How would you define conservatism?

A recent survey from Gallup found that the United States remains an overwhelmingly conservative country, with conservatives outnumbering liberals in 44 states, tied in just two, and lagging in only four.

Although the gap has narrowed in some regions, conservatives still enjoy at least a 20-point advantage in 13 states (Alabama is fifth, where we outnumber liberals by a whopping 30 points).

With so many Americans calling themselves conservative, one would assume its definition would be simple to explain.

One would be wrong.

Conservatism, as a word, doesn’t fully describe the many aspects of our philosophy. Some of its principles and processes aren’t “conservative” at all, just as modern liberalism is often quite illiberal.

That makes defining conservatism incredibly difficult. So much so that, as pointed out in the National Review, when its founder William F. Buckley was asked to define the term for a book titled What is Conservatism?, the usually confident and always prolific writer produced an essay sheepishly titled “Notes toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism; Reluctantly and Apologetically Given by William F. Buckley.”

If Buckley couldn’t do it, then nobody can … yet others have tried.

“What is conservatism?” Abraham Lincoln asked. “Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried.”

Yes, but conservatism also seeks variety, preferring creativity to centralization, and there’s nothing old and tried about what happens within a vibrant free market. Just ask the buggy whip industry.

Conservatism also “understands the important role that traditions, institutions, habits, and authority have in our social life together,” wrote Bill Bennett in his book The De-Valuing of America, and Buckley explained in Up From Liberalism that conservatives “believe that millenniums of intellection have served an objective purpose. Certain problems have been disposed of. Certain questions are closed.”

In other words, conservatives believe that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

True, but conservatism isn’t stagnant because, as Russell Kirk wrote, “the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.”

Once upon a time the traditions we hold sacred were new, untried, and often radical ideas. Thankfully they took root. Perhaps there are others awaiting discovery?

And most timely, considering how the left is attacking so many of our traditions, Yuval Levin said that “Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.”

Most modern conservatives would likely define the term by focusing on some of the issues we currently champion: both the broad – limited government, free markets, individual rights, etc.; and the narrow – overturning Roe v. Wade, defending the Second Amendment, repealing Obamacare, etc.

President Donald Trump – no movement conservative – actually gave a pretty good answer when asked by CBS to define a conservative: “Well, I think it’s a person that doesn’t want to take risks.”

Spot on. As Kirk explained, “conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.”

But then again, isn’t risk a fundamental component of capitalism? Yet another contradiction.

I’ve even given the definition game a try: “Liberals believe in the perfectibility of society through plans and controls, while conservatives believe in the prosperity of man through liberty and order, and conservatives support this by accepting that which works and rejecting that which doesn’t, regardless of their personal preferences.”

But as Simon Sinek explains in Start With Why, all of the above definitions are stuck answering the what or the how questions surrounding conservatism. They should instead focus on the why, because that is the core of every worthwhile or successful human endeavor, and the reason why people naturally know if something is true, or genuine, or valuable.

Why do we want to repeal Obamacare? Why do we accept what works, even if reluctantly? Why do we avoid unnecessary risks? Why are we grateful for our society? Why do we accept positive change? Why are we skeptical of new ideas? Why do we respect traditions? Why do we defend the old and tried?


Because conservatism is the pursuit of freedom. Plain and simple.

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11 thoughts on “How would you define conservatism?

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