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‘Conservatism Is Depressive Realism’

The British commenter Ed West writes:

One of the most telling comments David Cameron has ever made came last week when he accused some of his critics of being “pessimists” for believing that he won’t get a deal in Europe.

Of course we’re pessimists, we’re conservatives – that’s the whole point. Some see a glass half-full, some see a glass half-empty, we see the downfall of Western civilisation and the country going to the dogs. If you want cheery, happy people who think everything’s going to turn out like one of those Jehovah’s Witnesses drawings of heaven where the kids are lying in a field next to a moose, join the Liberal Democrats.


Conservatism is depressive realism. That’s not to say that things are always bad, or necessarily getting worse, but that there is a natural tendency among humans to ignore problems, and it’s our job to point this out. As Tom Chivers wrote, optimism is in-built:

Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist, pointed out in his bookThinking, Fast and Slow that we systematically overestimate our chances of success: “risk takers underestimate the odds they face he says, confidently – or blithely – leaping into the unknown, with business ventures or marriages or attempts to climb Everest. Entrepreneurs, on average, have about a one in three chance that their business will survive for five years, but they tend to estimate their chances at nearly double that.

It’s the same with politics. Since the time of the Greeks, people have been coming up with schemes to create better societies that are hopelessly unrealistic, and from 1789 the human race has become hugely inventive at thinking of terrible ways to leave us all impoverished or dead, most of them based on the idea that humans are instinctively good. The European project is one such highly optimistic idea: just because every single attempt to overcome national identity in history has ended in miserable failure and bloodshed, that’s not to stop us trying again, eh, folks?

We’ve been shaped by evolution in this way. There has always been a need for innovative, creative thinkers (and this is why the arts will always be dominated by liberals), but there will also forever be a place for the depressive realist.

Conservatism may sound miserable, even misanthropic, but it only recognises that within the communities we live in, which are from an evolutionary point of view unnaturally large, there need to be firm rules to minimalise free-riding, violent conflict and economic disaster. The idea of evolutionary conservatism is to build a society that is as just, progressive, wealthy and happy as is possible within the boundaries of human nature.

No American likes to be told, “No, you can’t have that,” “Whether you recognize it or not, there’s a price to be paid for that,” or  “This can’t go on forever.” Not even people today who like to think of themselves as conservatives.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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