what defines conservatism?

Popular political words like “liberalism” and “conservatism” often name disparate ideas and movements. No one controls their definitions, and therefore no one can complain if they are used for incompatible phenomena. For instance, “liberalism” can mean government interventionism or pro-market critiques of the state; and “conservatism” may be equally ambiguous. Yet we ought to be able to say something about the central tendencies of conservative thought. A helpful generalization should have three features:

1) It should be trans-historical and global, not limited to current US terminology.

In the US today, conservatives often present themselves as being critical of the nation-state and bureaucracy. But that has not been true of, for example, Christian Democrats in Europe.

2) It should be reasonably encompassing of the movements that have actually called themselves “conservative.”

For instance, if one defines conservatism as libertarianism, that omits traditionalist and communitarian conservative movements. If one defines conservatives as people who want to return to the past, that omits Newt Gingrich types who are utopians about technology and markets.

3) It should be charitable.

You should define a political idea in a way that a proponent would accept before you debate his or her views. For instance, although I have not read Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, I am highly skeptical of Robin’s definition of “conservatism” as “animus against the agency of the subordinate classes.” According to Robin, “conservatism “provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite.” But what conservative would accept this characterization?

I would propose that the heart of conservative thought is resistance to intellectual arrogance. A conservative is highly conscious of the limitations of human cognition and virtue. From a conservative perspective, human arrogance may take several forms:

  • the ambition to plan a society from the center;
  • the willingness to scrap inherited norms and values in favor of ideas that have been conceived by theorists;
  • the preference for any given social outcome over the aggregate choices of free individuals;
  • the assertion that one may take property or rights away from another to serve any ideal; and/or
  • the elevation of human reasoning over God’s.

Now, these are separable claims. You can be an atheist conservative who has no objection to elevating human reason but deep concerns about state-planning. That is why conservatism is a field of debate, not a uniform movement. But it’s also possible to build coalitions, since, for example, Christian conservatives and market fundamentalists can unite against secular bureaucracies. Their reasons differ, but it is not only their practical objective that unites them. They also share a critique of the bureaucracy as arrogant.

If this is a fair description of conservatism, it should roughly describe the main tendencies of thinkers who have called themselves “conservative” over a broad sweep of time. I think it does. And some aspects of this definition are still visible in today’s Tea Party Republican Party. But our whole ideological spectrum is confused and atypical. If my definition of conservatism generally fails to describe the Republican Party, that may be because the GOP is not conservative in a deep sense. Meanwhile, as I argued in “Edmund Burke would vote Democratic,” it is sometimes the left in the US that seems most appreciative of local norms and traditions, most concerned about “sustainability” and fearful of human arrogance, and most resistant to planning and social control.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.