Well, you might say you are. But are you sure?
In order to answer this question, you need first to be able to distinguish “conservative” from what is actually a form of liberalism.”
The below is an extremely abridged and woefully sloppy summary, but no matter how sloppy I am here, this is still preferable to the misnomers that are being flung about in public discourse.
Let me state, first: American society is essentially a liberal society, and always has been. The founding of America could, in fact, be seen as a reaction against a conservative regime: it was certainly NOT a reaction against imperialism, since the colonists were themselves colonizers, and since imperialist expansion has always been intimately connected with what is romantically called the “American Dream.”
Our government is founded on liberal enlightenment principles of individual liberty, and equal rights protected by a nation-state.
Classical liberalism is that development of the liberal tradition that emphasizes free-market capitalism, with the emphasis on minimal government regulation and faith in the “invisible hand.” Arguments in favor of limited government regulation of markets are not conservative: they are classically liberal.
The greatest gift of the liberal tradition has perhaps been in its alliance with movements for liberation, such as women’s suffrage, or the abolition of serfdom and slavery. Left-wing liberalism, the outgrowth of “new liberalism” of, continues to emphasize equality, and is also associated with social programs for alleviating the poverty of those whom the invisible hand had mysteriously failed to help.
In America, those on the Right remain dedicated to classical liberal ideas about individual autonomy, limited government, and free markets, while embracing some (but only some) socially conservative ideas.
Right-wing liberals often mistake themselves for conservatives, and mistake those on the Left for socialists.
What is conservatism, then?
The conservative ethos is sharply differentiated from liberalism, first, in that it is suspicious of any philosophical attempts to present a universal code for human happiness, especially if these attempts involve divorcing themselves from tradition and authority. Utopia is anathema to a conservative code.
Conservatism tends to view hierarchical structures of governance not as inventions arising from a social contract, but corresponding to some divine order. These hierarchical structures carry with them not so much rights as responsibilities: each person has a specific responsibility to community, dependent on his status (or her status, but conservatives are patriarchal).
Conservatism embraces a class structure as a mode of preserving variety. Conservative societies may have racist tendencies, because racist tendencies exist in the western tradition – but the fundamental distinctions are less of race, ethnicity, or nationality, and more of class. A example of this would be in King Solomon’s Mines, when the African warrior Umbopa says to the English Sir Henry, “we are men, thou and I.” The recognition of the warrior caste (and yes, the patriarchal one) transcends any racial barrier between them.
Class structure has to do with social class, NOT with money. Within a conservative society, “new money” men may be regarded with suspicion, especially if those who have earned money have done so by any unethical manipulations of the market: such behavior is not gentlemanly. Being a gentleman is itself more than just behavior: it pertains to an actual place in a set social code. But gentlemanly identity is safeguarded by a certain propriety that is considered the responsibility of the gentleman, and which is dominated by the virtue of magnanimity.He (yes, he) also has a responsibility to care for anyone under him in the hierarchical structure. The idea of separation of “citizen” from “government” – or of not depending on the government for assistance – simply is not an issue in a conservative society.
The idea of an unregulated market does not exist in the conservative creed, because conservative regimes emphasize the need to check human behavior, including market behavior, by means of rules of order, based in moral law, and codes of correct behavior. The medieval guilds, for instance, were strenuously regulated.
Conservatism values nature, though not in the same way contemporary environmentalists do. The man who wastes resources or despoils a fine field or forest would considered a wastrel, because nature has its place in the tradition. The conservative landowner has a responsibility to, well, conserve.
Conservatism is reluctant to embrace any sudden changes.
Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles” are a good resource for understanding conservatism, at least through an American lens. Myself, I prefer to point to the behavior of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice: a man who upholds tradition, maintains his estates, and cares for those who are beneath him in the class structure. Mr. Darcy is both a private citizen and a part of a network of social governance: there is no strict divide between “the government” and “the individual” in his life. He is a gentleman, and therefore will look only to other gentlemen (regardless of ethnicity or nationality) for equality. His is a patriarchal code, which makes him infuriating to feminists, but also anathema to sexual abusers, aggressors, and pussy-grabbers of any ilk.
The idea of boot-strapping one’s way to wealth and power – the idea of “any man can be president” – these are not “true conservative” ideas. A true conservative would really prefer a king, and to have a place at court.
Of course, you might also be a neo-conservative, which means your roots are actually with Leon Trotsky (I know, weird, right?). Or you might be a lite fascist. I do hope not: that’s not a nice thing to be.
So, are you a conservative? If so, I tip my hat to you (imagine me a sort of George Sand, riding by on horseback, as gentlemanly a lady as one might imagine). You are a rare bird, indeed, and probably not at home in the current political milieu. I hope you have some old port laid down, so that you can take refuge in your paneled library and drink to the point of hilarity, because as a true conservative, you are going to need all the hilarity you can get, to deal with the outrages of this vulgar, upstart regime that shares none of your principles. “O tempora, o mores,” you may say, and sip, and sip again. “What DO they teach them, in these schools?”
Links for further reading:
image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Darcy_%C3%A0_Netherfield.jpg