What It Means To Be Conservative

I’ve tried (again and again) to bring attention to what “liberal” actually means in posts like this one.  I have criticized so-called neocons like George Bush and Sarah Palin for in fact being “conservative liberals.”  And I have tried to lay out some basic tenets of my own conservative politics.  But I’m not sure I’ve ever made it clear what I think it actually means to “be conservative.”

Without attempting to be comprehensive, here are some thoughts.

I. To be conservative means to express some basic doubts about the ability of any one group of people to perfect society.  At various times and in various places religious leaders, sociologists, scientists, dictators and economists have been held up as authorities who could impose a perfected system on society.

II. To be conservative means to love something particular.  There must be some thing that is worth conserving.

III. To be conservative means to get back behind the concepts of “left” and “right,” which are really both version of liberalism.  I say get “behind,” because the left and the right are really inventions of the French Revolution.  In the accepted narrative, everything before modernity was “right-wing.”  But as John Milbank has elucidated, “Pre-nominalist modernity was neither left nor right, neither ‘progressivist’ nor ‘reactionary’—it was simply ‘other’ to most of our assumed sociopolitical categories.”

IV. As a corollary to III, to be conservative means to resist the imposition of the ideology Alasdair MacIntyre calls “The Enlightenment project.”  What is the Enlightenment project, and what is its relevance to conservative thought?  I don’t know how to sum it up any better than Craig Carter has here:

The Enlightenment project is about remaking the world according to the dictates of technological reason and individual choice in order to establish a utopian mass culture by overcoming the restrictions on individual choice created by tradition (especially religious tradition) and local conditions (including geography, history and heredity). When the evils of modernity are pointed out, such as environmental destruction, the breakdown of the family, the decline of mass culture to a lowest common denominator and increasing state tyranny, the reply of liberal defenders of modernity amounts essentially to a bribe and a threat. The bribe is longer life and better health because of medical breakthroughs, more and more consumer goods, ease of travel, luxuries etc. The threat is that if you criticize the goose that lays the golden egg (technological reason) you make yourself an enemy of the people and expose yourself to being marginalized or worse. (src


V. Finally (for now), to be conservative means to work against one concrete problem at a time.  Because conservatism by definition cannot be an ideology or strategy to perfect society, it has no particular program to institute.  Rather, conservatives must work to conserve specific goods that are endangered by aggressive, totalizing ideologies.


One response to “What It Means To Be Conservative

  1. I agree with you. I eventually quit calling myself a conservative.

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