What Exactly Are We “Conserving?”

During college, I took “Liberalism and Conservatism,” a class on the foundations of liberal and conservative political philosophy. The teaching of opposing political ideologies was balanced, but many students in the class shared my conservative bent. One day, a liberal female student challenged the class conservatives, asking what is it exactly that we want to “conserve”?

The class was silent.

It is a time of soul searching for conservatives.  In reaction to the 2012 election, many are asking how Republicans can change their party, or how they need to remold and reunify themselves. Some are happy to let the party split right down its existing fiscal and social rifts; others recommend building an entirely new, more libertarian party which would attempt to permeate traditionally blue territory such as America’s urban regions.

As I witness this conversation, my mind turns to the memory of my college class because it seems an interesting way to frame the question of political identity. No matter which side of the political aisle you may find yourself, it’s useful to consider the philosophical roots of your political disposition. My old professor, Charles Kesler, used to frame the study of liberalism and conservatism according to the theme of founding, or the creation of a regime, its laws and its rulers. If we look at the American Founding, for example, we might identify aspects of liberalism with the Declaration of Independence and renouncing British rule; it was a new beginning. We might identify aspects of conservatism with the creation of the Constitution, thus preserving limited and accountable government.

If we fast forward to today, we see that elements of these Founding philosophies are still true: President Obama is certainly known for his rhetoric emphasizing new beginnings and change, while conservatives believe it is a mistake to equate all change with improvement, especially when it refers to change led by government that increases government’s power. Conservative resistance aims to limit government power. These philosophical forces generally struggle about whether and the extent to which government should shape our lives and our culture, and we deliberate about what should or shouldn’t change, and what principles we want to conserve in the process.

In this struggle, conservatives must be conscious of what they want to conserve and how to talk about its value. Whether you are a self-declared fiscal or social conservative (or somewhere in between) remember what you share with your fellow conservatives. Remember that conservatism, while known for guardedness about impetuous change, is also not blindly loyal to all tradition. Rather, it is about working – not obstinately or uncritically – to understand and conserve certain enduring principles such as individual freedom from government coercion, and the responsibilities of self-government borne by citizens of a political community. It is about working practically to reconcile these enduring principles with the reality of new and changing circumstances.

At the core of conservatism are principles of individual liberty and responsibility. Instead of generally seeing social and fiscal conservatives as in conflict, conservatives would do well to consider the extent to which they depend on each other in the greater pursuit of freedom. Only by maintaining freedom, can a free people choose morality; at the same time, maintaining reverence for certain moral traditions may preclude reverence for the state instead.

Such considerations are easily lost in the high stakes political struggle, and the seemingly superficial fixation on spinning events and gaining short-term advantage.  But such fundamentals are important as conservatives consider how to chart their future course not just for this year, but for generations to come.

Diana McKibben is a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. 

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