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Conservatism is any of several historically-related political philosophies or political ideologies. There are also a number of Conservative political parties in various countries. They usually identify with the political right.

While the intellectual roots of conservatism date back centuries, within the past two decades conservatism has become a dominant governing political philosophy in the United States and other Western nations. This has significantly changed the world's political and economic character.

In the United States the political ascendancy of conservatism is widely considered one of the most important poltical developments of the late 20th century and early 21st century. Many associate the rise of conservatism with increased opposition to the Soviet Union and global communism, with support for less intrusive government, including lower taxes, and with popular support for stronger social values.

The ascendancy of conservatism is due to several factors, one of which is the emergence of an influential cadre of conservative intellectuals, politicians, writers, and media personalities. For a list of these prominent conservatives, see list of conservatives.

Table of contents

Types of conservatism

Among the significant usages of the term "conservatism":

1. Classical or institutional conservatism – Opposition to rapid change in governmental and societal institutions. This kind of conservatism is anti-ideological insofar as it emphasizes means (slow change) over ends (any particular form of government). To the classical conservative, whether one arrives at a right- or left-leaning government is less important than whether change is effected through rule of law rather than through revolution and sudden innovation.

2. Ideological conservatism or right conservatism – In contrast to the anti-ideological classical conservatism, right conservatism is, as its name implies, ideological. It is typified by three distinct subideologies: social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, and economic conservatism. Together, these subideologies comprise the conservative ideology in most English-speaking countries: separately, these subideologies are incorporated into other political positions.

  • Social conservatism is generally dominated by defence of existing social norms and values, of local customs and of societal evolution, rather than social upheaval, though the distinction is not absolute. As a contemporary example, the governments of many countries recognize marriage, and even provide legal benefits to married couples. Only a handful of countries, however, recognize marriages of homosexual couples. Those arguing against legal recognition of same-sex marriages often do so because they find the sudden change contrary to the foundation of the existing social norms.
  • Fiscal conservatism is the stance that the government must "live within its means". Above all, fiscal conservatives oppose excessive government debt; this belief in balanced budgets tends to be coupled with a belief that government welfare programs should be narrowly tailored and that tax rates should be low, which implies relatively small government institutions.
  • This belief in small government combines with fiscal conservatism to produce a broader economic conservatism, which wishes to minimize government intervention in the economy. This amounts to support for laissez-faire economics. This economic conservatism borrows from two schools of thought: the classical conservative's pragmatism and the libertarian's notion of "rights." The classical conservative maintains that free markets work best, while the libertarian contends that free markets are the only ethical markets.

3. Neoconservatism, in its United States usage, refers to the views of a subclass of conservatives who support a more assertive foreign policy coupled with one or more other facets of ideological conservatism. Historically, conservatives tend to be mildly isolationist. The "unipolar" assertions of columnist Charles Krauthammer are an example of neoconservatism.

4. "Compassionate conservatism" a term popularized by President George W. Bush, is a conservative approach to concern for the poor, but some critics claim it to be a public-relations buzzword. Because the presidency of George W. Bush has increased social welfare expenditures substantially through the largest expansion of Medicare benefits ever and has led to the No Child Left Behind act (education), some hold that compassionate conservatism is simply the synthesis of social conservatism and fiscal liberalism. Critics say that "compassionate conservatism" is doublespeak (in Orwellian terms), and that George W. Bush's goals of privatization and tax cuts burden the working-poor who benefit from government run education, protection, and social programs. Other critics worry that increased spending combined with reduced tax rates will lead to an unsustainable budget deficit, with the potential to cause inflation or currency devaluation. But supporters maintain that the privatization and tax cuts characteristic of Bush's domestic policy are simply classical tenents of previously successful conservative administrations, and Bush improves on the classical design by adding a "compassionate," fiscally liberal agenda.

An introduction to conservatism

Conservatism can be contrasted on the one hand to radical libertarianism or anarchism, and on the other to such statist movements as fascism and the authoritarian (as opposed to libertarian) versions of communism, and socialism. In terms of the relation of the individual and the state, conservatism falls in the middle. While one end of the spectrum sees no need for the state to exist, the other sees the state as more important than the individual.

There is an ambiguity inherent in the term "conservative" as used today. Classical Conservatism emphasizes the importance of tradition and continuity. An individual may fall anywhere from the right to the centre-left on the traditional left-right political spectrum and be a classical conservative. On the other hand, ideological conservatism is specifically on the right side of the spectrum. Thus, to talk meaningfully about conservatism, one must consider both classical conservatism and ideological conservatism.

The ideals of classical conservatism and classical liberalism can and often do coexist within a party, a regime, or even an individual. They are not always in conflict, but they are inevitably in tension. Classical conservatism emphasizes tradition and continuity; classical liberalism emphasizes individual liberty. Sometimes these two ideals are mutually supportive (as in support for freedom of political speech); sometimes they are in conflict (as in matters relating to gender roles); sometimes they are in complicated and dynamic relation to one another (as in matters relating to welfare).

In the popular imagination, "liberal" and "conservative" have always been at odds, irrespective of whether "conservative" meant old Tory, Dixiecrat, or neoconservative or whether "liberal" meant old Whig, Jeffersonian, or Communist. In the context of contemporary Anglo-American politics, nearly all conservatism incorporates many aspects of classical liberalism, but it remains in contrast to and in conflict with modern liberalism and democratic socialism.

Classical conservatism as non-ideological

Conservatism as an identifiably distinct political philosophy began with classical conservatism. Classical conservatism is "non-ideological" in that classical conservatism is defined more by its choice of means than of ends. Professional philosophers refer to this as a deontological (as against a consequentialist) position. Classical conservatism, by definition, is sceptical of plans to re-model human society after an ideological model. While an individual classical conservative may favour left- or right-leaning government, the defining aspect of classical conservatism is a belief in the importance of continuity with tradition, and that political change should come about through legitimate governmental channels. Classical conservatives generally oppose disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, or other political chicanery; above all, they oppose revolution. So long as rule of law is upheld, and so long as change is effected gradually and constitutionally rather than revolution, the classical conservative is content.

Classical conservatism is, by definition, not revolutionary; it is also not counter-revolutionary. When the term "conservative" is applied to the entire political right, it is extended to embrace some people who are not classical conservatives, in that they advocate extra-constitutional reactionary changes to the status quo. Right-wing politics is not inherently conservative, and the classical conservative opposes rapid change right or left.

A classical conservative does not necessarily simply support keeping things exactly as they currently are. Even "anti-ideological" classical conservatives have political preferences. In this vein, the intellectual source of conservatism as a "modern" philosophy can be traced to Edmund Burke. Burke developed his ideas in reaction to the so-called Enlightenment, when European thinkers were beginning to develop the ideology of modernism, which emphasizes social construction guided by abstract "Reason." Burke was troubled by the Enlightenment and the by belief that "Reason" is a sufficient base for justice: he argued, instead, for the value of tradition.

Some men, argued Burke, have more reason than others, and thus some men will make worse governments if they rely upon reason than others. To Burke, the proper formulation of government came not from abstractions such as "Reason," but from time-honoured development of the state and of other important societal institutions such as the family and the Church.

"We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason;" Burke wrote, "because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence."

Burke argued that tradition is a much sounder foundation than "reason". The conservative paradigm he established emphasizes the futility of attempting to ground human society based solely in pure abstractions (such as "reason," "equality," or, more recently, "diversity"), and the necessity of humility in the face of the unknowable. Existing institutions have virtues that cannot be fully grasped by any single person or interest group or, in Burke's view, even any single generation: in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke referred to "the living" as "the temporary possessors and life-renters" of "the commonwealth and laws... that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society." [1] Tradition draws on the wisdom of many generations and the tests of time, while "reason" may be a mask for the preferences of one man, and at best represents only the untested wisdom of one generation. In the conservative view, an attempt to modify the complex web of human interactions that form human society for the sake of some doctrine or theory runs the risk of running afoul of the iron law of unintended consequences. Burke advocates vigilance against the possibility of moral hazards.

The classical conservative embraces an attitude that is deeply suspicious of any attempt to remake society in the service of any ideology or doctrine, whether that doctrine is radical libertarianism, socialism, Nazism, or anything else. Classical conservatives see history as being full of disastrous schemes that seemed like good ideas at the time. Human society, in their view, is something rooted and organic; to try to prune and shape it according to the plans of an ideologue is to invite unforeseen disaster.

In the U.S. context, the classical conservative position has been for there to be strict limits on the expansion of the powers of the federal government at the expense of those of the states. U.S. conservatism is rooted in the idea that the federal government has traditionally been the proponent of rapid change and states have tended to be more conservative, and also and perhaps even more importantly in the idea of "originalism", that is, that the United States Constitution should be interpreted to the maximum extent possible in the light of the original intent and meaning of the Framers, which is both inherently conservative in that it looks back to a period over two centuries ago for its authority and that this school of interpretation almost invariably leads to the maximization of state power and strict limits on federal power. This derives from an inherent scepticism of the Framers toward a centralized, unitary state such as the United Kingdom which they had just fought to remove themselves from under.

Conservatism as "Ideology," or political philosophy

In contrast to classical conservatism, social conservatism and economic conservatism are inherently concerned with consequences as well as means (with the modest programme of fiscal conservatism lying somewhere between classical conservatism and these more consequentialist political philosophies). Classical conservatives are inherently anti-ideological (some would even say anti-philosophical [2]), promoting rather, as Russell Kirk explains, a steady flow of "prescription and prejudice". Kirk's use of the word "prejudice" here is not intended to carry its contemporary pejorative connotation: a conservative himself, he believes that the inherited wisdom of the ages may be a better guide than apparently rational individual judgement.

Social conservatives, like classical conservatives, are generally sceptical of rapid social change. More so than classical conservatives, they are liable to seek rather strong government intervention to prevent social change. A good example from (as of 2004) contemporary U.S. politics is the issue of same-sex marriage: many social conservatives have supported the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Many people who are more inclined to classical conservatism than social conservatism oppose such an amendment on the grounds that the Constitution ought not be tampered with unnecessarily. The tension in policy is the choice between social goal (defining marriage) and the political means (amending the Constitution). While the goal is arguably conservative, amending the constitution on a whim is arguably not conservative. Thus, one will find conservatives on both sides of the issue.

Generally, economic conservatism opposes graduated taxes as counterproductive and inequitable, and instead proposes flat taxes (or, in the case of radical libertarians, proposes to abolish taxes in favour of "user fees"). Further, economic conservatism opposes rampant welfare as unnecessary and even (in the view of Ayn Rand) counterproductive, opposes what it calls "double-taxation" (taxing both companies and individuals along the path of a transaction), and calls for broad deregulation of industry and a substantially decreased government bureaucracy. For some this is a matter of principle, as it is for the libertarians and others influenced by thinkers such as Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises, who believe that government intervention in the economy is inevitably wasteful and inherently immoral. For classical conservatives, "free market economics" simply represents the most efficient way to promote economic growth: they support it not based on some moral principle, but because, pragmatically, it simply "works."

Throughout much of the 20th century, one of the primary forces uniting the occasionally disparate strands of conservatism, and uniting conservatives with their liberal and socialist opponents, was an opposition to communism, which was seen not only as an enemy of the traditional order, but also of western freedom and democracy in general.

Social conservatism and tradition

Main article: Social conservatism

Social conservatives emphasize traditional views of social units such as the family, church, or locale. Social conservatives are a product of their environment, and would typically define family in terms of local histories and tastes. To the Muslim or fundamentalist Mormon, social conservatism may entail support for polygamy. To the Protestant or Catholic, social conservatism may entail support for "traditional" marriage.

From this same respect for local traditions comes the correlation between conservatism and patriotism. Conservatives, out of their respect for traditional, established institutions, tend to strongly identify with nationalist movements, existing governments, and its defenders: police, the military, and national poets, authors, and artists. Conservatives hold that military institutions embody admirable values like honour, duty, courage, and loyalty. Military institutions are independent sources of tradition and ritual pageantry that conservatives tend to admire. In its degenerative form, such respect may become typefied by jingoism, populism, and perhaps even bigotry or isolationism.

Support for socially conservative policies may not indicate political conservatism. For example, many Communist parties and most Communist regimes have been very puritanical with respect to sexuality, arguing, for instance, that homosexuality was a bourgeois vice.

Conversely, while classical conservatives may embrace traditional values in their personal lives, they are generally wary of government intervention into the private lives of citizens, even when that intervention is in support of traditional values.

Fiscal conservatism

Although often conjoined to social or classical conservatism, fiscal conservatism is less of a broad political philosophy and is simply the principle that it is not prudent for governments to take on debts they cannot easily pay back or that will cause an undue burden of taxation.

Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, articulated the principles of fiscal conservatism:

...[I]t is to the property of the citizen, and not to the demands of the creditor of the state, that the first and original faith of civil society is pledged. The claim of the citizen is prior in time, paramount in title, superior in equity. The fortunes of individuals, whether possessed by acquisition or by descent or in virtue of a participation in the goods of some community, were no part of the creditor's security, expressed or implied...[T]he public, whether represented by a monarch or by a senate, can pledge nothing but the public estate; and it can have no public estate except in what it derives from a just and proportioned imposition upon the citizens at large.

In other words, a government doesn't have the right to run up large debts and then throw the burden on the taxpayer; the taxpayers' right not to be taxed oppressively takes precedence even over paying back debts a government may have imprudently undertaken.

Fiscal conservatives tend to be conservative in their entire outlook as are most otherwise defined conservatives, but necessarily, conservative goals at times prohibit certain fiscal conservative goals, vide the Reagan Administration due to Cold War expenses. Correspondingly, a nonconservative entity, which holds the notion of fiscal conservatism in low, or, rather, in lower regard than most other considerations may achieve said goals, vide the Clinton Administration, though arguably and most probably due to the fiscally conservative Republican majority in the Congress. Regardless, having a balanced budget or, more generally, reducing nondefense discretionary spending is a "conservative" principle, but, as discussed below, there is much more to a broader economic conservatism.

Economic conservatism

Economic conservatism can go well beyond fiscal conservatism's concern for fiscal prudence, to a belief or principle that it is not prudent for governments to intervene in markets. It is also, sometimes, extended to a broader "small government" philosophy. Economic conservatism is associated with free-market, or laissez-faire economics.

Economic conservatism, insofar as it is ideological, owes its creation to the "classical liberal" tradition, in the vein of Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ludwig von Mises.

Yet classical conservatism supports free market policies as well, which raises the question: why the agreement between the classical liberals and conservatives? Part of the confusion is semantic, while "liberal" and "conservative" are regarded in some contexts as antagonistic many "liberal" and "conservative" principles are drawn from the same body of thought, and based on a fundamental agreement about the importance of such concepts as "the rule of law" and the importance of individual liberties.

Simply, while the results are the same, the arguments are different. Classical liberals and libertarians support free markets on moral, ideological grounds: principles of individual liberty morally dictate support for free markets. Supporters of the moral grounds for free markets include Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises. The liberal tradition is suspicious of government authority, and prefers individual choice, and hence tends to see capitalist economics as the preferable means of achieving economic ends.

Classical conservatives, on the other hand, derive support for free markets from practical grounds. Free markets, they argue, are the most productive markets. Thus the classical conservative supports free markets not out of necessity, but out of expedience. The support is not moral or ideological, but driven on the Burkean notion of prescription: what works best is what is right.

Another reason why conservatives support a smaller role for the government in the economy, is they believe in the importance of the civil society. As noted by Alexis de Tocqueville, a bigger role of the government in the economy will make people feel less responsible for the society. The responsibilities must then be taken over by the government, requiring higher taxes. In his book Democracy in America, De Tocqueville describes this as "soft oppression".

It must be noted that while classical liberals and classical conservatives reached free markets through different means historically, to-date the lines have blurred. Rarely will a politician claim that free markets are "simply more productive" or "simply the right thing to do" but a combination of both. This blurring is very much a product of the merging of the classical liberal and conservative positions under the "umbrella" of the conservative movement.

The archetypal free-market conservative administrations of the late 20th century — the Margaret Thatcher government in the UK and the Ronald Reagan government in the U.S. — both held the unfettered operation of the market to be the cornerstone of contemporary economic conservatism. To that end, Thatcher privatized British Airways, with remarkable success, and British Rail, with rather more mixed results; both Reagan and Thatcher cut taxes (especially on the upper income brackets) and slowed governmental growth. Proponents of economic conservatism attribute the unparalleled economic boom of the early 1980s to the late 1990s to these policies.

Yet economic conservatism is not simply capitalism. The free-market, to the conservative, begs for regulation, but only insofar as accountability must be maintained. Antitrust laws were championed in the early 1900s by noted conservative William Howard Taft, who also championed his political mentor (and, later, rival) Theodore Roosevelt's policy of creating National Parks.

The interests of capitalism, fiscal and economic conservatism, and free-market economy do not necessarily coincide with those of social conservatism. At times, aspects of capitalism and free markets have been profoundly subversive of the existing social order, as in the inclosure movement and other changes that have replaced a traditional agrarian society with agribusiness, or of traditional attitudes toward the proper position of sex in society, as in the now near-universal availability of pornography. To that end, on issues at the intersection of economic and social policy, conservatives of one school or another are often at odds.

"Right-wing" is not necessarily "conservative"

Although some people (mainly on the political left) use the terms "conservatism" and "right-wing" interchangeably, many on the political right have little in common with most conservatives.

Classical conservatives' opposition to sudden and radical change is almost as strong when that change comes from the right as from the left. For example, conservatives generally keep quite distant from right-wing groups in some European republics that wish to restore a monarchy, or with those in America who wish to formally establish Christianity as a state religion, and would generally characterize these people as something other than simply conservative. Edmund Burke, considered the founder of classical conservatism, was the leader of the anti-monarchical Whig party, hardly a right-wing position.

Other right-wingers may likewise be motivated by nationalistic or even racist sentiments which are at odds with conservative political goals. For example, many protectionists and anti-immigration figures are often considered to be right-wing, but cannot be described as conservative, as their views conflict with political conservatives' desires for economic liberalism and free trade.

That is not to say that there would never be coalitions of interest with such groups, just that both sides in such a coalition would recognize that they were dealing with a partner with a different politics. In practice, in European parliamentary systems, conservatives are at least as likely to ally with centrist groups or even some on the left rather than with certain portions of the right. A good contemporary (as of 2004) example of this is the 2002 French presidential election, where centrist conservative Jacques Chirac was quite comfortable accepting the support of even Socialists against radical rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National.

In Britain especially, the feats of imperialism and their wars are associated with the mentality of a conservative. The earliest British conservative thinkers, David Hume and Edmund Burke, both showed a strong hostility to war and Burke saw imperialism as interfering with the traditions and organic make-up of colonial societies, in a way that should not be done.

Conservative political movements

Contemporary political conservatism — the actual politics of people and parties professing to be conservative — in most western democratic countries is an amalgam of social and institutional conservatism, generally combined with fiscal conservatism, and usually containing elements of broader economic conservatism as well. As with liberalism, it is a pragmatic and protean politics, opportunistic at times, rooted more in a tradition than in any formal set of principles.

It is certainly possible for one to be a fiscal and economic conservative but not a social conservative; in the United States at present, this is the stance of libertarianism. It is also possible to be a social conservative but not an economic conservative — at present, this is a common political stance in, for example, Ireland — or to be a fiscal conservative without being either a social conservative or a broader economic conservative, such as the "deficit hawks" of the United States Democratic Party. In general use, the unqualified term "conservative" is often applied to social conservatives who are not fiscal or economic conservatives. It is rarely applied in the opposite case, except in specific contrast to those who are neither.

It can be argued that classical conservatism tends to represent the establishment. Yet, this is not always the case. Considering the conservative's opposition to political abstractions, the true conservative will never support a contrived social state, be that on the left (Communism) or on the right (Fascism). There is an independent justification of the attitude of conservatism, which tends to favour what is organic and has been shaped by history, against the planned and artificial.

Conservatism and change

"Conservatism" is not opposed to change. For example, the Reagan administration in the US and that of Margaret Thatcher in the UK both professed conservatism, but during Reagan's term of office, the United States radically revised its tax code, while Thatcher dismantled several previously nationalized industries and made major reforms in taxation and housing; furthermore, both took, or attempted, significant measures to reduce the power of labor unions. However some opponents, and also some of the members of these governments themselves, characterised those changes as regressive, as "changing back" to a defunct status quo.

In less recent history, the Reform Act of 1867, supported by Conservative UK Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was the single greatest expansion of the franchise in the UK prior to women's suffrage. Various "Conservative" parties have presided over periods of economic expansion which have been disruptive of previous social and political arrangements, for example the Republican Party in 1920s America, and the BJP in late 1990s India.

Political memory can be of various durations, and the traditions conservatives embrace can be of relatively recent invention. The prevalence of the nuclear family is, at most, a few centuries old. Western democracy itself is a late 18th century invention. Corporate capitalism is even newer. The race-blind meritocracy now embraced by many U.S. conservatives as an alternative to affirmative action would have seemed quite radical to most U.S. conservatives in the 1950s.

Other topics

Conservatism vs. fascism

While conservatives often identify with nationalist movements, there is a clear distinction between conservative nationalism and the ultra-nationalism of fascism. Conservatism, at its root, is an attitude of political and social quietism. The big plans of the Big Man, the noisy and levelling mass movements, the F├╝hrerprinzip, the personality cults, and the strong propensity toward totalitarianism that are central to fascism, are antithetical to the positions of classical conservatism. Conservatism stands for learning from the mistakes of the past, and primum non nocere is an essential conservative principle.

Nonetheless, historically, some conservative traditionalists have been drawn to Fascist movements, just like some liberal have been drawn to Communism and Stalinism during the 1970s. Some may have admired the moral and military renewal that Fascist leaders promised. Others may have merely thought fascism a more palatable alternative to socialism or communism. For example, in mid-1930s Britain, conservative media baron Lord Rothermere's Daily Mail enthusiastically backed Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, whilst a number of Tory peers and MPs supported closer ties with Nazi Germany. For a more contemporary example, in a 2003 article in National Review, John Laughland accuses contemporary neoconservative Michael Ledeen of "flirting with fascism", citing examples of the latter's praise for Italian fascist Gabriele D'Annunzio. [3]

Conservatism and conservation

The North American conservation movement has its roots in the conservative movement of the late 19th century. These "first wave" environmentalists were generally well-to-do and advocated protection of natural areas due to the fact that these untouched areas were choice spots for vacations away from the dirty cities. In modern times, the "third wave" environmental movement, popularized by Ronald Reagan harkens back to the classical conservative's justification for free markets: simply, free markets are viewed as the best instrument for protecting the environment. Given that pollution is an inefficiency, and given that consumers like "eco-friendly" or "organic" products, it makes sense to the third-wave environmentalist that being environmentally friendly is a boost to sales. "Second-wave" environmentalists, represented by "command-and-control" techniques and the radical social change of the 1960s, were generally not conservative in any sense of the word. Yet the nationalist overtones of the second-wave environmental movement did appeal to many populists and social conservatives, who were not averse to anti-commercial values. Many of these viewed ecological conservation as necessary to preserve traditional values and viewed conservation of resources — especially public resources — as part of long-term fiscal conservatism. Mistakenly, many note the generally social democratic and sometimes radical economic goals of Greens and conclude that they have nothing in common with conservatives. In the UK, a Blue-Green Alliance is an alignment of these "green" and "right" forces, although in the U.S. the terms Green Republican or Green Libertarian have come into use to imply the same. Dan Sullivan has written on the convergence of Libertarian and Green views in the U.S. "Greens and Libertarians"

Conservatives in different countries

What constitutes conservative politics and policies, obviously, will depend on the traditions and customs of a given country.

In the United States, most persons who call themselves conservatives believe strongly in the Judeo-Christian social tradition and strict construction of the U.S. Constitution. The origins of conservatism in the U.S. can be traced from the Whigs of George Washington through the Federalists of John Adams, and the Republicans of Abraham Lincoln (the ideological heirs to the Federalist legacy). In the Civil War era, other issues dominated, and for the next century conservatives were roughly equally divided among the two major parties. One particularly notable element were the southern Democrats, some of whom bolted the party as the third-party Dixiecrats, backing Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential candidacy.

Ironically, as the Democratic Party became identified with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s through 1970s, many former southern Democrats joined the Republican Party, even in the face of greater proportional support for civil rights legislation among Republicans, thereby increasingly cementing the Republicans' alignment as a conservative party.

Conservatism is a large political philosophy, and its central tenets may be used as justification for or opposition to civil rights legislation. "Mr. Conservative," U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, in his 1960 Conscience of a Conservative, argues that the reason conservatives split on the issue of civil rights was due to some conservatives advocating ends (integration, even in the face of what they saw as unconstitutional Federal involvement) and some advocating means (constitutionality above all else, even in the face of segregation).

Today in the U.S., geographically the South, the less industrial parts of the Midwest, and the non-coastal West are conservative strongholds.

In the UK, contemporary conservatives may trace their roots to both the Tories of Canning and the early Whigs (who opposed the monarchy). The Tories, who continued to represent the interests of the aristocracy, in contrast to the Whiggish mercantile class, dominated British politics from the 1770s and the 1830s. It is during this period that Edmund Burke, the so-called "Father of Modern Conservatism," articulated the anti-monarchial conservative position through the Whig party.

Nominally, the modern Conservative party was founded out of the Tory party by Sir Robert Peel in the 1840s, splitting almost immediately, over the issue of protectionism. The anti-protectionist faction joined with some Whigs and radicals to form the Liberal coalition, which was to dominate for much of the rest of the nineteenth century. In the twenty-two years between 1852 and 1874, the Conservative Party, which continued to be known colloquially as the Tory party, enjoyed less than four years of power. However, after the Liberals split over Home Rule in Ireland, the Conservatives returned to prominence under Benjamin Disraeli, and were in power for twelve of the next twenty years. Power alternated between the Conservatives and the Liberals for the next two decades, until a coalition between the two parties was formed during the first World War. This, along with the rise of the Labour Party, led to the collapse of the Liberals in the 1920s. A number of former Liberals, including Winston Churchill, chose to join the Tory Party, under Stanley Baldwin, instead of Labour. During the 1930s, the Conservatives dominated Ramsay Macdonald's "National" government and instituted the protectionist policies they had attempted to introduce in the 1920s. After Macdonald resigned the Conservatives were openly in government, but many of the traditional Conservative policies of economic intervention in the interests of business leaders and land-owners were dropped from the party's platform, in favour of more ameliorative welfare policies. After the second World War, under a movement that would come to be known as "One Nation Conservatism", the Conservative party made a number of concessions to the socialist policies of the left. This was partly in order to regain power, but also the result of the early successes of central planning and state-ownership forming a cross-party consensus. In the early 1970s, Edward Heath attempted to restore traditional Conservative economic policies by under-pining them with a socially responsible outlook, but found little support in the private sector and soon retreated to the post-war consensus. With the advent of Margaret Thatcher, the Tories were seen as having returned to their traditional policies. However, some Conservatives saw the Thatcher administration as lacking the traditional Conservative policies of charity and responsibility, while others, outside of the traditional ranks of the Conservative Party, saw Thatcherism as the intellectual successor to classical liberalism, particularly with regard to its belief in free trade and laissez-faire economics. Thatcher's core economic policies have since formed a broad, Conservative consensus in British politics, similar to the Labour consensus that dominated from the 1940s until the 1970s, and the Liberal consensus of the 1860s to the 1910s.

In Canada Conservatism followed British tradition well up into the 1980s, when the leadership of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney brought with it Reagan-style economic liberalism and free trade. Afterwards the Progressive Conservative Party changed to moderately favouring economic continentalism as opposed to the economic nationalism that they had normally preferred. However not all Canadian conservatives went that way, in fact many continued to favour the traditional Red Tory ideology of supporting economic independence (protectionism) and preservation of existing political and cultural institutions. While on the other hand many "small-c" conservatives in Canada (especially in the western provinces) abandoned the PC Party to join the outspoken western activist Preston Manning and his Reform Party, which advocated even greater laissez-faire economic practises and stronger social-conservatism. In 2003 Canada's oldest political party (the PC Party) was disbanded and controversially merged with the Canadian Alliance (the descendant of the Reform Party) to create the new Conservative Party of Canada. The new party is arguably right-wing or neoconservative, although in early 2005 its integrated political platform and program had yet to be drawn, due to early elections pushed by Liberal Prime minister Paul Martin in 2004. Although the new party increased its number of seats in parliament during the 2004 Canadian election, from 72 combined Tory and Alliance seats to 99, its vote dropped significantly from 38% combined for both parties to only 29%, indicating that most Progressive Conservative voters did not vote for the new party and mainly voted Liberal. Critics have pointed to this phenomenon as a result of scare tactics by the Liberal party, which accused notably the new Conservative party of planning to abolish the Canadian public health system.

The old Canadian conservative divide between Blue Tories (so-called "neoconservatives" and libertarians, mostly from the richer West provinces) and Red Tories (so-called "moderate" conservatives, mostly from the poorer East provinces) is not as strong in the new party as most of the old PC Party's most prominent Red Tories, such as former Prime Minister Joe Clark, Anti-free trade activist David Orchard, former Quebec MP Andre Bachand, openly gay MP Scott Brison and others chose to oppose the merger and not join the new party.

Conservatism in the UK, the US and Canada should not be confused with conservatism abroad. Conservatism is not necessarily democratic: in fact, insofar as democracy is absolutism and "tyranny of the majority," conservatism is inherently undemocratic in the sense that it opposes tyranny. The same could be argued, though, for other systems like Social-Democracy and American Liberalism. A case in point is the radical so-called "democracy" of Marxism (of the USSR, Communist China, Cuba, etc.), opposed by the conservative. Critics from the Left argue that the conservative would not find the government of Iran or, more appropriately, of Pakistan to be inherently objectionable, since Conservatism respects nations' right to self-determination. Neither Islam nor theocracy are incompatible with conservatism, provided rule of law still exists. Yet where Iran or Pakistan trample the rule of law – there the conservative would object.

Conservative goals can vary not only between countries, but in the same country over time. Many U.S. conservatives (especially the one-time Southern Democrats: see Dixiecrat) once supported enforced racial segregation, but no conservative today can realistically enter office holding this position and few true conservatives still hold it, seeing it as something which prevents free people from fully participating in the benefits of a capitalist economy, among other problems. Thus, "Conservatism" as a concept must also be understood within its historical context.

Although most conservatives today agree on the value of free markets and reducing regulation (although to a much lesser extent than favoured by libertarians), there is great disagreement on support for traditional morality vs. opposition to government intervention in the private realm. Many conservatives (i.e. Neoconservatives) feel it is proper for government to take strong actions against homosexual behavior, abortion, and drug abuse. Other conservatives (i.e. Libertarians) are concerned that such actions constitute unwarranted intrusion on personal freedom (notwithstanding right to life arguments).

Intellectual conservatism in the United States

In United States intellectual circles, there are several distinct types of conservatism. Among these are:

  • Neoconservatives: many prominent neoconservatives are of Jewish background and are former liberals or even former socialists, primarily from the North-east or the West Coast, whose politics turned sharply to the right from the 1960s onwards. They are almost uniformly free-traders and strong supporters of Israel.
  • The Paleoconservatives, by contrast, originated away from the coasts. Choosing their self-designation deliberately to contrast to "Neoconservative", the "Paleos", they are almost uniformly from Christian backgrounds. They are far more socially and culturally conservative than the "Neos", more inclined toward issues like states' rights, often opposed to free trade, and overtly suspicious of the "Neos'" often liberal or socialist backgrounds.

Other strands of conservatism have been influenced by the counter-revolutionary Catholic thought of figures like Joseph de Maistre, and the distributism of G. K. Chesterton and the French traditionalists (e.g. Henri Corbin). Some conservatives positions originated from the Frankfurt School, after taking (like the neoconservatives) a turn to the right — such as the editors of Telos.

As has already been remarked, libertarians generally agree with conservative views on the economy, but they disagree on social issues. However, there are some libertarians, such as Lew Rockwell or Murray Rothbard, whose views on social or cultural issues are closer to conservatism; these are sometimes called "paleolibertarians." A key issue in this regard right to life policies, debating the respective values of the supremacy of life versus the supremacy of individual liberty.

Conservatism in the United States electoral politics

In the United States, the Republican Party is generally considered to be the party of conservatism. This has been the case since the 1960s, when the conservative wing of that party consolidated its hold, causing it to shift permanently to the right of the Democratic Party; also, in varying degrees at various times over the second half of the twentieth century, numerous conservative white southerners left the Democratic Party and (in most cases) became Republicans. One of the most prominent examples would be Strom Thurmond.

In addition, many United States libertarians, in the Libertarian Party and even some in the Republican Party, see themselves as conservative, even though they advocate significant economic and social changes – for instance, further dismantling the welfare system or liberalising drug policy. They see these as conservative policies because they conform to the spirit of individual liberty that they consider to be a traditional American value. It should be noted that although libertarians have had closer ties with conservatives, they are not actually conservative.

On the other end of the scale, some Americans see themselves as conservative while not being supporters of free market policies. These people generally favour protectionist trade policies and government intervention in the market to preserve American jobs. Many of these conservatives were originally supporters of neoliberalism who changed their stance after perceiving that countries such as China were benefiting from that system at the expense of American production.

Finally, many people see the entire American political mainstream as having reached a conservative consensus, with the federal government being run by successive "Republicrat" and right-wing Republican administrations. In support of this theory, they point out that the only recent Democratic President (Bill Clinton) was from the moderate, conservative wing of the Democratic Party. They also suggest that many progressives are switching to the Green Party and thus leaving the electable mainstream. In a February 2005 speech, Republican political consultant Karl Rove declared, "Conservatism is the dominant political creed in America."

Americans are often stereotyped by western Europeans as conservative due to their religious and right-wing tendencies as well as what the Europeans consider to be puritan attitudes towards sex and drugs (particularly alcohol).

History of conservatism

Early medieval Europe was almost entirely rural with no population centres and there existed very little trade and commerce; the economy was almost entirely feudal, based in land; money for the most part did not exist, nor did population centres. The rise of the medieval town in the 11th and 12th centuries and the accompanying rise of trade, commerce, and a money economy began the schism between urban and rural life. As towns grew with the rising population boom of the high middle ages and trade increased, the needs and values and outlooks of those in the country versus those in the urban areas diverged. The land-based feudal lords were the conservative elements of the society, while the town merchants and freemen were the liberal elements bringing far-reaching changes, which eventually (at different times in different parts of Europe) displaced feudalism entirely.

This led to the divide between conservatism, initially the defence of a traditional land-based economy and an aristocratic power structure, and liberalism, initially the values and perspectives of the urban merchant class. Over time landed aristocrats and wealthy merchants would come to resemble each other. For example rural manor lords were forced to embrace and buy into the monetary economy as serfdom and slavery disappeared and workers demanded to be paid in wages, while some wealthy merchants aspired to be landed aristocrats and threw their lot in with the old order in country estates.

The modern split between conservative and liberal can be traced back to the English Civil War and the French Revolution. In England, specifically, the predecessors of the conservatives tended to be supporters of the monarchy, and conversely for the predecessors to the liberals. To note the tenuous position of the conservatives: early conservative thinkers included Edmund Burke who argued forcefully against the French Revolution, but in favour of the American Revolution. Conservatism was not institutionally adopted until the Congress of Vienna where the ideology of conservatism reached the forefront of European society.

The Congress of Vienna was only the beginning of a conservative reaction which was bent on containing the liberal and nationalist forces unleashed by the French revolution. Prince Metternich and most of the other participants at the Congress of Vienna were representatives of the ideology known as conservatism. Conservatism generally dates back to 1790 when the most well known figure of conservatism Edmund Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France . Burke, however, was not the only kind of conservative. Joseph de Maistre, a Frenchman, was the most influential spokesperson for a counter-revolutionary and authoritarian conservatism. De Maistre believed in hereditary monarchies because they would bring "order to society" which was in short supply in his eyes after the chaos of the French Revolution. Despite any differences most conservatives held to some general principles and beliefs.

Contemporary conservative platform

In the United States and western Europe, conservatism is generally associated with the following views, as noted by Russell Kirk in his The Conservative Mind:

  1. "Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience."
  2. "Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems;"
  3. "Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a 'classless society'."
  4. "Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and the Leviathan becomes master of all."
  5. "Faith in prescription and distrust of 'sophisters, calculators, and economists' who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs."
  6. "Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress."

See also

Further reading

External links and references








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