In 2014, Sir Roger Scruton famously proclaimed that “conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” No modern conservative disagrees, especially given the destructive forces currently marching mercilessly through the west. Yet, a few months after the philosopher’s death, western conservative movements seem to have reached a crisis. The identity of conservatism has never been more uncertain. While there’s a general agreement on the necessity of preserving our heritage, it’s hard to tell what being a conservative in the west even means. Some of the left have a convenient habit of branding everyone from John Stuart Mill rightwards fascists. While, among the right, anyone who shows a shred of sympathy with the newest Republican proposal gets immediately assigned to one of a variety of different ranks: paleoconservative, social-conservative, nationalist, traditionalist, postmodern conservative—even liberal conservative. These labels can be accurate. But if so many different strands of thought fit the description, what is this thing we call conservativism? Does the word have any meaning at all?
The increasing atomization of conservatism in the west has made the task of defining the term very hard—adding to the already complicated challenge of identifying it with a single coherent philosophy. This is in part because the tradition varies depending on historical context, culture and location. American conservatives, for example, are more oriented towards liberty than their European counterparts, since liberal principles are inscribed into the very institutions they’re trying to conserve: hence Thomas Jefferson’s assertion in the American Declaration of Independence that every man has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. American conservatives also tend to uphold the separation between church and state, as guaranteed by the 1st Amendment. A European conservative, on the other hand, may be keener on identifying with Christian doctrine, since Catholic integralist policies are still in operation in some European countries. Two people, then, can be considered conservatives despite their differences, especially if such disagreements concern policies. None of this should disqualify the term. Besides, many conservatives—including me—would recoil at the idea of giving the term a single definition, let alone attributing it to a set of economic or social policies. To determine what conservatism is, is hard. But it’s a lot easier to state what it’s not: it’s not drag queens wearing MAGA hats, the three out of four YouTubers who claim to wear the mantle of the Great Tradition or liberal feminists like Christina Hoff Summers—although they are often lumped into the club.
Conservatism Isn’t Classical Liberalism or Libertarianism
Since the creation of fusionism, courtesy of Frank Meyer’s highly influential book In Defense of Freedom, which successfully integrated liberal policies into traditional conservatism; the birth of William F. Buckley’s National Review; and Ronald Reagan’s “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” presidency (all of which reached peak consensus at the height of the Cold War thanks to the threat of Soviet-style Marxism), western conservatism has been associated with interventionism, capitalism and the infamous libertarian ethos that government is the problem. But if there’s one thing we can be sure conservativism does not stand for it is liberty above order. To conservatives, governments and markets are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Conflating conservatism with libertarianism, neo-conservativism or neoliberalism is a common mistake. As Irving Kristol once said of the last two: “A neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality. A neoliberal is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality but has refused to press charges.” Liberty-oriented conservatives are little more than reactionary liberals—and barely even that.
The rejection of liberty over order and stability is evidenced by a wide range of phenomena: Trump’s election, following campaign promises to revoke trade deals; Andrew Yang’s unexpected conservative fan base, due to his emphasis on the necessity of protecting local workers from relentless technological progress; Brexit; the rise of populism all over Europe; and the birth of the New Right, a set of groups who share a post-liberal way of thinking, which includes a positive attitude towards anti-sexualization policies, hostility towards modernity and even Catholic integralist plans. The common good capitalism promoted by Marco Rubio and the new politics of highly popular figures like Tucker Carlson, for example, represent a strain of modern conservatism not only more aware of class struggles but willing to rediscover its roots by looking past the current dead liberal consensus. The editors of First Things perfectly expressed this in March 2019, when they accused “consensus conservatives” of having “foreclosed debate about the nature and purpose of our common life” by “elevating prudential judgments and policies into sacred dogmas … free trade on every front, free movement through every boundary, small government as an end in itself, technological advancement as a cure-all.”
Given a general insistence by Republicans and mainstream conservative pundits that we should rely on courts and lawyers to fight modern censorship, the New Right’s hostility to Project Liberty has grown. The classical liberal belief in freedom of speech, as guaranteed in the US by the 1st Amendment, as an antidote to cancel culture is perhaps the best example of this. When even the most powerful can be bullied into submission for uttering the wrong sentence, the idea that ordinary people will be fine as long as freedom of speech is not threatened by the state is laughable. The left isn’t just censoring conservatives: it is making conservatives self-censor. How can you prove to a judge that you’ve been censored, if you never spoke out in the first place? Unlike free speech activists, ordinary Americans have nothing to gain by advertising their heterodoxy. This is where classical liberalism and libertarianism fail: in a society in which the opposition is making guns useless, there is little point in advocating for the right to keep buying them. Conservatism is not classical liberalism—not least because the latter isn’t really capable of conserving anything.
Conservatism Isn’t Just Reactionary
Since the French Revolution, thanks to writers like Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, conservatism has mostly been associated with policy reversalism, and with a general desire to return to a pre-existing societal condition. This is even more evident today, with the comeback of romantic nationalism in Europe, for example, as a consequence of mass immigration and of the promotion of cultural relativism by mainstream society. In North America, right-wingers often point to any period before the sexual revolution of the 1960s as the ideal, while stressing the importance of institutions like marriage. These are the origins of the popular belief that conservatism is directly opposed to change. But, while true that the tradition is skeptical of progress, conservatism does not necessarily support the past or attempt to restore some outdated status quo—it is not simply about conserving. Nor does it imply preserving the current status quo at all costs, since that would equate conservative motivations with, say, those of a pro-regime North Korean or a Soviet Stalinist from the 1970s. The great tradition is not only about conserving or restoring. Maintaining—and even rediscovering—what we hold dear will continue to be important to conservatives. But conservatism is also, as Roger Scruton puts it, “a lasting vision of human society.” And any vision worth pursuing isn’t limited by the past.
Conservatism Isn’t an Ideology
Unlike libertarianism, conservatism isn’t bound by politics. Libertarianism can’t mutate depending on its location and context, given that its guiding principles are grounded in policies like freedom of trade and the absence of taxation. Its rejection of government intervention for doctrinaire reasons and its attempts to make anti-state planning into a principle are hostile to conservatism’s traditional roots. Conservatism is not about introducing the right set of bills or adopting the right political attitude. It’s not just about ideology. That’s why conservatives still find Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France inspiring (despite the fact that most of us don’t live under despotic monarchies). And many of us also find the Bible inspiring. Being a conservative is about something inside us, rather than an ideological framework.
Conservatism Isn’t Anti-Left (or Anti-Woke)
Conservatism’s origins might suggest that it cannot be understood separately from Jacobinism (responsible for launching the French Revolutionary Terror). But that would be a mistake. American patriotism is conservative, yet, each 4th of July, Americans pay homage to their own revolutionary thinkers. Despite the fact that the American people were very socially conservative, Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence were fundamentally liberal—leaning more on Enlightenment principles than on tradition. Yet too many of today’s young conservatives appear to be in desperate need of an opponent. Many seem to rely on the left’s craziness—whether in the form of some woke campus nonsense or the latest livestreamed violent upheaval featuring Antifa or Black Lives Matter. But, as Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, if your beliefs require an enemy to stay alive, what you have isn’t an ideology but a pathology. Hegel’s motto, Zizek asserts, applies here: “Evil resides in the gaze which sees evil everywhere.” Conservatism isn’t about anti-woke YouTube videos with clickbait titles.
What Is Conservatism Then?
The very attempt to define conservatism is likely to hinder us from succeeding. There are, of course, many popular, low-resolution TPUSA-like beliefs I could easily list and many quotations I could cite. G. K. Chesterton’s remark that “tradition is the democracy of the dead” comes to mind, as does his idea of “giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.” Edmund Burke writes: “I cannot [praise or blame] human actions … on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction”—a statement that could lead one to think that conservatism rests solely on skepticism about abstract principles. But, while Chesterton and Burke’s statements are both true of conservatism, they dismiss many important strains of conservative thought and are not sufficient to define conservatism as a whole. Given our current climate, amid the dim reality of post-Floyd America and the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe, it might be best, for now, to stick with Sir Roger Scruton’s initial assertion: that to tear down what our ancestors built, and everything else that we hold dear, is nowhere near as hard as it is to bring it into being.