Seeing a fair amount of discussion as to what “conservatism” is or is not cropping up on various threads — and not having time to write a massive treatise on the topic — I’d like to put forward a few basic thoughts on the topic and then turn it loose for conversation with our readership, which clearly has a number of opinions as to the matter.
I would argue that conservatism is, to a great extent, a relative term. Conservatives seek to preserve the ways and institutions of the past. In the ancient Greek and Roman world, there was a worldview present among conservatives that there had been, in the past, a literal golden age — in the age of the great heroes. Among modern conservatives, resistance to change is rooted more in a suspicion of programs of change based upon ideologies that seek to remake the human person or society into new forms. In this sense, conservatives do not necessarily hold that the way things have been in the past are necessarily good, but they lean towards the fear that drastic change will make things worse.
This opposition is not necessarily long term. Once a change is effected with apparently good results, conservatives do not necessarily seek to roll it back, and sometimes wholly embrace it. For instance, William F. Buckley originally voiced skepticism as to whether the civil rights movement sought to use the force of the law to change social practices quickly by brute force and would thus cause more chaos than good. However, by 1969 he editorialized that it was time for America to have a black president.
Because conservatism is a suspicion of change, we see conservatives embrace very different causes in different places and times. In ancient Athens, conservatives often admired oligarchic Sparta over the tumultuously imperial democracy of Athens. In Rome, conservatives were attached to the Republic, and were suspicious of the empire. In the Europe in the 1600s, absolute monarchy was a new idea, while conservatives longed for the regional authority of landed gentry. in the 1700s and 1800s, “liberals” sought new egalitarian freedoms and at times constitutionalism while conservatives defended the absolutist monarchies or the privileges of aristocrats. In the 1800s nationalism was the impulse of the future, while older supra-national empires and regional nobles were forces of conservatism. Similarly, conservatives held to the landed gentry/peasantry system while the capitalists were forces of liberalism. Yet as the international communism and socialism of the early 1900s achieved prominence on the world stage, nationalism was often seen as conservative and likewise capitalism.
In the American context, conservatives hold to the ideals of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers — conservatives in 1776 were generally Tories. As such, American conservatives generally hold to limited government, constitutionalism, division of powers and local/regional rights. Because free markets were rejected by adherents of socialism and communism, American conservatives tend to be pro-business. Because in the past there were few restrictions on gun ownership and few environmental regulations, American conservatives tend to be against gun control and environmentalism. Indeed, American conservatism is probably best described as consisting of religious and social traditionalism wedded to the a British classic liberalism of the late 1700s and early 1800s. And indeed, this marriage is rather more congenial within US history than it would be in Europe, since in continental Europe 19th century liberalism was almost invariably combined with a fierce secularism and anti-clericalism, resulting from the identification of the Church with the old aristocracies and monarchies. Since that connection never existed in the US, classic liberalism in America never had the strong anti-religious elements which characterized its European cousin.