What is Conservatism?
A review of "Conservatism" by Edmund Neill
Polity, 180 pages, 2021
Ask any political theorist and they will tell you that conservatism is a strange doctrine. Conservatives often claim to be speaking on behalf of the old against the new and faddish; only changing what they must to conserve what they can. Yet instead of being as old as the traditions it seeks to conserve, conservatism emerged after both liberalism and even progressive radicalism, mainly as a response to the violent egalitarianism of the revolutionary era. Many understand conservatism to be about support for a set of policies: immigration restriction, encoding various religious values into legislation, pro-capitalism, pro-military, and pro-police. Yet conservative parties and movements have simultaneously declared that “government is the problem” and instituted some of the world’s first welfare reforms; they have prescribed international intervention to remake the world and also pursued strict isolationism; they have declared themselves both pious defenders and critics of freedom. These ideological tensions sometimes play out in real time, such as when conservative activists articulate the importance of free speech but later flirt with making critical race theory illegal.
One might instead take a philosophical reading and see conservatism as less about preserving traditions, or support for a specific set of policies, and more about honoring certain enduring principles. But what are the enduring principles supposed to be? For example, many American conservatives claim to support classical liberalism, which is decidedly not a conservative doctrine. Also, do illiberal right-wing movements in Europe count as conservative? If so, what conservative principles are they honoring that conservatives of a more liberal stripe are not? Some have tried to avoid these problems by following Russell Kirk in arguing that conservatism is less a political creed than an attitude or disposition. But if that is the case then why have conservatives been optimists and pessimists, stodgy uncles insisting we clean our rooms and emulate the lobster and countercultural trolls seeking to own liberal elites, radicals willing to stage counterrevolutions and incrementalists favoring measured politics and even more measured tones?