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.