Defining conservatism

  • Posted on: 12 April 2013
  • By: benfell

This entry, originally published on March 28, 2013, has been significantly revised and improved based on feedback from the professor who is supervising my practicum.


In the 600-plus pages of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, George Nash (2006) encloses a warning for radicals—like myself—and liberals who would seek to define what conservatism in the United States is. First, to dismiss conservatism as a kind of mental aberration is to evade rather than to address conservative arguments; second, to redefine conservatism risks reframing their arguments and thus contending with a straw person; and third, that conservatism is not so much a coherent political philosophy or ideology as it is a tendency: Nash documents a not entirely successful and not entirely unsuccessful effort among conservatives to reconcile numerous and shifting strains of conservatism with each other and he  repeatedly employs the phrase describing conservatives as “standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’”


This essay will therefore begin with the proposition that radicalism, liberalism, and conservatism are social constructions, that is, that they refer to categorizations with little apparent foundation in an external reality, but to which society assigns members by general agreement. The definition of what constitutes a conservative, therefore, is circular—a conservative is a conservative not merely because s/he self-describes her or himself as such, but largely because we collectively say s/he is.

To shed light on this, it is helpful to review introductory examples of social constructions. We say, for example, that race is a social construction because the biological differences among members of any particular grouping by skin color are greater than the differences between members to be found in different groupings. Therefore, race has no biological basis; race, as a concept, is dualistically the other—a social construction. Similarly, gender is said to be more about the roles people play in society than about any biological difference in reproductive anatomy.

Both these examples help to shed light on an initial view of conservatism. First, there are profound differences among conservatives. The merely partially successful effort to reconcile these differences has spanned decades (Nash, 2006). Second, conservatism is to some degree defined in opposition to liberalism and the Left. Thus, Russell Kirk (1985/2001) often fails to distinguish classical (economic) liberals who believe in unfettered free markets from New Deal Democrats who acted from beliefs that government regulation was needed to avert such catastrophes as the Great Depression and that the government would occasionally need to spend money expressly and in such quantities as to stimulate the economy when no one else would (Clune, February 26, 2013; Krugman, July 1, 2010, December 29, 2011, May 31, 2012, February 7, 2013, March 10, 2013). Kirk sweeps them all under a single label and opposes them all.

Third, like gender, one way of viewing conservatism is in opposition to radicalism, with both radicals and conservatives having socially prescribed roles that balance each other. Thus, Christopher Hayes (2012), who argues persuasively that any meritocracy will inevitably entrench elite incompetence—indeed that “[i]f you don’t concern yourself at all with equality of outcomes, you will, over time, produce a system with horrendous inequality of opportunity” (p. 221). He offers numerous other useful insights, but still takes it for granted that a balance between radicals and conservatives is essential:

Progress is dependent upon a productive and dynamic tension between institutionalism and insurrectionism. Insurrectionists keep our institutions honest. Institutionalists are stewards of our collective public life. (p. 136)

The status of conservatism as a social construction suggests that conservatives are not simply free to define themselves, that they are defined socially. Nash’s (2006) warnings remain applicable; any definition upon which we settle must not serve to evade their arguments. Rather, this definition must serve to help us understand them.


It is widely held that conservatism is hard to define precisely; it is frequently assumed that conservatism is more prone to internal contradictions than other varieties of political thought; and finally, as Michael Freeden has pointed out, it appears that it is mainly conservatives themselves who write about conservatism—giving rise to the suspicion that it might be hard to come by unbiased analyses. (Müller, 2006)

Conservatives have not been the only ones seeking to define conservatism. But as with Hayes’ (2012) dualism between institutionalists and insurrectionists, the dualism between conservatives and radicals appears in a multitude of labels in a multitude of contexts. A common theme to these dualisms poses authority and domination against egalitarianism. This section will first review the evidence for associating conservatism with an authoritarian system of social organization and then evaluate a number of scholarly approaches to describing conservatism—and authoritarianism—against evidence supplied by conservatives themselves. If conservatism is difficult to define, it will not be for lack of description.

Conservatives and Domination

If there is blame to be allocated for an association between conservatism and domination, it must rest with conservatives themselves, who often seem to celebrate it. For many conservatives, demons appear in the forms of “leveling” or “equalitarianism,” which are held to obscure human diversity. Hierarchy is, we are to believe, derived from mastery in arts, crafts, or other forms of self-actualization, and thereby held to legitimate coercion, even to a point where some conservatives find it difficult to repudiate slavery (Bailey, 2004; Eliot, 1948/1962; Kirk, 1985/2001; Weaver, 1964/1995). As conservative historian Mark Malvasi (Spring, 2008) put it, “It is among the great misfortunes of American history that the apology for slavery and segregation twice discredited the Southern conservative tradition” (p. 108). This would be the tradition of, among others, Richard Weaver, who endorsed James Kilpatrick’s campaign against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education on the grounds that it attempted to force separate “cultures” to integrate (Hustwit, 2011), objected to “racial collectivism” as interfering with property rights (Nash, 2006), and whose (1964/1995) book Visions of Order seems to offer a single message for the poor and for people of color, searing with all the venom of a stereotypical Southern segregationist, “Stay in your place, n----!” Such racism was not limited to Southern conservatives: Nash quotes a long enough passage in the National Review clearly advocating white supremacy.

States’ Rights

Nash (2006), a conservative historian, goes on to draw out the connection between white supremacy and the states’ rights argument. This argument, which conservatives continue to assert (Woods, 2007), places conservatives in the peculiar position of seeking to assert state sovereignty at the expense of federal power. It grounds itself in a discredited interpretation of the tenth amendment, reserving to the states or to the people powers not allocated to the federal government (an amendment for which I have yet to see a creditable interpretation), and in discredited interpretations of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution that rely on the voluntary, and therefore presumably revocable, condition of accession to the Union (LaFantasie, December 19, 2010).

The most peculiar aspect of the states’ rights argument, however, is that it neither affirms that governance should be located as locally as possible, perhaps at a town or village level, nor that hierarchies of domination should be consolidated and thus extended under a single emperor or a monarch at a federal or imperial level. Instead of being based on principle, it is based on legality.

Universal Suffrage

The states’ rights argument appears to exist as a convenience to be employed whenever conservatives are not getting their way in representative government. It is inconsistent even as a Constitutional argument: While the argument relies in part on the tenth amendment, the quotation that Nash (2006) used from the National Review, affirming white supremacy, ends by repudiating the fifteenth and nineteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which granted universal male and female suffrage respectively: “Universal suffrage is not the beginning of wisdom or the beginning of freedom” (National Review, quoted in Nash, p. 308). Kirk (1985/2001), as well, repeatedly criticizes universal suffrage. Indeed, the thirteenth (ending slavery) and fourteenth (among other things, guaranteeing equal protection under law) amendments, enacted along with the fifteenth in the wake of the Civil War, can be seen as explicitly contradicting a white supremacist view, regardless of any merits the National Review may ascribe to it.

Advocacy of limited suffrage has a clear implication: not all humans are entitled to a voice in political decisions that affect them. Nor can we say that this is a problem of “ancient history” or that no one nowadays seeks to disenfranchise people. Contemporary conservative actions, ranging from federal prosecutions, to poll monitoring, to legislative efforts to require voter identification, that purportedly aim to solve a virtually nonexistent problem of voter impersonation fraud, by making it more difficult to vote, make it apparent that this issue is very much alive in the here and now (Ball, August 10, 2012; Blow, January 25, 2013; Bolton, October 20, 2012; Bronner, October 2, 2012; Feeney, September 28, 2012; Guma, September 23, 2012; Liptak & Urbina, April 14, 2007). Further, since the only people conservatives seek to significantly reduce taxes on—the so-called “job creators” (Hanauer, December 7, 2011; Klein, September 17, 2012; Krugman, November 24, 2011; Madrick, October 2, 2012; Stiglitz, October 26, 2012)—are those who most definitely have a voice, a voice considerably more effective than that of a vote, and derive benefits accordingly (Bergmann, January 19, 2013; Democracy Now!, May 15, 2012; Greenwald, May 21, 2012; Hacker & Pierson, 2010; Milchen, March 8, 2012; Morgenson, November 3, 2012; Popper, November 15, 2010), it follows that some conservatives, Tea Party rhetoric notwithstanding, endorse the concept of taxation without representation.

George Lakoff

Lakoff (2002) develops a theory of “strict father” (conservative) and “nurturant parent” (liberal) morality systems assembled from metaphors. These metaphors and the priority which they are assigned within each individual’s morality system determine whether that person can be classified as a conservative or a liberal. Lakoff does not draw his reliance on metaphors from thin air. He, together with Mark Johnson, persuasively argue at length that metaphors are fundamental to human thought; indeed, in this theory, our ability to understand almost anything at all is entirely by means of metaphors (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999).

Some features of Lakoff’s (2002) “strict father” morality system draw immediate attention. The highest priority is preservation of the morality system itself, which may go part of the way towards explaining Jan-Werner Müller’s (2006) complaint, quoted above, that it tends to be conservatives who seek to define conservatism. Also extremely high in the “strict father” hierarchy of morals is discipline, which is considered so important that even if there were no scarcity, it would be needed in order to develop a proper competitive attitude—seen as “character”—that enables properly inculcated people to accomplish things rather than to merely act hedonistically. Because of this, authority is extremely important—but within limits: children, once grown, become their own authorities and their parents should step aside.

There are numerous attacks that can be brought to bear on this, and it is important to emphasize here that Lakoff (2002) does not endorse the “strict father” morality system, but rather seeks only to explain it. Further, Lakoff sets aside the argument that a perspective applicable to families is not properly applicable on any larger scale, on the grounds that whatever this argument’s merits in seeing the world as it actually is, it fails to reflect how people actually think and view the world metaphorically.

All that said, the “strict father” morality system is laden with harsh judgments. Lakoff (2002) points to an underlying premise “that life is difficult and the world is fundamentally dangerous” (p. 65). Yet in viewing the world as Lakoff says conservatives view it, it is as if, rather than any fable involving a snake, conservatives had stood at the gates of the Garden of Eden calling on Adam and Eve to evacuate at once because the notion of plenty for all was itself an imminent danger, and then informed them that we should construct a difficult and dangerous world even if it does not already exist, just so there may be competition for scarce resources to distinguish between those “winners” who have “self-discipline” and “losers” who do not, just so the “father” will have something to protect the rest of us from, and just so the “father” can “legitimately” hold authority and employ “discipline” to instill “character” and “self-discipline” in the rest of us so that we may survive and succeed in this difficult and dangerous world.

Social Inequality

As it happens, however, and for whatever reason, our world has been difficult and dangerous for a long time, at least for those not born to extreme wealth, and so the “strict father” morality system labels its hierarchy of dominance—a “moral order”—as a “natural order.” This places the god, apparently of Abraham, over people; people over nature; adults over children; and men over women. Further, the “strict father” morality system sharply distinguishes between good and evil, and thus, in addition to being blatantly patriarchal, is susceptible to a feminist critique of dualism, in which good aligns with and is argued to be confounded with truth and being white, male, and wealthy; and evil aligns with and is argued to be confounded with falsity and being of color, female, or poor (Code, 1991; Lakoff, 2002).

As Lakoff (2002) reckons, social inequality is an essential feature of the “strict father” morality system. This squares well with strident conservative opposition to “redistribution” (that is, from rich to poor, not the other way around), “collectivism,” “leveling,” and “equalitarianism” (Lofgren, September 26, 2012; Kirk, 1985/2001; Weaver, 1964/1995). Kirk, in his adherence to Edmund Burke, believes that “men are equal in the sight of God, but equal only so” (p. 17). Again, there is a contemporary example: Thomas Frank (October 4, 2012) describes the objections of wealthy financiers to being vilified for the financial crisis that began in 2007:

For one thing, [the billionaires’] criticisms reveal a contemptuous view of their fellow citizens. That all the books and articles on the financial crisis and the recession might have had an effect — that people might see the economic downturn as a reflection on the individuals who were, a few years back, lionized as the economy’s leaders — is inconceivable to the class-war complainers. The public’s attitude, they seem to believe, can have arisen only as a result of propagandizing by Mr. Obama. No American would ever stop respecting his betters unless he was brainwashed into it. (Frank, October 4, 2012)

Frank does not exaggerate. Here is Richard Weaver (1964/1995), relying on Goethe’s description of a tranquil German village, generalizing to patronize the poor everywhere, but especially in the United States:

The classes thrived on a mutual dependence, and the principle of distinction, far from being felt as invidious, was the cement that held the whole together. One senses the kind of satisfaction that was felt in seeing different kinds of people to the right and left of one and, since it is in the nature of things, above and below. Not to be overlooked is the fact that a "lowest" class often finds satisfaction in knowing itself "superior" to other classes in certain respects—in hardihood, in industry, or in religiousness. (Weaver, 1964/1995, p. 17)

There is, almost, too much to address in Weaver’s view of the poor. Weaver (1964/1995) does not review possible alternative explanations for the supposedly tranquil nature of German society; his argument simply proceeds from 1) they have stratification, to 2) that is why they are happy. Nor do we have anything like an adequate perspective on that society; for this, we only have Goethe's, who, in his autobiography, is apparently permitted to speak authoritatively for everyone in his society, as if he knew—or could reliably know—their inner thoughts. Reference to the 'lowest' class comes almost as an afterthought and in a patronizing way: they are religious, or they are hardy, or they are hard-working (and, it seems, poorly rewarded for their hard work), as if these virtues would not befit someone of higher standing, and as if we can be assured, simply because Goethe says so, that such virtues are indeed adequate compensation for their lot in life (Weaver, 1964/1995).

Not only can we not be so confident that this society was as content as Goethe makes it out to be, but the assertion that it was content is the evidence Weaver (1964/1995) uses to justify class. Worse, Weaver claims this is only one example, but he does not cite the others, so we cannot say that similar errors were not made with them. On a guess that Weaver, a rhetorician, would argue using his best evidence, we might suspect that they may be of similar or lesser quality.

Gerhard Lenski

Lakoff’s (2002) dichotomy is between conservative “strict father” morality and “liberal” “nurturant parent” morality. A question that arises, however, is how many self-identifying liberals would subscribe to the morality system—or anything like it—that Lakoff attributes to them. This is not entirely Lakoff’s fault; nor is it necessarily even an indication that he is wrong. The range of acceptable political discourse in the United States has shifted noticeably to the right, at least as a backlash to the social foment of the 1960s and early 1970s. The developers of the Political Compass, for example, respond:

Some critics have argued that, because the universal political centre has moved to the right, our axes should correspondingly move to the right. This, however, would not indicate how far one way or the other society has shifted. . . . Narrowing the standard political goalposts to accommodate merely the range of mainstream opinion within any given society at a given time is not only historically uninstructive; it is unscientific. (Political Compass, September 2, 2012)

From Authoritarianism to Anarchy

All that said, all of the authors I use as alternative lenses in this essay construct their dualisms as, in one form or another, oppositions between authoritarians and egalitarians. I have already echoed Lakoff’s (2002) description of conservative “strict father” authoritarianism; in contrast, he posits that liberal “nurturant parents” are much more egalitarian. But rather than liberalism, it is anarchism, which it can safely be said Lakoff does not endorse, which lies at the extreme end of a scale opposite authoritarianism. However, because the term anarchy is so often associated with violence, chaos, and destruction, many radicals in movements such as Earth First! eschew the term (Gordon, 2008). The popular understanding is inaccurate. Anarchism opposes domination and coercion; and, in any form, violence is forcible.

All this suggests that on a scale from authoritarianism to anarchism, conservatives tend, on the whole, to fall closer to the authoritarian end; those we call “liberals,” on the whole, fall somewhere not as close to the authoritarian end, somewhere nearer the middle; and those that Kirk (1985/2001), Weaver (1964/1995), Nash (2006), Lenski (1966), and many others call “radicals” (excluding the “radical right”) on the whole, fall closer to the anarchist end. This essay will have more to say about libertarians, but both capitalist libertarians and libertarian socialists seek to limit political domination and thus appear to fall towards the radical/anarchist end. The difference between capitalist libertarians and libertarian socialists is here important because the latter also contend against economic domination (Gagnon, 2003), which when taken into account, makes capitalist libertarians seem far more authoritarian.


Of the authors I am relying on in this essay, Lenski (1966) uses terminology that most explicitly aligns with the scale from authoritarianism to anarchism. He aligns conservatives as “functionalists” in contrast to radicals. Functionalists defend the authoritarian status quo as legitimizing whatever violence is needed to preserve the status quo and indeed Lenski discusses the development of propaganda to establish legitimacy of a regime so as to minimize the need for such violence.

Functionalism and Status

Weaver (1964/1995) also uses the term functionalism in a dualism with status. He seeks to avoid discussing functionalism in terms of authoritarianism, yet he calls the business interests of industrial capitalism functionalist because they value productivity at the expense of being human and in fact reduce humans—their workers—to units of production, in another cast, to means rather than ends. (Unfortunately, Weaver shows no such concern for agricultural workers or, in his adulation for the South, for slaves, both of whose labors we would probably not generally consider uplifting.) He condemns “an extraordinary adulation of function or capacity to show results, and with it the creation of a class of ‘functionalists’ called ‘businessmen’” (p. 32), whose motives are least checked by moral (or ethical) considerations, and whom we might, although Weaver does not, say characterize commercial society beginning with the Neolithic.[1] To Weaver (1964/1995), this is functionalism taken too far, allowed to predominate over status. It is also clear that both Kirk (1985/2001) and Weaver recognize and abhor the alienation of workers that Karl Marx (1844/2010) connects to an authoritarian relationship:

On the basis of political economy itself, in its own words, we have shown that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities; that the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production; that the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands, and thus the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form; that finally the distinction between capitalist and land-rentier, like that between the tiller of the soil and the factory-worker, disappears and that the whole of society must fall apart into the two classes—the property-owners and the propertyless workers (Marx, 1844/2010, p. 32).

Weaver (1964/1995) defines status rather unhelpfully as an object or person’s “attained nature and quality or its possession of being” (p. 24). In some senses, that means rank, as when he associates status with (socially recognized) “genuine worth, ability, or achievement” (p. 26). But another of Weaver’s important dualisms is between the quantitative and the qualitative. For Weaver, status is qualitative and function is quantitative; and a balance between the two is necessary for culture. Here again, his meaning is a bit obscure, because the word culture itself is ambiguous, but here he uses the term culture to refer to the society as a whole. He also uses the term status to valorize what we might call cultural creations, such as literature, art, and music, but this would seem to refer to the social valuation of such work, and for both Eliot (1948/1962) and Weaver (1964/1995), such achievements rationalize hierarchy, which they intentionally conflate with putatively “legitimate” domination.

Weaver (1964/1995), therefore, does not object to functionalism in quite the same sense as Lenski (1966) uses the term. Both in fact use the term to refer to authoritarian relations, but Weaver only uses the term to object to industrial capitalism—and at a time when social inequality in the U.S. was declining (Sernau, 2006).

Conservative Liberals

Nash (2006) describes the 1950s and 1960s as a time when many liberals came to see themselves as not so different from conservatives. Liberals, having “achieved much” in their decades of power, “had much to conserve” (p. 203). This, it might appear, is the error of redefining conservatism that this essay seeks to avoid. Nash specifically names Samuel Huntington as “argu[ing] that conservatism was a situational ideology ‘arising out of a distinct but recurring type of historical situation in which a fundamental challenge is directed at established institutions’” (emphasis in original; Nash, p. 203). But, as Nash notes, the “conservative liberal” intent was “to preserve liberal gains” (p. 204). Conservatives saw this as hijacking their label “to link conservatism with the business class” (p. 205).

Functionalist Conservatism

The problem of de-linking conservatism from the “business class” is largely one of a slippery slope. If one favors inequality, even to the point of ambivalence about slavery, and if one favors so-called “free” markets, a subject to which this essay will return, then the resulting competition inevitably produces “winners,” some of whom win much more than others (Kent, 2011; Muller, March/April, 2013; Weber, 1978/2010). The “business class” is largely composed of these winners—whether by inheritance or personal achievement, and conservatives insist upon inequality in both these forms (Eliot, 1948/1962; Kirk, 1985/2001; Weaver, 1964/1995).

Conservatives who object to being associated with the “business class” must therefore decide at what point a winner has won too much, and one might suspect that the logical consequence of this would be that winnings thereby accumulated should be redistributed. Redistribution, of course, is also anathema to conservatives. But whether we redistribute or not, it is here apparent that many conservatives seek to have it both ways: they employ the populist story of an Andrew Carnegie starting from the bottom, working hard, and achieving vast riches to argue the myth of equal opportunity (see Sernau, 2006; Shapiro, 2005), but they then decline to be associated with the class that Carnegie became a part of.

Functionalist conservatism is not a category of conservatism that Nash (2006) recognizes, but it is a logical development from traditionalist conservative and neoliberal ideologies. Further, it is increasingly apparent that many members of the “business class” see themselves as conservative, particularly in their lobbying and financial support for so-called “free trade,” anti-environmental, and anti-union policies (Hacker & Pierson, 2010; Jenkins & Eckert, 2000; Su, Neustadtl, & Clawson, 1995). As conservatism associates itself with big corporations—and crony capitalism—that are the penultimate “winners” in this economy, by fair means or foul, the status quo that traditionalists seek to uphold becomes the status quo that includes Weaver’s (1964/1995) functionalists—the industrialist capitalists of big business. Whether Nash (2006) and other conservatives like it or not, this appears to rationalize a view of conservatism as a situational ideology, that is, one that seeks to preserve what has been achieved—an evolved status quo—against “hasty” “activism,” just as Samuel Huntington, at least in Nash’s (2006) telling, claimed.

John Bodley

Traditionalist conservatives, such as Kirk and Weaver, would likely object strongly to my inclusion of Bodley (2008) as having anything whatsoever to say about conservatism. This is exactly my point. Kirk (1985/2001) is inclined “to cherish the permanent things in human existence,” to say that “custom, convention, constitution, and prescription are the sources of a tolerable civil social order” (p. xv); to stand by “tradition and old establishments” (p. 5); to “respect the wisdom of their ancestors” (p. 8); to reject a tenet of radicalism, that “[m]ankind, capable of infinite improvement, is struggling upward toward Elysium, and should fix its gaze always upon the future” (p. 27); to view history with all its injustice as the design of the god of Abraham; to view “[t]he individual [as] foolish, but the species [as] wise” as reflected in inherited social “prejudices and prescriptions and presumptions” (p. 37), and so on. Nash’s (2006) history of conservative thought since World War II highlights a controversy among conservatives as to whether the United States was, in its egalitarian ideology and in its embrace of technological progress, at heart a “liberal” nation.

Bodley (2008) distinguishes between indigenous and commercial societies. Where indigenous society persisted for hundreds of thousands of years in small, low-density societies, somewhat in harmony with nature, with relatively egalitarian relations, and continues to do so at the margins of commercial society, the latter is relatively recent, arising in, according to Bodley, the last eight thousand years. Commercial society is characterized by increasing population, increasing population density, hierarchies of domination, and an unsustainable extraction of resources that requires encroachment on progressively expanding territory.

So when Bodley (2008) writes of tradition, he means something entirely different from what traditionalist conservatives mean. Bodley’s timeline begins five hundred thousand years ago; Kirk’s (1985/2001) begins with Burke in 18th century England.


It is difficult to see how progress, precisely the sort which Kirk (1985/2001) and Weaver (1964/1995) despise, did not begin with the Neolithic, starting—very roughly—five to ten thousand years ago (Bodley, 2008; Burroughs, 2008; Diamond, 1999; Oelschlaeger, 1991). Weaver (1964/1995) critiques Darwin’s theory of evolution, and it is here easy to see why: Were we to rely on archaeological evidence rather than a Biblical account of creation, we should have to weigh however many hundreds of thousands or millions of years of human existence of much more egalitarian indigenous tradition against that of the ten thousand or fewer more recent years of upstart authoritarian commercial society (Bodley, 2008; Burroughs, 2008; Diamond, 1999; Oelschlaeger, 1991).

Traditionalist conservatives, therefore, may be said to be cherry-picking their traditions based on an arbitrarily selected timeline to justify an authoritarian and unjust system of social organization. But more than that, within the context of what Bodley (2008) calls “commercial society,” the differences between conservatives and classical (economic) liberals are fewer than their similarities—as participants in a system of social organization that has progressed so far from our Paleolithic beginnings, conservatives are, to appropriate one of Kirk’s (1985/2001) demon words, “innovators” too.


I highlighted classical (economic) liberals in the preceding paragraph precisely because the relationship between conservatives and classical liberals is not as straightforward as commonly thought. Weaver (1964/1995), in particular, while preferring capitalism to communism, is very clear that the market cannot be—as it has increasingly come to be under a neoliberal influence—the arbiter of all value (Clune, February 26, 2013). Weaver (1964/1995) values culture and seems to see it, in a theme later taken up by Neil Postman (1993), as being displaced by a thrall of technology manifest in positivism and a quantitative perspective. As previously noted, both he and Kirk (1985/2001) are remarkably poignant in a blistering condemnation of the dehumanizing aspects of industrial capitalism. But it is necessary to pause here to clarify some terminology:

Classical Liberalism

Classical liberalism is far from the “bleeding heart” liberalism, which is notoriously concerned with social welfare, and associated with caricatures of Lyndon Johnson, George McGovern, and Walter Mondale. Classical liberalism is most notoriously concerned with so-called “free” markets, that is, markets free from government intervention. Pocketing the efficiencies of specialization of labor into trades and crafts, it presumes a level playing field among participants and that any contracts are entered into voluntarily (Habermas, 1962/1991). Treating the environment as inexhaustible and social costs as negligible—these costs are considered “external” (Balmford, et al., 2002; Krugman, September 2, 2009)—and ignoring accumulated advantages of the already wealthy and the accumulated disadvantages of the already poor, which synergistically reinforce themselves into widening inequality (Kent, 2011; Muller, March/April, 2013; Weber, 1978/2010), the only way classical liberalism can assume equality of opportunity is if opportunity is in fact unlimited—a dubious proposition on a finite planet. Classical liberalism was discredited with the Great Depression of the 1930s in a consensus that held through the 1950s and 1960s that favored a Keynesian approach of government intervention to moderate the business cycle of boom and bust (Clune, February 26, 2013; Priestland, March 18, 2013).


Neoliberals claim to have resurrected classical liberal ideals in the mid to late 20th century; however, they are accused of ignoring non-social non-market (corrected April 21, 2013, 7:30 am) values that Adam Smith saw as necessary to the maintenance of a social order. Just as the Great Depression has discredited classical liberalism, it would be expected that the “great recession”—the financial crisis that began in 2007—should, one might think, have discredited neoliberalism (Clune, February 26, 2013).

Though neoliberalism originates with capitalist libertarians (Nash, 2006), it has become the dominant ideology among political and economic elite in the United States. Its key manifestations are 1) a continued pursuit of “free trade” policy along with a view of economic globalization as “inevitable,” despite the ruinous effects these policies have had on U.S. workers (Barnet & Cavanagh, 2005; Bybee, September 12, 2012, February 12, 2013; Chomsky, May 8, 2012; Hamburger, Leonnig, & Goldfarb, July 9, 2012; Nichols, February 28, 2012; Sernau, 2006; Tonelson & Kearns, March 5, 2010); and 2) a fiscally conservative approach that, contrary to Keynesianism, contrary to evidence, and despite the suffering of the lower, working, and middle classes, perceives both taxation and federal government budget deficits as a more serious problem than unemployment, and perhaps as undermining business confidence needed to spur hiring (Krugman, September 2, 2009, July 1, 2010, December 29, 2011, March 31, 2012, February 7, 2013, March 10, 2013; Schneider, January 3, 2013; Schofield, May 7, 2012; Stiglitz, May 9, 2012; Strether, November 14, 2012; Thoma, March 10, 2013).

It thus advances the interests of the rich, at the expense of everyone else, and in so doing, affirms a hierarchy of economic domination, that is, a hierarchy of class that is particularly important to traditionalist conservatives. To the extent that U.S. politicians embrace neoliberalism, and continue to embrace it despite clear evidence of its deleterious effects for U.S. workers, as they nearly all do, they have adopted a view that lies in the overlap between traditionalist conservatism and capitalist libertarianism.

Capitalist libertarianism

In the United States and in Britain, and as Nash (2006) describes it, libertarianism is the source of neoliberal policy. Government spending and regulation is considered an evil in nearly all cases—the impetus to “privatize” government services, even highways, police, and the military, is a capitalist libertarian ideal—although my own observation has been that in their thinking, they rely heavily on the availability of courts to enforce contracts. In contrast with other conservatives, capitalist libertarians may adopt socially liberal and anti-war views. It is most famously associated with Ayn Rand, and in particular, her novel Atlas Shrugged, but originates with Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, Leonard Read, Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley, Jr., Henry Simons, and Frank Knight. Of these, the latter two were “the nucleus of the nascent Chicago School in economics” (p. 17). Because capitalist libertarians generally refuse to confront the social inequality that market forces inherently exacerbate, capitalist libertarians appear to be concerned with limiting only political, not economic, domination. I refer to this strain of conservative thought as capitalist libertarianism to both recognize and distinguish it from libertarian socialism. The latter has an older lineage, is associated with anarchism, and opposes both political and economic domination (Gagnon, 2003).

Crony Capitalism

Two consecutive Federal Reserve Bank chairmen, Alan Greenspan, notoriously a former “Ayn Rand acolyte,” and Ben Bernanke have expressed concern over excessive income inequality as potentially destabilizing to the social order—and noted that this has dramatically increased since the 1970s (Bernanke, February 6, 2007; Pizzigati, November 7, 2005; Noah, September 3, 2010). This coincides with deregulation and tax policies that capitalist libertarians should generally favor, such as financial deregulation and reduced capital gains taxes. In addition, what regulation remains has become much friendlier to industry—a phenomenon known as “regulatory capture” (Chittum, November 15, 2010; Froomkin, September 8, 2010; Hacker & Pierson, 2010). But despite these developments, and despite the tendency of markets to widen inequality (Kent, 2011; Muller, March/April, 2013; Weber, 1978/2010), capitalist libertarians argue that excessive economic power derives from government interference—meaning various forms of crony capitalism and favoritism to corporations. Hayek, relatively moderate as capitalist libertarians go, made it a point to argue that government should act transparently to preserve competition and to apply the rule of law equally and with fair notice (Nash, 2006), certainly a far cry from what happened with “too big to fail” banks and other financial institutions in the financial crisis that began in 2007 (Bowley, October 16, 2009; Felkerson, December 15, 2011; Weiner, November 29, 2007; “Why should taxpayers,” February 20, 2013).

“Too big to jail,” a phrase that has arisen in response to an overall failure to prosecute individuals or financial institutions for the fraudulent activities that both led to the financial crisis and occurred in its wake (Frontline, January 22, 2013a, January 22, 2013b; Greider, February 5, 2013; Morgenson & Story, April 14, 2011; Schroeder, March 9, 2013) is really nothing new. In general, there has been a double-standard in the criminal justice system’s treatment of white collar criminals, whose activities cause greater harm in a multitude of ways, and the corresponding treatment of “common” “street” criminals, who bear much more of the system’s attention (Barkan, 2006; Reiman, 2004). While those on the left may be outraged by the apparent impunity of corporations as they endanger workers, consumers, and the environment, capitalist libertarians (and many others) are outraged by what they perceive as “moral hazard,” a risk that purportedly “foolish” and “reckless” actors will continue to act “foolishly” and “recklessly” for a chance at vast profits because they are confident that the government will step in to bail them out when they get into trouble, thus socializing their losses and immunizing them from the consequences of their own actions (Sirota, January 23, 2013; Weiner, November 29, 2007).

Bailouts and disparities in prosecution are by no means the only means by which government has favored large corporations, and thus helped the rich grow ever richer (Butler, 1933/2011; Hacker & Pierson, 2010; Lofgren, September 26, 2012; Scahill, 2007; Stiglitz, October 26, 2012; Story, December 1, 2012, December 2, 2012; Yang, March 26, 2013). C. Wright Mills (1956/2000), whose work is largely out of date only in the respect that what once occurred on a national scale now occurs on an international scale (Benfell, January 2, 2013), describes relationships between the military, political, and economic elites, in which these elites have so much in common that they direct their hierarchies to a common end; they are, in effect, united (Mills, 1956/2000). Capitalist libertarians may oppose such incestuous relationships, but they fail to recognize how successive iterations of deal-making produce uneven exchanges that enhance the position of those most able to say no, at the direct expense of those least able to say no (Kent, 2011; Muller, March/April, 2013; Weber, 1978/2010), and thus inherently develop economic powers and, as we have seen more recently, oligopolies that will demand—irresistibly—political influence (Habermas, 1962/1991; Hacker & Pierson, 2010; see for examples, Hansell, June 5, 2008; Krugman, June 22, 2009; Labaton, June 11, 2000; Nocera, October 24, 2008). I have elsewhere dealt with how the unsustainability of our present society is integral to our system of social organization (Benfell, March 6, 2013). In the perspective of Bodley’s (2008) long view, capitalist libertarianism and neoliberalism valorize the impetus for commercial society’s most destructive excesses—a competitive individualism that perverts society into a vehicle for the advancement of competitive individualism, which has led to environmental ruin, and to colonization, displacement, and genocide of indigenous people.

Riane Eisler

In introducing a dualism between partnership and dominator societies, Eisler (1995) unfortunately relies heavily on archaeological work that has since been discredited (A. Gurevich, personal communication, January 12, 2013). While I must regard these conclusions as tentative, my own literature search failed to turn up evidence of a single society of people named the Kurgans, who menaced, eventually conquered, and imposed dominator relations on what had been relatively egalitarian Mediterranean civilizations. Archaeologists appear to most often use the term kurgan to refer to a type of burial formation common particularly in regions adjacent to the Caspian Sea rather than to a specific people (Argent, 2010; Bourgeois, et al., 1999; Bourgeois, De Wulf, Goossens, & Gheyle, 2007; Edens, 1995; Guliaev, 2003; Kohl, 1988; Litvinskij, 2002; Smith, 2005; Smith, et al., 2004). John Chapman and Pavel M. Dolukhanov (1992) pick apart the timing of—apparently—three waves of migration from the North Pontic region, encompassing the north shores of the Black and Caspian Seas, where Kurgans are supposed to have been, toward southeastern Europe, and find it entirely wrong for the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations in the latter region. The argument for relatively egalitarian ancient society, the basis for believing that Eisler’s (1995) partnership society is possible, then, is better made by others (Bodley, 2008; Burroughs, 2008; Oelschlaeger, 1991).

Eisler’s (1995) description of the essential characteristics of dominator societies, pointing specifically to “Hitler’s Germany, Khomeini’s Iran, the Japan of the Samarai, and the Aztecs of MesoAmerica,” is that they “are not only rigidly male dominant but also have a generally hierarchic and authoritarian social structure and a high degree of social violence, particularly warfare” (Eisler, 1995, p. xix). While she and Lakoff (2002) both make note of patriarchal authority, Eisler’s emphasis is different from Lakoff’s (2002) “strict father” presumption of a dangerous world in that she connects war making and violence with patriarchy, strongly suggesting that inequality causes violence.

I cannot be quite so bold. However, there is clearly a confluence of increased, more systematic violence, including war; greater hierarchy, including patriarchy and the formation of states; and increased population, which, among other things, made the cost of systematic violence more affordable to societies, with the adoption of settled agriculture in the Neolithic (Bodley, 2008; Burroughs, 2008; Lenski, 1966; Oelschlaeger, 1991). In viewing hierarchies of domination as essential (Eliot, 1948/1962; Kirk, 1985/2001; Weaver, 1964/1995), conservatives risk endorsing a system of social organization in which violence is endemic and likely intrinsic (Bodley, 2008). That suggests that the conservative perception of the world as a dangerous place (Lakoff, 2002) may be a self-fulfilling prophesy.


I began this essay by accepting Nash’s (2006) caution against evading conservative arguments either by defining conservatives or by regarding them as suffering from a mental disorder. Yet on the topic of war, conservatives’ grasp on reality seems most tenuous.

Here, Weaver (1964/1995) seems among the more reasonable—which does not say much. He offers a passionate condemnation of “total war,” that is, wars of annihilation that deny a people’s right to exist. At least in part, the rationalization for such wars can be said to be that their planning and execution takes into account that economies are needed to sustain wars (Brandt, April 1, 1942)—thus economic targets become military targets—but Weaver is correct in that these wars tend to regard enemy populations as criminal and in that they inflict massive destruction. As a phenomenon, they seem to have appeared in the late 18th or 19th centuries (Bell, April 2007; Nakhimovsky, 2010; Neely, 1991) and, believing war to be inevitable, Weaver accepts the form of war that occurred prior to this as “chivalrous war,” imagining a kind of war that on the whole allowed civilian life to continue, more or less undisturbed. The term chivalrous war was useless in my literature search, but I am inclined to take Weaver’s view as a romanticization.

Romantic or not, Weaver may have been contending against a majority of conservatives of various stripes who coalesced around an anti-communist banner in the wake of World War II, advocating all-out war against what they viewed as a Soviet quest for world domination. “Better dead than red” is the catch phrase, but these conservatives hoped that nuclear war would be survivable and only gradually accepted a policy of containment (Nash, 2006). This hysteria resulted in an arms race widely understood to have accumulated enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over. Though the Soviet Union has collapsed, the remaining stockpiles remain among the principal threats to human survival listed by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in publishing its “Doomsday Clock” (Socolow, et al., January 14, 2013).


Traditionalist Conservatives

Kirk (1985/2001) lists what he believes to be “six canons of conservative thought,” these being 1) “Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience;” 2) “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems;” 3) “Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes as against the notion of a ‘classless society;” 4) “Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked;” 5) “Faith in prescription and distrust of ‘sophisters, calculators, and economists’ who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs;” and 6) “Recognition that change may not be salutary reform” (Kirk, 1985/2001, pp. 8-9). This list can, in fact, be considerably condensed. The first, third, fifth, and sixth items on the list amount to theocracy and a faith in the Christian god of Abraham: things are the way they are because this god made them that way—social inequality, economic misery, and violence are thus construed as part of his (a conservative god is unlikely to be female) “plan,” and to strive in any way to overturn them risks upsetting this plan. Further, “the state is a religious establishment, and law is the instrument of social vengeance, created to enforce morality” (Kirk, p. 307).

Preservation of this god’s order, by the way, extends to the environment, although it is unclear to me whether this means untrammeled wilderness, farms, or slaveholders’ plantations. Kirk (1985/2001) objects to “[t]he modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining” (p. 44), but the environmental ruin that humans have inflicted on the planet extends far beyond these forms, and must be said to include agricultural practices and population growth (Benfell, March 6, 2013)—about which Kirk is mostly silent. Weaver is entirely ambiguous; his jeremiad is against the presumption of technology.

The second item on Kirk’s (1985/2001) list must, however, be narrowly construed. It does not apply to women, people of color, people of other ethnic backgrounds, people of variant physical abilities, or people of alternate sexual identities. The only diversity which Kirk, Eliot (1948/1962), and Weaver (1964/1995)—celebrate is strictly the diversity of socioeconomic status. Eliot seems a little more broad-minded in that he believes that inter-cultural contact enriches each culture; Weaver seems a little less broad-minded in that he argues that homogeneity is essential to culture.

Finally, the fourth item speaks to the traditionalist conservative understanding of human rights. I quote Kirk (1985/2001) at length, but Weaver (1964/1995) expresses a similar sentiment:

Ever since Paine’s Rights of Man was published, the notion of inalienable natural rights has been embraced by the mass of men in a vague and belligerent form, ordinarily confounding “rights” with desires. This confusion in definition plagues society today, notably in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” drawn up by the United Nations Organization: thirty articles, and a somewhat greater number of “rights” defined therein . . . which actually are not rights at all, but merely aspirations. The conservative adage that all radical “natural rights” are simply, in substance, a declaration of the Right to be Idle is suggested in Article 24 . . . This lengthy catalogue of “rights” ignores the two essential conditions which are attached to all true rights; first, the capacity of individuals to claim and exercise the alleged right; second, the correspondent duty that is married to every right. If a man has a right to marry, some woman must have the duty of marrying him; if a man has a right to rest, some other person must have the duty of supporting him. (Kirk, 1985/2001, pp. 47-48)

By such logic, no one has any rights whatsoever, but Kirk (1985/2001) writes that “Man’s rights exist only when man obeys God’s law, for right is the child of law” (p. 49). Understanding that the state exists to enforce the god of Abraham’s will, this implies that rights can exist when legislated whether by a deity or by humans, and it is amply clear that Kirk and Weaver (1964/1995) each recognize property rights as a foundation of what they consider to be “civilized” society. Kirk (1985/2001) goes so far as to rank it evenly with domestic tranquility as his two primary objectives of government. By no small coincidence, property rights are disproportionately the rights of wealth; yet curiously, it is those other rights in the Universal Declaration which, for traditionalist conservatives, invite the tyranny of Leviathan, that is, big government. Property, of course, means a right to exclude other humans from use or enjoyment of a thing which is owned; for the homeless person, property means s/he has no legal right to be anywhere, therefore that s/he has no legal right to be, and therefore that s/he has no legal right to live. To privilege property over human beings in this way might explain why some conservatives have so much difficulty repudiating slavery.

To a Mass Movement

A difficulty with defining conservatism is that, as this essay has already shown, there are so many versions of conservatism that are not entirely consistent even with themselves, let alone with each other, for instance with the disavowal of the “business class” whose funding in fact propelled a rightward shift in U.S. economic policy beginning in the 1970s (Hacker & Pierson, 2010; Jenkins & Eckert, 2000; Su, Neustadtl, & Clawson, 1995).

This diversity has been on full display in the 2012 U.S. presidential election cycle, whose outcome, due to lingering economic weakness from the 2007 financial crisis, arguably should have been much more favorable for Republicans than it was. Certainly Republicans expected a more favorable outcome and there is, at this writing, much dispute over the reasons for their failure to prevail. This ranges from the quality of campaign organizations, to Mitt Romney’s apparent or presumed lack of empathy for the non-wealthy, to a series of stated Republican positions on rape, abortion, and contraception that reinforced a sense of a G.O.P. “war on women,” to observations that Romney did well only among white males or in rural areas or in the states that once formed the Confederacy. Blame was also laid on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, whose state was besieged by Hurricane Sandy, and who praised Obama’s disaster response. Overlapping fundamental ideological issues, Republicans seem divided between 1) the “establishment,” which wants “electable” candidates who might offend fewer people who are not white and male, or who hold more moderate conservative positions, and 2) the “base,” which argues for still greater appeal to more extreme religious conservatives and capitalist libertarians (Blake & Cillizza, August 24, 2012; Cohen, March 11, 2012; DePillis, November 12, 2012; Dinan, March 5, 2012; Florida & Johnson, November 26, 2012; Harris, November 17, 2012; Kranish, December 25, 2012; Lexington, February 14, 2013; Mascaro, September 26, 2012; McMorris-Santoro, August 19, 2012; Rosenbaum, October 8, 2012; Tanenhaus, February 10, 2013; Wallsten, November 8, 2012; West, January 5, 2013). In sum, the question really amounts to whether extreme conservatives had hijacked Republican chances in 2012 with over-the-top positions that alienated too many voters, or whether Republicans need to shift yet further to the right. Karen Hughes (November 9, 2012) may have seemed most sensible, writing towards the end of her post-mortem:

And if another Republican man says anything about rape other than it is a horrific, violent crime, I want to personally cut out his tongue. The college-age daughters of many of my friends voted for Obama because they were completely turned off by Neanderthal comments like the suggestion of “legitimate rape.” (Hughes, November 9, 2012)

If the 2012 election was not conservatives’ finest hour, it was also not their bleakest. In the immediate post-World War II era, Nash (2006) describes a movement invigorated by new ideas of capitalist libertarianism and repelled by the tyranny of what most people in the U.S. understand to be communism.[2] Though Nash does not choose the term, and resists accepting conservatism as an ideology, there are unmistakably ideological purges. Take, for example, the case of Peter Viereck, whose

conservatism emphatically did not mean Senator Robert Taft, Senator Joseph McCarthy, “Manchester Liberalism,” laissez-faire, “thought-control nationalism,” or total hostility to the New Deal. (Nash, 2006, p. 236)

Such a view, opposing the extremes of McCarthy-era anti-communist hysteria and of neoliberalism, did not meet the approval of the newly—this happened within the first four or five years of its existence—formed National Review. This publication, meant to be a forum for diverse conservative viewpoints, buried Viereck’s ideas in what Marxist-Leninists might recognize as the “dustbin of history.” As Nash (2006) puts it,

[Frank] Meyer was particularly incensed by a tendency among liberal intellectuals to designate Viereck a right-wing spokesman. Viereck was no such thing, Meyer countered; he was a man of “unexceptionably Liberal sentiments” which he was “passing off” as conservatism. To Meyer and most of the Buckley circle, liberalism itself was the target, the New Deal was a revolution to be fought relentlessly, and Adlai Stevenson was not in the least a model for conservative action. The enemy was the Left, period—not just its extremist fringe. (Nash, 2006, p. 237)

Conservatism here reveals itself, at the very least, to be an anti-ideology. A particular set of ideas and ideals, and a label for those ideas and ideals, has become the enemy. Ayn Rand was next—and a much more serious case (Nash, 2006):

But not all conservatives were pleased by Atlas Shrugged, and in a devastating review late in 1957, Whittaker Chambers declared war on Ayn Rand. To Chambers the book was as a literary and philosophical nightmare. Its plot was “preposterous,” its characterization “primitive” and caricatured, and much of its effect “sophomoric.” It was not, in fact, a novel at all, but a “Message”: The antireligious gospel of “philosophic materialism,” in which “ . . . Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world.” Moreover, for all her opposition to the State, Rand, according to Chambers, really wanted a society controlled by a  “technocratic elite” similar to the absurd heroes of her novel. (Nash, 2006, p. 239)

Of course, this latter view was not universally held; and capitalist libertarianism remains integral to a contemporary view of conservatism. Rand’s atheism offended both traditionalists and anti-communists who had escaped official atheism, but at least in Nash’s (2006) telling, it was Nock, a capitalist libertarian, in a manner that can as easily be interpreted ironically, whom I would suggest best captures a sense of what it was to be a conservative in the immediate post-World War II era, and helps us to see what it is that knits conservatives together:

Nock abandoned his early Jeffersonian idealism in revulsion from the hopeless, uneducable masses. Nock the classicist, the man of culture, became convinced that the masses could never be saved. But—and here he appealed to many later conservatives—the Remnant could. For in every age there existed a small Remnant of truly intelligent people; it was the task of each would-be Isaiah, alarmed at decay and impending doom, simply to preach. The members of the Remnant would eventually find him; they would come. (Nash, 2006, p. 18)

Nock here appeals to traditionalists. He sees himself among a very few righteous humans superior to and entitled to judge the masses as inferior and as beyond salvation. But it also reveals conservatism as a whole, even with its disparate ideologies, as very much a minority view. To be a conservative in the post-World War II era was, to a degree that might help to account for a sense of victimhood coupled with insurgency felt even today, a very lonely experience (Frank, 2005; Nash, 2006).

In some way, that victimhood helps to explain an impression of conservatism as perpetually in opposition. This impression has been reinforced recently as some have argued that the contemporary deadlock in U.S. governance is not simply due to polarization, but rather the outcome of obstructionism and a chosen ignorance (Mann & Ornstein, April 27, 2012). We might be seeing more of it today, but arguably, with conservatives, it has always been there. Political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein begin their commentary with a quote from Representative Allen West that they say comes “right out of the McCarthyite playbook of the 1950s.”

It is telling that the anti-communist hysteria of that time in so many ways resembles the tactics we have seen among Tea Party activists and among their Congressional representatives. In communism, or at least in a caricature of communism, as in the Left, conservatives found a common foe that helps to unite them. For traditionalists, the Soviet Union was ‘godless.’ For capitalist libertarians, it was collectivist. For both, it was leveling (Nash, 2006).

Likewise, some traditionalist conservative positions, objecting to bureaucracy and the “Leviathan state” and to government regulation, and perceiving private property as a bulwark against collectivism and intrusion by the state (Kirk, 1985/2001; Weaver, 1964/1995), clearly resonates with capitalist libertarians. Finally, capitalist libertarians like the ex-communist Frank Meyer suggested, in Nash’s (2006) paraphrase, that “[t]he State had but three limited functions: national defense, preservation of domestic order, and the administration of justice between man and man” (p. 267), a position that appeals to traditionalist conservatives.

From this unity—with help from a cultural and intellectual divide that opened wide with the Civil Rights Movement, Roe v. Wade, the 1960s counterculture movement, feminism, and an increasingly secular society—conservatives have become a force to be reckoned with, as those who were offended became more politically active (Frank, 2005; Nash, 2006). Pushing the movement still further, neoliberalism became a mainstream ideology with the failure of Keynesianism to remedy the “stagflation” of the 1970s (Clune, February 26, 2013; Jenkins & Eckert, 2000; Krugman, September 2, 2009).

It would seem there must be something to conservatism besides what we have more recently heard Republicans described as being—“The Party of No”—opposed to the Left and to Keynesianism. If, as Nash (2006) reports, Meyer had a column in the National Review titled “Principles and Heresies,” that “relentlessly exposed deviationists” (p. 243), there must be something—an ideology—to deviate from.

Nash (2006) never convincingly establishes what that “something” is, what it is that makes conservatism coherent, largely because he sees so much diversity in the viewpoints of the right. Yet, even as he repeatedly denies that conservatism is an ideology, it seems as if he, along with his protagonists, is grasping for one. The problem does not, in Nash’s approach, get simpler. In his final chapter, he adds “neocons, paleocons, ‘theocons’ (theological or religious conservatives), and ‘Leocons’ (disciples of Leo Strauss)” to the categories of (capitalist) libertarians and traditionalist conservatives which he deals with throughout his text. These appeared, according to Nash, “[a]s the conservative universe expanded” (p. 576).


The question of what conservatism is really amounts to whether conservatism is a single collection of ideas, whose adherents subscribe to different priorities or if it is a collection of groupings of people whose ideas are inherently incompatible. As Nash (2006) put it,

In the early 1960s the already simmering pot boiled over. On one side were the traditionalists: defenders of order, consensus, morality, “right reason,” religion, truth, virtue. On the other stood the libertarians, classical liberals, and “Old Whigs,” whose “god terms” (to borrow a phrase of Richard Weaver’s) were individual liberty, free enterprise, laissez-faire, private property, reason, and yet again, individual liberty. (Nash, 2006, p. 264).

However, it is apparent that this essay’s attempt to treat conservatism as a social construction has yielded something else entirely. We have seen, for instance, that the “freedom” of capitalist libertarians is not really freedom at all; rather it depends on a particular economic system. Weber (1978/2010) labeled as “the most elemental economic fact” (p. 120) that capitalism—really any system of economic exchange—inherently functions to widen economic inequality. George Kent (2011) takes Weber’s obscurely-phrased understanding (though without crediting Weber) and makes it visceral, adding an explanation that capitalism cannot function to eliminate world hunger, but rather can only exacerbate it, since the economically (and therefore politically) powerful have an interest in keeping workers—and potential workers—desperate for employment, that is, in preserving dependence upon capitalists for even the most basic necessities of life, so that they will be willing to work even for wages that are insufficient to fulfill those needs.

Further, traditionalists’ claims to disdain industrial capitalism on the grounds of its dehumanizing effects (Kirk, 1985/2001; Nash, 2006; Weaver, 1964/1995) may be seen as disingenuous. The monotony of work introduced by the industrial revolution that they object to is surely no worse than the treatment today of agricultural and “big box” retail workers or yesterday of slaves. The hierarchies which traditionalists’ insist upon should here be taken to mean that those on the lower tiers of society do the work which those on higher tiers choose not to do, under conditions which those on higher tiers would not accept, and with limits on the possibilities for health, recreation, and self-improvement that those on higher tiers would not accept, as demonstrated by the character of jobs that increasingly predominate among those created in the U.S. over the last several decades (Madrick, October 2, 2012; Sernau, 2006).

The common thread in conservatism, then, is that it may be seen as a cloak, or possibly a multitude of cloaks, attempting intellectually (and emotionally with an appeal to evangelical Christianity) to justify the coercive authority of wealthy white males. The 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, in which some Republicans advocated white patriarchy in varying shades, was embarrassing but too frequently unopposed in a party that largely appealed to the wealthy and to white males, especially in the rural Old South and in the Appalachian Mountains (Cohn, November 12, 2012; Eligon, October 6, 2012; Florida & Johnson, November 26, 2012; Klein, September 17, 2012; Murphy, September 25, 2012; Nichols, February 28, 2012; Rosenbaum, October 8, 2012; Tanenhaus, February 10, 2013). I resist using emotionally-charged language, but whether conservatives’ targets are sex, sexual preference, women, the poor, people of color, non-Judeo-Christians, people of different ethnic backgrounds, or immigrants, it smacks of fascism to seek power through an appeal to a view of “them” versus “us,” that “they” must be suppressed, or “they” must be “kept out.” “By any means necessary” (with a nod to Malcolm X, February 14, 1965).


In the decades of working class—and sometimes struggling to find work—life that preceded and became especially intolerable with my return to academia, I have experienced something of what I believe is the brutal underside of conservative ideology. Seeing that I could not earn a living wage, I returned to school, and there I experienced a cognitive dissonance between how I was treated even as an undergraduate in a university and the treatment I experienced at work. Why, I asked myself, over and over again, was I treated as a human being in one place, the university, and not the other, at work?

In reviewing the foregoing sections of this essay, I am faced with that dissonance again. Above all, conservatives claim knowingness, a practicality that they know how “it,” meaning the real world, really is, how “we” really are. The Christian concept of original sin is central to this conception. It rationalizes a claim that “we” must be led, that somehow, inexplicably, these select humans—these elites—but no one else, can be trusted to have risen above the immorality that afflicts the rest of us (Kirk, 1985/2001; Weaver, 1964/1995).

Kirk (1985/2001) repeatedly imagines a world of the squire and the parson, that is, a world of benevolent authority in which those who dominate also have responsibility for their underlings—Lakoff (2002) attributes this view to the “strict father” morality generally—that seems a romanticized view of the Middle Ages, when humans pledged fealty to more powerful humans in the hope of protection, in the reality of giving up their land for serfdom and absolute servitude (Bloch, 1962/2003).

As romanticized as that view may be, I have no idea how to reconcile it with the brutal inequality that led, for instance, to the French Revolution—a tragedy beyond conception for Kirk (1985/2001) and for Weaver (1964/1995)—or with the Federalist No. 10, an argument for adoption of the U.S. Constitution on grounds that it will manage factionalism, seen as a division between rich and poor, that threatens the property of the rich (Madison, November 22, 1787). Here, I only know—really know—what I have seen.

I have seen a woman come sobbing out of an alley, a man pulling on his belt behind her. I have seen an old man set upon, pulled into an alcove, and pummeled by two young men. I myself have been pursued first on a junior high school campus and then on a high school campus by bullies, with no place to run, no place to hide, day after day, month after month, year after year. I also know what it is, at something like four years of age, to be whipped on the side of the road by my father, then to understand him to say I should not get back in the car, and finally—confronting the question of how I will eat, where I will sleep—getting back in the car anyway.

I also know from personal experience what it is to have a personality and temperament utterly unsuited to and in fact repulsed by selling—in even the forms taken most for granted in our society, in even the form that makes it possible to find work—in a market economy. I know the stigma that is attached to my failure in this economy in a society that takes the market for granted, a market that seemingly wants only my money, never my talents and skills, a market that treats me as expendable and infinitely replaceable.

This is my own experience of domination of the weak by the strong and it is only just enough that I know that many others experience much worse. But this is what the so-called “free” market has left us. It is social and economic inequality. It is violence. I see no evidence that strength correlates with righteousness or benevolence. I see nothing of an “incentive” to succeed, but rather an illusion of opportunity that rationalizes the present order and a seeming determination on the part of employers to keep people down that goes well beyond any shortage of opportunity.

In my own decades of experience among the working poor, I have not seen any lack of “discipline,” but rather 1) an appreciation for music—even, often, a performance of music—that belies T. S. Eliot’s (1948/1962) culture-based hierarchy, 2) very hard work at long and odd hours, and 3) a use of recreational drugs—“first take care of head,” says the lyric (Kay & Kay, 2012)—to escape an overwhelmingly oppressive existence, where in employment and in the conditions of their lives, they are on the receiving end only of sheer greed and the way of the bully.

This greed, this brutality, this abuse is, to me, what conservatism stands for. Conservatism celebrates all that is, at best, dubious in our society, the social inequality, the economic injustice, the violence. It is, in combination with what I have learned in universities, what makes me a radical.


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[1] Weaver (1964/1995) instead alleges that “[t]here have always been activists and gain-getters, but it was reserved for the modern age, under American leadership, to give the successful gain-getter an honorific in the form of ‘businessman’” (p. 32). Such a distinction is, at best, dubious. Lenski (1966), in the course of, on balance, rationalizing functionalism, accepts that rulers have always acted in self-serving ways; that is, they have been the “gain-getters” who may not always have been called “businesspeople” but were often called kings, emperors, prime ministers, and presidents.

[2] As with anarchism, communism is misunderstood. The Soviet system was not communist, as Emma Goldman (1935/1998) was at pains to point out, because it did not promote social inequality. Rather, it inverted the classes that existed prior to the Revolution and multiplied them. She suggested that the system might instead be labeled “state capitalism.”