to be inextricably bound to the American political system?
  • Semantics have always played a role in defining conservative or liberal leanings. The media has the power to create, enhance, or otherwise influence the popularity or unpopularity of certain political views. For example, it may draw more attention to a political view by referring to it as "leftist" rather than "liberal." It may choose to refer to those favoring abortion as "family planners," and abortion clinics as "family planning clinics." In recent times, the mere insertion of the word "Christian" immediately connoted an affiliation with "the right." The public may view something according to how impartially facts have been presented. There have been previous demands by the public for more unbiased news coverage and a demand that "equal time" or "equal press'' be given for the presentation of opposing views.



"Bicentennial of the United States Constitution." Printed by the Office of the Special Consultant to the Secretary of the Army. 1989.Reprinted in part from The People Consent: Revisiting the Ratification of the United States Constitution. Courtesy of Edith R. Wilson & J. Goldman. New York: 1987.

"Biography of Ronald Reagan." 2000. Available at

"Biographies: The Political Philosopher, Edmund Burke (1729–97)." Available at

"CBS Profile: Supreme Court Justices." 2000. Available at

"Churchill, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer." The Canadian & World Encyclopedia. Available at

Davies, Stephen. "Margaret Thatcher and the Rebirth of Conservatism." 1993. Available at

Dionne, E.J., Jr. Why Americans Hate Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991

Dole, Bob. Great Political Wit. New York: Doubleday, 1998

Encarta Encyclopedia. Available at

Forse, Don T., Jr. "Media Bias?" 1997. Available at

Gottfried, Paul. The Conservative Movement. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

"Initiatives for Access: Treasures – Magna Carta." Available at–carta/overvoverview.html.

International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Country Profiles." Economist Intelligence Unit of the U.S. Military, 2001.

"In Their Own Words: Journalists and Bias." Available at

Johnson, Stephen D. and Joseph B. Tamney. "Social Traditionalism and Economic Conservatism: Two Conservative Political Ideologies in the United States." Journal of Social Psychology, April 2001.

Johnston, Joseph F. "Conservative Populism— a Dead End." National Review, October 19, 1984.

Keegan, John. "Sir Winston Churchill." Available at–churchill.html.

Kekes, John. A Case for Conservatism, Cornell UP: 1998.

Kirk, Russell. The Roots of American Order. Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1991.

Marlantes, Liz; Scherer, Ron; and Alexandra Marks. "To New Yorkers, He's Churchill in a Baseball Cap." Christian Science Monitor, September 12, 2001.

Olasky, Marvin. Compassionate Conservatism. New York: The Free Press, 2000.

"Questions and Answers About the John Birch Society." Available at

Ross, Kelley L. "Conservatism, History, and Progress." 1996. Available at

Rossiter, Clinton. Seedtime of the Republic: the Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty.

Schrecker, Ellen. The Legacy of McCarthyism. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Marvin's Press, 1994.

"The Rise and Fall of the Conservative Party." Available at

Further Readings

Busch, Andrew E. Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. This book supports the premise of Ronald Reagan's enduring legacy as a dominant force in American politics, and the effects his brand of conservatism has had upon contemporary politics.

Dillard, Angela D. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? New York: New York University Press, 2001. Author Dillard argues that political conservatism in the U.S. is no longer the domain of white, wealthy males, but instead involves persons of all races, ethnicities, gender, and sexualities.

Kelly, Charles M. Class War in America. Santa Barbara: Fithian Press, 2001. In this critical observation of conservative politics in action, author Kelly sub–titles his book: "How Economic and Political Conservatives are Exploiting Low– and Middle– Income Americans." The Heritage Foundation is a well–known conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., and actively promotes conservative views through its website and various publications.

National Review. In the ten years between 1955 and 1965, subscriptions to National Review increased from 30,000 to well over 100,000. This was primarily due to writer–editor William F. Buckley, Jr., whose opinions and editorials came to define American post–war conservatism.


Capitalism, Federalism, Liberalism, Republicanism


views updated May 21 2018






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 conservatismor some of their constituent strandsare 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 (17291797), 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 (18041881) 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 (17531821) and Louis de Bonald (17541840). 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 religionthe combination of Pope and executionerwas the solution for social instability.

In nineteenth-century Germany, the antirationalist and clerical romantic schoolheavily 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 Maistres 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 Maistres pole than to Burkes, 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 (18621923) and Charles Maurras (18681952) 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 (18791894), advocated a blunt philosophy of racial nationalism, power, and militarism, themes at odds with the mainstay of European conservatism.

Clustered around Burkes 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 democracys 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. Metternichs secretary Freidrich Gentz translated Burkes Reflections into German, wrote widely himself, and shared Metternichs 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 Francos Spain. Rather, the conservatism of the last half of the century was dominated by figures influenced most by the Burkean poles paternalistic offshoot (the British statesman Winston Churchill [18741965], who sought to model himself after Disraeli), by its free-market offshoot (Britains Margaret Thatcher or Italys Silvio Berlusconi), or by Metternichs cosmopolitanism (Germanys 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 Maistres 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 Maistres politics and Smiths 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 henot Franklin Roosevelthad 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 monetarisman emphasis on free markets and control of the money supplyas 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. Traditionalisms 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 (18991973) and Eric Voegelin (19011985). 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 Goldwaters 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 Goldwaters 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 Courts 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 Goldwaters 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 nations 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. Bushs 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. Reagans 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


views updated May 08 2018


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 conservatismas shorthand for individual or social characteristicsare 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.

Origins of Conservatism: Britain, France, and Germany

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 (17291797).


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 (15881679) and John Locke (16321704) and the skeptical conventionalism of David Hume (17111776), 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 (17531821), 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 conservativesa 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 (17541840). 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 (17701831), whose philosophy courageously addresses the central problem of modernitythe idea of progressthat 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 prescriptionthat its survival alone is sufficient justification of its rationalitybut 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 (18991992) 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 (19011990) 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 (19061975) 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 (18631952) 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. 204205). 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 issuessuch as immigration, feminism, multiculturalism, and human rightsthat 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 .


Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959.

Aughey, Arthur, Greta Jones, and W. T. M. Riches. The Conservative Political Tradition in Britain and the United States. London: Pinter, 1992.

Aveneri, Shlomo. Hegel's Theory of the Modern State. London: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Devigne, Robert. Recasting Conservatism: Oakeshott, Strauss, and the Response to Postmodernism. 2nd ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.

Eatwell, Roger, and Noël O'Sullivan, eds. The Nature of the Right. London: Pinter, 1989.

Franco, Paul. The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

Hayek, Friedrich A. The Constitution of Liberty. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976.

Honderich, Ted. Conservatism. London: H. Hamilton, 1990.

Kirk, Russell, ed. The Portable Conservative Reader. New York: Viking, 1982.

Kristol, Irving. Confessions of a Neo-Conservative. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Mansfield, Harvey C., Jr. "Constitutional Government: The Soul of Modern Democracy." Public Interest 86 (1987): 5364.

Muller, Jerry Z., ed. Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Nisbet, Robert. Conservatism: Dream and Reality. Milton Keynes, U.K.: Open University Press, 1986.

Oakeshott, Michael. "On Being Conservative." In his Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. New and expanded ed. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991.

. On Human Conduct. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.

O'Sullivan, Noël. Conservatism. London: Dent, 1976.

. "The Politics of Ideology." In The Structure of Modern Ideology, edited by Noël O'Sullivan, 188212. London: Edward Elgar, 1989.

Santayana, George. Dominations and Powers. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951.

Scruton, Roger. "In Defence of the Nation." In Ideas and Politics in Modern Britain, edited by John C. D. Clark, 5387. London: Macmillan, 1990.

. The Meaning of Conservatism. South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine's, 2002.

, ed. Conservative Texts: An Anthology. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Arthur Aughey


views updated Jun 08 2018


Conservatives hold that the aim of political arrangements is to make a society good, that a society is good if those living in it can make good lives for themselves, and that good lives are satisfying for oneself and beneficial for others. The political arrangements that make such lives possible are discovered by historical reflection, which discloses various enduring traditions. People participate in them because they conceive of good lives in terms of the beliefs, values, and practices these traditions provide. Conservatism is not an uncritical defense of all traditions but only ones that have endured because people have found participation in them satisfying and beneficial. The justification or criticism of traditions, therefore, is based on their success or failure in fostering good lives. Conservatism has different versions depending on the views held about history, values, the relation between individuals and their society, and between human nature and evil. Conservatives agree that these are the pivotal political topics and that political arrangements should be based on the views held about them, but they disagree about what these views should be.


Conservatives believe that the starting points of political thought should be the prevailing political arrangements, rather than a hypothetical contract, a theory about an ideal society, a conception of the common good for all of humanity, or some basic value that always overrides any other value that may conflict with it. Some conservatives, however, believe that it is not a coincidence that certain political arrangements have been historically conducive or detrimental to good lives. They hold that there is a metaphysical explanation of their success or failure: the existence of a moral order in reality. Lives are good if they conform to this moral order and bad if they do not, and the same is true of political arrangements. These conservatives recognize that there are serious disputes about whether the order is (a) hierarchicalhaving The Good at its pinnacle, as supposed by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, (b) providential, embodied in natural law, as held in the thirteenth century by Saint Thomas Aquinas and his many followers since then, or (c) an unfolding of the dialectic of clashing forces culminating in the final unity of reason and action, as claimed by Georg W. F. Hegel in nineteenth-century Germany. They nevertheless all assume that there is a moral order. Their task is to find out what it is, or, if it has already been revealed in some canonical text, to find out how it should be interpreted. Disputes about these matters are taken to show only the infirmity of human understanding or motivation, not that the existence of the moral order is doubtful.

The historical record of societies whose political arrangements have been based on a supposed moral order, however, is most alarming. They have tended to indoctrinate unwilling or uninformed people, leaving them no opportunity for choice. Such societies have not been freer of misery than less dogmatic ones. But they have added the misery peculiar to themselves of recognizing authorities who have claimed privileged access to the true and the good and thought that only human shortcomings stand in the way of good lives. This was taken by them to justify coercion, silencing dissenters, and indoctrinating the rest. Many conservatives, such as Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century and Michael Oakeshott in the twentieth, have rejected this approach to politics because of its grave dangers.

Other conservatives, such as the Frenchman Joseph de Maistre (17531821), deny that the right political arrangements can be justified by reason. It makes no difference to them whether the proffered reasons are metaphysical, scientific, or historical. They believe that all reasons are ultimately based on assumptions accepted on faith. Their rejection of reason as a guide, however, leaves them with the problem of deciding what political arrangements they ought to favor. The solution they have offered is to be guided by their faith and perpetuate existing arrangements because familiarity makes them safer than untried alternatives.

The problems of this approach are as evident from the historical record as those of the preceding one. Faith breeds dogmatism, persecution of those who hold other faiths or none at all, and it provides no justification for regarding political arrangements based on one faith as better than contrary ones based on other faiths. Moreover, the perpetuation of political arrangements on account of their familiarity makes their improvement virtually impossible because even flawed familiar ones will be judged preferable to dangerous unfamiliar possibilities.

An alternative to relying on a moral order or on faith is the fallibilism of the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne in the sixteenth century, the Scottish David Hume in the eighteenth century, and, closer to our times, George Santayana (18631952) and Oakeshott. They do not deny that there may be a moral order, only that reliable knowledge of it can be had. They find the historical evidence testifying to humans' fallibility much more convincing than the success of efforts to overcome it. They think that the claims of revelation, canonical texts, or putative eternal verities stand in need of persuasive evidence. But the available evidence is as questionable as the claims based on it. Fallibilists believe that it is far more prudent to look to the historical record of various political arrangements than to endeavor to justify or criticize them by relying on metaphysical speculations or faith, either of which is more dubious than the historical record.

Fallibilism, however, does not commit conservatives to the denial that it is possible to adduce reasons for or against political arrangements. What they deny is that good reasons must be universal and timeless. They reject the fideistic repudiation of reason, accept the importance and desirability of being as reasonable as possible, and claim that political arrangements should be based on the historical evidence available for them. Fallibilists want political arrangements to be firmly rooted in the experiences of the people who are subject to them. Since these experiences are inevitably historical, it is to their history that these conservatives look for evidence. Thus they avoid basing political arrangements on metaphysical speculation about what lies beyond experience and suspecting reasonable evaluations because of a global distrust of reason.

It seems, then, that the most defensible conservative belief about history is the fallibilist one. There is a presumption in favor of the enduring political arrangements of a society because their endurance is prima facie reason for supposing that they foster satisfying and beneficial lives. In the absence of contrary reasons, the enduring political arrangements ought to be maintained. It is possible, of course, that the arrangements have endured because of coercion or manipulation. If the case for change is based on cogent evidence that the arrangements have endured for reasons other than fostering good lives, then it should be seriously considered. But if the case is inspired merely by metaphysical, contractarian, fideistic, or utopian speculations, then much stronger reasons are needed before they could mount a reasonable challenge to political arrangements that have stood the test of time and attracted the allegiance of many people.


Commitment to political arrangements that make good lives possible requires a view about what makes lives good. But there are countless valued activities, obligations, virtues, and satisfactions, countless ways of combining them and evaluating their respective importance, and so there seem to be countless ways in which lives can be good. Conservatives, therefore, must have a view about the diversity of values because the arguments for or against particular political arrangements depend on it. The problem is that there are three incompatible views about the diversity of values: absolutist, relativist, and pluralist.

Absolutists believe that the diversity of values is apparent, not real. They concede that there are many values, but they think that there is a universal standard that can be used to rank them. This standard may be a highest value, such as Plato's Good; the tranquility of ancient Greek and Roman Stoics; the love of God postulated by Saint Augustine, the fifth-century Bishop of Hippo; or the idea of general happiness advanced by nineteenth-century English Utilitarians. Other values, then, can be ranked on the basis of their contribution to the realization of the highest value. Or the standard may be a principle, like the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, the Golden Rule of the New Testament, or the categorical imperative formulated by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century. If a choice needs to be made among different values, the principle will determine which ought to take precedence. Contemporary absolutistsfor instance, the English John Finnis, the American Germain Grisez, and the German-American Eric Voegelinargue that some political arrangements are preferable to others because they conform more closely to the universal standard than the alternatives. However, the candidates for a universal standard are also numerous and face the same problems as the values whose diversity is supposed to be diminished by them. Absolutists acknowledge this problem and explain it in terms of human shortcomings that prevent people from recognizing the true standard. The history of religious wars, persecutions, and tyrannies, aiming to rectify human shortcomings, testifies to the dangers inherent in this explanation.

Relativism is opposed to absolutism. Relativists regard the diversity of values as real: There are many values; many ways of combining and ranking them; and there is no universal standard that could be appealed to in resolving disputes about them. A good society, however, requires some consensus about values, and political arrangements should reflect this consensus. If the consensus changes, the arrangements should change as well. According to relativists, then, what counts as a value and how important it is depends on the consensus of a society. A value is what is valued in a particular context; all values, therefore, are context-dependent.

Values and the political arrangements that reflect them can be reasonably justified or criticized, but, relativists believe, the reasons that can be given for or against them count as reasons only within the context of a society. Since reasons ultimately rest on the prevailing consensus, they will not and are not meant to persuade outsiders. The ultimate appeal of relativists is to point at their arrangements and say: This is what we do here. If relativism takes a conservative form, as in Burke, or in the nineteenth-century Germans Johann Gottfried Herder and Wilhelm Dilthey, it often results in the romantic celebration of national identity, of the spirit of a people and an age, of the shared landscape, historical milestones, ceremonies, stylistic conventions, manners, and rituals that unite a society.

Relativism may seem to avoid the dangers of dogmatism and repression that threaten absolutism, but it is, in fact, equally prone to them. That the values of a society are not thought to be binding outside of it does not mean that the values of other societies will be regarded tolerantly. Because the world is full of people and societies whose values are inimical to the relativist's, there is good reason to guard jealously the relativist's values. Furthermore, if the justification of the values of a society is the prevailing consensus, then any political arrangement becomes justifiable, provided a sufficiently large consensus favors it. Slavery, female circumcision, the maltreatment of minorities, child prostitution, the mutilation of criminals, blood feuds, bribery, and any other noxious political arrangement may be exempted from censure on the grounds that it happens to be valued in its context.

These pitfalls of absolutism and relativism make them unreliable guides to the evaluation of political arrangements. It is with relief, then, that some conservatives in the last and present centuryfor instance, Oakeshott, Gordon Graham, and John Kekeshave turned to pluralism as an alternative to these flawed views. Pluralists are in partial agreement and disagreement with both absolutists and relativists. According to pluralists, there is a universal standard, but it applies only to values that must be protected by all political arrangements if they are to foster good lives. This standard is universal and minimal. It is possible to establish with reference to it some values required by all good lives, but not all the values that may make lives good. This leads to recognizing some political arrangements as necessary and to allowing a generous plurality of possible political arrangements beyond the necessary minimum. The standard accommodates part of the universalism of absolutism and part of the contextualism of relativism.

The source of pluralism's standard is human nature. To understand human nature sufficiently for the purposes of this standard does not require scientific research or commitment to some metaphysical belief or to natural law. It is enough for it to concentrate on normal people in a commonsensical way. It will then become obvious that good lives depend on the satisfaction of basic physiological, psychological, and social needs such as nutrition, shelter, rest, companionship, self-respect, the hope for a good or better life, the division of labor, justice, predictability in human affairs, and so forth. The satisfaction of these basic needs is a universal requirement of all good lives, whatever may be their social context. If the political arrangements of a society foster their satisfaction, it is reasonable to support them; if they hinder their satisfaction, it is reasonable to reform them.

If absolutists merely asserted and relativists merely denied this requirement, then the former would be right and the latter wrong. But both go beyond this point: absolutists hold that all the values that make lives good are to be evaluated by a universal standard and relativists deny that there is any universal standard at all. Pluralists think that the minimum requirements of human nature set a universal standard, but beyond it there is a plurality of values, of ways of ranking them, and of good lives that embody these values and rankings. According to pluralists, then, the political arrangements of a society ought to protect minimum requirements of good lives and foster a plurality of values beyond the minimum.

The combination of pluralism and conservatism provides two important possibilities. The first is the justification of political arrangements that protect the minimum requirements and the criticism of political arrangements that violate them. This possibility sets the goal of political action and makes possible reasonable comparisons among different societies on the basis of how well they protect the conditions on which all good lives depend. This version of conservatism avoids the objection to relativism that it sanctions any political arrangement so long as a large consensus supports it. The second is that the best guide to the political arrangements a society ought to have beyond the minimum is the history of the society because it is most likely to provide the evidence for or against the prevailing political arrangements. This second possibility avoids the dangers of dogmatism and repression that beset absolutism.

The political arrangements favored by this version of conservatism are based on a familiar list of values: justice, freedom, the rule of law, order, legal and political equality, prosperity, peace, civility, happiness, and so forth. There is likely to be a significant overlap among the lists conservatives, liberals, and socialists may draw up. But there will also be a significant difference: conservatives are genuine pluralists, whereas the liberal and socialists are not. Liberals and socialists are committed to regarding some of these values as more important than the others. What makes them liberals or socialists is their claim that when the values they favor conflict with others on the list, then the favored ones should prevail. If they did not claim this, they would cease to be liberals or socialists. Conservatives reject this approach. Their concern is to protect the whole system of these values. This sometimes requires favoring a particular value over another, sometimes the reverse. Conservative pluralists hold this to be true of all values. They differ from liberals and socialists in refusing to make an a priori commitment to resolving conflicts in favor of any particular value in the prevailing system of values.

Individuals and Society

Good lives must be satisfying and beneficial, but these requirements often conflict because satisfying lives may not be beneficial and beneficial lives may not be satisfying. This raises the question of which requirement should be dominant, and it has far-reaching political consequences how it is answered. Some twentieth-century conservativesfor instance, Friedrich von Hayek, Shirley Letwin, and Robert Nozickfavor individual autonomy over social authority. Their position is virtually indistinguishable from classical liberalism or libertarianism. Other conservativessuch as James Fitzjames Stephen in nineteenth-century England, Voegelin, and the twentieth-century English thinker Roger Scrutonthink that social authority should prevail over individual autonomy, if they conflict. As before, there is an intermediate view between these two extremes, namely, that of twentieth-century traditionalist conservatives, represented, among others, by Oakeshott, the American Edward Shils, and Kekes.

Conservatives who stress autonomy at the expense of authority face two serious problems. First, they assume that good lives must be autonomous and cannot involve the recognition of some form of authority over oneself. If this were so, no military or devoutly religious life, no life in static, traditional, hierarchical societies, no life that involves the subordination of individual will and judgment to what is regarded as a higher purpose could be good. This would require regarding of the vast majority of lives outside of modern Western societies as bad. The mistake involved is to slide from the reasonable view that autonomous lives may be good to the unreasonable view that a life cannot be good unless it is autonomous. Second, if a good society is one that fosters good lives, then the precedence of autonomy over authority cannot be right, since autonomous lives may be frustrated or harmful. It is obvious that social authority must prevail over the autonomy of fanatics, criminals, fools, and so on.

The problems of authoritarianism are no less serious. There is no guarantee that if social authority prevails over individual autonomy, the resulting lives will be satisfying. Lives cannot be pronounced satisfying by some authority. Whether they actually are satisfying must ultimately be judged by the individuals themselves. Their judgments, of course, may be influenced by social authority. But no matter how strong that influence is, it cannot override the judgment of individuals in finding what satisfies them. As the lamentable historical record shows, however, this has not prevented countless religious and ideological authorities from stigmatizing individuals who reject their prescriptions as heretics, pagans, maladjusted, or sinful. The result is a repressive society whose dogmatism is reinforced by specious moralizing.

How, then, is the question to be answered? There is no need to insist that either individual autonomy or social authority should systematically prevail over the other. Both are necessary for good lives, but neither is sufficient. Instead of engaging in futile arguments about their comparative importance, it is far more illuminating to understand that they are interdependent aspects of the same underlying activity of individuals trying to make good lives for themselves. The connecting link between them is tradition.

A tradition is a set of customary beliefs and practices that have endured from the past to the present and attracted the allegiance of people so that they wish to perpetuate it. Traditions may be religious, horticultural, scientific, political, stylistic, moral, aesthetic, commercial, medical, legal, military, educational, architectural, and so on. They permeate human lives. When individuals aim at a good life, part of what they are doing is deciding which traditions they should participate in. They may make conscious, deliberate, clear-cut yes-or-no choices, or they may unconsciously, unreflectively fall in with familiar patterns, or they may be at various points in between. The bulk of the activities of individuals concerned with living in ways that strike them as good is composed of participation in the various traditions of their society.

Participation involves the exercise of autonomy. Individuals choose and judge; their wills are engaged; they learn from the past and plan for the future. But they do so in the frameworks of various traditions that authoritatively provide them with a range of choices, with matters that are left to their judgments, and with standards that within a tradition determine what choices and judgments are reasonable or unreasonable. Their exercise of autonomy is the individual aspect of their conformity to their tradition's authority, which is the social aspect of what they doing. They act autonomously by following the authoritative patterns of the traditions to which they feel allegiance. When a Catholic goes to confession, a violinist gives a concert, or a football player scores a touchdown, then the individual and the social, the autonomous and the authoritative, the traditional pattern of doing it and an individual doing it are inextricably mixed. To understand what is going on in terms of individual autonomy is as one-sided as it is to do so in terms of social authority. Both play an essential role, and understanding what is going on requires understanding both the roles they play. Traditionalism rests on this understanding, and it is the political response to it to maintain political arrangements that foster participation in the various traditions that have endured in a society.

Traditions may be vicious, destructive, stultifying, nay-saying, and thus detrimental to good lives. Part of the purpose of political arrangements is to draw distinctions among traditions that are unacceptable (like slavery), suspect but tolerable (like pornography), and worthy of encouragement (like university education). Traditions that violate minimum requirements of good lives should be prohibited. Traditions that have shown themselves to make questionable contributions to good lives should be tolerated but not encouraged. Traditions whose record testifies to their importance for good lives should be cherished.

The obvious question is who should decide which tradition is which and how that decision should be made. Traditionalist conservatives say that the decision should be made by those who are legitimately empowered to do so through the political arrangements of their society and they should make the decisions by reflecting on the historical record of the tradition in question. From this three corollaries follow. First, those who are empowered to make the decisions ought to be able to view the prevailing political arrangements from a historical perspective. The process works well if it empowers people who are not ill-educated, preoccupied with some single issue, inexperienced, or have qualifications that lie in some other field of endeavor. Traditionalist conservatives are clearly not populists. Second, a society that proceeds in this manner is pluralistic because it fosters a plurality of traditions. It does so because it sees as the justification of its political arrangements that they foster good lives, and fostering them depends on fostering the traditions participation in which may make lives good. Third, the society is tolerant because it is committed to having as many traditions as possible. Its political arrangements place the burden of proof on those who wish to proscribe a tradition. If a tradition has endured, if it has the allegiance of enough people to perpetuate it, then there is a prima facie case for it. That case may be, and often is, defeated, but the initial presumption is in its favor.

This outlook leads traditionalists to favor limited government. They do not think that the purpose of its political arrangements is to impose a conception of a good life. The political arrangements of a limited government interfere as little as possible with the traditions that flourish among people subject to it. The purpose of its arrangements is to enable people to live as they please, not to force them to live in a particular way. One of the most important ways of accomplishing this is to have a wide plurality of traditions as a bulwark between individuals and the government that has power over them. Traditionalist conservatives thus believe that a good society should have political arrangements that balance the claims of individual autonomy and social authority. This balance is maintained by the mediation of the traditions of a society that make autonomy possible and provide many of the forms it might take.

Human Nature and Evil

Conservatives tend to take a dim view of progress. They are not so foolish as to deny that great advances in pure and applied science have changed human lives for the better. But they have also changed them for the worse. Advances have been both beneficial and harmful. They have certainly enlarged the stock of human possibilities, but the possibilities are for both good and evil, and new possibilities are seldom without new evils. Evil is an obstacle to the betterment of the human condition. Unjust war, genocide, tyranny, torture, terrorism, the drug trade, concentration camps, racism, the murder of religious and political opponents, easily avoidable epidemics and starvation are some familiar and widespread evils. If evil is understood as serious unjustified harm caused by human beings, then the conservative view is that the prevalence of evil is a permanent condition that cannot be significantly altered.

The prevalence of evil reflects not just a human propensity but also a contingency that influences what propensities people have and develop. The propensity for evil is itself a manifestation of deeper, more pervasive influences, which operate through genetic inheritance, environmental factors, the crimes, accidents, pieces of good or bad fortune, the historical period, society, family, and so on. The same contingency also affects people because others, whom they love, depend on, and with whom their lives are intertwined in other ways, are as subject to it as they are themselves.

Pessimistic conservatives, such as Thomas Hobbes in seventeenth-century England and Niccolo Machiavelli in sixteenth-century Florence, think that the prevalence of evil reveals that human nature is basically evil. Optimistic conservatives, such as Hume and Oakeshott, reject pessimism because they think that the right sort of political arrangements will make evil less prevalent. Opposed to both are realistic conservativesfor example, Montaigne, Stephen, and Santayanawho hold that whether the balance of good and evil propensities and their realization by people tilts one way or another is a contingent matter over which individuals and their political arrangements have insufficient control.

Realistic conservatives do not think that the human condition is devoid of hope, but they have no illusions about the limited control a society has over its future. Their view is not that evil propensities are uncontrollable. Rather, human beings have both good and evil propensities and neither they nor societies can exercise sufficient control to make good propensities reliably prevail over evil ones. The right political arrangements help of course, just as the wrong ones make matters worse. But even under the best political arrangements a great deal of contingency remains and it places beyond human control much good and evil. The chief reason for this is that the efforts to control contingency are themselves subject to the very contingency they aim to control. And that, of course, is the fundamental reason why realistic conservatives doubt the possibility of significant improvement of the human condition.

Realistic conservatives do not believe that it is a matter of indifference what political arrangements are made. Political arrangements cannot guarantee the victory of good over evil, but they can influence how things go. Whether that is sufficient at a certain time and place is itself a contingent matter insufficiently within human control. The attitude that results from realizing this combines the acceptance of the fact that not even the best political arrangements guarantee good lives with the motivation to make political arrangements as good as possible.

This view accounts for another significant difference between conservative and liberal or socialist politics: the insistence of conservatives on the importance of political arrangements that hinder evil. This difference is a result of the conservative rejection of the optimistic belief, shared by liberals and socialists, that the prevalence of evil is the result merely of bad political arrangements, which tend to corrupt people, and if political arrangements were good, evil would be much less prevalent. Realistic conservatives reject this optimism. They do not think that evil is prevalent merely because of bad political arrangements. They ask why political arrangements are bad. And the answer must be that political arrangements are made by people, and they are bound to reflect the propensities of their makers. Bad political arrangements are ultimately traceable to evil human propensities. Since the propensities are subject to contingencies over which human control is insufficient, there is no guarantee that political arrangements can be made good. Nor that, if they were made good, they would be sufficient to hinder evil.

Conservatives insist, therefore, on the necessity and importance of political arrangements that hinder evil: moral education, the enforcement of morality, the treatment of people according to what they deserve, the importance of swift and severe punishment for serious crimes, and so on. They oppose the prevailing attitudes that lead to agonizing over the criminal and forgetting the crime, the absurd fiction of a fundamental moral equality between habitual evildoers and their victims, guaranteeing the same freedom and welfare-rights to good and evil people, and so forth. Conservatives think that the aim of justice is to uphold the rule of law that assures that people get what they deserve.

Political arrangements that are meant to hinder evil are liable to abuse. Conservatives know and care about the historical record that testifies to the dreadful things that have been done on the many occasions when such arrangements have gone wrong. The remedy, however, cannot be to refuse to make the arrangements; it must be to learn from history, and try hard to avoid their abuse. Conservatives know that in this respect, as in all others, contingency will be a permanent obstacle to success. But this is precisely the reason why political arrangements are necessary for hindering evil. Realistic conservatives face the worst and try to deny scope to it, rather than endeavor to build a Utopia on optimistic illusions.


The most reasonable version of conservatism is fallibilist, pluralist, traditionalist, and realist. It avoids metaphysical and fideistic dogmatism. It denies that the content of good lives is given by a system of absolute values; accepts that good lives have some universal albeit minimal, requirements; and holds that some, but not all, values are context-dependent. It recognizes that both individual autonomy and social authority are necessary for good lives, and resolves their conflicts by balancing their claims. It rejects both optimism based on utopian illusions and pessimism that registers only human corruption. It sees human nature as having both good and evil propensities and strives for political arrangements that foster the first and curb the second. Conservatism is a view of politics guided by history and aiming at the betterment of society within the limits set by the contingency of life and human imperfection.

See also Augustine, St.; Burke, Edmund; Dilthey, Wilhelm; Evil; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Hobbes, Thomas; Human Nature; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Liberalism; Machiavelli, Niccolò; Maistre, Comte Joseph de; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Nozick, Robert; Oakeshott, Michael; Plato; Pluralism; Santayana, George; Social and Political Philosophy; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Value and Valuation.


Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Theologiae. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 19631975.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

Finnis, John. Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Graham, Gordon. "True Conservatismthe Rejection of Ideology." In Politics in Its Place. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Hayek, Friedrich von. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: Regnery, 1960.

Hegel, Georg W. F. The Philosophy of Right. Translated by T.M. Knox. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. London: Dent, 1962.

Hume, David. An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.

Hume, David. Essays Moral, Political, and Literary. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1985.

Kekes, John. A Case for Conservatism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Kirk, Russell. The Conservative Mind. South Bend, IN: Gateway, 1978.

Letwin, Shirley. The Pursuit of Certainty. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1965.

Letwin, Shirley. The Gentleman in Trollope. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. In Selected Political Writings. Translated and edited by David Wootten. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994.

Montaigne, Michel de. Essays. In The Complete Works of Montaigne. Translated by Donald M. Frame. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958.

Muller, Jerry Z. ed. Conservatism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Oakeshott, Michael. The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism, edited by Timothy Fuller. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism in Politics, edited by Timothy Fuller. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991.

O'Sullivan, Noel. Conservatism. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976.

Plato. The Republic. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Santayana, George. Dominations and Powers. New York: Scribner's, 1951.

Scruton, Roger. The Meaning of Conservatism. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.

Shils, Edward. Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Shils, Edward. The Virtue of Civility, edited by Steven Grosby. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1997.

Stephen, James Fitzjames. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Voegelin, Eric. Order in History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 19541987.

John Kekes (2005)


views updated Jun 11 2018


the origins of conservatism
nineteenth-century conservatism
conservatism and the new right

Conservatism, by definition, is a relative word. Derived from the Latin conservare, it refers in the broadest sense to the effort to safeguard or "conserve" elements of a culture, society, or political regime in the face of threatening or sudden change. It follows from this description that those describing themselves, or who are described, as "conservatives" will vary tremendously in accordance with what it is they seek to protect. When elements of the Soviet establishment sought to resist the changes proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, they were characterized in the popular press as "hardliners" or "conservatives," despite the fact that they were attempting to preserve a system—communism—that is otherwise associated with more radical tendencies. By contrast, self-described "conservatives" or "neoconservatives" in the early-twenty-first-century United States frequently uphold views that are radical in certain contexts. It may well be conservative to defend democracy and free-market capitalism in America, where the two are long established. But to aim to bring them to parts of the world that have never known them—even, if necessary, by force—is anything but.

Scholars of conservatism have attempted to take into account this semantic instability since at least the 1920s, when the Hungarian-born sociologist Karl Mannheim (1893–1947) undertook a still-valuable study of the concept. Mannheim defined conservatism as an ideology "oriented to meanings that contain different objective contents in different epochs." More recently, the political scientist Samuel Huntington has described conservatism as a "positional ideology," always relative to time and circumstance. In Huntington's view, it makes little sense to speak of conservatism as an enduring political, intellectual, or ideological phenomenon.

If one treats conservatism as a transhistorical category, then Huntington undoubtedly has a point. Yet if conservatism is considered as a European intellectual and political tradition that took shape in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, then it is possible to speak of the phenomenon as an abiding set of general beliefs that, although varying considerably according to time and circumstance, nonetheless do cohere into something more specific than a mere positional ideology. Seen in this light, conservatism is, as the scholar Jerry Muller has observed, a set of enduring "assumptions, themes, and images." As such, it takes its place alongside the other great "isms" central to nineteenth-century European history: republicanism, socialism, and liberalism.

the origins of conservatism

It is revealing that the earliest uses of the terms conservatism and conservative occur in France and England. For it was in these two countries that conservatism assumed its earliest coherence as a political disposition. In France, the word conservateur was in use from at least 1794 to refer to one who advocated "conserving" various elements of the ancien reçgime, then under attack by the forces of the French Revolution. By 1815 the liberal theorist Benjamin Constant (1767–1830) was making reference to a "conservative spirit" (esprit conservateur) everywhere apparent in France following the defeat of Napoleon. In the subsequent decade, usage of this kind was increasingly common—witnessed, most strikingly, by the establishment of a leading French weekly, Le Conservateur, in 1818. Boasting the direct participation of François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) and Louis de Bonald (1754–1840), among others, the journal vowed in its inaugural issue to uphold "religion, the King, liberty … and respectable people" in an effort to preserve traditional values and institutions from revolutionary attacks.

In England, the word conservative was first employed in a self-consciously political sense as early as 1816, when the Anti-Jacobin Review saw fit to write "of those conservative principles which all good men ought not passively to foster and cherish, but actually promote." As in France, uses of the term multiplied in the succeeding decade, culminating in the first reference to the Tory Party as the "Conservative party" in an essay by John Miller of Lincoln's Inn in the Quarterly Review in January 1830. Although it would take the Tories some time to officially adopt that title, their spokesmen readily assumed the mantle informally, presenting themselves as the defenders of "conservative principles."

Conservative and conservatives, then, are predominantly nineteenth-century terms. Yet it would be shortsighted to assume that the principles of those who adopted these labels were no older than the words themselves. In fact, much of the intellectual capital on which later conservatives drew was developed in the eighteenth century in response to three great movements of change: state centralization, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution.

The first of these movements involved the usurpation of powers and prerogatives formerly in the hands of corporate bodies, towns, landed aristocrats, and local elites. As centralizing governments in the eighteenth century developed state bureaucracies and other institutions (armies, courts, police) capable of extending their dominion over ever-larger segments of the population, they threatened to displace the traditional authorities and aristocratic families that for centuries had administered justice and mediated power in local arenas. The result was not only bitterness but also the elaboration of a rhetoric that defended the importance of preserving established authorities and privileges as a means to defend against the lurking despotism of the state. As the French aristocrat and jurist Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755) observed in his 1748 classic The Spirit of the Laws, "all experience proves that every man with power is led to abuse it." Consequently, "to prevent the abuse of power, things must be so ordered that power checks power."

The Spirit of the Laws was the most articulate eighteenth-century attempt to think through such an ordering. And although Montesquieu's arguments on behalf of what he called "intermediary powers" would also prove appealing to American revolutionaries and nineteenth-century liberals—most famously Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859)—they provided a powerful rationale to contemporary conservatives who sought to protect vested interests from the creeping encroachments of the state. Repeated widely, they inspired spirited defenses from many other across Europe, most notably the Westphalian civil servant Justus Möser (1720–1794).

This eighteenth-century response to state centralization thus formed one fertile source of early conservative rhetoric. Of equal importance in terms of mobilizing conservative opinion was the Enlightenment. A multifaceted movement, replete with rival currents and national variations, the Enlightenment was by no means a universally radical phenomenon, and in fact produced conservative spokesmen of its own. Yet it was above all the radical thrust of Enlightenment culture that brought into being the most virulent response. Especially in the Catholic countries, the Enlightenment's attacks on what it deemed the "fanaticism" of the church provoked a broad-based "Counter-Enlightenment" response. Asserting the centrality of religious orthodoxy to social and political stability, this response put forth the necessity of hierarchy and authority to rein in fallen human beings predisposed to sin. It produced arguments on behalf of sentiment, emotion, and inherited norms (prejudice) as sources of knowledge as valid as reason. It greeted Enlightenment calls for greater sexual freedom with defenses of moral rectitude and the sanctity of the family. And it met the stilted claims of Enlightenment partisans to serve as torch-bearers for an age of darkness with arguments on behalf of the wisdom of tradition. According to this perspective, the general tendency of the Enlightenment's abstract theorists was destructive. The duty of its opponents was clear: to conserve.

Well before the French Revolution, then, Europeans had generated a considerable body of conservative thought, even if they never used the term itself. Neither, for that matter, did their greatest heir, the British statesman Edmund Burke (1729–1797). And yet in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke offered the definitive statement of conservative philosophy for centuries to come.

The immediate purpose of the Reflections was itself profoundly conservative: to protect England and English institutions from the revolutionary conflagration in France. But in serving this immediate end, Burke fashioned a number of timeless principles that were applicable to a great variety of situations. Not surprisingly, many of them echoed the earlier sentiments of European conservatives avant la lettre. Burke stressed the need, for example, voiced by Montesquieu and others, for intermediary authorities—"opposed and conflicting interests"—to "interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolution." Like Counter-Enlightenment polemicists, he lambasted "men of theory" and "intriguing philosophers" for their "political metaphysics," emphasizing the "fallible and feeble contrivance" of human reason, and man's propensity to "pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, [and] sedition." He argued the necessity of hierarchy and a church to rein in human passions, and he highlighted the supreme importance of moral values to provide a "decent drapery" to cover over and contain our many human failings. Finally, and most famously, Burke presented culture and government as the product of the "collected reason of ages." Given that natural failings are many, and private allotment of reason small, human beings should treat with respect the legacy that had been granted to them by their ancestors, appreciating that there was a "latent wisdom" that prevailed in established customs, practices, and prejudices.

Which is not to say that Burke was opposed to innovation or improvement. Throughout the Reflections, he reiterated the necessity of a "slow, well-sustained progress," arguing that a government "without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation." The twin tasks of state-craft, as he saw it, were "at once to preserve and to reform."

And yet there was another, somewhat darker, side to Burke's rhetoric in the Reflections. His all us ions to them obrunrampant—"as winish multitude"—ever-ready to trample its social betters under foot; his regrettable readiness to associate "jew-brokers" and "jew-[stock]jobbers" with both the "monied interest" and political intrigue; and finally his invocation of the language of conspiracy, warning of the "confederacies" and "cabal" of philosophers and Masons, who had formed a plot, a "regular plan" for the destruction of thrones and altars across Europe—all this found a receptive audience of people with whom Burke would otherwise have been ill at ease. Whereas his thought bequeathed a fund of principles that could be drawn upon by self-professed liberals and conservatives of a moderate cast, it also was embraced by men and women farther to the right who want ed no truck with parliaments, or to lerance, or well-sustained progress at all.

nineteenth-century conservatism

Historians sometimes distinguish between conservatism and "reaction" to characterize the often blurry line that separated those who followed the more moderate Burkean course from those, especially on the Continent, who believed that politics could never be a matter of compromise when it came to fighting the noxious influences of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. What Counter-Enlightenment polemicists had seen as the cosmic, world-historical battle between Enlightenment philosophy, on the one hand, and Christianity and divinely ordained kingship, on the other, was carried over into the post revolutionary period and presented as an epic struggle between good and evil. As the Savoyard nobleman Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821) declared, the struggle between Christianity and philosophy was a "war to the death" waged between God and his enemies. In a war of this kind, there could be no middle ground.

Insofar as figures of this ilk advocated policies aimed explicitly at restoring the status quo ante—recovering privileges or rebuilding institutions destroyed by the Revolution or Napoleon (r. 1804–1814/15)—the terms reaction or reactionary are useful. Upholding a firm alliance between throne and altar, right-wing reactionaries sought the restitution of properties seized during the Revolution and the Napoleonic regimes and pressed for the recovery of other lost privileges and institutions of the ancien régime. Above all, they avowed allegiance to the "legitimate" monarchs who had ruled prior to the Revolutionary and Napoleonic upheavals.

The heyday of such reaction was the period of the Restoration following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. But this heyday was short-lived, brought to a close not only by revolution and revolt but also by these forces' own intransigence. In France, ultraroyalist reactionaries soon found themselves at odds with the restored Bourbon ruler Louis XVIII (r. 1814–1815, 1815–1824), disillusioned by his apparent willingness to accommodate various aspects of the revolutionary heritage. Elsewhere in Europe, one can trace a similar phenomenon. It is evident in the response of Prussian Junkers to the practical reform efforts of Frederick William III (r. 1797–1840); in the response of the Amicizia Cattolica, an association of pious aristocrats, to that group's dissolution by Charles Felix (r. 1821–1831), king of Piedmont-Savoy, in 1828; in the politics of the Zelanti, the reactionary cardinals of the Papal States who fought all concession to the legacy of the Enlightenment and the Revolution; and most dramatically, in the opposition to the limited, constitutional monarchy of Spain by the "Carlists," men more royalist than the king, who were willing to defend their convictions by taking up arms against the state.

Uncompromising, militant, inflexible, the politics of throne and altar was thus reactionary in its increasingly unrealistic desire for the restoration of a vanished Old Regime. But that same lack of realism—the visionary, even revolutionary insistence on taking Europe back to an idealized past that had never really existed—should prevent the free application of the term reactionary. For in certain respects, the Manichean politics of the early "right"—a term that had come into use during the French Revolution to designate the seating preferences of delegates to the National Assembly—was more indicative of the future than of the past. In the vision of a Maistre—at total odds with the pluralism, individualism, and secularism of modernity, obsessed with social cohesion, and quick to contemplate violence in the service of its preservation—one glimpses an early foretaste of the radical right-wing movements of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although it is far too sweeping to suggest, as Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997) once did in a famous essay, that in Maistre one finds a precursor of European fascism, it is nonetheless undeniable that his thought, like that of other early right-wing prophets resonated with later, more combustible figures of the radical right, who were all too ready to mix nationalism, racism, and the politics of mass mobilization in terrible and explosive concoctions.

Between these forces, on the one side, and liberals, republicans, and (by the second half of the nineteenth century) socialists and communists, on the other, stood conservatives. In their common aversion to revolution, conservatives were perfectly ready at times to make common cause with reactionaries and those farther to the right, as they did during the European-wide revolutions of 1848 and in other cases thereafter. Yet they were also prepared to pursue their wider goals through practical accommodation with established governments, whether these be dynastic, parliamentary, or imperial. As the German conservative Friedrich von Gentz (1764–1832) explained, a conservative is someone "who seeks, within reasonable limits, to maintain the old ways and to guide the tide of history, when he is unable or unwilling to stem it, along controllable channels." In order to guide the tide of history, that is, it was easier to labor along channels already dug.

This, in fact, is the central story of nineteenth-century conservatism from the outset, when Prince Clemens von Metternich (1883–1859) and other leading statesmen established the Concert of Europe to preserve the inviolability of regimes after the fall of Napoleon. Working from within to ensure order and prevent the recurrence of further social upheaval, conservatives found their place in practical, pragmatic accommodation with extant powers.

That general pattern holds true even after the events of 1830 and 1848 proved the limitations of this policy, and spelled the demise of the Metternichian system. Whether as officials in the Prussian or Habsburg civil service; proponents of the French juste-milieu that ruled France under Louis-Philippe (r. 1830–1848); supporters of the Napoleonic legacy as embodied in his nephew, Napoleon III (r. 1852–1871); or representatives of the British Tory or Spanish Conservative parties, which for much of the second half of the nineteenth century shared power with their Whig and Liberal opponents—conservatives and conservatism continued to operate pragmatically to guarantee order and the rule of law. They sought to protect property rights and backed the established churches, pushing for a central role for religion in evolving national education programs. They upheld principles of hierarchy and social order, acting in support of notables and the aristocracy. And they worked to promote the love of country and the love of place, defending local interests while lending their support to evolving national patriotism.

Without question, conservatism's predilection for power often translated into cozy relationships with those in positions of wealth and authority in finance and industry, the army and the church, the aristocracy and the rural gentry. Moreover, conservative fears of disorder meant, in practice, the adoption of paternal or repressive policies designed to ensure that the "mob" did not take to the streets. To the extent that the machinery of the state could be harnessed in service of this task, conservatives displayed a proclivity for what the historian Michael Broers has called, borrowing a term from Marc Raeff, the "well-ordered police state," administered in defense of their own interests and general moral order. That proclivity coexisted, however, in uneasy tension with the older conservative distrust of central authority.

Yet the story of nineteenth-century conservatism is far more complicated than a simple opposition to disorder, change, modernity, or progress. It is undeniable, for example, that conservatives played a major role in breaking up the guilds, customs barriers, and other feudal atavisms that continued to impede freedom of trade and profession in the liberal nineteenth century. It was Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850), a man who has been described as the founder of the Conservative Party in England, who finally repealed the Corn Laws at the expense of the great landed families, opening England's markets to foreign grain. And it was only with the aid of key conservatives that the Zollverein, the free-trade customs union of the German states, established in 1834, became a reality. In the French liberal François Guizot's (1787–1874) famous dictum "enrichissezvous" ("get rich"), many conservatives also found a long-term answer to the problem of poverty, and they worked to create the conditions—in finance, banking, manufacturing, and industry—so that more and more could do just that.

It was a conservative, Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881), who greatly expanded the English suffrage, enfranchising many working-class males in the Second Reform Act of 1867. And it was a conservative, Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), who pushed through significant social legislation in the 1880s, initiating state-sponsored accident and old-age insurance as well an early form of subsidized medicine. It may be argued in both cases that the motives were cynical, and that is undoubtedly partly true. Yet the legislation was passed regardless, largely in the realization of that pragmatic conservative truth that in order to preserve, one must also reform.

conservatism and the new right

That same willingness to make compromises and concessions, however, entering into agreements with political opponents, could also prove a double-edged sword. This was especially the case on the Continent, and ironically, only after conservatives there had begun to learn that the "people" was not necessarily their enemy. Whereas at the beginning of the century conservatives had generally sought to restrict the suffrage, defending high property requirements for voting, the experience of Napoleon III and then the examples of Bismarck and Disraeli demonstrated that the "people" could be quite conservatively disposed. This was most clear in the realm of religion, where the second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the mass mobilization of Catholics and other religious groups in defiance of the anticlerical policies favored by liberals, republicans, and socialists. A transnational phenomenon, Christian and especially Catholic mobilization involved the effective use of the means of mass politics, employing demonstrations and public protests, mass-circulation media, voluntary associations, and political parties to defend Catholic and conservative values. By opposing civil marriage or divorce, or fighting to defend and extend religious education to deprived social groups, conservative politicians could draw on considerable mass support.

And yet to do so in the arena of parliamentary regimes meant entering into compacts and compromises with the opposition. In Spain, for example, in a system that was known informally as the turno, conservatives and liberals of the Restoration monarchy (1875–1923) rotated regularly in power. Seen from the outside, and from the perspective of extraparliamentary extremes, Spanish liberals and conservatives could seem virtually indistinguishable. The danger for both parties was that they risked being tainted by the sins of their opponents, implicated in a larger regime that by the turn of the century was coming to be seen (and not without reason) as narrow and corrupt.

With parliamentary governments throughout Europe marred by scandals at the end of the nineteenth century, observers outside of Spain noted similar phenomena. The French socialist Jules Guesde (1845–1922), for example, remarked ruefully that members of the moderately republican Radical Party distinguished themselves from conservatives only by their hypocrisy. Meanwhile, conservative Catholics in France might wonder how much their alleged supporters really differed from their left-wing colleagues across the aisle. Speaking in November 1874, the erstwhile Orlùanist Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877) could maintain that "the Republic, if it is to exist at all, cannot but be conservative," and for some time it was, prompting many Catholics to heed Pope Leo XIII's (r. 1878–1903) call to "rally" to the republic in the early 1890s. Already by this point, however, the confederation of French conservatives known as the "Union des Droites" that had acted with some success in parliament in the 1880s was losing its influence. By the beginning of the twentieth century it was helpless to prevent a succession of blows to the church in France that culminated in the expulsion of the religious orders and the formal separation of church and state in 1905.

In the eyes of growing numbers on the right, such developments demonstrated both the incapacity of parliamentary conservatives to further their interests and the essential insolvency of the republic. As early as 1890 the extreme right-wing polemicist Charles Maurras (1868–1952) could write to a colleague that "there are two conservative parties in France, the living one and the other." "The first," he specified, "was with [É douard] Drumont," the author of a virulently anti-Semitic tract of 1886, La France Juive. The second, the "other," was bound up with the moribund republic, antiquated, compromised, and complicit in a decadent regime.

Maurras's distinction between living conservatives and dead conservatives, between conservatives old and new, was overstated, but telling. For although he himself advocated an idiosyncratic form of neoroyalism, his methods and outlook pointed forward to something disturbingly new. In the year before Maurras's letter, the tremendous interest generated by the French general Georges Boulanger (1837–1891), who flirted openly with the prospect of a royalist coup, had highlighted the demagogic possibilities of a strongman willing to threaten direct action against the republic. And in the years following, during the heat of the Dreyfus affair, the political potential of anti-Semitism and populist national chauvinism peddled by the likes of Drumont was already clear. By blending these explosive forces with the means of modern mass communication, Maurras and the early leaders of the protofascist Action Française, founded in 1898, concocted a new politics and a "new right" that was largely without precedent, even if it did at times recall—in its Manicheanism and penchant for conspiracy theories, its rhetorical violence and its rejection of individualism, pluralism, and the values of the French Revolution—the language of earlier figures like Maistre.

Notwithstanding these similarities, the Action Française unquestionably represented a new development, one that with its street gangs and pseudo-biological racism, its anticapitalism and populist mass mobilization, had parallels throughout Europe, above all in Germany. There, as in France, the period between the 1890s and World War I witnessed an explosive growth in groups brandishing the ideological weaponry of the new right, or what the historian Zeev Sternhell has identified as a "revolutionary right," the ideological forefather of fascism. Attacking the ravages of industrial capitalism, they invoked sinister conspiracies of Jews and international financiers. They praised the racial superiority of the German volk and preached militant nationalism and the supremacy of German values and German soil. Radical, even revolutionary, they aimed to transform the allegedly decadent society they knew and detested through mass mobilization, direct action, and the "purifying" clarity of violence.

Volkish, anti-Semitic, populist, these early ideologists of the new right ceased, as the scholar Hans-Jurgen Puhle has observed, "to be conservative in any reasonable sense of the term." They were, on the contrary, revolutionaries, who rejected the central impulse toward preservation that had governed European conservatism since its inception in the eighteenth century. When eventually they came to power throughout Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, they would show themselves adept only at destruction, leaving to others—conservatives and radicals alike—the task of piecing together the shards of European civilization that war and human malice had not obliterated entirely.

See alsoAction Française; Bismarck, Otto von; Burke, Edmund; Carlism; Catholicism, Political; Chateau-briand, François-René; Concert of Europe; Disraeli, Benjamin; Dreyfus Affair; Liberalism; Maistre, Joseph de; Maurras, Charles; Metternich, Clemens von; Nicholas I; Restoration.


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Darrin M. McMahon


views updated May 14 2018



“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 [1950] 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 [1950] 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.

Clinton Rossiter

[See alsoLiberalism; Personality, political; Radicalism; and the biography ofBurke.]


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.


views updated Jun 11 2018


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.

Leo R.Ribuffo

See alsoLiberalism ; Republican Party ; Whig Party ; andvol. 9:The New Right: We're Ready to Lead .


views updated May 17 2018


An assessment of conservative ideas about the relationship between ethics, science, and technology must begin with a brief discussion of conservatism itself. Unlike liberalism, fascism, or communism, conservatism cannot be identified with a particular conception of the ideal society. In its broadest meaning, conservatism means simply "adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried," as Abraham Lincoln put it in his Cooper Institute speech (Lincoln 1989, p. 122). If this definition is accepted, one can be "conservative" about almost anything that has lasted a long time.

In Europe and North America over the last few centuries, however, conservatism has been associated with a defense of classical liberalism in politics and economics against first the radicalism of the French Revolution and then against socialism, Communism, fascism, and Nazism. In making this defense, conservatism has also accepted and supported the achievements of science and technology so closely identified with liberalism and capitalism. European and North American conservatism since the French Revolution is thus an inherently paradoxical enterprise, because some of the key institutions it seeks to conserve, including science and technology, are themselves generators of change. Conservatives primarily interested in economics are more likely to welcome such change than religious and cultural conservatives. Conservatism nevertheless sharply differs from the philosophical liberalism of thinkers such as John Dewey or John Rawls in that all conservatives, whatever their primary interest, insist there are sources of moral authority beyond the liberal consensus. These include revealed religion, natural law, and the insights derived from humanistic study. Science, conservatives believe, cannot answer fundamental questions about the meaning of life, nor can technology resolve the most important ethical dilemmas.

Limited Criticism of Science and Technology

Because of its emphasis on the limits of knowledge that science can make available and the benefits technology may confer, conservatism is often mistakenly associated with the wholesale condemnation of technology associated with Romanticism and also promoted by radical theorists such as Herbert Marcuse who, in One-Dimensional Man (1964), views technology as a form of social control and domination. The Southern Agrarians, a group of poets and writers who defended the traditions of the U.S. South, including racial segregation, in I'll Take My Stand (1930), were writing as romantics rather than conservatives when they objected to technology itself, as when Andrew Lytle proclaimed "a war to the death between technology and the ordinary human functions of living" (p. 202) and argued that the South "should dread industrialism like a pizen snake" (p. 234). The most influential heir of the Agrarians, Richard Weaver (1910–1963), adopted a more representative conservative viewpoint when, in Visions of Order (1964), he criticized not science itself but "barbarism nourished by ... scientistic fallacies" (p. 151) and "pseudoscientific images of man" (p. 153).

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) went further in defending science when he asserted in The Revolt of the Masses (1930) that "liberal democracy based on technical knowledge is the highest type of public life hitherto known" (p. 52). Yet mainstream twentieth century conservatives in England and the United States shared his belief that the key issue was to find a way to maintain the real achievements of liberal democracies in the face of totalitarianism, just as conservatives in the twenty-first century seek to guard those achievements against the threats posed by new political and religious fanaticisms. Ortega believed that totalitarian regimes were made possible by the rise of the "mass-man" who felt only "radical ingratitude" toward the developments in science and technology that "has made possible the ease of his existence" (p.
58).The masses do not grasp that the devices they take for granted are really "marvels of invention and construction which can only be maintained by great effort and foresight" (p. 60). Ortega believed scientists could scarcely avoid becoming mass-persons themselves, because the specialization required by modern science made it impossible for individual scientific workers to understand science as a whole and thus achieve comprehensive vision of the universe. At the same time Ortega warned that attempts to return to a pre-industrial way of life would be suicidal.

Limited Authority of Science and Technology

Western conservatism has accepted the authority of the physical and biological sciences within their own sphere, but has sharply questioned the application of the methods of the natural sciences to the study of human beings. Edmund Burke's description of the moving spirits of the French Revolution in his Reflections (1790) indicts not scientists but pseudo-scientists: "sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators" (p. 170). An American admirer of Burke, Irving Babbitt (1865–1933), based his New Humanism on the distinction between what Ralph Waldo Emerson called "law for man, and law for thing" in his "Ode, Inscribed to W.
H. Channing." The neglect of that distinction, Babbitt argued in his first book Literature and the American College (1908), leads to an intellectual climate in which "Man himself and the products of his spirit, language, and literature, are treated not as having a law of their own, but as things; as entirely subject to the same methods that have won for science such triumphs over phenomenal nature" (p. 86). Babbitt summed up his views in a short 1930 essay, "What I Believe." Although he objects when "the pseudo-scientist claims for physical science a hegemony to which it is not entitled" (p. 11), he also disclaims the romantic condemnation of intellect itself. For Babbitt the exaltation of feeling unrestrained by thought and the exaltation of mechanical efficiency for its own sake are merely two sides of the same coin. He counters what he considers the dominant trend of the age with a call for a "positive and critical humanism" (p. 14) based on a reaffirmation of "the truths of the inner life" (p. 18).


George Santayana (1863–1952) argued in "The Genteel Tradition at Bay" (1931) that Babbitt's New Humanism was only the last gasp of a genteel tradition that neither expressed nor understood what was truly dynamic in American society. Santayana had described the United States in "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy" (1911) as a "country with two mentalities, one a survival of the beliefs and standards of the fathers, the other an expression of the instincts, practice, and discoveries of the younger generations" (p. 39). Scientific and especially technological developments were an expression of the younger generation, while religion, philosophy and the arts were under the control of the "hereditary spirit" (p. 39) of the genteel tradition. The contrast between the two mentalities could be symbolized by the difference between two characteristic products of American architecture: the "sky-scraper" (p. 40) and the "reproduction of the colonial mansion" (p. 40). A philosopher, Santayana intimated, should understand that the new society could not be judged according to the criteria of the genteel tradition but must be accepted on its merits and judged on its own terms.

In Reason in Science (1906) Santayana criticized the "school of political conservatives" (p. 307) who insist on retaining the language of "theology and metaphysics"(p. 307) rather than that of science because of the loss of social stability that might ensue. Such "sensitive conservatism" (p. 307) is "entangled in a pathetic delusion" (p. 307) ; it is "conservatism in a shipwreck"
(p. 307). Santayana himself was more than ready to acknowledge the validity of science, which he considered "common knowledge extended and refined"
(p. 393). He criticized the critique of science by idealist metaphysicians around the beginning of the twentieth century on grounds that seem applicable to the postmodernist critique of science at the beginning of the twenty-first. It is hardly convincing, observes Santayana, "when science is systematically disparaged in favour of a method that is merely disintegrating and incapable of establishing a single positive truth"
(p. 312).

Russell Kirk (1918–1994) admired both Babbitt and Santayana and included both in his seminal The Conservative Mind (1953). In an essay on "Civilization Without Religion" (1996) Kirk goes further than Babbitt and disagrees with Santayana in arguing that the decline of European and North American civilization could be averted only by a "restoration of religious teachings as a credible body of doctrine" (p. 15). Even Kirk, however, is careful to criticize not science but rather a scientistic misunderstanding of the implications of science. According to Kirk, "the principal cause of the loss of the idea of the holy is the attitude called scientism" (p. 11). It is scientism, not science, that takes it as proved that "men and women are naked apes merely; that the ends of existence are production and consumption merely; that happiness is the gratification of sensual impulses; and that concepts of the resurrection of the flesh and the life everlasting are mere exploded superstitions" (p. 11). In an essay titled "Humane Learning in the Age of the Computer" (1996), Kirk argues that technology can never replace the flesh-and-blood teacher, but he does so in the name not only of the humanities but also of science, worrying that "if facility in operating computers tends to be emphasized at the expense of serious study of physics and mathematics, the springs of the scientific imagination may dry up" (p. 122).

Critique of Scientism

In "Science and the Studies of Man," a contribution to an anthology on Scientism and Values (1960), Eliseo Vivas makes a representative conservative argument when he criticizes the "so-called behavioral sciences"
(p. 50) for attempting to adopt the methods and assume the prestige of chemistry and physics. Vivas does not deny and indeed insists on the validity of scientific method when applied in physics and biology, but he rejects the idea that "the only valid knowledge is scientific" (p. 50). Like most other conservatives, Vivas believes that "there is philosophical knowledge of a substantive nature and that there is moral and religious knowledge and, in a qualified sense, even aesthetic knowledge" (p. 50). Vivas argues that the attempt to study human beings and their institutions according to the methods of the natural sciences results not in science but in scientism.

The distinction between science and scientism was not, of course, noted only by conservatives. The prestige of science among radicals and militant reformers, however, made it difficult for them to draw a line with the clarity and firmness of conservatism, even when they wanted to do so. The appeal of Dewey's pragmatism, for example, was closely linked to his proposals to use scientific techniques to reform human society. Likewise two of the outstanding examples of scientism in the twentieth century, Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis, appealed to those who wished to either radically change or destroy bourgeois society. Both used the vocabulary of science, and both attracted adherents by claiming the authority of science.

Though the influence of Marxism was vastly more destructive, both used their prestige to challenge and undermine the traditional moral principles at the heart of conservatism. By the twenty-first century the fraudulence of both has been revealed for all but the willfully blind to see. Other versions of scientism remain, however, including the attempt to use the prestige of the theory of biological evolution to shape a secularist philosophy of human nature and view of the universe.

The Conservative Middle Ground

In opposing repudiation of the concept of truth by postmodernist skepticism, conservatism in the twenty-first century has made common cause with the natural sciences in defending knowledge that is objective and universally true. Conservatives have opposed attempts to formulate a feminist science or any version of science based on ethnicity. Likewise conservatives have criticized the characterization of technology as in itself demonic as claimed by some environmental radicals.

In response to the development of biotechnology, however, conservatives such as Leon Kass have continued to be guided by traditional moral principles such as the sanctity of innocent human life and human dignity. Sometimes this has led them to oppose some new uses of medical technology, such as those involved in stem cell research. The same principle of the sanctity of life has also led conservatives to object to the withdrawal of technological support from patients without their consent, whether at the behest of the state or others. Conservatism in the twenty-first century, as earlier, continues to affirm the relevance and validity of traditional ethical principles in evaluating the moral implications of new developments in science and technology, whatever those might be.

In 1932 Winston Churchill observed that "while men are gathering knowledge and power with ever-increasing and measureless speed, their virtues and their wisdom have not shown any notable improvement" (p. 279). As a true conservative, however, Churchill believed that what was required was not "progress" in thought but rather he believed it "above all things important that the moral philosophy and spiritual conceptions of men and nations should hold their own amid these formidable scientific evolutions"
(p. 279).


SEE ALSO Agrarianism;Capitalism;Democracy;Liberalism;Marxism;Ortega y Gasset, José;President's Council on Bioethics;Scientism;Totalitarianism.


Babbitt, Irving. (1981 [1930]). "What I Believe." In Irving Babbitt: Representative Writings, ed. George A. Panichas. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Babbitt, Irving. (1986 [1908]). Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities. Washington, DC: National Humanities Institute. Irving Babbitt, with his colleague Paul Elmer More, founded the "new humanism," an attempt to reform American culture in the light of principles derived from the classics of literature, thought and religion.

Burke, Edmund. (1968 [1790]). Reflections on the Revolution in France. London: Penguin. Burke's reflections, according to Russell Kirk and others, marks the beginning of modern conservatism in Europe and North America.

Churchill, Winston. (1932). "Fifty Years Hence." In his Thoughts and Adventures. London: Thornton Butterworth.

Kass, Leon. (2002). Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dignity. San Francisco: Encounter Books.

Kirk, Russell. (1953). The Conservative Mind, from Burke to Santayana. Chicago: H. Regnery Company. This book, more than any other single work, may be credited with the revival of conservative thought in the United States.

Kirk, Russell. (1996). "Civilization Without Religion." In Redeeming the Time, ed. Jeffrey O. Nelson. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Kirk, Russell. (1996). "Humane Learning in the Age of the Computer." In Redeeming the Time, ed. Jeffrey O. Nelson. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Lincoln, Abraham. (1989). "Address at Cooper Institute, New York City, February 27, 1860." In Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859–1865, ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher. New York: Literary Classics of the United States.

Lytle, Andrew. (1977 [1930]). "The Hind Tit." In I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by Twelve Southerners. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. The "twelve southerners" who contributed to this manifesto included such important literary figures as John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate.

Marcuse, Herbert. (1964). One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon Press. Marcuse was one of the leading members of the Frankfurt school.

Ortega y Gasset, José. (1957 [1930]). The Revolt of the Masses. New York: Norton. This is the most influential book by one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century.

Santayana, George. (1983 [1906]). Reason in Science. New York: Dover Books. This is the fifth and last volume of The Life of Reason, the series that established Santayana's philosophical reputation.

Santayana, George. (1998 [1911]). "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy." In The Genteel Tradition: Nine Essays by George Santayana, ed. Douglas L. Wilson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 37–64. Although the title refers only to "American Philosophy," this essay is one of the most insightful and influential essays on American culture ever written.

Santayana, George. (1998 [1931]). "The Genteel Tradition at Bay." In The Genteel Tradition: Nine Essays by George Santayana, ed. Douglas L. Wilson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. In this essay Santayana invokes the concept of the "genteel tradition" to criticize the "new humanism" of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More.

Vivas, Eliseo. (1960). "Science and the Studies of Man." In Scientism and Values, eds. Helmut Schoeck and James
W. Wiggins. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.

Weaver, Richard M. (1964). Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.


views updated Jun 11 2018


Conservatives would agree with Robert Bork's understanding of the role of the Supreme Court under the Constitution and with its implicit understanding of the Constitution itself. Bork concluded a 1984 lecture at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington with the following words:

In a constitutional democracy the moral content of the law must be given by the morality of the framer or the legislator, never by the morality of the judge. The sole task of the latter—and it is a task quite large enough for anyone's wisdom, skill, and virtue—is to translate the framer's or the legislator's morality into a rule to govern unforeseen circumstances. That abstinence from giving his own desires free play, that continuing and self-conscious renunciation of power, that is the morality of the jurist.

Bork's is not, of course, the popular view of the judge's role, a fact made manifest by the reaction to his nomination for a seat on the Supreme Court. Some 1,925 law professors—surely a good proportion of the total—publicly opposed his appointment and took the trouble of communicating their opposition to the senate judiciary committee. Bork, they said in one way or another, was out of the "mainstream," as surely he was and is. Whereas Bork would appeal to the Framers' morality, mainstream lawyers, arguing that the Framers represented "a world that is dead and gone," tend to prefer their own; some of them go so far so to accuse the Framers of being morally indifferent, a view popularized by Ronald Dworkin, one of Bork's principal opponents. Dworkin sees the Constitution as in need of moral principles and would supply that need. What is required, he says, is a "fusion of constitutional law and moral theory, a connection that, incredibly, has yet to take place."

Conservatives would protest that a Constitution that secures the rights of man—the equal rights of man—to the end of "securing the blessings of liberty" is not lacking in moral principle. Still, had he chosen to do so, Dworkin could have found in the mill of the founding documents an abundance of the grist he wants to grind. There is, for example, james madison's famous statement in the federalist #10 to the effect that the first object of government is the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property. Protecting the equal rights of unequally endowed men can only lead to what Madison said it would lead to, and has in fact led to, namely, different degrees and kinds of property. In short, liberty leads to inequality, not of Madisonian rights but of wealth, position, and rank.

Unlike mainstream (or liberal) lawyers, conservatives are willing to live with this dispensation, and not only because they object to the means used by the mainstream lawyers to change it. The history of Title VII of the civil rights act of 1964 provides an example of those means. That piece of legislation was enacted by Congress to put an end to employment discrimination against blacks and women. But the Supreme Court, over the objections of conservative Justices, including Chief Justice william rehnquist and Justice antonin scalia, has converted it into a statute permitting, and in effect compelling, discrimination favoring blacks and women. Concurring in a case dealing with gender discrimination, a somewhat shamefaced Justice sandra day o'connor indicated how this was accomplished: "As Justice Scalia illuminates with excruciating clarity, [Title VII] has been interpreted … to permit what its language read literally would prohibit." When necessary to further their political agendas, mainstream lawyers, on and off the bench, favor appeals to the "spirit," instead of the written text, of statutes and to what they contend is the "unwritten," instead of the written, Constitution.

No case better illustrates this practice than the 1965 birth control case griswold v. connecticut, and none has given rise to so much criticism from conservatives (and even from a few liberals) as the most prominent of the cases it spawned, roe v. wade, the 1973 abortion decision. To strike down the Connecticut statute forbidding the use of contraceptives—a statute that for practical reasons could not be enforced and for political reasons could not be repealed—the Court found a right to privacy not in a specific constitutional provision but in "penumbras, formed by emanations" from the first amendment, third amendment, fourth amendment, fifth amendment, ninth amendment, and ultimately the fourteenth amendment. To strike down the abortion laws of all fifty states, the Court again invoked this right to privacy, now locating it in the "liberty" protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The principal proponent of this kind of constitutional construction, and the chief target of conservative criticism, was Justice william j. brennan, and nothing better illustrates his understanding of judicial power than a draft opinion he wrote during the Court's consideration of frontiero v. richardson (1973), a case decided when the so-called equal rights amendment was awaiting ratification by the states. Frontiero was a female air force officer who was denied certain dependents' benefits—benefits that would automatically have been granted with respect to the wife of a male officer—because she failed to prove that her husband was dependent on her for more than one half of his support. The issue on which the Court was divided was whether sex, like race, should be treated as a suspect, and therefore less readily justified, classification. Brennan, we are told, circulated an opinion declaring classification by sex virtually impermissible. "He knew that [this] would have the effect of enacting the equal rights amendment [but he] was accustomed to having the Court out front, leading any civil rights movement" (Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, The Brethren, p. 254). The authors of this account conclude by quoting Brennan as being of the opinion that there "was no reason to wait several years for the states to ratify the amendment"—no reason other than the fact, which Brennan knew to be a fact, that the Constitution as then written would not support the decision he wanted the Court to render.

Conservatives call this judicial activism, or government by the judiciary. It is not for the judiciary—the least responsible and, conservatives could charge, frequently the most irresponsible branch of government—to make the laws or amend the Constitution (or "bring it up to date"). Those powers belong, in the one case, to the Congress and, in the other, to the people in their sovereign capacity. Judges, they say, quoting The Federalist #78, are supposed to be "faithful guardians of the Constitution," not evangels of new modes and orders: "Until the people have, by some solemn and authoritative act, annulled or changed the established form, it is binding upon themselves collectively, as well as individually." As conservatives see it, one issue dividing them from mainstream (or liberal) lawyers is that of legitimacy: The legitimacy of judge-made law and, ultimately, the legitimacy of the Constitution itself. If, as James Madison put it, the judges are not guided by the sense of the people who ratified the Constitution, "there can be no security for a consistent and stable, more than for a faithful exercise of its powers." The legitimacy of government depends on adherence to the written text, the text the people ratified.

The classic statement of these (conservative) propositions can be found in john marshall's opinion for the Court in marbury v. madison (1803): The "whole American fabric has been erected" on the principle that government derives from, and is dependent on, the will of the people. "The original and supreme will organizes the government, and assigns to different departments their respective powers."

Statements of this sort abound in the literature of the founding period. "In a government which is emphatically stiled [ sic ] a government of laws, the least possible range ought to be left for the discretion of the judges." "If the constitution is to be expounded, not by its written text, but by the opinions of the rulers for the time being, whose opinions are to prevail, the first or the last? [And if the last] what certainty can there be in those powers [which it assigns and limits]?" Both certainty and legitimacy would be put in jeopardy by rules of constitutional construction that, in effect, permit the judges to do as they will. "Would [the Constitution] not become, instead of a supreme law for ourselves and our posterity, a mere oracle of the powers of the rulers of the day, to which implicit homage is to be paid, and speaking at different times the most opposite commands, and in the most ambiguous voices?"

Connected to this issue of legitimacy is the cause of constitutional government itself. As conservatives see it, inequality of wealth, rank, and position is the price we pay for liberty, and it was to secure the blessings of liberty that the Constitution was ordained and established. In Madison's words in The Federalist #10, the Constitution serves to secure liberty by providing "a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government," egalitarian diseases manifested in "a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project." The remedy was to be found in the limits embodied "in the extent and proper structure of the Union"—in a word, in the Constitution. And as Marshall said in Marbury, The Constitution is written in order that "those limits not be mistaken or forgotten." thomas jefferson made the same point when he said that "the possession of a written constitution [was America's] peculiar security."

What conservatives want to conserve is this liberal Constitution, which, as they see it, is endangered by persons styling themselves liberals today. First, there are academic lawyers who treat the Constitution not as law—in Marshall's words, "a superior paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means"—but as a mere "epiphenomenon," which is to say, as merely one of the factors (and, typically, not a controlling factor) entering into judicial decisions. As one of them puts it, rather than carry any precise meaning that judges are bound by oath to recognize and obey, the most important constitutional provisions "do not rule out any answer a majority of the Court is likely to want to give." The social, historical, and economic conditions take precedence over the Constitution's written text, and they may dictate any outcome. "There is nothing that is unsayable in the language of the Constitution," writes another.

Second, there is Justice Brennan, who writes that "the genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs."

Third are historians who, in the course of ridiculing the conservatives' appeal for a jurisprudence of original intent, insist that "our Constitution is no more important to the longevity and workability of our government than magna carta is to the longevity and workability of the British government. Our Constitution is as unwritten as theirs."

Finally, there are journalists who say that "the mere idea of original intent is an absurdity … [that] those men in Philadelphia could not have possibly had an "original intent."

As these statements indicate, the conservative effort to preserve that liberal Constitution will gain little support in the liberal community. Unlike the Framers, today's liberals prefer equality to liberty, an equality of status to an equality of rights, a development foreseen by alexis de tocqueville. Democratic peoples have a natural taste for liberty, he wrote, but their passion for equality is "invincible" and "irresistible," and anyone who tries to stand up against it "will be overthrown and destroyed by it."

In addition, conservatives have to contend with developments in the realm of political thought that, it is said, deprive the Constitution of its philosophical foundations. The Constitution put constraints on the popular will, but, according to Professor Sanford Levinson, those constraints have been deprived of whatever moral authority they might once have had. Constitutional arguments have been rendered meaningless. Indeed, the very idea of constitutionalism is dead: "The death of "constitutionalism' may be the central event of our time," Levinson writes, "just as the death of God was that of the past century (and for much the same reason)." If, as he claims, this view of our situation is "shared by most major law schools," conservatives are engaged in an almost hopeless enterprise. Care of the Constitution was put in the hands of the judges, but the judges are trained in those "major law schools."

Admittedly, and quite apart from the influence of this legal and political thought, governing within the limit imposed by a strict construction of the Constitution has never been an easy matter. federalism is one of its prominent features, and conservatives, today if not in the past, would preserve it in its integrity. They would do so for political, as well as for constitutional, reasons. Like Tocqueville, they appreciate the political importance of what he called "mores," those "habits of the heart" that characterize a people and, in our case, he argued, made free goverment possible. Conservatives would attribute the Constitution's "longevity and workability" not to its flexibility but, at least in part, to the laws of the states where these mores, or morals and manners, are fostered and protected. Directly or indirectly (by supporting the private institutions whose business it is to provide it), these laws are intended to promote the sort of civic or moral education required of citizens in a democracy. Many of them—such as laws dealing with flag desecration, obscenity, indecency, illegitimacy, school prayer, and religious instruction and institutions, the list of which is not endless but is long—have been declared unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment incorporation doctrine. These laws have been declared unconstitutional, conservatives insist, in the absence of any evidence that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment intended it—originally intended it—to be used for that purpose.

There is, however, an abundance of evidence that the Fourteenth and other post-civil war amendments were intended to affect the federal structure of the Constitution in material respects. The same freedom that allowed the states to be concerned about the moral character of their citizens also allowed them to decide who among their residents were to be citizens and, therefore, who among them were to enjoy the civil rights and the privileges and immunities of citizens. Thus, and without any question, those amendments were intended to deprive states of this power; they would do so by providing what Madison in 1787 criticized the original Constitution for its failure to provide, namely, "a constitutional negative on the laws of the States [in order to] secure individuals agst. encroachments on their rights."

The consequence—if only in our own time—has been a tremendous growth of national power at the expense of the states, and especially national judicial power. Conservatives cannot (and, in most cases, do not) complain when this power has been used to put an end to racial discrimination; as amended, the Constitution not only authorized this but required it. Given what proved to be almost a century of congressional inaction, they would also agree with the Supreme Court's decision in brown v. board of education (1954,1955), the public school desegregation case. Read literally (or construed strictly), the words of the equal protection clause do not lend themselves to the use to which they were put in that case, but—to paraphrase what was said by conservative Chief Justice charles evans hughes on an earlier occasion—while emergencies may not create power, they do furnish the occasions when it may properly be exercised. On such occasions, the conservative rule of "strict construction" must give way to necessity.

Conservatives concede, as they must, that necessity is the mother of invention; where they differ from mainstream liberals, to cite still another aphorism, is in their refusal to make a virtue of necessity. They cannot say, because it would be foolish to say, that the times must be kept in tune with the Constitution; but because our freedom and prosperity depend upon it, they do say, and say emphatically, that the times, to the extent possible, should be kept in tune with the Constitution.

Walter Berns

(see also: Bork Nomination; Critical Legal Studies; Liberalism; Political Philosophy of the Constitution; Suspect Classification; Unwritten Constitution.)


Bork, Robert H. 1990 The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law. New York: Free Press.

Goldwin, Robert A. and Art Kaufman, eds. 1987 How Does the Constitution Protect Religious Freedom? Washington: American Enterprise Institute.

Lerner, Ralph 1987 The Thinking Revolutionary: Principleand Practice in the New Republic. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Mc Dowell, Gary L. 1988 Curbing the Courts: The Constitution and the Limits of Judicial Power. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Pangle, Thomas L. 1988 The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founding and the Philosophy of Locke. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rabkin, Jeremy 1989 Judicial Compulsions: How Public Law Distorts Public Policy. New York: Basic Books.

New Right

views updated May 23 2018


The social movement known as the New Right emerged in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. In the decades before that time, conservatives could be found in a number of organizations and in the Republican Party, and right-wing movements can clearly be identified in earlier periods of U.S. history. But it was not until the late 1960s and 1970s that the New Right coalesced into a coherent social movement that ultimately pushed the United States toward the Right, not just politically and economically but socially as well.

Two Strains of Conservatism

Opposition to New Deal liberalism and anticommunism motivated much early New Right activism. Yet two strains of conservatism have been important throughout the movement's history. One branch has essentially espoused a political and economic conservatism and a return to laissez-faire capitalism. These conservatives reject collectivism and see capitalism in its pure form as the best defense of freedom and liberty. A second branch—and one crucial to understanding the ways the New Right organizes against LGBT people—is based on social traditionalism and religious conservatism. According to social traditionalists, who have dominated the New Right since the 1980s, late-twentieth-century trends such as the legalization of abortion, the high divorce rate, the emergence of a women's liberation movement, and the gains of the gay and lesbian movement signal moral decay and a decline in traditional values. Traditionalists have thus sought policies that would bolster "traditional" family life, turning back the trend toward social liberalism and bringing religion to the center of civic life.

The Emergence of Anti–Lesbian and Gay Organizing

Anti–lesbian and gay organizing by the New Right dates to the 1970s, shortly after the emergence of an active lesbian and gay movement in the late 1960s. One of the first highly publicized antihomosexual campaigns occurred in Dade County, Florida, in 1977, when the former beauty queen and born-again Christian Anita Bryant led a successful petition drive to overturn an ordinance that would have barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Although local in scope, this drive sparked a wave of organizing against lesbian and gay civil rights measures, including the passage of an Oklahoma law forbidding lesbians and gays from teaching in schools and repeals of lesbian and gay rights legislation in Wichita, Kansas; Eugene, Oregon; and elsewhere.

Bolstered by success in Dade County, the Save Our Children campaign moved its attention to California in 1978. There, state senator John Briggs gathered enough signatures to place on the ballot a measure that would bar lesbians and gay men from teaching in public schools. Although Proposition 6 (also known as the Briggs Initiative) ultimately did not pass, it galvanized both lesbian and gay activists and conservative Christians. Some activists in this campaign, such as Lou Sheldon of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition, were to remain active in anti–lesbian and gay movements for the next several decades.

Around the same time, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, pastor of the fundamentalist Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, was persuaded by New Right activists Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, and Ed McAteer to found the Moral Majority in 1979. Opposition to homosexuality was only one of the stated aims of the Moral Majority, which Falwell established as a "profamily" organization. Other issues included prayer in schools, opposition to state-sponsored gambling, the evils of rock and roll, and voter registration, with the aim of influencing the Republican Party platform. During its heyday, the Moral Majority was influential in mobilizing thousands of Christians to vote for conservative candidates and causes. Although the Moral Majority folded in the late 1980s, Falwell created a new, more broadly based organization, the Liberty Federation, in 1986, and he continued to extend his influence as the host of a popular nationwide television program and as chancellor of Liberty University in Lynchburg.

The Emergence of the New Religious Right

Despite early successes in Dade County and elsewhere, the New Right did not make homosexuality a central focus of its organizing in the early 1980s. Homosexuality was only one of many issues motivating right-wing activists; opposition to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment were also key issues. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, the religious arm of the New Right became prominent, such that some scholars refer to the evolving movement as the New Religious Right or the Christian Right. The Right experienced a number of important successes in this period, including the election of President Ronald Reagan to office in 1980 and 1984 and the election of President George H. W. Bush in 1988. Religious Right activists created a number of conservative "pro-family" organizations, including the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, and Focus on the Family, and sought—with great success—to turn out conservative Christians to vote.

During this period, conservative Christian activists made clear inroads into party politics, developing strong ties with the Republican Party at both the national and local levels. One of the staunchest supporters of the New Right in the U.S. Congress was Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Over his thirty-year career, which lasted from 1972 to 2002, Helms routinely introduced legislation against abortion and for school prayer. Helms also led the national opposition to gay and lesbian rights, including a widely publicized attack on the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989 to protest NEA funding of what he perceived as "obscenity" in art, including homoerotic photographs by the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Helms also led opposition to federal funding for AIDS prevention and sexuality research, arguing that such programs encouraged homosexual behavior.

Both in and outside of Washington, D.C., a number of right-wing grassroots organizations became influential during this time, most notably the Christian Coalition, founded by the Reverend Marion "Pat" Robertson in 1989. The Christian Coalition has arguably been one of the largest and most effective New Religious Right organizations. With its Christian Broadcasting Network and popular 700 Club television ministry, the Christian Coalition has been able to reach a much broader membership base than did the Moral Majority. Although membership accounts may well be inflated, the organization boasted more than one million members in the 1990s and nine hundred chapters in fifty states. Perhaps more than other organizations, the Christian Coalition has played an important role in making the Religious Right appeal to more mainstream voters. A second organization influential in anti–lesbian and gay organizing is Focus on the Family. Founded in 1977 by James Dobson, a psychologist, Focus on the Family has been a leader in anti-lesbian and gay organizing campaigns, priding itself on providing materials to local groups and cultivating support in its numerous publications. Focus on the Family has also been active in promoting "ex-gay" ministries such as Exodus International, which seek to convert lesbians and gay men to heterosexuality.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, opposition to homosexuality had become a centerpiece of New Religious Right activity. As gays and lesbians made gains in public acceptance and visibility, including protection against discrimination in employment and housing in some locales, the Religious Right fought back. One of the main strategies used by right-wing activists in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the ballot initiative. These initiatives sought to repeal legislation that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In areas where no such legislation existed, the campaigns sought, in a preemptive strike, to amend state constitutions to prohibit state and local governments from passing laws that would outlaw discrimination against lesbians, gays, and bisexuals.

Ballot Initiatives

The first successful statewide anti–lesbian and gay ballot initiatives appeared in Colorado and Oregon in 1992. The Colorado initiative (Amendment 2) sought to outlaw lesbians' and gays' attempts to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Oregon initiative (Measure 9) went even further, requiring any organization that received government funding to present homosexuality as "abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse." Although sponsored by state-level groups Colorado for Family Values and the Oregon Citizens Alliance, both of these initiatives received substantial support from national right-wing organizations, including the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and the Traditional Values Coalition.

Oregon voters rejected Measure 9 by a narrow margin. Yet much to the surprise of Colorado activists and pollsters, Amendment 2 was approved by 53 percent of Colorado voters in November 1992. Although the amendment was never put into effect—it was declared unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court in 1994 and by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996—the two ballot initiatives nonetheless had a major impact on Religious Right organizing tactics and strategies. The two test cases made clear that large numbers of people were willing to mobilize and vote against lesbians and gays. Subsequently, in numerous communities, including Cincinnati, Ohio, and many Oregon counties, Religious Right groups worked to pass local-level ballot initiatives and to repeal city and local-level civil rights protections for lesbians and gays. In 1994, Religious Right activists attempted to introduce statewide ballot initiatives in eleven states.

Gays in the Military and the Emergence of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

The question of homosexuality and military service erupted at about the same time, in 1993, when newly elected Democratic president Bill Clinton announced that he would repeal the ban on lesbians' and gays' service in the military. Religious Right groups sprang into action, spreading the fear that gay men and women would be sharing showers, foxholes, and latrines with heterosexual soldiers, and that good, honest soldiers would be the objects of sexual harassment and be unwittingly exposed to the threat of AIDS. Military cohesion, they argued, would be irrevocably torn. The issue died down when Clinton crafted a policy known as "don't ask, don't tell," in which lesbians and gays would be ejected from the military only if their sexual orientation became known. Essentially a codification of previous practices, this controversial policy would eventually be responsible for the ejection of thousands of men and women from military service.

Same-Sex Marriage and the Redefinition of Family

The 1996 Supreme Court ruling essentially signaled the end of the ballot initiative as a right-wing strategy. Yet homosexuality did not recede from conservative Christian organizing. Instead, the debate shifted to other "hot button" issues, especially gay marriage and domestic partnerships. Perhaps no other issue has been as forcefully opposed by Religious Right activists as the attempt by lesbians and gays to redefine the family to include same-sex couples.

The issue of same-sex marriage rose to the forefront in 1990, when three same-sex couples in Hawaii sued for the right to marry, arguing that the denial of marriage licenses was unconstitutional under the Hawaiian state constitution. Although winning in the courts, the Hawaiian couples did not ultimately gain the right to marry, as a constitutional amendment passed by Hawaiian voters in 1998 (and vigorously supported by the Christian Right) restricted marriage to one man and one woman. As of 2003, no state has legalized same-sex marriage, although the state of Vermont began in 1999 to offer civil unions providing many of the benefits of legal marriage. The Religious Right responded to these efforts to liberalize marriage laws by organizing a National Campaign to Protect Marriage, with leaders from major right-wing groups participating, including Colorado for Family Values, the Traditional Values Coalition, Pat Robertson's Family Research Council, and Concerned Women for America (the group established in 1972 by Phyllis Schlafly, who is best known for her organizing against the Equal Rights Amendment).

Spreading the specter of the decline of the American family, Religious Right activists made same-sex marriage a central issue in the 1996 Republican primary, asking all GOP candidates to sign a pledge to oppose same-sex marriage. Religious Right activists quickly moved to pass legislation in a number of states to restrict same-sex marriage. Opposition to same-sex marriage was not wholly a Republican issue, however, and President Bill Clinton proposed a bill (the so-called Defense of Marriage Act), quickly passed by both House and Senate, that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. As of 2003, same-sex marriage, and the concern that the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence vs. Texas will lead to greater liberalitation of existing laws, are still very contentious issues, mobilizing both New Right and LGBT activists.


Crawford, Alan. Thunder on the Right: The "New Right" and the Politics of Resentment. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Diamond, Sara. Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States. New York: Guilford Press, 1995.

——. Not by Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right. New York: Guilford Press, 1998.

Esterberg, Kristin, and Jeffrey Longhofer. "Researching the Radical Right: Responses to Anti-Lesbian/Gay Initiatives." In Inside the Academy and Out: Lesbian/Gay/Queer Studies and Social Action. Edited by Janice L. Ristock and Catherine G. Taylor. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

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Kristin G. Esterberg

see alsoantidiscrimination law and policy; art history; colorado; education law and policy; electoral politics; family law and policy; federal law and policy; florida; mapplethorpe, robert; military law and policy; republican party; riggs, marlon.

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