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Introduction | History of Conservatism | Types of Conservatism
Introduction Back to Top

Conservatism (or conservativism) is any political philosophy that favors tradition (in the sense of various religious, cultural, or nationally-defined beliefs and customs) in the face of external forces for change, and is critical of proposals for radical social change. Some Conservatives seek to preserve the status quo or to reform society slowly, while others seek to return to the values of an earlier time.

Classical Conservatism does not reject change per se, but insists that changes be organic, rather than revolutionary, arguing that any attempt to modify the complex web of human interactions that form human society purely for the sake of some doctrine or theory runs the risk of running afoul of the law of unintended consequences and/or of moral hazards. As a general ideology, Conservatism is opposed to the ideals of Liberalism and Socialism.

Conservatism generally refers to right-wing politics which advocate the preservation of personal wealth and private ownership (Capitalism) and emphasize self-reliance and Individualism. Conservatives in general are more punitive toward criminals, tend to hold more orthodox religious views, and are often ethnocentric and hostile toward homosexuals and other minority groups.

Different cultures have different established values and, in consequence, Conservatives in different cultures have differing goals. Many forms of Conservatism incorporate elements of other ideologies and philosophies, and in turn, Conservatism has influence upon them. For example, Nationalism shares many Conservative values (although usually to a more exaggerated degree), and most Conservatives strongly support the sovereign nation and patriotically identify with their own nation (although most Conservatives distrust the xenophobic or racist sentiments that are prominent in some far-right wing groups).

The term "conservatism" is derived from the Latin "conservare" (meaning to "protect" or "preserve") and from the French derivative "conservateur". Its usage in a political sense began to appear only after the French Revolution of 1789, and then only hesitantly, only taking its characteristic political connotation in the 1820s.

History of Conservatism Back to Top

The beginnings of Conservativism are usually traced to the reaction to the events surrounding the French Revolution of 1789, although it can be argued the 16th Century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (1554 - 1600) was proposing something very similar two centuries earlier.

The Anglo-Irish philosopher Edmund Burke is often considered the father of Conservatism in Anglo-American circles. He argued forcefully against the French Revolution, especially in his "Reflections on the Revolution in France" of 1790, (although he sympathized with some of the aims of the American Revolution of 1776 - 1783), and was troubled in general by the Rationalist turn of the Enlightenment. He argued instead for the value of inherited institutions and customs, including the time-honored development of the state (built on the wisdom of many generations), piecemeal progress through experience, and the continuation of other important societal institutions such as the family and the Church, rather than what he called "metaphysical abstractions". Burke also claimed that man is unable to understand the many ways in which inherited behaviors influence their thinking, and so trying to judge society objectively is futile.

The old established form of British Conservatism since the late 17th Century was the Tory Party, which generally reflected the attitudes of a rural land-owning class. In the 19th Century, a new coalition of traditional landowners and sympathetic industrialists constituted the new British Conservative Party. Benjamin Disraeli (1804 - 1881) gave the new party a political ideology, advocating a return to an idealized view of a corporate or organic society, in which everyone had duties and responsibilities towards other people or groups ("One Nation" Conservatism). The conversion of the British Conservative Party into a modern mass organization in the 20th Century was accelerated by the concept of "Tory Democracy", attributed to Winston Churchill's son Lord Randolph Churchill (1911 - 1968). In the 1980s, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher (1925 - 2013)), there was a dramatic shift in the ideological direction of British Conservatism, with a strong movement towards free-market economic policies, although many saw Thatcherism as more consistent with a radical classical Liberalism than classical Conservatism.

In other parts of Europe, mainstream Conservatism is often represented by the Christian Democratic parties, which had their origins largely in Catholic parties of the late 19th and early 20th Century. They generally support market-oriented policies, the European Union and a strong defense, and usually gain support from the business community and white-collar professionals. However, their views on social issues tend to be more liberal than American Conservatives, for example.

Modern American Conservatism was largely born out of alliance between classical Liberals and Social Conservatives in the late 19th and early 20th Century. It comprises a constellation of political ideologies including Fiscal Conservatism, free market or economic Liberalism, Social Conservatism, Libertarianism, Bio-Conservatism and Religious Conservatism, as well as support for a strong military, small government and states' rights. (See the section on Types of Conservatism below for more discussion of some of these terms). It is mainly represented by the U.S. Republican Party, exemplified by Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004) and George W. Bush (1946 - ), and much of the conservative attitude is focused in the nation's heartland (rural areas with low population density), as contrasted with the more Liberal cities and college towns.

Types of Conservatism Back to Top
  • Cultural Conservatism is a philosophy that supports preservation of the heritage of a nation or culture (or sometimes of language traditions), usually by the adaptation of norms handed down from the past.
  • Social Conservatism is a subset of Cultural Conservatism where the norms may also be moral (e.g. opposition to homosexuality, covering of women's faces, etc). In Europe, however, it usually refers to "Liberal" Conservatives, who support modern European welfare states.
  • Religious Conservatism seeks to preserve the teachings of particular religious ideologies, either by example or by law. Religious Conservatives may promote broad campaigns for a return to traditional values, or they may go the radical route, looking to preserve a belief in its original or pristine form.
  • Fiscal Conservatism is the economic philosophy of prudence in government spending and debt, arguing that a government does not have the right to run up large debts and then throw the burden on the taxpayer.
  • Paleo-Conservatism is a moderate to extreme form of Conservatism, popular in the Bible Belt states of the USA, which emphasizes religious heritage, national and Western identity, tradition, civil society, anti-interventionist policies and classical federalism. It specifically opposes illegal immigration, communism, authoritarianism, social democracy and entitlement programs.
  • Neo-Conservatism is the "new" Conservative movement which emerged in the United States in opposition to the perceived Liberalism of the 1960s. It emphasizes an interventionist foreign policy, free trade and free market economics and a general disapproval of counterculture.
  • Bio-Conservatism is a stance of hesitancy about technological development, and a skepticism about medical and other biotechnological transformations of the living world (e.g. cloning, genetic engineering), especially if it is perceived to threaten a given social order.

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