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Characteristics of American Conservatism

The political and social philosophy of conservatism has a long history including many varieties. As with any of the modern 'isms,' it is difficult to provide a formal definition of the term. It may be best to think of conservatism as a collection of varieties with many similarities and differences.

Most historians agree that modern conservatism, European and American, finds its roots in the beliefs and attitudes of Edmund Burke, the late 18th-century British member of the House of Commons. Burke reacted strongly against the French revolution and made his views clear in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791).

In the United States, conservatism has its own distinct history and has never been quite the same as any variety of European conservatism. Some European conservatives in the 19th century criticized the emerging industrial society for destroying the more personal relationships thought to have been characteristic of earlier times. In the United States, this criticism of an industrial and market oriented society was muted. The program of classical liberalism, stressing free markets and small government, was more readily accepted. What emerged was a synthesis of classical liberalism and Burkean conservatism.

American Conservatism and Classical Liberalism

One of the fundamental elements separating 19th-century classical liberalism from 20th-century social liberalism concerns the nature of government and civil society. Classical liberals tended to view government as the source of a wide range of problems (e.g., war, privilege, political patronage, economic monopoly, artificial hierarchy, and more). The free flowing, voluntary arrangements of civil society were seen as solutions to those problems. Social liberals, on the other hand, tend to see government as the solution to problems arising out of civil society (e.g., racial discrimination, gender discrimination, extreme economic inequality, extreme poverty, and more).

The classic liberal had faith in the overall consequences of voluntary action. The social liberal has faith in the consequences of rational design or planning. There is clearly a case to be made for both views. One of the recurring questions for Americans is how to best combine freedom and design.

The Burkean Element in American Conservatism

Mid- and late-20th century American conservatives have accepted much of the classical liberal view, but they have not accepted it without modification. They have added elements that might be called Burkean -- respect for traditional values and institutions, religious belief (especially Christian belief), skepticism about the results of government planning, and a go-slow attitude toward deliberately changing social institutions.

The following characteristics are often mentioned. In every case, the point is that conservatives typically differ from 20th-century social liberals on issue or attitude.

  • A more reverential attitude toward the past, toward tradition, and toward well established social institutions
  • A greater respect for the autonomy of the many intermediate institutions (e.g., family, church, union, voluntary organizations, business corporations, etc.) that exist between the individual and the state
  • A greater acceptance of social hierarchy and inequality and greater stress on the benefits of both
  • A more limited estimate of the plasticity of both individuals and social institutions
  • A greater skepticism about our ability to design social institutions so as to reduce social problems
  • A greater stress on the likelihood of harmful unintended consequences resulting from attempts to reform social institutions
  • A greater emphasis on objective moral principles (i.e., principles that are not dependent on the preferences and choices of human beings), often rooted in traditional religious belief
  • A stronger preference for "organic" social change

In addition to the above, it may be useful to add that some conservative thinkers have expressed a deep distrust of what they refer to as "mass man." Both William F. Buckley, Jr. and Michael Oakeshott expressed such a view. From that point of view, modern democracy is a potentially dangerous institution because it places power in the hands of those who are incapable of using it properly.

Reference: There are many sources that are helpful in grasping the nature and variety of American conservatism. These include Peter Viereck's Conservatism, Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot, William F. Buckley, Jr.'s anthology Did You Ever See a Dream Walking: American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century, and Paul Gottfried's The Conservative Movement. All of these authors have attempted to define conservatism or at least to identify its characteristic features.