Donald Trump was asked
by a reporter to define conservatism. The most he could offer was "I think it’s a person that doesn’t want to take risks..a person that wants to conserve."
But nor could the readers at Breitbart
do much better. Most commonly they defined conservatism by offering up some version of classical liberalism: individual liberty, constrained federal government, free enterprise.
I left a comment of my own:
Conservatism is not really about not wanting to take risks. It is wanting to conserve the things that are undermined by a liberal ideology. Liberalism begins with the idea that there is nothing of meaning or value existing as part of reality outside the individual. Therefore, what matters is the individual self-defining or self-determining his own meaning and value (the meaning is in the act of choosing, the "agency", rather than in what is actually chosen). Morality in this view is accepting the right of others to do the same thing (hence the moral focus on tolerance, non-discrimination, etc.) For liberals, things that are predetermined, and can't be self-determined, limit human freedom and should be made not to matter. This includes what liberals call "gender" (the social expression of our biological sex) and race/ethny.
Conservatives seek to connect man to the things of meaning and value that transcend him (the goodness of which exist objectively independent of his will). These include aspects of character and virtue; manhood and womanhood; family (including the fulfilment of offices such as fatherhood/motherhood/husband/wife); nature (man's connection to); nation (love of and loyalty toward); a moral code; a church tradition; art and culture that inspires men toward the higher things; and a continuity between generations past, present and future.
I thought afterwards that there was another angle to all this. If you don't believe that there is anything there, only what you put there, then this explains the longstanding liberal tendency to begin with the blank slate individual.
In other words, liberals like to assume as a model that we begin with nothing and then we make of ourselves something according to our own free will and choices. It is a model which works at two levels. At the individual level it is the model of the self-made man. It is assumed that we make something of ourselves at a public level through our careers, or perhaps through sporting or artistic achievements.
This helps to explain why liberals are so morally focused on the idea of equal opportunity in terms of careers, sports and the arts, even at the extreme level of wanting women to be able to advance in the career of a combat soldier. A conservative would be more focused on the transgressive nature of such a step, of its disruption to a healthy relationship between the masculine and feminine, of it not being a fulfilment of womanhood. But these things are simply not "there" for a liberal mind, they are false social constructs without value; what the liberal mind perceives is the chance for a woman to make herself according to her choices, it is this freedom that brings meaning.
(Remember, too, that if you think of people as essentially "choice makers" then the fact of being a woman is hardly relevant - the category itself won't seem that significant in human life, except as a potential factor in having an unequal chance to be self-made. A liberal won't think in terms of "man" and "woman" the way that conservatives do.)
It should be said that this focus on being self-made does potentially give a kind of dynamism to liberal individuals. They won't be content until they have made it professionally in some respect. Conservatives get a sense of meaning from other things, and this can potentially make us less socially ambitious and therefore leave us in a weaker position to influence society. It's something within the conservative mind we might have to acknowledge and overcome.
Even certain aspects of popular culture, such as tattoos, might be linked to liberal assumptions about the human person. If there is nothing meaningful given to us, but only what we ourselves make of ourselves, then perhaps the human body in its natural state isn't meaningful, but is merely a blank canvas, upon which we then make meaning, perhaps by drawing or writing things that express something about our lives or aspirations or personalities. Hence tattoos. It's different, though, if you think that our bodies already, in their given state, have a depth of meaning and express something deeply significant about who we are - if this is your starting point then tattoos can potentially be visually distracting - the surface meaning of the tattoo can distract from the more profound meaning of the body in its natural state.
The idea of things being a blank slate and being given meaning when the human will acts upon them also works at the level of society and the environment. It's noticeable, for instance, that political leaders are judged in a liberal society not for being good stewards or custodians of a certain valued tradition, but for having made changes - preferably changes along liberal lines ("reforms") but if not that, then any kind of changes. Perhaps part of the explanation for this is that liberals see the idea of people acting upon society and the environment as a good in itself - as being a meaning-making virtue.
Again, this does give liberal societies a certain kind of dynamism, even if it sometimes produces ugliness and excess. It makes for motion. The overall logic of liberal societies is ultimately a self-destructive one, but we should acknowledge and seek to match in our own way the dynamic aspect.