Politics & Media
Feb 09, 2010, 06:15AM

Defining conservatism

"Conservatism is not essentially a polemic: it is first an exposition, a meta-narrative of existence based upon actual lived experience and common practice."

Much of what is now called conservatism is nothing but right-wing liberalism. Conservatism is not opposition to homosexual marriage or abortion or premarital sex or post-modernism or socialism. It is not fundamentalism, six-day creationism, Republicanism, or even the commitment to spread democracy. Conservatism is not reactionary—it is traditional, but not for tradition’s own sake. 

  • There are a few fundamental problems with this piece: one, a naive modernist belief in universal "progress," that things are getting better everywhere and that everything "passed down" by "culture" contributes to increasing social stability and quality of life for all members of the "polis" (the "polis" of course would have exluded quite a few people). This sunny faith in the master-narrative of western civilization went out of fashion with the functionalists and evolutionary cultural anthropologists of the early 20th century. If conservativism were really "based upon actual lived experience and common practice" then the author could not possibly make this argument. The second and more severe problem is the fact that the author seems to believe that his thoughtful, philosophically grounded definition of "conservatism" has any currency for anyone, especially for modern conservatives (like the teabaggers and neocons) whose mass movements have little interest in Burke and Augustine. It's kind of like saying "You gourmet food enthusiasts aren't epicures! Epicures are the followers of the philosopher Epicurus!" The definition of "conservative" has changed, and a silly insistence on some largely imaginary root meaning of the word is pointless.

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  • Fantastically well said, Ari. For anything remotely resembling classical conservatism (or pretty much conservatism that isn't inherently political, look to an Andrew Sullivan or a David Frum. The more they get attacked by the rump end of the Republican Party, the more it proves your point that classical conservatism has very little currency with the politicians conservatives actually elect.

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  • I bow to you, Ari. This also elides fear as a root, cause and justification of much conservatism, which Andrew convincingly argued for recently. To me, it's fear that defines modern conservatism, not tradition.

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