Very few people understand conservatism, least of all conservatives. For most on the Right, their beliefs amount to tacit folkways, conventional wisdom, tradition, and a gut feeling that life should be kept as simple as possible and based on what has worked well in the past.
We can outline conservatism with the simple formula of “realism + excellence,” meaning that we like what produces good results in reality (not: human feelings, perceptions, and judgments) and that we want the best of all results.
For us to understand what “best” means, we have to undertake a transcendental viewpoint, or one which sees the larger order of life as more important than any immediate disadvantages. That is, life includes both good and bad so that it can stay in balance, and we strive for the good because that is our role.
The roots of conservatism come to us from the idea of conserving that which works well:
Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to protect.” It forms all or part of: conservation; conservative; conserve; hero; observance; observatory; observe; preserve; reservation; reserve; reservoir.
When you conserve something, you keep what works best, throw out what is bad, and show no concern for the mediocre. Think of a garden: you rip out doomed plants, cultivate the strong ones, and nurture the ones in the middle the best you can, until you can replace them with the seeds from the strong ones for the next season.
In order to do this however you have to want a thriving garden. For most humans, subsistence proves enough; that is, they throw down some seeds, water them, and hope for the best. If things do not turn out, well, it was the will of the gods.
The desire for thriving as opposed to merely surviving requires the concept of excellent or arete:
important concept in Greek philosophy, “rank, nobility, moral virtue, excellence,” especially of manly qualities; literally “that which is good,” a word of uncertain origin.
This requires a belief in an order larger than the individual in which some things turn out better than others according to the rules of that order. Conservatives tend to talk about natural order, meaning the best rise, the worst fall, and the rest muck on through at a subsistence level.
Adaptation, which all species must undergo, consists of responding to consistent tendencies of our world, or its natural order. We understand it through principles, or heuristic approximations of its tendencies, with the best of those enduring through time to be eternal or true in any era.
This leads to conservatism as a type of folkway, or shared lifestyle and customs, which reflects these fundamental principles. From that, we get the idea of conservatism as translated to a philosophy:
Conservatism is a preference for the historically inherited rather than the abstract and ideal. This preference has traditionally rested on an organic conception of society—that is, on the belief that society is not merely a loose collection of individuals but a living organism comprising closely connected, interdependent members. Conservatives thus favour institutions and practices that have evolved gradually and are manifestations of continuity and stability. Government’s responsibility is to be the servant, not the master, of existing ways of life, and politicians must therefore resist the temptation to transform society and politics.
This tells us a few things: conservatives favor the organic, or that which preceded naturally from our origins, and prefer gradual change based in the highly particular, localized, specific, and realistic. We value continuity and stability — sort of like steering a ship — and we view institutions as servants of culture, itself an organic outgrowth of a people.
Contrast this to Leftism:
Left: In politics, the portion of the political spectrum associated in general with egalitarianism and popular or state control of the major institutions of political and economic life. The term dates from the 1790s, when in the French revolutionary parliament the socialist representatives sat to the presiding officer’s left. Leftists tend to be hostile to the interests of traditional elites, including the wealthy and members of the aristocracy, and to favour the interests of the working class (see proletariat). They tend to regard social welfare as the most important goal of government. Socialism is the standard leftist ideology in most countries of the world; communism is a more radical leftist ideology.
Leftism serves as the political arm of the philosophy of egalitarianism, which is the idea that all people are equal or should be made equal. That effectively removes social hierarchies and replaces them with political ones, which requires strong government to fill in the gaps of many unofficial institutions and functions.
Although it seems paradoxical, egalitarianism is a form of utilitarianism, or “whatever most say that they think is best,” designed to defend individualism, or the individual coming first before social order. We can see its Enlightenment™ origins in its parent approach liberalism:
Liberalism is derived from two related features of Western culture. The first is the West’s preoccupation with individuality, as compared to the emphasis in other civilizations on status, caste, and tradition. Throughout much of history, the individual has been submerged in and subordinate to his clan, tribe, ethnic group, or kingdom. Liberalism is the culmination of developments in Western society that produced a sense of the importance of human individuality, a liberation of the individual from complete subservience to the group, and a relaxation of the tight hold of custom, law, and authority. In this respect, liberalism stands for the emancipation of the individual. See also individualism.
Liberalism also derives from the practice of adversariality in European political and economic life, a process in which institutionalized competition—such as the competition between different political parties in electoral contests, between prosecution and defense in adversary procedure, or between different producers in a market economy (see monopoly and competition)—generates a dynamic social order. Adversarial systems have always been precarious, however, and it took a long time for the belief in adversariality to emerge from the more traditional view, traceable at least to Plato, that the state should be an organic structure, like a beehive, in which the different social classes cooperate by performing distinct yet complementary roles.
In other words, liberalism and Leftism both function through adversariality, or breaking society into conflicting groups with the hope that somehow, a compromise or middle ground can be found that also represents a good decision.
Conservatives, on the other hand, emphasize unity not to the group or individuals, but to intangible abstracts — heritage, culture, tradition, customs, aesthetics, lifeways, faith — that produce a social order, or context and framework larger than the individual and its choices.
Consider what research tells us about conservatives:
A meta-analysis (88 samples, 12 countries, 22,818 cases) confirms that several psychological variables predict political conservatism: death anxiety (weighted mean r=.50); system instability (.47); dogmatism-intolerance of ambiguity (.34); openness to experience (-.32); uncertainty tolerance (-.27); needs for order, structure, and closure (.26); integrative complexity (-.20); fear of threat and loss (.18); and self-esteem (-.09). The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat.
Conservatives dislike uncertainty, new experience, unnecessary complexity, instability, egotism/individualism, disorder, and threats. They favor the time-proven, certain, structured, ordered, stable, healthy, clean, and shared.
In general, conservatives prefer order to self-expression:
Liberals’ offices were judged as significantly more distinctive, comfortable, stylish, modern, and colorful and as less conventional and ordinary, in comparison with conservatives’ offices, Jost said.
“Conservative rooms tended to be cleaner, more brightly lit, better organized, less cluttered, and also more conventional and ordinary in terms of decoration,” Jost said during a panel discussion on “The Neuroscience of Elections and Human Decision-Making” at NYU, adding: “Conservatives’ rooms were rated by independent raters as better organized and tidier in general.”
They experience this through an intense conservative imagination that foresees longer-term possibilities of different actions:
By analyzing the effects of individual differences in imagination, we demonstrate that political cognition relies on vivid, mental simulations that engage evolved social and emotional decision-making mechanisms.
This preference likely originates in genetic preferences of conservatives:
The results indicate that genetics plays an important role in shaping political attitudes and ideologies but a more modest role in forming party identification; as such, they call for finer distinctions in theorizing about the sources of political attitudes.
This imagination produces an intense sense of disgust for failing ideas and conservative benevolent xenophobia which reflects the idea that lack of order — which includes accepting foreigners, despite knowing that their advantage lies in conquering you — is disgusting, like any other kind of contagion or dirt:
More recent investigations by Petersen and Aarøe suggest that those with high disgust sensitivity tend to be leery of any stranger, not just foreigners. They view casual social acquaintances with a certain amount of suspicion—a robust finding replicated across three studies with a total of 4,400 participants. The implication is clear: Disgust and distrust are somehow linked.
In other words, conservatives perceive human life as fragile. They see civilization and the family as a prerequisite for order, and view both of those as fragile as well. This causes them to want a strong order-driven response, an aggressive and masculine one, in order to preserve those things.
Not surprisingly, people who perceive danger want masculine leaders and are willing to forego novelty and self-expression for that stability:
Recent research finds that political candidates and leaders with dominant, masculine physical features are more preferred under conditions of conflict than of cooperation…Using large approximately nationally representative surveys of 2,009 Poles and Ukrainians fielded during the Crimea crisis in 2014, we find that preferences for leader dominance are exclusively driven by the intuition that dominant leaders are better able to facilitate aggressive responses during social conflict and that these preferences are regulated by contextual conditions and individual predispositions related to such responses.
This gives us insight into the conservative mind. Driven by imagination, it sees threats in the long term that others do not recognize, and perceives threats to social and familial order as being as destructive as direct threats to individuals.
Conservatives see these fragile orders as essential for protecting the individual, but know that the human tendency toward self-expression can quickly erode such things. As a byproduct of being sensitive, they are also wary, and this causes them to adopt strong leaders.
As if showing us the other half of the coin, high testosterone men in positions of power tend to be conservative, where those with low power tend to take more reckless risks:
Among individuals high in power motivation, the experience of power leads to more conservative decisions. As testosterone is associated with the pursuit of power and status (Dabbs & Dabbs, 2000), we reasoned that high‐testosterone individuals primed with power might be similarly risk‐avoidant. Conversely, we hypothesized that high‐testosterone individuals primed with low power, would see risk‐taking as a vehicle for pursuing potential gains to their status and resources. We report findings from two experiments that are consistent with these predictions. In Experiment 1, higher testosterone males (as indicated by second–fourth digit ratio) showed greater risk‐taking when primed with low power. Experiment 2 replicated this effect and also showed that when primed with high power, higher testosterone males took fewer risks.
We could see these as two sides of conservatism. When things are bad, take risks, because without being able to establish order, all is lost; when things are good, avoid risks, because you are now protecting order against the raging tendency toward egotism of the human group.
Not surprisingly, strong and attractive men tend to avoid egalitarianism:
We found that as hypothesized, muscularity and waist–chest ratio in males, and self-perceived attractiveness in both sexes, tended to associate significantly in the predicted directions with the four egalitarianism measures; most of these correlations were of medium size.
In fact, stronger men emphasize natural selection over egalitarianism through their endorsement of dominance through competence and pushing aside the less capable, among those who are also successful:
In studies conducted in Argentina, Denmark, and the United States, men with greater upper-body strength more strongly endorsed the self-beneficial position: Among men of lower socioeconomic status (SES), strength predicted increased support for redistribution; among men of higher SES, strength predicted increased opposition to redistribution.
Since this has a genetic root, it suggests that the same tendencies that make men conservative make them successful.
In addition, it shows us the difference between individuality and individualism. When analyzed, individualism means a fatalistic withdrawal from the world while individuality emphasizes bonding with the world:
The French aristocratic political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59) described individualism in terms of a kind of moderate selfishness that disposed humans to be concerned only with their own small circle of family and friends. Observing the workings of the American democratic tradition for Democracy in America (1835–40), Tocqueville wrote that by leading “each citizen to isolate himself from his fellows and to draw apart with his family and friends,” individualism sapped the “virtues of public life,” for which civic virtue and association were a suitable remedy.
This individualism means isolation, atomization, and pursuit of the self at the expense of both the world and the self, which now since it cannot bond with the world, necessarily has very little power, even when it is “successful” in the game of civilization.
Individualism of this nature in groups leads to egalitarianism, or the idea that everyone is treated the same so that none can rise above the rest with the masculine hierarchical impulse of the conservative, which shows us that individualism in groups becomes mutual isolation as a means of interrupting hierarchy and natural selection:
An egalitarian favors equality of some sort: People should get the same, or be treated the same, or be treated as equals, in some respect. An alternative view expands on this last-mentioned option: People should be treated as equals, should treat one another as equals, should relate as equals, or enjoy an equality of social status of some sort. Egalitarian doctrines tend to rest on a background idea that all human persons are equal in fundamental worth or moral status.
Someone with individuality has no need for individualism; they intend to rise to their place in a hierarchy and benefit from the social order created by this process. Those who fear being ranked below others, or the possibility of failing and being wrong, are low in terms of power and therefore seek to limit the power of others rather than hope to increase their own.
Through this, we see the split between conservatism and Leftism: the conservatives want individuality, but the Leftists want individualism with egalitarianism to protect it. This leads to both parties using the same language — fairness, order, benefit — but meaning entirely different things by it, and that linguistic confusion then further confuses conservatives about what they are.