As I get to the end of Patrick Allitt’s lectures on The Conservative Tradition, he summarizes the different strands of conservatism. While our political discussion these days seems to take place in a two-dimensional world, more or less conservative, more or less liberal, I’m struck at the three dimensional world of conservatism that Professor Allitt lays out.
As a prologue, perhaps, Professor Allitt returns to the notion that conservatives believe in stability, and gradual change, a notion which traces its roots back to Edmund Burke. But Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, emphasizes the revolutionary spirit at the core of conservatism, as in the Reagan Revolution. The main difference between these two forces, one quiet, the other forceful, depends on whether conservatives feel they are in power and in control of their society. In Burke’s time, conservatives were in power, and his notion was to conserve; Reaganites, by contrast, and today’s Tea Partiers, sense a society out of their control, and want to take the nation back in a way that requires a bit of the revolutionary spirit.
Professor Allitt, a historian analyzing people and events empirically, categorizes conservatives into Paleoconservatives (Traditionalists), Neoconservatives, Theoconservatives, and Libertarians. They do not all get along! But it is the several poles that make conservatism three dimensional.
One pole has the modesty of the Traditionalists at one end and the vigor of the Neoconservatives at the other. The Traditionalists want small, modest government; the Neoconservatives a government strong enough to project itself in the world. The concern of the Traditionalists is that a government forceful in foreign affairs will be so large and complex that it can’t help but be forceful in domestic affairs, as well.
But the Traditionalists and the Neoconservatives tend to share in a strong sense of group identity; for the Neoconservatives it is a more abstract notion of an America that needs to wield its power in foreign affairs in order to protect itself from its enemies, and extend its influence into the world. Traditionalists tend to see a relatively homogeneous society which must be kept so. This leads to opposition to immigration, and opposition to a secularism which believes in diversity. The other end of this pole might be the Libertarians, focusing on the freedom of individuals rather than the cohesiveness of the group.
Another, related pole has virtue at one end and individual liberty at the other. The Traditionalists, and particularly its religious conservative strand, believe that virtue should be the guiding principle of society, a virtue which should be enforced. The Libertarians believe very strongly in the other end of the pole, individual liberty. Another perspective on this pole has on one end a belief in hierarchy and some disdain for egalitarianism; the other end of the pole is, again, a strong sense of individual liberty and a government and society which do not intrude into individual’s lives.
The notion of virtue itself creates another pole, evident even in recent conservative thought. Many traditionalists have been historically and continue today to be repulsed by modernism and commercial society, retreating into an appreciation of agrarian society, or at least small-town society. The other end of this pole sees virtue in economic liberty, in rugged capitalism, and its heroes in capitalists, though often personified in small businesspersons.
This three-dimensionality of conservatism lends a richness to it, if at the cost of some clutter. As this investigation continues and we view conservatism from different perspectives, historical, psychological, evolutionary, it will be necessary to keep this diversity in mind.