Even within one culture, different definitions of what it is that constitutes a 'conservative' may be found: Martin Blinkhorn, for example, asks the question, "Who are the 'conservatives' in today's Russia? Are they the unreconstructed Stalinists, or the reformers who have adopted the right-wing views of modern conservatives such as Margaret Thatcher?
Samuel Francis defined authentic conservatism as “the survival and enhancement of a particular people and its institutionalized cultural expressions”; Roger Scruton defines conservatism as the “maintenance of the social ecology” and “the politics of delay, the purpose of which is to maintain in being, for as long as possible, the life and health of a social organism”; and Russell Kirk considered conservatism "the negation of ideology".
Conservative political parties have diverse views. For instance, Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, Independent Democrat Union in Chile, and Conservative Party in the UK are all major conservative parties with varying positions. Conservative parties usually identify as right-wing parties.
"To put conservatism in a bottle with a label is like trying to liquify the atmosphere … The difficulty arises from the nature of the thing. For conservatism is less a political doctrine than a habit of mind, a mode of feeling, a way of living."
Although political thought, from its beginnings, contains many strains that can be retrospectively labeled conservative, it was not until the Age of Reason, and in particular the reaction to events surrounding the French Revolution of 1789, that conservatism began to rise as a distinct attitude or train of thought. Many point to the rise of a conservative disposition in the wake of the Reformation, specifically to the works of influential Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, emphasizing moderation in the political balancing of interests towards the goals of social harmony and common good. But it was not until Edmund Burke’s polemic Reflections on the Revolution in France that conservatism gained its most influential statement of views.
Edmund Burke was an Anglo-Irish statesman, who argued forcefully against the French Revolution, but he sympathized with some of the aims of the American Revolution. His classical conservative position often insisted that conservatism has no ideology, in the sense of a utopian program, with some form of master plan. Burke developed his ideas in reaction to the 'enlightened' idea of a society guided by abstract reason. Although he did not use the term, he anticipated the critique of modernism, a term first used at the end of the 19th century by the Dutch religious conservative Abraham Kuyper. Burke was troubled by the Enlightenment, and argued instead for the value of inherited institutions and customs.
Some people, argued Burke, had less reason than others, and thus some people will make worse governments than others if they rely upon reason. To Burke, the proper formulation of government came not from abstractions such as "Reason," but from time-honoured development of the state, piecemeal progress through experience and the continuation of other important societal institutions such as the family and the Church.
"We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence."
Burke argued that tradition is a much sounder foundation than 'metaphysical abstractions.' Tradition draws on the wisdom of many generations and the tests of time, while "reason" may be a mask for the preferences of one man, and at best represents only the untested wisdom of one generation. Any existing value or institution has undergone the correcting influence of past experience and ought to be respected. Also, Burke claims that man is unable to understand the many ways in which inherited behaviours influence their thinking, so trying to judge society objectively is futile.
However, conservatives do not reject change. As Burke wrote, "A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation." But they insist that further change be organic, rather than revolutionary. An attempt to modify the complex web of human interactions that form human society, for the sake of some doctrine or theory, runs the risk of running afoul of the iron law of unintended consequences. Burke advocates vigilance against the possibility of moral hazards. For conservatives, human society is something rooted and organic; to try to prune and shape it according to the plans of an ideologue is to invite unforeseen disaster.
Conservatives strongly support the right of property. Carl B. Cone, in Burke and the Nature of Politics, pointed out that this view, expressed as philosophy, also served the interests of the people involved. "As Burke had declared…this law ... encroached upon property rights... . To the eighteenth century Whig, nothing was more sacred than the rights of property, ... the protest could not be entirely frank, and it masked personal interests behind lofty principles. These principles were not hypocritically pronounced, but they did not reveal the financial interests of Rockingham, Burke, and other persons who opposed the East India legislation as members of parliament, as holders of East India stock..."
Historically, it often referred to the combination of economic liberalism, which champions laissez-faire markets, with the classical conservative concern for established tradition, respect for authority and religious values. In this way it contrasted itself with classical liberalism, which supported freedom for the individual in both the economic and social spheres.
Over time, the general conservative ideology in many countries adopted economic liberal arguments and this sense of the term "liberal conservatism" fell out of use, and "conservatism" was simply used instead. This is also the case in countries where liberal economic ideas have been the tradition, such as the United States, and are thus considered "conservative". In other countries where liberal conservative movements have entered the political mainstream, the terms "liberal" and "conservative" may become synonymous (as in Italy and in Spain). The liberal conservative tradition in the United States combines the economic individualism of the classical liberals with a Burkean form of conservatism (which has also become part of the American conservative tradition, for example in the writings of Russell Kirk).
A secondary meaning for the term that has developed in Europe, is combining more modern "conservative" (less traditionalist) views with those of "social liberalism". This has developed as an opposition to the more collectivist views of socialism. Often this involves stressing what are now conservative views of free-market economics and belief in individual responsibility, with social liberal views on defence of civil rights, environmentalism and support for a limited welfare state. This philosophy is that of Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and current British Conservative Party leader David Cameron. In continental Europe, this is sometimes also translated into English as social conservatism.
Conservative liberalism is a more positive and less radical version of classical liberalism. The events such as World War I occurring after 1917 brought the more radical version of classical liberalism to a more conservative (i.e. more moderate) type of liberalism.
In contrast to paleoconservatives, libertarian conservatives support strict laissez-faire policies such as free trade, opposition to the Federal Reserve and opposition to all business regulations. They are vehemently opposed to environmental regulations, corporate welfare, subsidies, and other areas of economic intervention. Many of them have views in accord to Ludwig von Mises.
Ron Paul contends that illegal immigration is caused by the welfare state, so that should first be gotten rid of. Ron Paul is more tolerant of gay marriage, although he thinks that marriage should be deregulated by the state and should be a church function. However, many of them oppose abortion, as they see it as a positive liberty and violates the non-aggression principle because abortion is aggression towards the fetus.
In the subset social conservatism, the norms may also be what is viewed as a question of morality. In some cultures, practices such as homosexuality are seen as immoral. In others, it is considered immoral for a woman to reveal too much of her body.
Cultural conservatives often argue that old institutions have adapted to a particular place or culture and therefore ought to be preserved. Others argue that a people have a right to their cultural norms, their own language and traditions.
Some cultural conservatives are willing to extend this right to tradition to other groups. The Aryan Nation, for examples, teaches that Blacks should band together to exclude Whites, just as they teach that Whites should band together to exclude blacks. Other cultural conservatives are unwilling to extend this right to tradition to other groups. For example, Muslim fundamentalists do not believe that woman in the west should have the traditional freedoms allowed by western culture.
Conservative governments influenced by religious conservatives may promote broad campaigns for a return to traditional values. Modern examples include the Back to Basics campaign of British Prime Minister, John Major. In the European Union, a conservative campaign sought to constitutionally specify certain conservative values in the proposed European Constitution.
Because many religions preserve a founding text, or at least a set of well-established traditions, the possibility of radical religious conservatism arises. These are radical both in the sense of abolishing the status quo and of a perceived return to the radix or root of a belief. They are ante conservative in their claim to be preserving the belief in its original or pristine form. Radical religious conservatism generally sees the status quo as corrupted by abuses, corruption, or heresy. One example of such a movement was the Radical Reformation within the Protestant Reformation and the later Restorationists of the 1800s.
Similar phenomena have arisen in practically all the world's religions, in many cases triggered by the violent cultural collision between the traditional society in question and the modern Western society that has developed throughout the world over the past 500 years. Much of what is labeled as radical religious conservatism in the modern world is in fact an indigenous fusion of traditional religious ideals with modern, European revolutionary philosophy, sometimes Marxist in nature.
...[I]t is to the property of the citizen, and not to the demands of the creditor of the state, that the first and original faith of civil society is pledged. The claim of the citizen is prior in time, paramount in title, superior in equity. The fortunes of individuals, whether possessed by acquisition or by descent or in virtue of a participation in the goods of some community, were no part of the creditor's security, expressed or implied...[T]he public, whether represented by a monarch or by a senate, can pledge nothing but the public estate; and it can have no public estate except in what it derives from a just and proportioned imposition upon the citizens at large.
In other words, a government does not have the right to run up large debts and then throw the burden on the taxpayer; the taxpayers' right not to be taxed oppressively takes precedence even over paying back debts a government may have imprudently undertaken.
Many forms of conservatism incorporate elements of other ideologies and philosophies. In turn, conservatism has influence upon them. Most conservatives strongly support the sovereign nation (although that was not so in the 19th century), and patriotically identify with their own nation. Nationalist separatist movements may be both radical and conservative. They appeal to tradition and often emphasise rural life and folkways.
Conversely, some conservatives say that to defend their national identity, they may need to expose the hypocrisy of an existing regime. For example, G. K. Chesterton responded to Decatur in The Defendant, saying "'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.'" Further, paleoconservatives and others say that in this era of the managerial state, there is no clear consensus on what institutions should be conserved; therefore, the term conservative can only mean that any idea or ideology or institution that preserves human rights, and the rights of other sentient beings to exist in peace, is what should be preserved.
The phrases "economic liberal" and "economic conservative" seem to be antonyms, diverging from modern neoliberalism, and classical liberalism in the tradition of Adam Smith. Some conservatives look to a modified free market order, such as the American System, ordoliberalism, or Friedrich List's National System. The latter view differs from strict laissez-faire in that the state's role is to promote competition while maintaining the national interest, community and identity. Outside the United States, "liberal" often refers only to free-market policies. For example, in Europe "liberal-conservative" is an accepted term. Differences in meaning and usage of the terms "liberal" and "conservative" have contributed to a great deal of confusion, and often the words seem to be used with no more meaning than "us" and "them". Conservatives and classical liberals are "allied against the common enemy, socialism," but classical liberals are less suspicious of big government than conservatives.'
Burkean conservatives favour incremental over radical change, even from the right. Most conservatives distrust the xenophobic sentiments that are prominent in some far-right wing groups just as most socialists distrust the communistic sentiments prominent on the political left. Protectionism and anti-immigration policies may conflict with free-market conservatives' support for deregulation and free trade. Some conservatives oppose military interventionism, inspired by early British conservative thinkers, such as David Hume and Edmund Burke. Burke saw imperialism as interfering with the traditions and organic make-up of the colonised societies.
The overlap between 'respectable' conservatives and the extreme right is determined by the degree of political taboo, rather than inherent ideological incompatibility. In European parliamentary systems, conservatives currently ally with centrist or even leftist groups, rather than with the xenophobic-populist right, although critics have contended that the conservatives are taking in far-right ideas. For example, in December 2005, Le Canard Enchaîné claimed that Nicolas Sarkozy had implemented almost all of the far-right Front National (FN) measures proposed in its election program. All mainstream parties in Belgium cooperated to exclude the Flemish-separatist and xenophobic Vlaams Belang, although some politicians wish to break this 'cordon sanitaire'. And mainstream parties in France sometimes support each others' candidates in run-off elections, to exclude the Front National party. However, in March 1977, and then March 1983, FN was present on RPR-UDF lists at municipal elections; in 1988, RPR and UDF right-wing conservative parties allied with FN in the Bouches-du-Rhône and Var regions. In March 1989, they had common lists in at least 28 cities of more than 9 000 inhabitants. Those alliances were condemned in 1991, but a dozen conservative deputies gained FN's support in 1997.
The old established form of English and, after the Act of Union, British conservatism, was the Tory Party. It reflected the attitudes of a rural land owning class, and championed the institutions of the monarchy, the Anglican Church, the family, and property as the best defence of the social order. In the early stages of the industrial revolution, it seemed to be totally opposed to a process that seemed to undermine some of these bulwarks. The new industrial elite were seen by many as enemies to the social order.
Sir Robert Peel was able to reconcile the new industrial class to the Tory landed class by persuading the latter to accept the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. He created a new political group that sought to preserve the old status quo while accepting the basics of laissez-faire and free trade. The new coalition of traditional landowners and sympathetic industrialists constituted the new Conservative Party.
Benjamin Disraeli gave the new party a political ideology. As a young man, he was influenced by the romantic movement and the then fashionable medievalism, and developed a devastating critique of industrialism. In his novels he outlined an England divided into two nations, each living in perfect ignorance of each other. He foresaw, like Karl Marx, the phenomenon of an alienated industrial proletariat.
His solution involved a return to an idealised view of a corporate or organic society, in which everyone had duties and responsibilities towards other people or groups. This "one nation" conservatism is still a very important tradition in British politics. It has animated a great deal of social reform undertaken by successive Conservative governments.
Although nominally a Conservative, Disraeli was sympathetic to some of the demands of the Chartists and argued for an alliance between the landed aristocracy and the working class against the increasing power of the middle class, helping to found the Young England group in 1842 to promote the view that the rich should use their power to protect the poor from exploitation by the middle class. The conversion of the Conservative Party into a modern mass organisation was accelerated by the concept of "tory Democracy" attributed to Lord Randolph Churchill.
A Liberal-Conservative coalition during World War I coupled with the ascent of the Labour Party, hastened the collapse of the Liberals in the 1920s. After World War II, the Conservative Party made concessions to the socialist policies of the Left. This compromise was a pragmatic measure to regain power, but also the result of the early successes of central planning and state-ownership forming a cross-party consensus. This was known as 'Butskellism', after the almost identical Keynesian policies of Rab Butler on behalf of the Conservatives, and Hugh Gaitskell for Labour.
However, in the 1980s, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, and the influence of Sir Keith Joseph, there was a dramatic shift in the ideological direction of British conservatism, with a movement towards free-market economic policies. As one commentator explains, "The privatization of state owned industries, unthinkable before, became commonplace [during Thatcher's government] and has now been imitated all over the world." Some commentators have questioned whether Thatcher's conservatism (Thatcherism) was consistent with the traditional concept of "conservatism" in the United Kingdom, and saw her views as more consistent with radical classical liberalism; Thatcher herself was described as "a radical in a conservative party", and her ideology has been seen as confronting "established institutions" and the "accepted beliefs of the elite", both concepts incompatible with the traditional conception of "conservatism" as signifying support for the established order and existing social convention.
Much of their support comes from southern England, sometimes known as "middle England"
Conservatism in the United States comprises a constellation of political ideologies including fiscal conservatism, free market or economic liberalism, social conservatism, and religious conservatism, as well as support for a strong military, small government, and states' rights.
The Latin Conservative parties, primarily appear at two-party systems, fighting for the power with Liberal Parties. Most of the conservative parties disappeared, because of the new government structures, except for the Colombian Conservative Party.
Most of these parties create their structure and ideological program in the image of Simon Bolivar's views.
In terms of partisan politics, conservatism has often been defined as opposition to the Australian Labor Party; as such, many different groups have historically been grouped on the "conservative" side of Australian politics, such as "social conservatives...Empire nationalists, organizations supporting rural interests, anti-socialist Catholics, fundamentalist Christians and free-market liberals." In contemporary Australian politics, the Liberal Party of Australia is often seen as the "conservative" party, which can surprise American observers for whom liberalism is seen as opposed to conservatism.
Historically, for the first seventy years after the Federation of Australia, the non-Labor (and hence implicitly "conservative") side of Australian politics was associated with policies of moderate protectionism in trade, and of support for the welfare state, coupled with maintenance of Australia's ties to the British Empire. Many scholars have seen the government of Robert Menzies as exemplifying this trend. However, from the 1980s, free-market economic policies were increasingly associated with conservatism in Australian politics, following the same trend as the United States and Britain under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher respectively.
In the Nordic countries, conservatism has been represented in liberal conservative parties like the National Coalition party in Finland, the Moderate Party in Sweden, Høyre in Norway and the Conservative People's Party in Denmark. Domestically, these parties generally support market-oriented policies, and usually gain support from the business community and white-collar professionals. Internationally they generally support the European Union and a strong defense. Their views on social issues tend to be more liberal than, for example, the U.S. Republican Party. Social conservatism in the Nordic countries are often found in their Christian Democratic parties. In several Nordic countries, right-wing populist parties have gained some support since the 1970s. Their policies have often been focused on tax cuts, reduced immigration, and tougher law and order policies.
Generally, one could claim that European conservatives tend to be more moderate on many social and economic issues, than American conservatives. They tend to be quite friendly to the aims of the welfare state, although concerned about a healthy business environment. However, some groups have been more supportive of a stricter libertarian or laissez-faire agenda, especially under influence from Thatcherism. European conservative groups often see themselves as guardians of prudence, moderation, history and tried experience, as opposed to radicalism and social experiments. Approval of high culture and established political institutions like the monarchy is often found in European conservatism. Mainstream conservative groups are often staunch supporters of the European Union.>one might also find elements of nationalism in many countries.
Psychologists have generally found that personality traits, individual difference variables, needs, and ideological beliefs seem to have a common thread. For instance, a meta-analysis by Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway in 2003 analyzed 88 studies, from 12 countries, with over 22,000 subjects, and found that death anxiety, intolerance of ambiguity, lack of openness to experience, uncertainty avoidance, need for cognitive closure, need for personal structure, and threat of loss of position or self-esteem all contribute to the degree of one's overall political conservatism. The researchers suggest that these results show that political conservatives stress resistance to change and are motivated by needs that are aimed at reducing threat and uncertainty.
According to research by Robert Altemeyer, individuals that are politically conservative tend to rank high on Right-Wing Authoritarianism, as measured by Altemeyer's RWA scale. Those that are identified as high RWAs, in addition to having a tendency to be conservative, are more punitive toward criminals, and tend to hold more orthodox religious views.
Scores on the RWA scale also correlate highly with measures of ethnocentrism and hostility toward homosexuals. It is important to note that high RWAs tend to show more prejudiced attitudes when their answers on the questionnaires are anonymous. Recent research by Cunningham, Nezlek, and Banaji has found support for the idea that prejudice find a home in people with rigid ideologies, as was predicted by Altemeyer as well as Theodor Adorno. Cunningham and his colleagues found that people who are high in explicit prejudice are also high in implicit prejudice, and that people who demonstrate a rigid, right-wing ideology tend to be prejudiced toward many disadvantaged groups that have little in common.
Psychologist Felicia Pratto and her colleagues have found evidence to support the idea that a high Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) is strongly correlated with conservative political views, and opposition to programs and policies that aim to promote equality (such as affirmative action, laws advocating equal rights for homosexuals, women in combat, etc). According to psychologists, an SDO is an attitude toward intergroup relationships which says that some groups are subordinated and of lesser status than others. High-SDO persons seek to maintain this structure by promoting group inequality and policies that help maintain the dominance of one group over another. Low-SDO persons seek to reduce group inequality and eliminate the hierarchical structure of society's groups.
Pratto and her colleagues also found that high SDO scores were also highly correlated with measures of sexism and anti-Black prejudice. There has been some debate within the psychology community on what the relation is between SDO and racism. One explanation suggests that opposition to programs that promote equality is based not on racism or sexism but on a "principled conservatism." This perspective suggests that opposition to such programs is based not on racism but on a "concern for equity, color-blindness, and genuine conservative values."
Furthermore, some principled-conservatism theorists have suggested that racism and conservatism are independent, and only weakly correlated among the highly educated, who truly understand the concepts of conservative values and attitudes. In an effort to examine the relationship between education, SDO, and racism, Sidanius and his colleaguesasked approximately 4,600 Euro-Americans to complete a survey in which they were asked about their political and social attitudes, and their social dominance orientation assessed. Results indicated partial support for the principled-conservatism position. However, the data suggest several problems for the principled-conservatism position. Contrary to what these theorists would predict, correlations among SDO, political conservatism, and racism were strongest among the most well educated, and weakest among the least well educated, according to Sidanius and his colleagues, because conservatives tend to be more invested in the hierarchical structure of society and in maintaining the inequality of the present status quo in society.