What Does It Mean to Be Conservative?

conservative, conservatism, Ronald Reagan, ideology
Ronald Reagan is viewed as a hero to many conservatives in the United States. (But he ain’t my hero.)

What is a conservative? This is not an easy question to answer, especially as it pertains to each nation, let alone from person to person.

It’s especially hard for me to do as a person looking from the outside, but I will approach this topic as objectively as possible.

Many of us have been introduced to the concepts of conservatism and liberalism in the context of a linear political scale:

conservative, conservatism, political spectrum
This is the first type of political spectrum I ever saw.

But as pointed out at The Political Compass, such a scale is limited. It also primarily deals with economic policy. Two axes are needed to get a fuller picture of a person, but I will discuss that part some other time.

Now, depending on who you ask, the definition of conservatism will differ, if only a little bit. However, when you look at general sentiments from people who live closely together (or people in allied countries), you may start to see some similarities.

For instance, Americans may have a different definition of what it means to be a moderate, but our definitions of what is a conservative (or liberal) economic policy may be more closely aligned. And certainly, there are clear distinctions between conservative and liberal social policies.

More and more, when we refer to someone as a “conservative,” we are referring to that person’s social views. Often, economic and social policy is inextricably linked, but there tends to be a greater focus on the societal effects of policy.

Despite our better judgment, human beings have the ability to politicize anything, even if lives or the overall quality of life is at stake.

Anyway, I would like to talk about my view (as an outside) of what a conservative is. Then I will compare it to what I found, what I’ve heard, and what at least one self-described conservative has said.

What Is My Basic Idea of a Conservative?

Generally, I have come to view many conservatives through the lens of American politics. Believe it or not, I never really identified as a liberal or conservative until years into adulthood. But it was clear to me even in my adolescence that I held believes and views that diverged from many conservatives.

Many self-described conservatives are adverse to social change and promote traditional families. They love free markets and express support for our armed forces.

Many American conservatives also say they prefer low taxes, and smaller government (lower spending).

However, some of these principles contradict each other when you factor in military spending. Our yearly military budget surpasses $600 billion. It’s our largest expense outside of entitlements, which are already paid for.

I don’t necessarily view many conservative principles as bad, mainly because I might agree with some. In particular, I remember one teacher of mine saying he was a Republican because he held privacy as an important principle. Yet I have always had an aversion to reactionaries.

Additionally, there are some areas where I cannot come to an agreement with someone from the center-right. This might include taxes, free trade, the role of law enforcement, the size and purpose of government, and various social issues.

Are There Definitive Definitions of What a Conservative Is?

Of course, I could not have a proper post without doing some research. Here’s what I found …

A Simple Google Search

When I performed a simple Google Search, I found this definition:

holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.

noun: conservative; plural noun: conservatives

The definition also addressed a certain British political party:

a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in relation to politics.

a supporter or member of the Conservative Party of Great Britain or a similar party in another country.

noun: Conservative; plural noun: Conservatives

The thing about British Conservatives is how diverse they are. While they adhere to many conservative principles, there is a pro-union element to the party. They differ from the Republican Party in the United States in this regard.


Of course, I wanted to consult another definition. Merriam-Webster had a definition that describes an American view of conservatives and conservatism.

Here’s the definition for a conservative:

1 capitalized a :  the principles and policies of a Conservative party b :  the Conservative party

2a :  disposition in politics to preserve what is established b :  a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change; specifically :  such a philosophy calling for lower taxes, limited government regulation of business and investing, a strong national defense, and individual financial responsibility for personal needs (such as retirement income or health-care coverage)

3:  the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change <religious conservatism; cultural conservatism>

And for conservatism:

1:  preservative

2a :  of or relating to a philosophy of conservatism b capitalized :  of or constituting a political party professing the principles of conservatism: such as (1) :  of or constituting a party of the United Kingdom advocating support of established institutions (2) :  progressive conservative

3a :  tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions :  traditional <conservative policies>; b :  marked by moderation or caution <a conservative estimate>;  c :  marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners <a conservative suit; a conservative architectural style>

4:  of, relating to, or practicing Conservative Judaism

The Atlantic

When Conor Friedersdorf wrote this 2012 article, roughly 40% of Americans identified as conservative. Mr. Friedersdorf pointed out that people who called themselves “conservatives” had diverse worldviews, so it would be hard to define just what an American conservative was.

During the 2012 elections, the choices before Republicans were: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Michelle Bachman, Carly Fiorina, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry. The article focuses on the first four listed here.

Friedersdorf included a list of 21 characteristics to describe American conservatives. Not all will apply to each person, but they would theoretically subscribe to a number of these beliefs, values, or points of view. Here are the first five principles.

  1. An aversion to rapid change; a belief that tradition and prevailing social norms often contain within them handed down wisdom; and mistrust of attempts to remake society so that it conforms to an abstract account of what would be just or efficient.
  2. A desire to preserve the political philosophy and rules of government articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
  3. A belief that it is imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the Bible, through cultural norms.
  4. A belief that it is imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the Bible, using cultural norms and the power of the state.
  5. An embrace of free-market capitalism, and a belief in the legitimacy of market outcomes.

Many items on the list seemed familiar to me.

The National Review

In a July 2015 newsletter published by the National Review, Johan Goldberg tries to explain what it means to be a conservative, particularly in the United States. While he starts to explain what he views as conservative, he spends more time differentiating himself from what he views as being liberal and socialist.

I take great issue with Goldberg’s view of what a liberal is, especially as he likes to accentuate the negative and assign a strict view to who liberals are. Yet Goldberg did recognize that the United States was founded on liberal principles:

The American Founding, warts and all, was the apotheosis of classical liberalism, and conservatism here has always been about preserving it. That’s why Friedrich Hayek, in his fantastic — and fantastically misunderstood — essay “Why I am Not a Conservative” could say that America was the one polity where one could be a conservative and a defender of the liberal tradition.

Additionally, Goldberg insisted that conservatism was more akin to patriotism, especially since conservatives are more apt to adhere to our founding principles and to be tolerant of different opinions. By contrast, Goldberg said that liberals were intolerant of dissent and collectivists who believed that only the right individuals could lead countries and obtain perfection.

According to Goldberg, conservatisms were more likely to accept the country as it was and to see things realistically and accept more gradual change. He said liberals were more idealistic and constantly looked for flaws.

The Conservative Mind

While reading the newsletter, I followed a link to this work by Russel Kirk. A pertinent passage comes from pages 7-8. There is a list of conservative canons, but first, consider this definition:

Any informed conservative is reluctant to condense profound and intricate intellectual systems to a few pretentious phrases; he prefers to leave that technique to the enthusiasm of radicals. Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogmata; conservatives inherit from Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time. As a working premise, nevertheless, one can observe her that the essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity. Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors (this phrase was Strafford’s, and Hooker’s before Burke illuminated it); they are dubious of wholesale alteration. They think society is a spiritual reality, possessing an eternal life but a delicate constitution: it cannot be scrapped and recast as if it were a machine.

The Six Conservative Canons

These were directly cited by Goldberg in his newsletter, but I thought I’d include them here, too:

(1) Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems …

(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; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls “Logicalism” in society …

(3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” With reason, conservatives often have been called “the party of order.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are required by conservatives; but equality of condition, they thing, means equality in servitude and boredom.

(4) Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic leveling, they maintain, is not economic progress.

(5) Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters, calculaors, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.

(6) Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.

I believe all six are adhered to today.

What Is a Reactionary?

As you can see from the chart, a reactionary is farther to the right than a conservative. As we are talking in terms of the political-spectrum, a reactionary’s counterpart is a radical. However, a reactionary is an authoritarian who may want to return society to a state that existed before and use radical means to do so.

What Is a Neoconservative?

Oddly enough, this is an easier term to define. In general neoconservatism is a more aggressive ideology. Conservative principles, like adherence to religion, are part of the ideology. But when it was developing in the 1960’s, neoconservatives viewed unchecked capitalism as a destructive force that created unfair disparities in wealth.

Today, neoconservatives believe in American exceptionalism and hold the view that America should serve as the World’s top cop. As such, they are willing to extend American might to various countries regardless of the monetary (or human) cost.

In 2011, Jack Hunter delineated regular conservatives from neoconservatives with the intervention in Libya as the backdrop. For example, Hunter compared then-freshman Senator Marco Rubio and John McCain — two who supported the intervention — to Rep. Jimmy Duncan, who opposed the Iraq War.

But this is because most Republicans didn’t think of the Iraq War as “policing the world” but as a legitimate matter of national defense. We now know that it had absolutely nothing to do with America’s defense and we’re still bogged down needlessly in another nation’s civil war.

But this has always been the neocon ruse—if neoconservatives can convince others that fighting some war, somewhere is for America’s actual defense, they will always make this argument and stretch any logic necessary to do so. Whether or not it is true is less important than its effectiveness. But their arguments are only a means to an end.

Works Cited

Ball, Terence and Dagger, Richard. “Neoconservatism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Web. Retrieved 11 May 2017. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/neoconservatism>.

“Conservatism | Definition of Conservatism by Merriam-Webster.” Merriam-Webster. Web. Retrieved 11 May 2017. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conservatism>.

“Conservative | Definition of Conservative by Merriam-Webster.” Merriam-Webster. Web. Retrieved 11 May 2017. Web. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conservative>.

Friedersdorf, Conor. “What Americans Mean When They Say They’re Conservative.” The Atlantic. 27 Jan 2012. Web. <http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/01/what-americans-mean-when-they-say-theyre-conservative/252099/>.

Goldberg, Jonah. “When We Say ‘Conservative,’ We Mean…” The G-File by Jonah Goldberg. National Review. 20 June 2015. Web. <http://www.nationalreview.com/g-file/420055/when-we-say-conservative-we-mean-jonah-goldberg>.

Hunter, Jack. “What’s a Neoconservative?” The American Conservative. 23 June 2011. Web. Retrieved 11 May 2017. <http://www.theamericanconservative.com/2011/06/23/whats-a-neoconservative/>.

Kirk, Russell. The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. Seventh Revised Edition. Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, D.C.; 1953, 1960, 1972, 1985; 2001 printing. Print. Pages 7-8.

The Political Compass. Last Updated 24 Apr 2017. Web. Retrieved 11 May 2017. <https://www.politicalcompass.org/>.

Various. “Reactionary.” Wikipedia. 11 Apr 2017. Web. Retrieved 11 May 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reactionary>.


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