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Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives.
John Stuart Mill
Conservative, n.: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
Ambrose Bierce

Despite being a rather old and influential political philosophy, the meaning of the word conservatism, along with what is could be and what it should be, is still subject to much debate by both the public, politicians and scholars.[1] Popularly, “conservative” is a just a synonym term for right-wing ideas that occupy (or at least should occupy) the political spectrum between liberalism and fascism. Philosophical commentators, on the other hand, treat it as a standpoint that is sceptical of abstract reasoning in politics, relying on traditional values instead, allowing for the possibility of limited political reform. According to this view, conservatism is more than neoconservatism, not being necessarily a dogmatic reaction.[1] In the gulag, the term has been conflated by many with very narrow social and religious prescriptions and co-opted by neoconservatism. During the 2008 election campaign, an article in Atlantic Monthly contrasted the old-fashioned conservatism of Edmund Burke with the right-wing radicalism of Newt Gingrich and company.[2]

Note that left/right and liberal/conservative are only regarded as synonymous in the United States (and Canada to a certain extent). Following a hung parliament in 2010, the Liberal Democrats entered a coalition government with the Conservative Party. In Australia, the Liberal Party are the direct analogs of the US Republicans or the UK Conservatives — they're economically liberal and socially very conservative. The flexibility of the word comes down to its original root, to conservative, which means "to keep in a safe or sound state" in this context.[3] To be more specific, conservativism is historically dedicated to maintaining the status quo, an idea linked to conservativism for as long as the idea has been around. Because of this, countries that have been historically left-wing are going to end up with a form of conservativism that is farther to the left than what is found in a more right-wing nation. Explaining this to American conservatives tends to make their heads explode.

Social and economic conservatism[edit]

I cannot call myself a cultural conservative, because that term, hijacked by the media, is customarily used to describe a person preoccupied with such matters as the preservation of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance; the defense of marriage as an institution for heterosexuals only; the promotion of premarital chastity; and the protection of cancer patients from marijuana addiction.

—Susan Jacoby[4]

Conservative is a loose term, meaning only "in favor of conserving." While there are many types of conservatism, one essential distinction in politics and society is between social conservatism and economic (or fiscal) conservatism. Although the two often go hand-in-hand, especially in American politics, they are not inherently connected. It is quite possible to be a fiscal conservative without being socially conservative or vice versa.

Social conservatism emphasizes convention, morality (or old-fashioned notions of morality[note 1]), and established roles within society and the family. Social conservatives are often, though not always, strongly religious. They support traditional gender roles, marriage, and "family values" (a term with many meanings). Social conservatism is often accused of being homophobic due to its distaste for same-sex marriage and sometimes racist and sexist to some degree because of the associations with traditional hierarchical societies in which everybody knew their place; and in the West, at least, the White, Anglo/European diaspora being regarded as the ultimate origin and standard of civilized culture. Demands for "equality" or "justice" tend to be seen at a minimum as lofty, abstract proposals that are likely to change with the seasons of intellectual fashion. Disrupting settled folkways in the name of these abstract beliefs will always run afoul of the iron law of unintended consequences, while the traditions that would be changed may be sacred and certainly are our own. They often express outrage at political correctness they disagree with and perceived moral decline (e.g., "Hollywood values"). Social conservatism can be highly influential in politics; the "pro-life" movement to outlaw abortion is an example of social conservatism.

The problem with social conservatism is that it's directly contrary to the tenets of small limited government and personal freedom and responsibility. It relies on dated views in the face of changing society. Wanting the government, especially the Federal government, to enact and enforce laws based on your morality directly contradicts this. There's a reason social conservatives used to overwhelmingly support the Democrats: they believed in a strong welfare state to support the public good, for example, based on ideas of Christian charity. These same voters shifted to the GOP only after the American Civil Rights movement circa 1965 (and Richard Nixon having the brilliant idea of pandering to racist fuckwits with less empathy for anyone who isn't a carbon copy of themselves than a starving tiger), creating the current contradictory cocktail of conservatives and social regressives/reactionaries calling themselves conservatives.

Economic or fiscal conservatism is also very significant politically. Fiscal conservatives support low taxation (trickle-down in particular) and free-market capitalism with minimal regulation. According to critics such as Naomi Klein,[5] this benefits the economic interests of big industries, entrepreneurs, or the ruling class in some countries, at the expense of everyone else, though conservatives argue that these policies benefit the whole society. The truth probably lies somewhere in between: in the US, while some of these policies, such as the trickle-down economics have historically failed, others such as deregulation have worked better.[6]

In Europe, many economic conservatives are not necessarily socially conservative, often being non-religious and unconcerned by issues such as same-sex marriage. In America, however, the two forms of conservatism are heavily intertwined, especially within the Republican Party and its supporters. This bundling of the two major types of conservatism with each other is extreme to the extent that many conservatives cannot recognize the distinction — and see both concepts as central to "conservative values", leading to the idea that you can be all in favor of abolishing taxation, deregulating the market, and abolishing trade unions all you like, but if you make a single pro-choice statement, you're labeled as a RINO liberal.

Supply-side economics[edit]

This fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces is closely related to the other two characteristics of conservatism; its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces.
Friedrich Hayek, Why I Am Not a Conservative (1960)
Teaching supply-side economics in econ is like teaching creationism in biology.
—Phil Gilbert, economics professor at MiraCosta College, ca 1987 (not an exact quote)

You can't have a discussion about modern-day conservatism, especially economic conservatism, without talking about supply-side economics. Supply-side economics is defined as an economic theory that articulates that the economy could be best served by reducing barriers to supply/production as opposed to trying to raise demand. The epitome of supply-side economics is the Laffer Curve, which is the precept that government revenue is equal at zero and 100% taxation. Most economists were skeptical of Laffer's suggestion, and nowadays, supply-side economics has been much abandoned by most mainstream economists,[7] despite still being popular among libertarians.

In just eight years, the Bush Administration grew the government faster and larger than any other President with borrowed money. It demanded $700 billion more to buy up all of Wall Street's bad mortgage paper and preserve the status quo. However, when asked to boost the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) by $250 million to help low-income families pay their heating bills over the winter of 2007-2008 with record oil and gas prices, Bush vetoed it as pure socialism.[8]

Conservative psychology[edit]

There is something inherently paradoxical about being an intellectual Conservative: a good measure of the party's raison d'etre resides in the counter-intuitive belief that ideas should be inherited and ignored, not acquired and defended. And they never take the form of convictions.
—Conservative philosopher Roger ScrutonWikipedia[9]

Four researchers surveyed research literature about the psychology of conservatism.[10][11] They discovered that political conservatism's core is the resistance to change and other perspectives and a tolerance for inequality. No shit. The chief psychological factors of conservatism:

  • Fear and aggression — an easy way to support a conservative position is to scapegoat some convenient "other" and demonize it as a threat to "civilized" values. Islamophobia and xenophobia are simply the current manifestations of this conservative train of thought. Students of history may find other examples.
  • Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
  • Uncertainty avoidance — this may lead to the drawing of premature conclusions or resorting to stereotypes.
  • Need for cognitive closure — As Dubya once said, "My job isn't to nuance."
  • Terror management — such as declaring amber alerts at opportune moments, calling opponents "supporters of terrorists", etc.

It is debatable whether these factors are associated chiefly with conservatism. One admitted shortfall in this study was that "little or no empirical data are available from the major communist or formerly communist countries" on this subject,[11] making a study of communist psychology very difficult. However, the researchers acknowledge that these factors were also exhibited by many communist dictators, such as Joseph Stalin and Fidel Castro. They respond by claiming that these men, because they resisted change while in power, "may be considered politically conservative, at least in the context of the systems they defended."[11]

In fairness to conservatives, some studies of political extremist groups have suggested that the far-left has very similar traits to the far-right in terms of their tactics and preference for authoritarianism.[12]

What is conservatism, and what is wrong with it?[13]

The main conservative ideology[edit]

It refers to a representative example of conservative ideologies used in international contexts, not American exceptionalism. The most representative are 'liberal conservatism', 'social conservatism', and 'national conservatism'.

  • Liberal conservatism: This center-right ideology combines classical liberalism and conservatism. It pursues a moderate form of liberalism based on conservative philosophy. Sometimes liberal conservatism is used in a similar sense to conservative liberalism. (In this context, liberalism is not related to American liberalism.)
  • Social conservatism: This kind of conservatism preserves and supports existing social traditions. Social conservative ideology is classified as a right-wing like the GOP in the United States, but social conservative forms combined with social democracy are classified as centrist or center-right, such as Christian democracyWikipedia and paternalistic conservatism.Wikipedia Social conservatism is notable because it is the only form of conservatism that actively hurts people, notably LGBTQ+ persons and women who do not abide by the patriarchy. Anyone who doesn't follow conventions or adhere to traditional societal roles is adversely affected.
  • National conservatism: This is a combination of nationalism and conservatism. Modern national conservatism is generally regarded as right-wing to far-right. In the U.S., Trumpism, Tea Party Movement, and the Alt-right show this tendency. There is also center-right national conservatism in rare cases, such as Taiwan's KMT.

Conservatism and hierarchy[edit]

Conservatism has been characterized as being an ideology that society is ordered into a natural hierarchy, and so conservatives act in defense of these perceived natural hierarchies.[14][15]

Seeing how conservatives are strongly in favor of policies that promote patriarchy, transphobia, organized religion, and plutocracy,[note 2] the contention that conservatism isn't motivated by defense of social hierarchies is questionable.


Extremism is a catch-all term for those whose political or religious views are far from the center of a given political spectrum, with connotations of being dangerously so. It is often synonymous with "wingnut" and/or "moonbat" (both being similar weasel words).

More specifically, it has been used to refer to those "wingnuts and moonbats" who have an "end justifies the means" mentality and are willing to use violence or other extralegal means to achieve their goals. However, it is sometimes also used to imply that said "wingnuts and moonbats" are criminal elements willing to use violence.


  1. Which are generally mutually exclusive with actual morality, e.g. not being a petty, hatemongering jerkass.
  2. Trans people, feminism, atheism, and left-wing politics in general threaten established hierarchies.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Hamilton, Andy (2020). "Conservatism". In Zalta, Edward N.. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 
  2. Mr. Conservative
  3. conserve
  4. Jacoby, Susan The Age of American Unreason p. 13. 2008. Pantheon Books. {{isbn|1-59722-793-5
  5. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Picador, 2008. ISBN 9780312427993
  6. "Extending Deregulation: Make the U.S. Economy More Efficient" (in en-US). 
  7. brianna (2014-08-25). "HE LAFFER CURVE AND SUPPLYSIDE ECONOMICS Economics Assignment Help, Economics Homework & Economics Project Help" (in en-US). 
  8. Bush veto hits heating bill aid program for poor
  9. Aida Edemariam, Interview Roger Scruton: A pessimist's guide to life. The Guardian, 5 June 2010.
  10. Researchers help define what makes a political conservative
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 The original paper
  12. Herbert McClosky and Dennis Chong, Similarities and Differences Between Left-Wing and Right-Wing Radicals. Cambridge University Press, 27 January 2009.
  13. What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?
  14. Robin, Corey (January 8, 2012). "The Conservative Reaction". The Chronicle of Higher Education. 
  15. "What if Robin Hood is a social conservative? : How the political response to increasing inequality depends on party polarization". Socio-Economic Review 8 (2): 283–306. 2010.