Just what is “conservatism”? While a seemingly infinite number of books, essays, and op-eds have been written seeking to answer this very question, a lack of consensus remains. Perhaps the reason for our inability to build consensus is the radically different views held by self-proclaimed conservatives. The most telling example of the inability to provide on set definition of “conservatism” is Frank S. Meyer’s attempt to unite a variety of self-proclaimed conservatives (and one who insisted that he was not a conservative in F. A. Hayek) under one banner in the book What is Conservatism? Any reader of the book will quickly discover that Meyer’s fusionism would never work, as “conservatism” remains far too diverse of a term to be concretely defined.
Here at American Discourse, we recognize the challenge of defining conservatism. Indeed, of the four founding editors, none shared a definition that exactly fit that of any other. Of course, it is that same diversity of thought that led us to create a publication based on discourse, in which conservatives could openly express their opinions and thus enter into the great and timeless conversations. Here we provide each of our own interpretations of conservatism, ranging from Ryan J. Lanier’s assertion of what conservatism is not to Carl Miller’s strict assertion of the “philosophy of Americanism.” Through reading our thoughts on this unanswerable question, we hope that you will consider what “conservatism” means to you and bring your own ideas and beliefs into our shared discourse.
What Conservatism Is Not
Ryan J. Lanier, Editor-In-Chief
The introduction to this compilation highlights just how difficult defining what conservatism is can be. Indeed, this problem arises from the inability for the varying parties who claim to be conservatives to agree on a set standard of principles or policies. This reflects Russell Kirk’s assertion that conservatism does not consist of a set series of principles or policies. Rather, as he argues, conservatism is “neither a religion nor an ideology.” This very lack of conservative dogmatism makes it hard to define what conservatism is, and much easier to establish what conservatism is not. In this brief space, I will respond to several common caricatures of conservatism and show why they are wrong. In the process, I hope to provide a brief sketch of the features of true conservatism.
Firstly, conservatism is not blind adherence to tradition or the past. If it were, no civilization would ever be able to move on and advance in any way. Scientific progress would be impossible and any changes to a system of government would always have to be rejected. True conservatism, as Edmund Burke states, calls for a system of slow changes. While the conservative is not a radical, at the same time he is not opposed to any change at all.
Secondly, the conservative is not a libertarian. Indeed, while libertarianism and conservatism have often been confused and lumped together, both the libertarian and the conservative recognize each other as unsteady allies at best. Where the libertarian advocates for ultimate liberty for all people, the conservative calls for virtue and some form of authority to maintain it. The conservative recognizes that we cannot all be free to pursue all of our aims unimpeded.
Thirdly, conservatism is not Americanism. Writing for a publication entitled American Discourse, this might seem like a surprising, if not confusing conclusion. Indeed, in responding to the question “what is conservatism,” should I not seek to answer what American conservatism is? While this is a fair objection, a true definition of conservatism requires us to transcend the circumstances in which we live. Might the American variety of conservatism be the closest to the true definition? Well, yes, but if we accept such a purely nationalist view (as would be the case if we replaced America with say Canada or Ghana) then we fall into the first two traps of defining conservatism laid out above. True conservatism transcends national boundaries both in time and ideas. Indeed, while one nation might be the most truly conservative, that doesn’t mean that an adherence to that nation’s history, philosophy, or culture is true conservatism.
Finally, conservatism is a misnomer. Indeed, it is the name “conservatism” that makes the idea so hard to define. As I have shown above, there are many things that the conservative is not, only a few of which I have listed here. In the end, what all conservatives seek to conserve is Truth, which in turn determines what else ought to be conserved at in a given time and place. In conclusion, to the use the words of Russell Kirk, conservatism is not blind adherence to tradition, liberty, or national philosophy, rather it “is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.”
Conservatism Is Preservation
Connor Kaeb, Managing Editor
Conservatism in America is the preservation of the American political tradition. By preserving this tradition, conservatives must accept that there is something unique and distinct about the American Founding.
For far too long, there have been only two paths of dealing with the Founding for conservatives, neither of which is satisfactory. The first rejects the Founding as an innovation. This is unacceptable because through this rejection we lose what it is to be American. The other explains away the Founding not as some new sort of phenomena, but rather a preservation of an older tradition. This approach fails to account for what the founders themselves believed they were doing.
As conservatives, we can embrace a founding steeped in newness because it was based on the best of the principles that had come before. We can embrace the new political science of the Constitution that the founders themselves claimed they were embracing. We can hold to all these things and remain conservatives because the American founding, while birthing a new political tradition, holds roots in older traditions. This is not to say that it is simply the continuation of one particular tradition, as some have argued. Saying that rejects the uniqueness of America. Rather, the American political tradition embraces the best of many historical traditions, including the Judeo-Christian tradition, the ancient Greek tradition, the Roman tradition, and the common law tradition while also including new ideas about government.
Further, conservatism is also the defense of a way of life. Rural, agricultural values create the type of citizen that will defend the American political tradition. This is not to say that every American should be a farmer, but rather there was a time in this nation where the values associated with that occupation permeated the nation. The destruction of those values and that way of life have come from both the government and the private sector, and those poisoning influences must be opposed.
In addition, the conservative must oppose the growth of the government and administrative state past the bounds envisioned by the Founders in the Constitution as a rejection of the American political tradition. Conservatives further reject radical individualism in favor of a strong national identity. Such an identity binds a diverse nation and promotes a wide-spread defense of the American political tradition.
Conservatism cannot be simply defensive to hope to obtain these goals but must rather be proactive and ready to go on the offensive in the face of an overwhelming political and cultural onslaught.
The Conservative Tradition
Ethan Lehman, Executive Editor
Conservatism seems at first rather simple. Simply put, it is the idea that the tradition that a group of people inherits should be preserved, or at least not abandoned without due consideration. But isn’t there more to it than that? What makes tradition worth preserving? How does conservatism view politics? How is it different from progressivism?
I cannot hope to fully answer all of these questions in this limited space, but I can at least start. First, there is more to conservatism than tradition. Tradition itself is not sacred. In fact, I would argue that tradition has no inherent value as tradition. Rather, we value it because it produces something good. Tradition is a way of doing something passed down from those who came before us. The conservative acknowledges that those who came before him, though they were not perfect, were still wise. We can learn something from the experiences of those who lived before us. We are lucky enough to have thousands of years of recorded history to learn from. And since human nature is constant, many of those lessons apply today just as much as they did before.
Traditions and ways of life are like a glue that holds society together. This is why tradition in general is worth preserving. Without it, societies would dissolve into a mere collection of individuals. Those individuals would have no reason to coexist other than for their own survival. Humans are made for more than just survival. To really thrive, man must have something in common with those around him. Thus, conservatism views man as a part of a larger whole. This need not take away from a person’s individualism. Rather, one can be an individual with a unique experience, but still be a part of a larger tradition that they have inherited and will likewise pass on to those after him. A shared experience with those around him creates a sense of belonging— of being home.
Conservatism as such does not prescribe any particular societal structure or political system. It is when conservatism is considered in the context of a particular society that these elements become clear. In the American system, conservatism considers the British tradition that we came from, as well as the founding. This does not mean that conservatives must reject any new ideas. Rather, these new ideas should be considered in light of what exists already.
Conservatives today must consider their roots. Our politics should not be a reaction to what others are trying to push. Rather our politics should stay mostly consistent. The lessons from the past should inform us about how best to move into the future. Conservatism should not be a resistance to every change. Rather, it should be an educated and cautious push forward to try and make tomorrow at least a little bit better than today.
Conservatism: The Philosophy of Americanism
Carl Miller, Senior Editor
Conservatism embraces individual freedom and the personal responsibility that such freedom entails. Its highest creed is the Declaration of Independence, and its faith is in the proposition “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Absolute Truth is at the core of the Conservative philosophy. The Truth about God and His created order. The Truth about human nature. The timeless ideals of freedom and of equality under law. As a result, the term “Conservatism,” as it is used in modern American politics, is an oxymoron, because the word evokes a sense of relativism; it suggests some subjective particular that is to be “conserved.” Yet, the “particular” that it seeks to conserve is timeless, objective, and absolute: the philosophy of the American founding, as explicated by what Lincoln called the “apple of gold” and the “frame of silver:” the Declaration and the Constitution.
For Conservatives, the Declaration is the benchmark for all time. They have no allusions about the Nation’s past and present failures to fully realize that ideal, but they strive to uphold its truths ever more perfectly, and they revere the legacy of generations of American heroes who have likewise fought for liberty and justice for all.
Unlike Progressivism, Conservatism recognizes that human nature is flawed, and that it cannot be perfected or engineered by a ruling elite. As Madison famously wrote in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Conservatives believe in limited government – one whose purpose and scope are strictly circumscribed to the protection of unalienable rights.
Moreover, every human being is endowed equally with these “unalienable rights.” Whereas the Left bows at the altar of outcome-based egalitarianism and identity politics, Conservatives embrace equality under law. The purpose of government is merely to secure rights – not to dictate how people exercise those rights. As such, Conservatism holds that there are dual pillars of American citizenship: individual liberty and personal responsibility.
Ironically, if our modern political monikers were applied to America’s founding period, the patriots would be the “liberals” and the loyalists would be the “conservatives.” Indeed, the ideas of the Declaration are wholly liberal in the older, classical sense of the term. Yet alas, Progressive Liberals have hijacked a word that means “liberty” and have substituted tyranny for the freedom they purport to offer. It is, in fact, modern American Conservatism, not Liberalism, that cherishes the promise America’s founding.