Humpty Dumpty Defines Conservatism
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll
For whatever reason, adults on the internet often fall into relabelling each others politics with all the glee that second graders find in saying, “Am not!”, “Are too!”, “Am not!”
Sometimes, it gets downright silly, as in this comment:
Hah! Nobody has yet addressed my basic point – American arch-liberals, direct offsprings of the Enlightenment, are under some illusion that they are “conservative”. Couldn’t be more wrong. As for me, I’m an old-style Christian Democrat with not much time for rights-based individualism, the so-called separation of church and state, lassez-faire liberalism, or muscular nationalism. I’m a corporatist, I’m fully on baord with Bendict’s world political authority, and I’ll take Catholic social teaching over American Calvinist economics any day, thank you very much.
Who is supposed to be the conservative again?
Now, let’s think for a moment on what “conservative” means, if you’re not Humpty Dumpty. A conservative is one who seeks to retain an older order of things, to “conserve” it. Conservatives lean towards stasis rather than towards radical change; they accept human nature and society as relative constants, rather than endorsing a progressivism which holds that society and human nature are tabula rasas which can be inscribed with whatever order one desires this week.
Now the speaker here may very well lean towards a politics in the European tradition of Christian Democrat parties, and he may well indeed support a world political authority, oppose individual rights, oppose nationalism, etc. However, looking at the basic history of the Christian Democrat movement, it’s quite clearly a significantly newer political movement than American (or to a great extent British) conservatism is.
American conservatives trace their intellectual ancestry with credibility to European thinkers such as Adam Smith and Edmund Burke in the late 1700s, and of course to the American leaders of the revolutionary generation, such as Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton. American conservatism draws further intellectual and rhetorical heritage from both Lincoln and some of his states-rights focused adversaries in the 1860s.
By contract, Europe’s Christian Democrat parties sprang up in the wake of Rerum Novarum, which was written in 1891. Christian Democracy (in its European form) is generally a combination of social conservatism and some acknowledgement of existing social orders with the “liberal” economics of the turn of the century, which were much more socialistic than the “liberal” Whigs a hundred years earlier who formed the background for the American political tradition (now American conservatism).
The American conservative movement has its intellectual roots in a period in which thinkers sought to form a coherent defense of individual liberties against absolutist monarchy (and soon, with the French Revolution and First Empire, against nationalism) without descending into the “mob rule” of democracy.
The Christian Democratic movement has its intellectual roots in an attempt to find a “third way” between unfettered laissez-faire industrialism (in a period in which the old obligations and structures of European society were under serious assault and seemed nearly unsalvagable) and secularist/anti-clerical socialism. And it rose to dominance in the post-war period, when it represented a form of conservatism untainted by the fascism and nationalism which had led to war, while offering enough collectivism to reign in those who might otherwise be drawn to communist or socialist parties.
One may certainly prefer the European Christian Democratic tradition to the American conservative one, but one can hardly claim it is more conservative, being a significantly younger political movement, responding to significantly more modern problems. Further, to insist this in America is to ignore context. In the American political tradition, the intelectual tradition represented by conservatism goes back a respectable 250 years, while transplanting a European Christian Democrat party here would be introducing a new and in some ways alien political creature to the American political ecosystem. There is nothing “conservative” about such a move, however desireable one may find it to be.