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What Is A Conservative?

A reader writes: Rod, I’d love to hear you articulate what it means to be a conservative.  Seriously.  Not a Fox News, Republican-group think conservative, but a real one. Thanks for the opportunity. I should start by saying that I don’t think there is only one way to be a conservative. There is not conservatism; […]

A reader writes:

Rod, I’d love to hear you articulate what it means to be a conservative.  Seriously.  Not a Fox News, Republican-group think conservative, but a real one.

Thanks for the opportunity. I should start by saying that I don’t think there is only one way to be a conservative. There is not conservatism; there are conservatisms, and they draw from each other. The best general definition of “conservative” that I know is Russell Kirk’s essay on Ten Conservative Principles. Kirk begins:

Perhaps it would be well, most of the time, to use this word “conservative” as an adjective chiefly. For there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.

The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.

In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night. (Yet conservatives know, with Burke, that healthy “change is the means of our preservation.”) A people’s historic continuity of experience, says the conservative, offers a guide to policy far better than the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers. But of course there is more to the conservative persuasion than this general attitude.

It is not possible to draw up a neat catalogue of conservatives’ convictions; nevertheless, I offer you, summarily, ten general principles; it seems safe to say that most conservatives would subscribe to most of these maxims.

I cannot improve on Kirk’s list, but I would say that for me, the first of his Ten Conservative Principles speaks deepest to why I am a conservative:

First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.

This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth. Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato taught this doctrine, but even the educated nowadays find it difficult to understand. The problem of order has been a principal concern of conservatives ever since conservative became a term of politics.

Our twentieth-century world has experienced the hideous consequences of the collapse of belief in a moral order. Like the atrocities and disasters of Greece in the fifth century before Christ, the ruin of great nations in our century shows us the pit into which fall societies that mistake clever self-interest, or ingenious social controls, for pleasing alternatives to an oldfangled moral order.

It has been said by liberal intellectuals that the conservative believes all social questions, at heart, to be questions of private morality. Properly understood, this statement is quite true. A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.

As most of my readers know, my conservatism is primarily religious, social, and cultural. I am not as keenly concerned with the things most important to others who consider themselves conservative in our time and place, namely libertarians, foreign-policy realists, and free marketers. This is not to say that I disagree with them (though at times I do), but only that the things most important to me as a conservative are religious, social, and cultural. In that regard, I sometimes find myself opposing particular policies and principles advocated by others within the broader conservative party.

And you know, that’s fine. I have no interest in denouncing them as traitors, turncoats, or heretics. If you read George H. Nash’s canonical history of American intellectual conservatism since 1945 — and you absolutely should if you care about these things — you will learn that what we call conservatism draws on both traditional conservatism (that is, generally, social and cultural conservatism), and libertarian anti-statism (which entails strong free-market principles). Conservatism — American conservatism, that is — is the result of the blending of these two schools of thought, which cannot be completely reconciled, but rather exist, or should exist, in creative tension.

I, for example, don’t see how anyone can call himself a conservative in a meaningful sense and be in favor of the unrestrained free market. But that’s an argument worth having. I don’t think it’s prudent or wise to declare that anyone who disagrees with me is therefore not a conservative. I don’t understand economics as well as I ought to, so perhaps I have something to learn from them. And, many free-market fundamentalists on the libertarian side don’t understand culture and society as well as they might, and have something to learn from people like me.

Anyway, as Kirk said, conservatism is an attitude toward the world, not a dogmatic religion. It irritates me to no end that the American conservative mind is so closed, even to thinkers and resources in its own tradition. As Kirk’s tenth canon says, “The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.” That means that we have to be willing and able to think creatively about conservative principles, and apply them to new facts and circumstances.

I suppose one way to think about conservatism — sorry, conservatisms — is by asking the question, “What do you want to conserve?” Kirk once said that the traditional family was the institution most important to conserve. I agree with that, and most of my conservatism comes from that conviction. That’s why, for example, I don’t place as much value on economic liberty as many conservatives do. If an economic practice undermines the integrity of the family and the familist order (which itself depends on a strong religious sense), then I am likely to oppose it. One of the reasons I have come to be much more skeptical of the aggressively militaristic and nationalistic foreign policy many conservatives advocate is the effect of war on family life (that is, of soldiers deployed and returned), and of what the acceptance of torture does to our moral sensibility. Similarly, I am in principle willing to accept more involvement of the state for the sake of shoring up the family and the moral order than libertarians are.

What I hate is the intra-conservative mob shutting up dissenters by calling them RINOs, heretics, “unpatriotic,” or what have you. And yes, I also mean those who would deny pro-choice and pro-gay rights Republicans — whose views I oppose — a voice in the debate. If the eight years of George W. Bush taught us anything, it ought to have been to listen to dissenters, and to approach the big questions of politics and statecraft with a certain intellectual humility. That, it seems to me, is a truly conservative disposition.

Anyway, I’m going on too long. I’m going to be away from the keys for most of Saturday and Sunday, but I’ll approve comments as I can. What I would like to see in the comments is a thoughtful exploration of what you think it means to be a conservative. I like to have this And please, liberal readers, don’t troll this thread. You’re welcome to contribute, but keep it constructive.