What is Conservatism?



I’ve been noticing these days that conservatives get a bad rap. I hear lots of peeps bashing conservative ideology.

As a moderate dude, I’m not really one for extremes, so I’m uncomfortable rejecting entire philosophical and intellectual traditions on the basis of policy positions alone. After all, I don’t think a few extreme policy positions accurately encompass an entire intellectual tradition.

As far as awful policy positions; most positions are just individual preferences and really have nothing to do with the intellectual approach. Just like people can pick their favorite cable TV package, they can pick their policy preferences.

So, in an effort to clarify what conservatism actually is, I’ll go ahead and emphasize the core principles of the approach, and explain how it fits within other political views.

… Also, for a better distinction between classical liberalism, liberalism, and conservatism, go here.


Guess what? … I’m writing about isms again. BOOM!

Question: Do you ever wonder why the Republican party is attached with the conservative ideology? Or did you ever wonder why lots of churches or pro-life movements are attached to conservative candidates?

Here is what conservatism emphasizes:

— Family:

This is a pretty important principle, and it goes WAY back.

Check it out:

This guy Rousseau wrote once about inequality, and how societies become unequal. I’ve discussed this text before — mainly because it’s pretty important, and Rousseau was an important writer for politics overall.

In Rousseau’s essay, he claimed that there is a configuration among humans that results in a happier state than the purely solitary state that people COULD live in. Because people like to be alone, but crave human attention at the same time, there needs to be a balance in order to maintain a state of happiness.

The state that makes people most happy, according to Rousseau, is when two individuals live in a state of exclusivity (a relationship).

His argument looked something like this:

Cavemen once roamed around all wild and stuff, and women would be left alone with children. But once humans learned that love (exclusivity) existed, then humans realized the mutual benefit of all this. Both people are happier because 1) the numbers are small, and humans can maintain their privacy and solitude as well as have companionship, and 2) there is an outlet for love; and, more importantly, both people feel valued by the other because of the exclusive relationship. Additionally there is a security benefit. This, in turn, extends into the family unit, and the family then becomes the source of happiness because of the extended exclusivity, companionship, and security.

At the end of the day, the family unit was designated as the best configuration for mutual happiness. However, for this to work, there needs to be a dwelling (for the solidarity of the family unit). People crave both communal living and solitude (because that’s our nature), and Rousseau found family to be the good life. … Ironically, I’ve heard that Rousseau himself was a wild adulterer, and was a brutally mean guy. Regardless, his ideas are still studied.

In short, the conservative intellectual tradition uses this concept as a core principle in their approach to politics (and therefore policy). Thus the approach emphasizes the importance of family in any given society.

Naturally, religious factions maintain a man/woman configuration, but I would venture to say there are many conservatives who support gay marriage, and other stuff of the sort. Just because conservative approaches emphasize traditional concepts of family doesn’t mean that it can’t be updated to include modern definitions of family.

This means that social policies will probably be aimed at maintaining strong family units.

— Small government.

Second, the conservative tradition does not emphasize an intrusive government.

Conservatives see centralized authority as a threat. This was the case with French revolutionaries during their Revolution, and was the same for the American Revolution — which is why the US government was designed to work slowly and force consensus, because framers were worried that too much power would devolve the system into an authoritarian power.

NOTE: The classical liberal approach to politics is to emphasize life, liberty, and property ownership for citizens. This, by the way, is perfectly in line with conservative thinkers. Conservative thinkers DO use CLASSICAL liberal conceptions of life, liberty, property — because they are the ONLY objectives of a LIMITED government. The government’s function is nothing more for conservatives.

These thinkers find that limiting the government to those three duties alone is the best configuration. Keep in mind that classical liberalism is NOT what people think of today as liberals — that term is mostly a construction of the media.

— National defense:

The final principle that conservatism emphasizes is the necessity of strong national defense.

It’s nice to think of family units, and a protective government — but that government can’t even exist if it is attacked, dismantled, or overthrown. Because of the condition of anarchy in the international system, conservative thinkers place emphasis on effective, substantial, and meaningful defense policies.

Wait, how is conservatism different than liberalism!?

So, stuff gets confusing with isms, because there are so many of them.

Classical liberal principles of life, liberty, property are liberal; however, liberalism is a more-general concept.

This is similar to conservatism; you can have neoconservativism under conservatism’s banner, it’s just that neoconservatives emphasized a return to traditional principles by force.


OK, so the philosophical/political traditions of liberalism and conservatism are the broadest category of thought. Liberalism emphasizes equality and liberty. Conservative tradition emphasizes family, limited authority, and security.

But that’s SUPER broad.

SO, other people get together to discuss how to ACHIEVE those principles, or how they work, and ultimately come up with policy (or ways) of making those principles a reality.

This means that these ways of thinking are not as categorical as people think; and rather than fighting against one another, the actually emphasize different things.

Political Parties:

— So by emphasizing the principle of family, you’re automatically appealing to religious crowds.

— By appealing to equality, you’re automatically appealing to socially minded people.

— By emphasizing limited government, you’re automatically getting the attention of businesses (because they want to maximize profit, and not pay taxes).

— Also, the principle of liberty has been interpreted through extreme conservative (tea party) and liberal (libertarian) lenses. However, the actual Libertarian Party in the United States (as opposed to philosophy) is a conservative faction because of it’s ties to religion, and it’s close affiliation with the Republican Party.

This is confusing — so what are the Democrats and Republicans!?

— Well, the Democratic Party emphasizes SOCIAL EQUALITY (and more-recently, justice), and that’s the liberal component to it. So, at present, the emphasis of the Democratic Party is a social agenda — but that can change according to what the Party leadership wants to emphasize. This is why they get lumped together with hippies, yuppies, and general do-gooders in the world.

— In contrast, the Republican Party emphasizes liberty quite a bit. But also, because of it’s conservative backbone, it emphasizes the family unit and, by extension, is affiliated with mainstream religions in the United States (Christians).

*** Keep in mind that BOTH Republican AND Democratic PRESIDENTS have been Progressive. Every president since FDR has been a progressive, because it buys into the bureaucracy, and even uses it and adds to it. The modern bureaucratic structure is the instrument that presidents use to implement preferred policy, and make their mark on the government.

Takeaways …

Whew … that was intense. Here’s what you can get from this:

1) Your political party does NOT determine you’re world view, however, your world view does inform which party you may want to support.

2) Conservatism is an approach to thinking about political problems and ethics. So it is possible to be a Democratic supporter, but have a conservative world view — it depends on your interests.

3) Liberal approaches are not necessarily contradictory to conservative approaches. Instead, they emphasize different aspects of political life. A big part of which party you support probably has to do with what matters more in your life. After all, it’s no coincidence that people become more conservative the older they get.

Finally, I would like to point out that conservative thinkers are not necessarily enamored with equality like liberals are. Why is this? Because, conservative thinkers aren’t necessarily interested in that. To be honest, there are a lot of people in the world who simply don’t emphasize equality, either because they don’t think it can happen, or they’re more concerned with other aspects of society and life.

In contrast, liberals do a lot of thinking on equality, and how to achieve positive change in societies. While conservatives are more-interested in how to secure the good life, liberals are more interested in how to make life better for everyone.

I wouldn’t say there is anything intrinsically wrong with either approach, but I will say that there may be a reason why Republicans are elected during times of increased competition or prosperity, and why Democrats are elected in times of social instability.

Is it a coincidence that a conservative ended the Cold War (emphasizing national defense)? Is it a coincidence that a liberal thinker (Obama) became president at a time when the United States was in need of a PR boost and a step forward for minorities overall? Is it a coincidence that Lyndon Johnson’s liberal emphasis on social equality resulted in a fumbled war in Vietnam?

What I’m suggesting is that there are times when one approach will be more-successful than the other. In this writer’s opinion, there are different points in history when particular intellectual approaches are more appropriate than others.

But I don’t know … think about it.


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