Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Are conservatives just trimmers?

It's common on social media to come across young people on the right dismissing conservatism with the question "What has it ever actually conserved?"

It's a good point. What I want to try and explain in this post is this very issue: just what is it that modern conservatism has actually tried to conserve? The answer is critical in understanding one aspect of what has gone wrong with the conservative movement.

But I'll begin with something else, namely what a principled conservatism would be trying to conserve. A principled conservatism would be trying to conserve those important aspects of society that a liberal ideology is committed to dissolving.

Liberals believe that the overriding good is to maximise individual autonomy, understood to mean that the individual is able to self-determine or self-define who they are and what they choose to do. Those aspects of life that are predetermined are therefore thought to be fetters on individual freedom. This includes anything we don't get to choose for ourselves, such as our sex, or our race, or our ethnicity, so these things must ultimately be made not to matter in a liberal society.

Liberalism has therefore sought to undo traditional forms of communal identity (based on ethny); distinctions between the sexes, including within the family; ideals of masculinity and femininity; and ideals of monogamous marriage.

Similarly, anything that is thought to restrain or limit individual choice is also likely ultimately to be attacked or quietly abandoned within a liberal society, and this includes notions of duty, of service, of loyalty, of honour and so on. The informal cultural standards that once regulated behaviour toward higher ends are gradually dissolved (and replaced by bureaucratic, statist forms of regulation).

A principled conservatism would challenge liberalism at its ideological roots, i.e. at the level of first principle, in its efforts to uphold nation, family, manhood & womanhood, as well as to defend a different concept of freedom, of man and his nature, and the purposes of life.

The important thing to understand is that twentieth century conservatism was not principled in the way I have set out above. It did not challenge liberalism at the level of first principle, but instead saw its purpose as upholding liberalism, as preventing liberalism from running too far ahead too quickly. The purpose of conservatism, in other words, was to conserve liberalism, the very thing that was dissolving traditional Western society. Which is why the following tweet, criticising the modern conservative outlook, is so well directed:

So the meaning of the word "conservatism" was colonised by liberalism (as were so many other terms, such as freedom, justice, dignity, flourishing etc.). It went from being a word that challenged liberalism, as a matter of principle, to one that supported it.

You can see this in a recent column by Andrew Sullivan, a well-known American political commentator, whose wiki page tells us that he "describes himself as a conservative and is the author of The Conservative Soul."

But what does Sullivan mean by the term "conservatism"? These excerpts from his column make his position admirably clear:
The retirement of Anthony Kennedy is an obituary for conservatism in America.

...What he was able to do was to hold two ideas in his mind at the same time: that history moves forward and laws and institutions need to adjust to those changes or die; and that the core conception of individual liberty should remain the animating principle of America and the West.

...This, to my mind, is the conservative temperament, fully understood...I’m with David Brooks in his view that Republicanism has become conservatism’s worst enemy — worse even than the social-justice left. But I’d argue that this variety of conservatism is still essential to the project of liberal democracy...

The key to this conservatism is restraint, reform, and concern with the stability of the society as a whole. Conservatives see the modern liberal order as a fragile, precious, and rare historical human achievement...without its attachment to precedent, to gradual change, to evolution rather than revolution, chaos and convulsion would make any justice unsustainable.

It’s not an emotionally satisfying tradition. The point is merely to keep liberal democracy vibrant, to sustain its legitimacy, and to protect its institutions...And that’s why I loved Barack Obama. In his heart and mind, he is and was a moderate conservative, trying to blend new social realities with the long story of America, rescuing capitalism from itself...He desperately tried to keep this country in one piece, against foam-flecked racism and know-nothingism on one side and left-wing ideological purity and identity politics on the other. And he almost did.

And this is why I despise Donald Trump...And Republicanism — in its shameful embrace of this monster, its determined rape of the environment, destruction of our fiscal standing, evisceration of our allies, callousness toward the sick, and newfound contempt for free trade — has nary a conservative bone in its putrefying body.

A liberal society is always in need of this conservatism. The greatest recent philosopher in this tradition, Michael Oakeshott, described the kind of conservative politician he favored, and he used George Savile’s term for such a character: a “trimmer.” His account reads pretty much like Anthony Kennedy:
The ‘trimmer’ is one who disposes his weight so as to keep the ship upon an even keel. And our inspection of his conduct reveals certain general ideas at work … Being concerned to prevent politics from running to extremes, he believes that there is a time for everything and that everything has its time — not providentially, but empirically. He will be found facing in whatever direction the occasion seems to require if the boat is to go even.

No figure is more mocked or ridiculed in our contemporary culture than this kind of moderate. And yet no one right now is more integral to the survival of our way of life.

I'm grateful to Andrew Sullivan for bringing this type of "conservatism" so clearly into the light. The role of conservatives, in this view, is to be "trimmers" who keep the ship of liberalism on an even keel. As Sullivan puts it, the role of conservatives is to conserve liberal institutions against the ideological purity of the more radical liberals.

Is it any wonder, then, that society drifted in an ever more liberal direction during the course of the twentieth century? That there was never any pushback once liberal measures had been put in place? That the "conservative" parties never really represented the rank and file who wanted to conserve not liberalism but family, culture and nation?

This kind of "conservatism" has been prominent within the Liberal Party here in Australia. Sir Malcolm Fraser, a former PM, described the role of conservatism within his party this way:
As its name implies, ours is a liberal government holding liberal principles...

I have stressed the commitment of the Government to liberal principles and values. Precisely because of that commitment it is also concerned to conserve and protect those principles and values.

Once liberal institutions are installed in a society, a government which wishes to preserve them must in some sense be conservative.

The last sentence deserves to be carefully read. Liberalism requires a conservative element "once liberal institutions are installed in a society". The aim is to conserve liberalism, not to challenge it. Unsurprisingly, Fraser himself instituted radically liberal policies whilst PM, including nullifying the older national identity (which he saw as belonging to the previous century) in order to proclaim the advent of multiculturalism.

Tony Abbott, another former PM and often considered to be the leader of the most right-wing faction of the Liberal Party, once gave a keynote address to the Young Liberals, in which he approvingly quoted Fraser's definition of conservatism and added to it that,
In a world where nothing exists in isolation and everything is connected, “liberalism” and “conservatism” turn out to be complementary values...The difference between the ways liberals and conservatives value freedom is, perhaps, more the difference between love at first sight and the love which grows over time.

Which makes conservatives sound more like laggers than trimmers.

But neither term describes a principled conservative. A principled conservative is not there to defend the liberal concept of freedom against a too radically purist and non-pragmatic attempt to impose it on society; nor is he simply slower to embrace the liberal understanding of freedom.

He rejects it. A principled conservative rejects the liberal understanding of freedom as false and harmful. He does not exist to conserve it but to conserve what it threatens.

As Sulla Felix suggested in his social media post, it cannot be our aim to conserve the principles that destroy us and so we cannot be liberalism's trimmers. The trimming version of conservatism is a colonised one in which it is possible for someone like Andrew Sullivan to identify Barack Obama as the true conservative. We should abandon it for something of our own.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.


  1. Great article, Mark. You've well explained the enormous difference between the moniker and the reality. Should Traditionalists avoid the C word altogether?

    1. Thanks, and good question. I usually don't use the term conservative, as it doesn't make clear the distinction between my own politics and that of the likes of Andrew Sullivan. However, I haven't made this a hard and fast rule as there are still rank and filers on our side who do identify as conservative, so it can be useful still in certain contexts. We'll see how these terms evolve.

  2. just what is it that modern conservatism has actually tried to conserve?

    The answer, tragically, is that they have tried to conserve liberalism. Mainstream conservatives are and always have been liberals. They worship liberalism. They are children of the Enlightenment.

    Mainstream conservatives and social conservatives have often overlapped but actually there's no real connection. The mindset of social conservatism has nothing in common with the mindset of mainstream conservatism. Mainstream conservatives have paid lip service to social conservatism and social conservatives have often foolishly allied themselves with mainstream conservatives.

    When you question mainstream conservatives about their principles those principles invariably turn out to be pure liberalism.

    1. Agree with all of this. The right wing liberal parties did all too well in co-opting the term conservative and winning the support of many decent people who really did want to preserve family and nation rather than just keeping liberalism itself on an even keel. The right liberals did just enough (for instance, appealing to an instinctive aversion among social conservatives to radically ideological forms of politics and to an overreaching state) to keep the socially conservative elements as a power base whilst still keeping society on a liberal course.

  3. This is like so many of these conversations. "Conservatism" has no meaning. No, it has many meanings. No, it means what someone self-identifying as "conservative" says that it means. The "conservative" Andrew Sullivan like his fav, the repugnant "conservative" David Brooks, is an unambiguous modern liberal. Wasn't the "conservative" Barry Obama a modern liberal? Where would we be without "scare" quotes.

    One of my longtime friends recently said to me that "America" is whatever anyone thinks it is. I was dumbfounded. He might as well have said that (the long-dead) "America" is a "civic nation".

    The more you explain and define liberalisms and conservatisms, the more meaningless they become. I read that an ounce of pure gold can theoretically be pounded into an invisible, yet "solid" sheet the size of a football field. Then what have you got? Practically, you've got nothing.

    This is like an Einstein thought experiment. There's no such thing as a straight line. It's an abstraction. Straight is theoretical. Our universe is finite, but without end. Start here, go "straight", and end up back here. Seemed straight.

    Conservatism used to seem straight forward, but I keep ending up back here. Conservatives are liberals, and liberals are conservatives, relative, that is, to the speaker of the words.

    Andrew Sullivan (leading intellectual architect of same-sex marriage) is, to use a "traditional" term, a sodomite. He loves being a sodomite, or, as he says, he loves being "gay". He says that he knows and loves that God loves him being "gay".

    Why is Andrew Sullivan given one pixel to describe his big-bang definition of a continuously expanding "conservatism"? Did the laws of physics exist before, or did they develop with the big bang? Which came first, the natural order of being, or someone's description and definition of it?

    I'd love for a straight shooter to straighten me out, to put me on the straight and narrow, to set me straight with some real straight talk...

    1. Etymology gives us the most comprehensive understanding of any term, although most people don't have time for it, or interst in it.

      You are touching on perspectives that Plato discussed in his dialogues.

      Obviously 'something' is not what anyone says it is - vulgar relativism or Post-modernism. Meaning is inter-subjective and a full understanding involves exploring perspectives of both the living and the dead.

  4. I'm reminded of this:


    1. Stevenp715, Handle, says of Rod Dreher that "he so frequently crawls all the way up to an important insight and then … disappointingly chokes on the social undesirability of the conclusion at the last minute."

      Handle seems to do the same at the conclusion of the linked comment: "If one really wanted to address the root of the problem, one would have to accept some very unpopular ideas about human nature and political reality, and give those pre-enlightenment political theories and structures another look and a fair hearing."

      What, precisely, is the "root of the problem"? What are the "very unpopular ideas about human nature and political reality" that humans neglect to see and hear?

  5. Yeah, in the U.S., the term conservative has, traditionally (hah!) been applied to those who wanted to preserve the founding principles of the nation -- which were liberal. Such conservatives wanted to freeze-in-time the liberalism of the late 1700s. Then along came the "social conservatives" and most people today (on the left at least) think of them as conservatives rather than the ossified liberals of previous generations of conservatives.

    I prefer the liberal-traditional paradigm. Of course, many, perhaps most on the right today are neither traditionalists nor ossified liberals, but rather fascists of a benign sort, and most on the left today are not liberals, but rather communists.

  6. Mr. Richardson

    I saw this today on Vdare, a quote from David Frum:

    "I’ve spent my life as a conservative, but what I’ve sought to conserve is not the Spanish Inquisition or the powers of kings and barons. I’ve sought to conserve the free societies that began to be built in the 18th century and that have gradually developed and strengthened—with many imperfections and hypocrisies and backsliding—in the 250 years since."

    It certainly couldn't be any clear!

    Mark Moncrieff
    Upon Hope Blog