January 22, 2010

The Consciousness of a Conservative

Hatched by Dafydd

In correspondence with my pal and sometime co-conspirator Brad Linaweaver -- currently publisher of Mondo Cult magazine -- I coughed up a list of characteristics of conservatives.

Mind, this is not some authoritarian, top-down deduction from first principles; I developed this list by inductive reasoning, not deductive: I have studied the conservatives I know for years, and I observed the following traits.

Naturally, not every conservative has every trait; but all of those I would call "conservative" (and who call themselves conservative) satisfy the lion's share of these characteristics. Similarly, not every trait is exclusive to conservatives; for example, libertarians share many.

I have some (those in bold italics) but lack others. My score is 44%, seven out of 16, but I do not call myself a consevative. My personal definition of a contemporary conservative ca. 2010 is that he has 12 out of the 16 traits, or 75%.

Update: I added two traits, one in response to commenter Baggi (belief in small government), the other because I just thought of it (nationalism). I also added examples to clarify the trait, belief in the legislating of virtue.

This has, of course, altered the numbering; so in commenting, please use the current numbers -- else everyone will be confused!

Conservative characteristics

  1. Optimism about the future and the courage to face its challenges
  2. The complete rejection of utopianism or human-achievable perfection -- this one was suggested by Brad; I hadn't thought of it, but Brad is right!
  3. Adventurousness, dreaming big, achieving the "impossible"
  4. Individualism, in contrast to collectivism
  5. Capitalism, in particular, small-business entrepeneurship
  6. Strong tendency towards preserving American traditions, whether good or bad
  7. Patriotism
  8. Nationalism, as opposed to internationalism
  9. Religiosity
  10. A strong tendency to reject evolution by natural selection as denying God and the spiritual nature of Man
  11. A strong belief that personhood begins at conception, thus that abortion is nearly always morally bad
  12. Belief in the legislating of virtue; i.e., laws against "sodomy" and other forms of unusual sex, drug use, prostitution, public nudity (at beaches, for example); censorship of sex and "excessive" violence on TV, in comics, and in videogames; tax exemptions for religious institutions; protection of (mostly Judeo-Christian) religious expressions in public institutions
  13. Belief in small government -- but still large enough to defend the country, provide for the needy, and legislate virtue
  14. Deep respect for and appreciation of the American military
  15. Respect for the democratic decisions of the people -- extreme distaste for oligarchy (especially kritarchy)
  16. Distrust of foreigners, especially immigrants

(Note that 2 and 3 do not contradict; conservatives reject utopianism... but they also reject defeatism. That's all I meant by these two.)

Your definition of conservative may not match mine; your mileage may vary. Many people call themselves conservatives who I would call liberals or libertarians or even Leftists (e.g., Andrew Sullivan). I'm not saying my definition is the true one or even the best; it's just... mine.

Naturally, readers are encouraged to comment on the list -- what should be deleted, added, or modified. You may fire when ready, Buckley!

A brief liberal interlude... As I see them, liberals score nearly zero on this set of traits; but they have their own set. See next post.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, January 22, 2010, at the time of 10:05 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Goyo Marquez

14. I hope that's not true, but I suspect it is.
11. I don't think that is correct at least no more so than it is for liberals.
3 & 4. Would, I believe, also be claimed by American leftists or liberal as one of their characteristics.
1. Is definitely not true. See, John Derbyshire at NR.

I would like to think that the main characteristic of conservatives vis a vis liberals is that conservatives tend to believe that success is determined more by effort than talent, but that seems to be contradicted by some conservatives fixation with IQ. It also seems to be at variance with Prof. Sowell's categories of constrained and unconstrained visions. It does seem to me that ones view of the world is largely determined by one's viewpoint.

Greg Marquez

The above hissed in response by: Goyo Marquez [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 22, 2010 10:55 PM

The following hissed in response by: snochasr

I disagree with #3. As one of the great conservative icons said, "A man's gotta know his limitations."

I suggest that #2 and #11 are contradictory. #2 together with #11 are the liberal catechism-- that man is perfectable if "we" just pass the right laws. I might suggest that #11 be replaced with "A belief that there are moral absolutes, and that these absolutes may be correctly reflected in the law." You could then reword #2 as "humans are sinners, and the law exists to protect us from one another."

I see no reason for "in particular" in #5. Maybe "for example" would be better?

I object to #14. I would almost say the opposite-- "welcoming of legal immigrants seeking the American dream."

With a few quibbles, I get to 10. Thanks!

The above hissed in response by: snochasr [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2010 7:07 AM

The following hissed in response by: Fritz

I'm sorry, but I think you blew it on this one Dafydd and that is something I almost never think of your posts. I would never describe myself as a conservative, yet I agree, for the most part, with at least nine of your points as I understand them, and there are only three that I totally disagree with(numbers 6, 10, and 11). On Number 8 I would need more explanation of what you mean before I'm willing to decide either way. Do you mean rabidly religious to the point of making silly assertions like, for example, that the Bible is the word of God and that it accurately describes how the planet was formed and how long ago , or is there some wiggle room on the amount of religion? In other words, is it acceptable to hold what some would describe as very contradictory opinions regarding religion and evolution even though I've worked them out in my own mind and don't see any real conflicts between them?

I would describe myself as a classical liberal, not to be confused with what passes for liberalism as practiced by todays Democrats. In fact I would argue that they are any thing but liberal. But to take your points in order.

#1 Yes, I'm optimistic about the future, although I'm not certain about the United States place in that future. I recognize that there will be setbacks in mans progress, just as there have been in the past, but he keeps gaining and I see no reason that will stop. Sometimes the setbacks are a few years such as WW1 and 2, other times the setbacks can last centuries such as the Dark Ages.
#2 Of course mankind will never achieve utopia, but even knowing and recognizing that fact should not stop us from trying. We should always strive to do better than we have done in the past, both individually and collectively.
#3 Absolutely. Sometimes the impossible becomes possible and that is how great progress is made.
#4 While I recognize that there are some things that require people coming together and working collectively to achieve, those things are normally things a government does, such as defense of the country, a system of laws and enforcement of same, and so on. Beyond that we need to keep government out of as much as possible because government stifles creativity and inhibits progress, both socially and economically.
#5 Capitalism is freedom. No other system allows its members the complete freedom to decide like capitalism does, and since I'm all for freedom capitalism is high on my list of good things. I can only wish that the United States was more capitalistic than it is and that the government would get their meddling fingers out and keep them out. If the government had not meddled in the housing market we would not have the current recession.
#6 First one I disagree with. While I favor keeping good traditions, get rid of the bad ones. Enough said on this one.
#7 Again yes. While I'm perfectly willing to concede that my country is not perfect and has made mistakes, I love her dearly. As I see it, if you don't like your country either try to get changed those things you dislike about it or move to a different country that more accurately reflects your beliefs. However, I would add this. Just remember that in order to get changed those things you dislike you need to convince at least half of the people you are right, and once you have accomplished the change, you need to keep convincing at least half of the people that your change was a good one. As an aside, forgetting that last part was President Bush's big mistake with regards to Iraq. While the Bush administration could have done better at convincing the country they were right to go into Iraq, they really failed at explaining what was happening and what to expect once the war had started and during reconstruction in Iraq. The Bush team seemed to think once they had won the argument they no longer needed to argue their point, something that is not true.
#8 See initial comments.
#9 Agree. What more is there to say?
#10 Disagree. I don't see how one can reject the evidence that evolution plays and has played a big part in the forming and development of the planet. To do so seems ludicrous. That said, I see no reason that believing in evolution prohibits a belief in a supreme being or beings depending upon your religious beliefs.
#11 Disagree. Trying to do that generally fails and usually makes the situation worse. Think prohibition or outlawing prostitution among other attempts at legislating virtue. Secondly, who gets to define virtue? I don't wish to try to define virtue for everyone, and I certainly don't want someone else defining it for me.
#12 Agree. As with any other group of people there are some bad ones, but I would submit that the average member of the American military is a better citizen than the average citizen. I would further argue that the fact that the members of the American military are willing to defend those who hate them places them far above the haters and therefore makes them worthy of admiration.
#13 Definitely. While I sometimes disagree with the decisions of the majority, when it happens it then falls upon me to convince a majority that I am right and they are wrong. If I fail to accomplish that I have nothing to complain about.
#14 Disagree somewhat, or is it agree somewhat? While I am willing to concede that there are some foreigners who hate this country and need to be watched to prevent them from harming her, that does not mean we should automatically distrust all foreigners. To do so seems almost to border on paranoia. That said, it also seems silly not to be somewhat wary, and therefore keep watch until one is satisfied that said immigrant of foreigner is not dangerous.

The above hissed in response by: Fritz [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2010 8:06 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dick E


I would make 14 “Distrust of foreign powers.”

Liberals seem to want to subvert our system to the “international community”: International law, the IPCC, the UN, etc.

I don’t think conservatives distrust foreigners or immigrants. There may be prejudice against these groups, but is that really any more characteristic of conservatives than of liberals? And prejudice is not the same thing as distrust: You may be prejudiced against a 6-month old baby who doesn’t look like you, but how can you distrust them?

The above hissed in response by: Dick E [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2010 9:12 AM

The following hissed in response by: BigLeeH

My rule-of-thumb notion of a "conservative" is a person exactly like me when I am surrounded by libertarians. Contrariwise, a "libertarian" is me when I am surrounded by conservatives. As a Frank Meyer-style fusionist I think that the silly schism between libertarians and American conservatives can and should be patched over, and whenever I am surrounded by members of one group I feel the need to serve as an ambassador for the other. Since you and (especially) Brad tend to identify more with libertarians than conservatives I will be using myself as a model of conservative perfection for purposes of this discussion and as I visit each point I will either admit, humbly, that it describes me perfectly or complain that you have larded your list with not-necessarily-conservative vices to justify your rejection of the label "conservative". Feel free to bear that in mind.

Trait 1 -- Optimism: This one is odd but mostly true. More on it later.

Trait 2 -- Antiutopianism: Perhaps the reason that Brad needed to point this out to you is because you didn't derive your list, as you state, from first principles. This is the first principle of modern American conservatism.

Trait 3 -- Adventurousness: This is related to traits 1 and 4. Individualist optimism tends to manifest itself as adventurousness.

Trait 4 -- Individualism: Given its roots in classical liberalism this is a key attribute of most variants of American conservatism.

Trait 5 -- Entrepreneurial Capitalism: Quite right. It is merely adventurousness expressed in its economic variant.

Trait 6 -- American Traditionalism: I'm something of a traditionalist and I must quibble here a bit. I don't think any traditionalist would agree that we seek to preserve "bad" traditions. We merely give the traditional modes of thought and behavior the benefit of a the doubt until the evidence become persuasive.

Trait 7 -- Patriotism: Certainly a virtue associated with American conservatives (and occasionally a vice as well.)

Trait 8 -- Religiosity: Religiosity is closely related to populism and populists are ideological nomads. It is true that they are currently camped in conservative territory -- so for the moment you are right -- but they are fickle and may move on at any moment.

Trait 9 -- Personhood of the Unborn: There are pro-choice conservatives but this seems fair since there is a strong correlation with other markers for conservatism. This is a difficult issue for fusionist compromise. I suppose I might support a woman's right to kill her baby provided that she understood that that is precisely what she is doing, and that all arguments to the contrary are rubbish.

Trait 10 -- Creationism: Um, really? You mean to tell me that something like the majority of the conservatives that you guys know are creationists? Weird.

Trait 11 -- Legislating Virtue: This libertarian talking point is a truism that is not particularly true. If you look at the seven deadly sins (Catholic version) -- sloth, lust, anger, greed, pride, envy and gluttony -- you will find liberals and conservatives have split the list fairly evenly for their proscriptive legislative agendas.

Trait 12 -- Respect for the Military: Currently true but, as I am sure you know, historically problematical as a marker for conservatism.

Trait 13: Respect for Democracy: I must admit I had to hit Wikipedia for "kritarchy." I was initially inclined to mostly agree here but on further reflection I have decided you are mistaken. With a few obscure exceptions such as those very few people who know what the word republican means (most of whom, coincidentally, tend to vote "Republican") all political organizations will extol "the will of the people" when they are winning and tend to be OK with judicial activism when it is on their side. "Conservatives" do it, which is disappointing since they should know better, but no more often than the other side.

Trait 14 -- Nationalist Xenophobia: Yes, there is rather more of it in conservative circles than I would like. It is an understandable, but nonetheless unfortunate reaction to militant internationalism, multiculturalism and affirmative action on the other side. It irks me because the anger is misdirected and wasted -- charging the cape and ignoring the matador.

Getting back to the concept of conservative optimism, it is quite real and, in a round-about way, a consequence of conservative antiutopianism. Modern liberalism is officially more optimistic than conservatism -- after all they believe in the perfectibility of human institutions and the conservatives don't -- but that belief sets liberals up for a lifetime of disappointment. Conservatives, on the other hand, expect to have to muddle through in a not-altogether-satisfactory environment. Experience makes liberals cynical as they fall short of their hopes, while conservatives are mostly pleased to find how much can be done in an imperfect and non-perfectible world. This cheerful but conflicted optimism is a key indicator of a conservative mindset and is almost-always present, even in officially-dour paleo-cons such as John Derbyshire of NR.

The above hissed in response by: BigLeeH [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2010 10:13 AM

The following hissed in response by: Baggi

What about Reagan's, "Government is not the answer to the problem, Government is the problem."

I always thought that was a staple of conservatism.

The above hissed in response by: Baggi [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2010 11:03 AM

The following hissed in response by: JSchuler

I have to give a qualified disapproval of "Respect for the democratic decisions of the people."

There are people who want to turn everything into a democracy. There are people who view democracy as an end in-and-of itself. These people are not conservatives.

Convservatives only respect the democratic decisions of the people within prescribed limits. These decisions are limited by our inalienable rights. That is, conservatives believe people have rights that they cannot vote away. You cannot vote away your right to free speech, to assemble, to thought, to self-defense, to property, to revolution. The ONLY reason conservatives respect democratic decisions is they recognize democracy as a tool to help secure our rights. As soon as democracy becomes a threat to those rights, conservatives have no use for it.

This is why conservatives favor limited government, as they do not trust that unlimited democracy would preserve liberty. Instead, they believe (rightfully so) that it is corrosive to freedom.

The above hissed in response by: JSchuler [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 24, 2010 10:31 PM

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