Classical Conservatism is Dying and Here’s Why

It is safe to say that the traditional conservative tradition is on life support. It is the dying old man that no one comes to visit, whose words lie trapped in his throat, no audience around that wishes to hear them. The quiet conservative wisdom of the past, encapsulated in presidents such as Coolidge and Eisenhower does not command nearly as much respect as it once did. In recent decades, conservatism became marked by executive excesses and took on an increasingly revolutionary and upending flair.

Conservatism is not like other political traditions. It has no literary creed, no rousing manifesto to its name. Socialism, after all, has Marx’s Das Kapital — a sort of foundational text associated with it from which ideological tenants are pulled. Conservatism as a political tradition, in contrast, did not set out to erect a comprehensive philosophy of the world. It concerned itself not with, say, a theory of agents, classes, and various ‘material processes’ that its Marxist counterpart did.

Conservatism has principles, surely but not necessarily goals. This distinction is important. Principles are things that can be adhered to; goals are things that must be striven to, and thus, muscled into place. Principles are meant to acknowledge something universal; goals require mechanical means and a certain artificiality to be achieved.

Conservatism, then, is noticeably absent of a specific agenda. The old conservative tradition is out of touch with perfecting things, with radical overthrows, with revolutionary energy, and with preoccupation with Utopia, to name a few. Conservatism, for example, does not believe that what is “progressive” is unquestionably a net good. To the conservative, the overthrowing of the “old” (whatever that might be) and the subsequent thrusting of new changes in its place is not met with frantic applause.

All this said, it is not necessarily correct to call conservatism an ideology. Instead, it’s a frame a mind; a perspective. It’s defined by a reactionary posture, by a natural suspicion of new things. Wary eyes rove quietly over new developments. The conservative is analytical and principled and reacts dubiously around anything emitting a radical flavor or revealing an idealist aspiration.

To remark that traditional conservatism can be tagged as giving center stage to suspicion, of all things, might seem unappealing to people. Most of us are inclined, after all, to automatically turn our noses up at the idea of “suspicion”. Suspicion invokes ideas of prejudice and judgement, neither of which people indoctrinated into a society that currently preaches that nothing short of total tolerance is some kind of ghastly sin, are going to have any kind of regard for. Furthermore, suspicion is usually incorrectly and reductively correlated with ignorance. But why? Prudence is a virtue and God knows we need it.

Open-mindedness in popular culture is hailed as a cardinal virtue of all good people, but what that often translates to is an inability to distinguish what is wise from what is foolish; what is enduring from what is half-baked. Pure and devoutly-pursued open-mindedness has a slippery and vacuous feel to it. It encompasses everything so it stands for nothing. There’s a vulnerability in claiming that everything new and brought onto the societal stage, so to speak, should be rightfully subject to zero discrimination and criticism. Discrimination — that is, discernment — is not a crime! Why, we should ask, have we been conditioned to believe that a such a thing is morally suspect? That to think, to question, to criticize, to caution is a moral failing?

We see this effect too clearly and painfully in our own current culture. People feel indifferent about values (save for tolerance, that is). They shrug their shoulders and lazily acquiesce to all the developments taking place around them. Many appear unmoored and adrift, glassy-eyed and indifferent, worryingly equivocal. American culture has been showing signs of erosion for quite some time. And so, there’s a price to pay for demonizing conservative suspicion and the criticism that comes along with it, one could say.

A reactionary stance does not partake in adamantly shunning new and progressive things, but rather, is cautious in withholding its embrace of these new and progressive things, preferring instead to contrast and test it against that which is time-honored.

That which is “time-honored” includes custom and convention and precedent refined over years of civilization. We would do well, as a culture, to rethink our instinctive reaction to “suspicion” in the context of a political impulse.

Suspicion is not really a bad political impulse to have, now is it? Can we at least concede that what is new is not necessarily superior and what is old is not necessarily disposable and defunct?

I cannot help but notice that for the vast majority of those outside the category of conservatism, there is the belief, however unspoken and looming, that human nature somehow innovates. That somehow we have outgrown previous “limiting” definitions and furthermore, that we cannot be defined at all. (A lot of progressives hate definitions!) From where we stand at the cusp of the present moment, there is a widespread notion that we as humanity are open-ended and we so wonderfully cannot be predicted. Our potential is limitless and not-known! At the cusp of this perpetual present moment, there is a tragic severance with the continuity of generations and humanity occurring. Is it not true that we as humans are famously deceived by the idea that our generation constitutes something the world has never encountered before and that therefore, new solutions are in order? Isn’t there something arrogant about that? Don’t you get the feeling that we’re faintly spelling our own demise by believing such a rash thing?

One of the defining characteristics of conservatism is its belief that human nature is constant. This is an enormously important truth to be incorporated into the political perspective. To say that human nature is constant is to recognize that Good and Evil are enduring fixtures of humanity that cannot be altered by any conceivable political means.

Many modern, idealist political ideologies fatally disregard the vast concept of ‘Nature’ in favor of believing that the proper application of a certain politics can smooth any wrinkles. It’s a royally presumptuous idea — that human society can be tweaked mechanically and is not subject to any age-old realities, things that cannot be reworked by a human hand.

Reality: that is another thing that traditional conservatism has tried valiantly to stay in touch with. Again, conservatism is no ideology but a lens through which the world is seen. To somebody like the Marxist, reality is a disappointment. Human reality is paradoxical in some respects; too complicated and too uncontrollable to fit underneath the absolutist umbrella of Marxist theory. And so, to this staunch ideologue in question, reality is shelved in order to champion an idea (think Utopia, dialectical materialism, stringent class theories, etc.) Communism is but one extreme example of a political tradition that inappropriately twists reality, if not in some form, also rejects it.

Meanwhile, people think traditional conservatives are these mopey, floppy pessimists that are “afraid” of progressivism but some respect ought to be given to those that not only are completely unconcerned about trumpeting their own temerarious plan for world-improvement but that are admirably trying their best to maintain contact with reality, with the laws of existence, with the “consequences of things”.

Balanced budgets were historically a part of conservative creed. While a stumbling block and annoyance for more ambitious, more left-leaning politicians, this feature was the conservative impulse to maintain contact with reality witnessed in action. More and more, we register the absence of fiscal responsibility and prudence on the national scale. Our national debt balloons and accumulates in a manner so reckless and at so breathless a pace it is appalling. By what logic do we as a nation assume that, galloping into the future, we can continue this pattern of indebtedness and colossal insolvency? Despite the reality that such indebtedness is sustained by certain means that are available to nations and simply not to individuals, it does not negate the fact that reality is being childishly crumpled and thrown into the trash. At some point, this mistake will catch up to us.

To act in a manner that accommodates consequences, conservatives are, to some degree, protecting against the human impulse to “play God”. People always think they can escape reality (and they’ll try it too) and the traditional conservative simply advises some caution.

Modern conservative presidents — George Bush and Donald Trump, and yes, even Ronald Reagan — all technically rejected the fiscal part of the old conservative tradition to some degree which resulted in saying good riddance to balanced budgets and proceeding to pile up enormous debts. Some would say that this happened because, for example, Bush decided to “go to war against terrorism” and thus, funneled heaps of cash towards this aim. The funding flowed because there were no constraints. Budgets didn’t matter, money could be created painlessly for the time being, and there was nothing stopping this national initiative from taking shape.

But what if constraints are good? What if they keep us from doing projects that are too huge and too costly? I say this because I cannot help but wonder — if Bush had maintained a belief in balanced budgets would he have recklessly gotten America ensnared in the Middle East? It is the case nowadays that no national project is off limits or too big for America to take on. We can do virtually whatever we want because, chiefly, money does not really constrain us. This imprudence costs (or will cost) us dearly and does more harm than good.

The problem with modern politics is that it has become all about goals and audacious objectives and no one wants to be the one to inquire about the consequences. No one wants to concede that we ought to exercise caution and prudence and rein in our gnashing ambition so that it can be evaluated.

If humanity remains constant, skewered and frozen between Good and Evil and is subject to the same limitations that have always plagued it and thus have unfailingly plagued civilizations since the dawn of time, then who are we to say that the past is irrelevant and it has scantily little of pertinence to teach us? Who are we to say that it has nothing to offer us that we should perhaps mull over, if only for our own posterity? Who are we to say that the pesky consequences of fiscal imprudence, for example, cannot touch us?

Nobody wants to listen to the dying words of old conservatism because what they have to say is increasingly not appealing to most modern people. We flick suspicion away as unsophisticated and curmudgeonly. We want to reject reality in favor of molding our own and we want to believe that we can surpass ‘Nature’ and all of its consequences.

In short — and this may seem a giant and unexpected leap — it might appear that instead of acknowledging and revering God (broadly speaking the “higher authority”) as the old conservative would, we wish to become God instead (rejecting all higher authority, limitations, and consequences) and indeed, all indications dangerously point towards that very possibility.

Written by

Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store