Having finished Thomas Pangle’s course on the Constitution1, I started Patrick N. Allitt’s course on The Conservative Tradition2. In an early lecture, he mentions the conservatism of the federalists, and several conservative features in the Constitution.
When thinking about Professor Pangle’s course, I associated the Anti-Federalists with populist conservatives today (I would include Tea Party conservatism as an example of populist conservatism); by contrast, I made an association of Federalists writing in favor of a stronger central government with a more liberal wing of thought, at least in today’s terms.
Professor Allitt, however, thinks the Federalists are conservatives, that stable government is conservative and those parts of the Federalist argument and of the Constitution which promote stability are also conservative. He considers the fact that the Senate was not popularly elected to be a conservative element; he also thinks that elements which seek to reign in the tyranny of the majority are also conservative.
David Brooks, in his book the The Social Animal, makes the point that the adult personality is defined in opposition to one’s natural enemies in high school. When choosing our political beliefs, we think about what that group in high school we didn’t like probably thinks, and then decide to think the opposite. Professor Allitt makes the point that certain political beliefs considered fundamental to conservatives in America are not at all so in Britain, and vice-versa. Chris Mooney writes, in The Republican Brain, that innate temperamental differences between the brains of conservatives and liberals cause their different political views; Kevin Drum, in a response in Mother Jones3, takes issue with that. Noting that in America the two issues which most strongly divide liberals and conservatives are climate change and evolution, Drum points out that conservative Catholics don’t deny evolution, and that mainstream European conservatives don’t deny climate science. To a large degree, we choose our group, and then adopt their beliefs; or in David Brooks’ telling, we choose the group we oppose, then adopt beliefs that are in opposition to those that group holds.
We have mentioned populist conservatism and what might be called “stability” conservatism. There are certainly other variations of conservative and liberal thought, often likely without clear boundaries between them. Delineating a taxonomy of conservative and liberal beliefs will require gathering details from scientific studies on how conservative and liberal brains differ; from psychological studies on how we form groups and beliefs; and from history and current events to capture the variety of conservative and liberal beliefs and understand how our political beliefs evolve. I hope to return to this topic many times.