By the telling of the intellectual classes, conservatism is the ideology of the elite, aligned with those who seek to preserve the wealth, status, and power of the upper classes against the egalitarian longings of the people.
Conservatism, it is alleged, was born in reaction against the efforts of ordinary people to gain some degree of political influence, economic justice, and social dignity against the brutal and inhumane oppression of the aristocratic classes. By the telling of one of these chroniclers of this nefarious ideology—Corey Robin, in his book The Reactionary Mind—“conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It 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, and agency the prerogative of the elite.” Per Robin, conservatism is the default ideology of those who seek to conserve the status and privileges of the elite. No other feature or quality that might pertain to conservatism—preference for the past, caution, prudence—is pertinent except inasmuch as those, or their opposites, preserve elite status.
If Robin’s definition is correct, then today’s “conservatives” are that ruling class we typically call “progressive.”
It is instructive to consider what group in today’s America is driven “by animus against the agency of the subordinate classes.” Those most invested in maintaining the current form of class division—notably through control of elite colleges and universities which relentlessly sift and distill today’s economic winners from losers, along with support from almost all the main cultural institutions such as media, foundations, NGOs, government bureaucracy, public service unions, and corporate board rooms—are wholly controlled by “progressive” elites, people who have little hesitation condemning the backwardness and deplorableness of the lower classes. For a generation, it is progressives who have relentlessly turned to unelected judges and bureaucrats—often with the assistance of corporations—to overturn duly-enacted democratic legislation. Today’s liberal elites studiously avoid considerations of class, having replaced their historic claims to defend the underclass with obsessions over identity politics that, properly implemented through “diversity” initiatives at every university and workplace, are thinly veiled efforts to keep in place the educational and “meritocratic” structures that maintain the privilege of those same elites. By Robin’s definition, today’s so-called “progressives” are “conservatives”—if that word simply means, per Robin’s narrow definition, those who attempt to maintain their status and position especially by shoring up class structures to the advantage of liberal elites.
What both older and recent history actually discloses is that conservatism as a political stance is and ought to be truly informed by and aligned with the concerns and commitments of the lower and working classes. Conservatism is the natural disposition and political home of the working classes, invested in stability, protections for families, and supportive of the formative institutions of civil society, especially religious institutions. Conservatism supports these goods by its natural disposition toward preserving the inheritances of the past, mining tradition for wisdom rather than wishing for unproven promises yet in the future, and by being attuned to the likelihood of baleful unintended consequences. It seeks to preserve the past into the present, valuing continuity over disruption, steady and unfolding development of longstanding tendencies over radical breaks, temporal continuity and stability over revolution. Conservatism seeks to conserve, to arrest decay and forestall unbridled innovation that always most heavily burdens the lower classes.
Historically, there have been two groups mainly dedicated to this substantively conservative worldview: the old aristocracy (the ancien regime described by Tocqueville) and ordinary people. What is a historical accident of a hostility between those classes is mistaken by Robin as its essence. The best and most natural arrangement for political conservatism is a coalition between a properly constituted elite aligned with the needs of ordinary people against the disruptions of, and hostility toward, the commitments of family, home, and place that have always animated the party of “Progress.”
The Left came into being by claiming the political support of the people against the old aristocracy, but conservatism came into being almost simultaneously, recognizing that this revolutionary class was actually more hostile to the basic commitments and inclinations of the working class. The Left rose to power by loudly opposing the existing aristocracy while actually undermining the conditions supportive of the working class, all the while installing their own leadership as the new elite that shrouded its status by trumpeting its commitments to equality (the basic script of the Soviet Union has been endlessly repeated, and is on full display in today’s America). Conservatism’s first and most fundamental source and allegiance derives from ordinary people as the natural constituency and beneficiaries of policies that shore up stability, attack concentration of both political and economic power, and support families, communities, and churches.
Today’s most vibrant and intellectually exciting critiques of capitalism, monopolies, globalism, cosmopolitanism, the financialization of the economy, and structural class inequality are not found on the Left (given their effectual commitment to all of the above), but among a new generation of conservatives who not only reject progressivism, but have split with individualistic libertarians and war-mongering “neo-conservatives.” Revealingly, those former “conservative” coalition partners have now found a political home with the progressives.
The allegiance of the working classes is increasingly aligned with conservative parties around the world, fully recognizing the deep hostility of both “progressives” and “neoliberal conservatives” to their way of life. The abandonment of working classes from progressive parties is the deepest underlying source of their panic over populism—the mask has been lifted. The loss of residual working class support reveals the emperor has been wearing the finest clothes, bought with assets strip-mined from ordinary people. Conservatism wandered in the wilderness in its alignment with classical liberalism, but as that ideology has been discredited and its influence over conservative parties has diminished, there is—arguably for the first time—a genuine possibility of a conservative moment in America. Conservatism rightly seeks to protect the main aims of a well-lived life for ordinary people—family, home, honest work, production over consumption, decent places, stability, and a nation that protects these goods.
Today, conservatism increasingly enjoys the support of the working classes. The next thing most needful is to replace the current corrupt elite of faux egalitarians with a genuinely conservative leadership who will actively protect, support, and promote the goods of life that should and can be widely enjoyed, regardless of one’s wealth, social status, or ranking of one’s alma mater.
See all the articles published in the symposium, here.
Patrick J. Deneen is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.