Contemporary Conservatism Research Paper

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1. Definition

An initial problem that arises in attempting to define conservatism is whether it is a theory or simply an attitude towards change. Most dictionary definitions incline toward the attitudinal definition, describing conservatism as a preference for existing institutions, and opposition to change. With this definition the content of conservatism will vary depending on whatever is the current institutional and ideological status quo. Yet the writers, parties, and movements that have described themselves as conservative share a number of common values and doctrines, which typically include theories of human nature, history, society, and politics.

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The term ‘conservatism’ was first used in England after the 1833 Reform Act when the Tory Party, which had roots going back to the late seventeenth century, renamed itself the Conservative Party. The central doctrines of conservatism were expressed before the word was invented, most notably in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), where we can find most of the central doctrines of conservatism, developed in response to the liberal and radical thinking of the French revolutionaries. In opposition to their demand for liberty, Burke stressed the values of order, tradition, and gradual change. Against the revolutionaries’ call for equality, Burke stressed society’s need for hierarchy, deference, class differentials, and a special position for the church and the nobility. In opposition to the radical individualism of the French, he insisted on the importance of community, tradition, and history. He criticized the anti-institutional rationalism of the revolutionaries by stressing the importance of social institutions that have stood the test of time, and the weakness and fallibility of individual reason. Against their centralizing statism, he lauded the ‘little platoons’ of localism as defenders of liberty, and contrary to their anticlericalism, he praised the elevating effect of inherited religious beliefs.

In developing these ideas Burke was able to draw on the Western tradition, classical ideas of natural law, Christian views of hierarchy and man’s inherited inclination to evil, as well as medieval practices of localism and/organic corporate groups. Although himself an adherent of the Whig Party, his ideas were influential not only on the thinking of the British Conservative Party, but on conservative parties and movements elsewhere in Europe, and later in the United States. As originally expressed, their emphasis on order over freedom, hierarchy over equality, religion over anticlericalism, localism over centralism, and community over the individual stood in marked contrast to the liberal doctrines that they criticized.

2. European Conservatism

In the political struggles of nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European conservative parties drew on the conservative tradition to defend the interests of property, the upper classes, the military, and the church, and appealed to nationalist and patriotic feelings in support of their programs. Their efforts were not restricted to the defense of class and privilege. In 1867, hoping to secure lower class support for ‘tory democracy,’ Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative Prime Minister in England, extended the suffrage. Otto von Bismarck initiated a program of social insurance in Germany to counteract socialist appeals; and Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical, Rerum No arum, defended the living wage for the worker, and promoted the organization of trade unions (preferably under church auspices) while denouncing the extremes of liberalism and socialism. Less laudably, conservative parties in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere, in the twentieth century, sometimes allied themselves with or supported extreme rightists and even fascists and Nazis, seeing them as a bulwark against Communism. Hitler, for example, was able to come to power legally because of the votes of German conservatives.

The conservative impulse continues to be important in European politics. Since the 1833 Reform Act the British Conservative Party has been in power much longer than any other party. On the continent Christian Democratic centrist parties often work together with conservative groupings, linked by their commitment to religion, and to a ‘social market economy.’ Twentieth-century conservatives, despite earlier hostility to market forces, have increasingly embraced free enterprise economics. They have been critical of European economic and political integration on nationalist grounds. Nationalist resistance to foreign immigration also accounts for some of the support for conservative parties and movements.

3. Conservatism In America

In The Liberal Tradition in America, published in 1955, Louis Hartz argued that with the exception of a few Southerners, notably John C. Calhoun, Americans were all Lockean liberals, and that European-style conservatism was absent from the American political scene (Hartz 1955). Ironically at the very time that his book was published, a genuine and self-conscious conservative movement had begun to emerge on the American scene. Russell Kirk had published The Conservative Mind (Kirk 1953) arguing that Burke rather than Locke should be the model for America. At the University of Chicago, the German emigre political theorist, Leo Strauss, published Natural Right and History (Strauss 1953), which attacked Locke as a proto-Hobbesian and denigrated the natural-rights tradition in favor of classical models of politics, especially that of Plato. Another emigre, Erich Voegelin, appeared on the cover of Time magazine after he published The New Science of Politics—in which he associated communism, liberalism, and revolutionism with a Christian heresy, gnosticism, that attempted to establish heaven on earth (Voegelin 1952). Whittaker Chambers, who had accused Alger Hiss of spying for the Soviet Union, also linked Communism and liberal utopianism in his book, Witness (Chambers 1952). In 1955 William Buckley, the enfant terrible who had earlier published God and Man at Yale, an attack on the dominance of secular and leftist views at his alma mater, founded The National Review as a journal to promote conservative political and economic thought. Combining militant anti-Communism, the defense of traditional values, and the promotion of free enterprise economics, it became the principal organ of the conservative movement in America.

Together these publications formed the intellectual basis of the conservative movement in mid-twentieth-century America. As in the case of William Buckley, their conservatism was also linked to free-enterprise economics, as defended in the writings of two University of Chicago economists, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. In The Road to Serfdom (Hayek 1944) and later works, Hayek argued that the growth of government threatened liberty and stifled the economy, while Friedman’s 1955 lectures, published as Capitalism and Freedom (Friedman 1962) developed similar themes, as well as making innovative proposals to increase competition and privatize government functions, many of which were adopted in later decades. Their arguments were based on classical economic liberalism, but in the American context the two economists were viewed as conservative since they defended the existing capitalist system. In addition, their common hostility to Communism linked them to the social and political conservatives in the newly burgeoning movement.

The conservative movement became a major factor in national politics with the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964. After Goldwater’s defeat, Ronald Reagan became the movement’s leader. Promising to revitalize national defense against the Soviet Union, restore moral values, and downsize the welfare state and reduce the scope of the federal government, he led the conservative wing of the Republican party to victory in the presidential election of 1980. In the late 1970s, the conservative movement received sup-port from a new group, the Neo-Conservatives, former liberal intellectuals who criticized what they perceived to be liberal weakness in the face of the Communist threat, and rejected the excesses of the New Left counterculture that had emerged in the 1960s (Kristol 1983). They provided key policy makers to the Reagan administration in the areas of defense and education, while the free market economists directed economic policy, cutting taxes and welfare programs.

4. The Religious Right

Conservatism in America had often been an elite phenomenon, but the Religious Right gave it a broader populist base. Building on the religious opposition to the Supreme Court decisions outlawing school prayer and recognizing a constitutional right to abortion, conservative churchmen, mostly but not exclusively evangelical Protestants, organized the Moral Majority, and later the Christian Coalition, to reverse what they saw as a liberal tendency to secularism and toleration of immorality. They also shared with other conservatives opposition to the Soviet Union, and a belief in free market economics. In the 1990s, they opposed the gay rights movements, and the increasing toleration of homosexuality in America. They became an important pressure group within the Republican Party, effectively vetoing candidates for national office who favored abortion, and pressing for the appointment of Supreme Court justices who were sympathetic to their views.

5. Tensions Within Conservatism

American conservatism contains within it many different currents. Ronald Reagan and the Soviet threat could hold its various strands together, but with the end of the Cold War there were increasing tensions among them, in particular as to whether social and moral issues, or downsizing government and encouraging free markets, should be given priority in public policy. Concern about moral decline, a frequent conservative theme (Bennett 1993) and issues such as abortion, gay rights, and public prayer became the subject of Culture Wars (Hunter 1991) from local school districts to the Supreme Court.

The members of the Supreme Court, most of them appointed by Republican presidents, became deeply divided along conservative–liberal lines, both as to theories of constitutional interpretation—‘original position’ vs. ‘the living constitution,’ federal-state relations—and as to the rights of the individual against those of society. Decisions by a 5–4 majority were frequent, and the question of the ideological sympathies of future Supreme Court appointees was an issue in the 2000 presidential campaign.

6. The Future Of Conservatism

A line in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta asserts that ‘every little boy and girl alive, is either a liberal or a conservative.’ It seems that conservatism, in the sense of a reluctance to make rapid and wholesale change, is related to a continuing need in the human psyche. It also expresses a general set of preferences about politics and society that undergirds the ideology and program of many political parties and movements. While there may be a broad ideological consensus on the values of democracy and market economics, there will continue to be debate about the relation of the individual to society, the respective demands of freedom and/order, the extent to which equality is necessary or desirable, the proper allocation of roles to state and non-state actors, and the need for mediating institutions and local self-government. As long as this is the case, a future role for conservativism as a theory and ideology seems assured.


  1. Bennett W J 1993 The Book of Virtues. Simon and Schuster, New York
  2. Burke E 1984 (1790) Reflections on the Revolution in France. Viking Penguin, New York
  3. Chambers W 1952 Witness. Random House, New York
  4. Friedman M 1962 Capitalism and Freedom. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  5. Hartz L 1955 The Liberal Tradition in America. Harcourt Brace, New York
  6. Hayek F A 1944 The Road to Serfdom. Routledge, London
  7. Hunter J D 1991 Culture Wars. Basic, New York
  8. Kirk R 1953 The Conservative Mind. Regnery, Chicago
  9. Kristol I 1983 Reflections of a Neo-conservative. Basic, New York
  10. Nash G 1976 The Conservatie Intellectual Movement in America. Basic, New York
  11. O’Gorman F 1986 British Conservatism. Longman, New York
  12. Strauss L 1953 Natural Right and History. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  13. Voegelin E 1952 The New Science of Politics. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
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