The Purpose of Conservatism

The Purpose of Conservatism August 19, 2020


It isn’t enough these days to say you are “conservative,” since there are many different kinds of conservatives.  (Are you a free market libertarian or an economic nationalist?  Are you a neo-conservative who believes in exporting Democracy at the point of a gun, or are you a cultural conservative committed to religion and family values?  And if that’s what you are, are you a traditionalist, an integralist, or a localist?)

Nathanael Blake, writing in The Federalist, offers one of the best brief explanations of conservatism I have come across, one which still allows for different perspectives.

In his article entitled The Right Needs More Than Resurrected Reaganism To Beat The Left, he takes issue with conservatives today who still hold up Ronald Reagan as their guide and their model, both for ideology and for policies.  Blake agrees that Reagan was a great president, but he was responding to the issues of his time.  His emphasis on the military was appropriate in dealing with the Cold War, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans should always be throwing their military weight around.  His free market economics and tax cuts brought prosperity to a nation that had been crippled by New Deal liberalism, but that doesn’t mean that the nation would always benefit from free trade globalism.

We have new issues and different contexts today, Blake writes.  Conservatives need to focus on the causes that Reagan’s policies were designed to protect.   Then he offers these reflections on the purpose of conservatism:

We must renew our understanding of the purpose of conservatism, which is to promote human flourishing by preserving the political, social, and economic orders that have enabled past and present well-being. As with everything human, these orders are imperfect. But conservatives recognize that destruction is easier than construction, that building a civilization takes generations, while its downfall can come quickly. We know that the radicals who want to burn it all down in a purifying fire will not build anything better.

Conservatives, therefore, have a dual task. We must repulse the radicals and ideologues on all sides who would destroy a good civilization to make way for their imagined ideal one. But we must also undertake tasks of repair and reform to maintain and improve our cultural and political dwelling place. Tradition, as the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer has observed, is not passive but must be renewed and reinterpreted with the generations.

Therefore, conservatives would be wise to address populist concerns with something other than zombie Reaganism. We should recall that the American dream is not primarily about the opportunity for a lucky or exceptional few to get fabulously rich, although we should not envy their success. Rather, the American dream is about the common man having an honest job, a home, a family, and a place in the community in which he can be known, recognized, and respected.

This is the way of life that conservatives must promote and protect. It may be threatened in myriad ways, and so we must not allow the policies of a prior generation of conservative leaders to be treated as the eternal principles of conservatism. We must not allow the dangers of socialism to blind us to the emerging threat of a woke oligarchy.

Notice that conservatives must oppose “the radicals and ideologues on all sides who would destroy a good civilization to make way for their imagined ideal one.”  That would include not only the imagined ideal civilizations of the left (the classless society that will be built on the rubble of the revolution; the socialist utopia, etc.) but also the imagined ideal civilizations from the right as well (the integralists’ renewed empire under the Pope; the dominionist theocracy, etc.).


Photo: Ronald Reagan.  This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 198600., Public Domain,  Via Wikimedia Commons

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