Saturday, July 16, 2016

Conservatives: Cautionary or Reactionary?

With the announcement of Indiana governor Mike Pence as the running mate of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, I have to say that my feelings are a bit mixed. On one hand, I do like Governor Pence, and his voting record shows he was one of the most conservative congressmen during his tenure there (2000-2012), opposing Obamacare, bailouts, and the like. However, for a principled man to join forces with a very unprincipled one is shocking, even more so to say that Mr. Trump is showing the leadership characteristics of people like President Ronald Reagan. It is sad to see a good man succumb to the illusion of Trump, but suffice it to say I am even more comfortable now with supporting Governor Gary Johnson for president.

Last week, I talked about why conservatives should not vote for Trump, and that post was well received by many of my conservative and liberal friends. However, I did receive this comment from a friend who is a political philosopher:
"You and I disagree on what conservatism is.  You think, with Oakeshott and Sullivan, it is conserving “what works.”  I think that’s a tautology.  Everyone is for "what works” and changing “what doesn’t work.”  By this definition everyone is a conservative, which is, of course, nonsense.  The question is what we argue about when we argue about what works.  I think conservatism is a reactionary ideology to the distribution of equality and power.  Historically and ideologically, people with power do not want things to change much, and call themselves conservatives.  That’s simply the historical pattern."
Ok, let's break that down. First, I have never heard someone say that conservatism is a tautology, but I take the compliment. Second, his comment that we are arguing about what works is also somewhat of a tautology; if there were no disagreement there would be no politics. Conservatives tend to prefer tradition and are skeptical of radical change, while liberals prefer radical change and are skeptical of tradition- that is where the problem and difference really lies. This was well illustrated by Edmund Burke in his masterpiece Reflections on the Revolution in France, where Burke says that while he understands why the French are rebelling, he is very afraid that the way they are pursuing it will result in more problems than they originally had planned for, and he turned out to be right. The French Revolution led to more than just the oust of the royal family, it lead to thousands of deaths in the Reign of Terror that came after.

The last part of the comment is where liberals tend to get their conservative friends wrong, that we are "reactionary", meaning that we are against change. Philosopher Corey Robin in his book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin makes this point the best, stating that conservatives have always been opposed to progress and want to keep power for themselves. He writes:
 "The conservative does not defend the Old Regime; he speaks on behalf of old regimes—in the family, the factory, the field. There, ordinary men, and sometimes women, get to play the part of little lords and ladies, supervising their underlings as if they all belong to a feudal estate . . . The task of this type of conservatism---democratic feudalism—-becomes clear: surround these old regimes with fences and gates, protect them from meddlesome intruders like the state or a social movement, while descanting on mobility and innovation, freedom and the future"
Nonsense. Edmund Burke and David Hume both supported the Revolutionary War. Andrew Sullivan was one of the most outspoken people in the fight for equal rights in the LGBT community. The Republican Party was far more progressive on civil rights for blacks than were their Democratic counterparts. I see in none of this the type of things that Robin is describing. Robin is creating a caricature of what conservatism is by pointing out that at times we conservatives have been on the wrong side of history. Of course that is the case. We are human and humans will be wrong many times; conservatives are no exception to the rule. But to say that we build our identity by preserving power for a certain group is clearly not the case. I plan after graduate school to write a book to counter Robin's claims in his book; perhaps we will be the 21st century John Rawls-Robert Nozick. Hey, I can dream can't I?

Conservatism, unlike what Professor Robin says, is not reactionary. Rather, it is cautionary. Reactionary means that you are opposed to change, this is not a trademark of conservatism. Rather, we are cautious about radical change, and want to ensure we are looking at all the consequences before we take action. Andrew Sullivan sums this up nicely when he states:
"Change should only ever be incremental and evolutionary. Oakeshott viewed society as resembling language: it is learned gradually and without us really realizing it, and it evolves unconsciously, and for ever"
So, we are not hateful, bigoted, angry, and stern as Professor Robin tries to paint. Rather, we are in some ways disciples of Charles Darwin (I am anyway), knowing that while change must come, it is not necessary that it be radical. It is perfectly rational to expect that change, like evolution, takes place over long periods of time without our noticing it. That is caution, not reaction.


  1. Hi Tarik,

    I hope you have been well since we last conversed regarding the fortunes of the USC Trojans. This was a very well written and thought argument stating the core nature of conservatism. As a fellow conservative, I agree that conservatism is NOT reactionary and, indeed, seeks to preserve "the old way of doing things" as long as that way works for the greater whole of society. What I don't agree with--especially as a Christian--is being a disciple of Darwin in terms of incremental change. Rather, I think individual circumstances should dictate the level of change regardless of what political ideology you embrace. Anyway, it was good reading you Tarik and I hope life is bringing all you desire.


    Rick McMahan

    1. Rick,

      Good to hear from you again, how are you? Still writing for bleacher report?

      Also, you can be a Christian and a Darwinian. Michael Ruse, a philosopher of biology, has written a book on this point.