What does it mean to be ‘conservative?’


A glance into the archives of the American conservative tradition reveals whatever a given viewer might already believe. Within the Anglo-American liberal tradition, ever since Edmund Burke (1729-1797), there has existed something of an identity crisis. The question of “what is to be a ‘conservative?’” has dogged, and embittered conversations in right-wing circles for centuries. Nowadays, as the left flagellates its members, masturbates at the altar of division and the Republican party kicks the can down the road with unlimited spending, the question arises: what is it even to be a “conservative?”

Two astute attempts to answer this question have arisen over the past year from both sides of the Atlantic. Between both of these answers I believe is a window into the predicament the American right finds itself in today. The first of these answers comes from Sir Roger Scruton, a British peer and professor of philosophy. In April, Scruton was fired and then reinstated from a U.K. government advisory role after being perjured by British media, a situation the mild-mannered Scruton handled with poise and grace. He has since then made a number of public appearances all of which have centered around his 2018 book “Conservatism – An Introduction to the Great Tradition.”

The book is a succinct, warm, historically-minded review of the Anglo-Liberal tradition. Combining the shyness of Sir Isaiah Berlin and Scruton’s own Yorkshire wit, Scruton penned a read that is wholly worthwhile. So then, but what is his answer to what it means to be a “Conservative?” For Sir Scruton, to be a Conservative is to belong to the tradition of Anglo-Liberalism. What this means, namely, is to embrace plurality, liberty, tradition, personal freedom and, above all, to be alert to the use of force by the state. At 75 and as a man who used to smuggle banned books into the U.S.S.R., Sir Scrunton has expressed his fears for the future repeatedly and he has especially expressed his fears for the future of the West.

On the other side of the Atlantic however, another answer has arisen, this coming from Washington Post columnist George Will. Where Scruton emphasizes tradition, Will emphasizes a “conservative sensibility” that embraces change. For Will, this “sensibility” is one that is open to the possibilities of ever evolving change. Will would say that those of this sensibility reject what Friedrich von Hayek called the “fatal conceit.” This “conceit” is the idea that change has to come in centralized rhythmic patterns, arrogantly constructed by government. Will greets this love of free progress, public choice, free association and plurality with candor. In this sensibility, Will represents his own character as an outlier in the mainstream American right. A staunch atheist, environmentalist, and defender of capitalism, Will has drawn equal criticism from all corners.

However, as numerous reviewers have noted, both of these books are noticeably absent of one particular word: Trump. In a world increasingly consumed with attention to one man, Will asserts that President Trump “just isn’t interesting.” Yet, while Will is correct in saying that the media’s coverage of the president is prosaic and affected, he knowingly ignores the moment we inhabit.  In the 1960s, William Buckley defined “the conservative consensus” in terms of groups united in opposition to the Soviet Union. Now, in the absence of a material foe, the American right is grasping for some sort of unity, a sense of purpose. What is it that unites a libertarian from Iowa, an evangelical pastor from Alabama and a New England liberal Republican?

The answer to this question used to be individual liberty. However, now with the advent of “National Conservatism” what separates the American right from left? For pundits like Tucker Carlson, Mark Levin and Michael Knowles, the answer lies in reciprocal collectivist sentiment. For them, in our “culture,” creed and conception of “tradition” lies our salvation against the horrors posed by “demographic transformation.” Meanwhile, the culture, territory wholly, totally, germane to the left continues its march against the founding, and we of the right stand flaccid to its advance.

So truly, what is it to be “conservative?” My difficulty in answering this question is proof enough for me of the crisis faced by the American right.  As we begin to stand resolute, ready to defend “our President” from charges so half-witted only a corporate Democratic presidential nominee could have committed them, what does this say of the state of the right? I argue that we have last our path. Only by embracing a sensibility of adventure, freedom, personal liberty and security can we achieve a future worth having. Thus, through our embrace of this sensibility, while maintaining the great tradition, but only by accepting exciting change as it comes can we Conservatives truly be of use. We must be open to change, but never forget our inheritance from those who came before us — only by maintaining the wisdom of the past can we unveil the future.