Friday, April 30, 2010

GUEST POST - Conservatism: Morally Driven but Politically Fragmented

By Jasmine Koehn - Guest Contributor

Through the course of American political history, two competing ideologies have emerged. These two ideologies form the bases of the two leading political parties. Most politically active members of American society self-designate as belonging to one of the two ideologies, conservatism (in the Republican Party) and progressivism (in the Democratic Party). The amount of party influence found in the differing ideologies leads to critiques of the two worldviews. In order to achieve a powerful critique it is imperative to simultaneously understand and destroy the opposing ideology. From the progressive viewpoint, this means recognizing conservative arguments and then intelligently deconstructing their logic. The basic approach is to determine the basic beliefs behind conservatism, acknowledge how these differ from progressive beliefs, and analyze why said beliefs are ultimately incongruent with reality.

Another way to describe conservatism is reactionary. The goal, therefore, is not growth but rather preservation. Modernity is often seen as the foe of conservatism, and the hope among conservatives becomes a fusion of the positives of modernity with the values of pre-modern beliefs (Bottum, 37). While social conservatives hold most strongly to this outlook, the more moderate sects tend to deviate and cause divisions within the ideology. Yet the overarching goal is to protect and preserve some element of society that is under unwarranted attack. Social conservatives see these attacks ripping apart the fabric of society, tearing into the basic family structure and leaving a morally depraved society. Libertarians fear attacks against social liberties and against the ability to act without government intervention. Neoconservatives and most other moderate conservatives sense attacks against the national integrity, specifically through terrorism. Although the different bastions of conservatism are all reactionary, their different foci have allowed inconsistencies and divisions to arise.

The overarching struggle within the conservative ideology is the attempt to gain consensus. The conservative coalition acts as an umbrella ideology for several different beliefs. Everyone from libertarians to the Christian Coalition claims the label of conservative. This level of discordance creates rifts within the ideology that lead to disillusion within the Republican Party that may serve to destroy the party’s ability to remain viable. Not only do different opinions exist, they define their conservatism in juxtaposition with the other beliefs. Joseph Bottum clarifies this by identifying a need within conservatism to not be the “most rightist” group (Varieties of Conservatism, 39). Such discordance does not encourage unity, nor does it allow for growth in the overall beliefs of conservatism.

A large cause of the disunity comes from the belief as Henrie argues that progressives lack a moral life, while the conservatives have not created a viable political life (Varieties of Conservatism, 14). It seems counterintuitive to follow a political ideology that is not based on politics but rather on morals. Moral foundations are important for ethicality, but they lack value in a political sense. This is especially true in an ideology as fragmented as conservatism, since one group of conservatives may hold different moral beliefs than those supported by another faction. This is most clearly explained in terms of abortion. The pro-life outlook has become almost synonymous with conservatism, yet members of the Republican Party and self-avowed conservatives have been known to hold the opposing position. A moral outlook has been applied to politics to the point that it defines conservatism in America.

Bottum takes the moral implications a step further by arguing that the founders based the Constitution on their Christian beliefs; therefore, conservatism is founded on Christianity. This argument led him to believe that the core of conservatism is an anti-abortion stand that also defines the differences between conservatives and progressives for all other “culture-war” issues (Varieties of Conservatism… 43). A belief in morals as the foundation for a political movement thus leads to further fragmentation and requires divisions both internally and between conservatism and progressivism.

Libertarians, who claim conservatism as their leading ideology, do not follow a moral prescriptive in their political approach. Randall Barnett makes this abundantly clear in his essay in which he argues for the protection of natural rights. The libertarian approach looks to allow individuals the liberties to live without continual government involvement. The goal is to create social order that protects against destructive actions but does not coerce constructive actions (Barnett, 70). This approach struggles to work in conjunction with the moral precepts of social conservatives. As a result, libertarians follow a separate political party, which only adds to the divisions within conservatism.

Neoconservatives act as another moderate wing of the conservative ideology. Unlike libertarians, neoconservatives do desire government involvement, but they do not base their views strictly on moral obligations. Their outlook tends to be foreign policy-orientated, and the actions taken by the Bush Administration fall under a neoconservative approach. That administration believed strongly in national security-motivated activities and disagreed with excessive social welfare programs as discussed by Jacob Heilbrunn. It was the Bush Administration’s desire for national security that created problems. Team Bush believed in exporting democracy, yet for fiscal conservatives this modus operandi comes at an enormous cost, and when foreign policy gains primacy, domestic issues including abortion tend to be overlooked. Another internal danger for conservatives generally accompanies an increase in government control, which alienates the libertarians.

Another danger in following morally-motivated political movements is the emergence of apparent hypocrisies. Conservatives believe in a pro-life approach and desire to maintain family values. Yet, they fail to care for people who struggle to survive from day to day. Conservatives of all approaches believe that by providing aid for negative life choices, these choices are reinforced and the result in a victim mentality. Richard Epstein argued extensively along these lines in his essay on libertarianism. Yet, morally speaking, it seems backwards to passionately care for the unborn but ignore the living. Conservative foreign policy decisions also appear hypocritical when compared to a moral standard. Conservatives willfully take part in interventionist strategies when it appears in the best interest of the nation but not when it involves a moral obligation to protect the oppressed and endangered. Heilbrunn addresses this irony when he looks at the changes in policy from the Cold War to the current War on Terrorism (122-124). Conservatives ran the gamut of interventionist to isolationist and back around based on the external threats involved, not on moral imperatives.

The large inconsistencies within conservatism beg the observer to search for other options. The opposing view of progressivism allows for growth in thought, adaptability and – ultimately - consensus. Progressives believe in tolerance and change, a posture which is most clearly illustrated in the base of the Democratic Party. The Democrats originally catered to middle-class workers, but over time, the intellectual elites gravitated towards the forward-looking approach. This swing in the base led to a change in the party outlook and increased the level of open-mindedness in response to the revolutions and upheavals of the 1960s (Thomas Byrne Edsall, 34).

The Democratic Party also enjoys large support from the lower classes and minority groups. This comes from the willingness of progressives to aid hurting people. Progressives champion the causes of the oppressed and suffering, from welfare to desegregation. Progressives openly support social freedoms such as the right to reproductive freedom and same-sex marriage. The current progressive attitude towards social and economic issues comes from the shift of the base to two sets of people actively campaigning for equality and policy changes (Edell, 343-44). Progressives deal strongly with domestic social and economic issues, and in terms of foreign policy, they agree to intervention based on moral imperatives. Progressivism embraces the changes that take place in society and adapts to best maintain viability and congruency with said changes.

Ultimately, conservatism’s largest struggle is the inability to create a powerful consensus amongst its own adherents. Although differing opinions lead to new thoughts and allow for change, conservatives fail to use their differences for development of the ideology and the Republican Party. There are constant arguments amongst conservatives about being too right wing or jumping party lines by appearing overly moderate (an ironic phrasing, to be sure). The level of inconsistency within the ideology has led to struggles to find acceptable leadership; such infighting has ultimately left the basic conservative confused and frustrated. The leading cause for all this disunity comes from the inability to create a political movement and instead to focus on morally justifiable causes. Conservatives cannot agree on the moral imperatives and thus splinter into different groups focused on differing moral issues.



Berkowitz, Peter. Varieties of Progressivism in America. Hoover Institution Press. Stanford University, Stanford CA. 2004
Berkowitz, Peter. Varieties of Conservatism in America. Hoover Institution Press. Stanford University, Stanford CA. 2004


  1. Great run-down Jazz. I have one comment to add. Maybe more of a question, since you seem to have studied this. A couple years ago, I spent the summer working for a Jewish lawyer in Guam. He is socially liberal but favored what would commonly be thought of as a neocon foreign policy. As such, he favored President Bush (since social conservatism was never given more than lip service by Bush). His opinion was that historically, neoconservatism derived from liberal Jews who were foreign policy hawks. People like Irv Kristol, Henry Kissinger and Paul Wolfowitz. Wiki, which I'm suspicious of, confirms this perspective.

    This begs the question: is it even appropriate to consider neoconservatives as existing under the "conservative" umbrella?

  2. I would have to do more research on the matter. This paper was written for an assignment in college with the purpose being to critique one perspective "from the other" though I really didn't try to critique conservatism from the perspective of progressivism, more from the perspective of a disillusioned conservative. Our required texts were the two berkowitz pieces. If what you said is true about liberalism being a guiding force in the neo-con movement than it probably should be considered something else entirely, a hybrid of sorts.