Is Conservatism an Ideology Essay

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The conservative ideology takes off in the eighteenth century during the French Revolution of 1789. The revolutionaries replace the Old Regime, an old society based on order and hierarchy, with a new society based on freedom, fraternity, and equality. At the moment when the National Assembly is constituted, two streams cross it: supporters of the king's power, attached to the model of France before 1789, they wish to preserve certain elements of ancient society and are placed on the right. On the left, there are the partisans of its limitation, attached to the achievements of the Revolution, they wish to erect the sovereign power of the people.

Conservatism is structured from this event. In Reflections on the French Revolution (1790), the Anglo-Irish political theorist Edmund Burke, both liberal and conservative, condemns the revolutionary ideology for the simplicity of its conception of the world and society and expresses its preference for a regime that preserves certain liberal gains while remaining based on respect for national traditions and local customs. In the conservative ideology, there are different levels of traditionalists but they all agree that there has to be traditionalism in our society in order to lead a country correctly. Traditionalism is the attachment to traditions, beliefs, customs, values, usages, and ideas transmitted by tradition. Convinced that society must preserve its political, moral, and religious forms at all costs, traditionalists seek to perpetuate them from generation to generation (Merriam Webster Thesaurus). It considers that traditions are the legitimate expression of the true needs of society and, consequently, the principle of reason can only be superficial, inappropriate, and unhealthy. It seems to contradict the principles of democratization. In politics, democratization is the process that allows a regime to evolve towards democracy or strengthen its democratic character. If it is an authoritarian regime, a dictatorship, or any non-democratic regime evolving towards democracy, we are talking about a democratic transition (Oxford

However, conservatism is a complex ideology to fully understand. Non-conservatives consider it as an authoritarian ideology that allows a group of the elite to lead, creating a block against democratization, while conservatives would have desired to be described as “common sense” (Andrew Heywood, Palgrave, 2017) with traditions to respect and apply. Nevertheless, when analyzed, it can be said that conservatives use tradition as one of their key elements to preserving order and security from the instability of democracy, making both defenses of tradition and reaction against democratization linked.

While there are different inclinations of conservatism, tradition is one of the key elements that differentiate this ideology from any other. In fact, the foundation of conservatism consists in the defense of tradition. According to Edward Shils (1981), an influential American sociologist, tradition is “anything transmitted or handed down from the past to the present”. Tradition thus refers to the continuous transmission of cultural content throughout history from a founding event to an immemorial past. Conservatives believe that tradition is essential because it comprises all of the wisdom accumulated from the previous generations. Edmund Burke, the father of Anglo-American conservatism, distinctly argues, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), that “wisdom resides largely in experience, tradition, and history” (Andrew Heywood, Palgrave, 2017). Indeed, he declares in his work that the French Revolution's main values such as liberty, equality, and fraternity are only “abstract principles” (Andrew Heywood, Palgrave, 2017) that only create instability and chaos. For example, conservatives have fought for the status of the Monarchy because “it embodies historical wisdom and experience” (Andrew Heywood, Palgrave, 2017), and represents a strong, authoritarian, and leading institution that ensures safety and order.

Conservatives say that tradition is a strong sign of identity and belonging to a group. In fact, it allows a community or a society to become aware of itself, its peculiarities, and its specificities, which brings it closer together. Tradition constitutes the cultural roots of a people and participates in the foundation of a society. As reported by Michael Oakeshott in Rationalism in Politics (1962), conservatives “prefer the familiar to the unknown, fact to mystery, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss”. Here, he emphasizes clearly the fact that we should conserve what has already been here, such as institutions and traditions, rather than change traditions or our society into one that is thought to be better but that turns out to be worst. For example, in the United States, the Republican Party, known to have conservative values, is strongly against “gun law reforms”. They argue that Americans should have the right to be armed as it's their right, as it is written in the constitution. This right has been given to the American people for centuries, changing it would supposedly be a violation of their rights and their culture and would not necessarily lead to a better outcome. This traditionalist attitude is not only seen in the United States but all around the world. In fact, in Argentine, women can not abort in their country. In June 2018, the Argentine Senate refused the law authorizing abortion. As for Ireland, the Argentine population is Catholic and very conservative. But the country was under additional pressure from the Church. Thus, the pontiff, Argentine of origin, did not hesitate to speak. Pope Francis had clearly shown his strongest opposition. This shows that a country with strong religious heritages will stick to its traditions as they wish to respect the wisdom of past generations. In fact, as Burke says “we should respect the actions and the votes of the dead, who will always out-number the living” (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790). This shows clearly that the root of conservatism is in the defense of traditions.

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However, other conservatives do not believe in change, and because of that, defending traditions can be seen, by non-conservatives, as a means to fight against democratization. These conservatives are the most radical ones and are often the ones that non-conservatives are the most aware of. As they are “reclaiming the past” (Andrew Heywood, Palgrave, 2017), they are the most contradicting to the progressive era since the Enlightenment. The most obvious reason why conservatism could be better understood as a reaction against democratization is that it was developed in the late 18th century during the French Revolution. Indeed, the French Revolution was born of the difficulties of the monarchy and the contestations of absolutism. It marked a total break from the old regime in the political field, but also economic, social, and cultural. A new political and social universe had emerged, and the French, who were only subjected, became citizens involved in the political life of a unified sovereign nation. But the Revolution also created lasting divisions in French society, between the most progressive and the most conservative. In fact, the revolutionary period was marked by great political instability between 1789 and 1799 but also by economic and social difficulties that favor popular uprisings. Consequently, many people started to want a political regime that would guarantee the political, social, and economic stability of the country while keeping the legacy of 1789. The aristocrats, the royalists, and the high clergy were against reforms and wanted to regain their powers. Indeed, Joseph de Maistre who was a famous French political writer was one of the biggest critics of the French Revolution. In On the Pope (1819), he declares that total Restauration of the French Monarchy is the only solution to re-establish order in France. Only a monarch that has been given a supreme divine power can offer security, order, and prosperity. If such an event structured the root of conservatism, it certainly shows that conservatism could be better understood as a reaction against democratization.

Furthermore, Joseph de Maistre’s authoritarian conservatism has inspired many other governments with its strict principles. In fact, the newly elected Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose campaign slogan was 'Brazil above all, God above all, is on a social and religious level very conservative, with a strong military presence. Former captain of the army, Bolsonaro does not hide his nostalgia for the time when his country was a military dictatorship, 'Yes, I am in favor of a dictatorship! We will never solve the nation's problems with this irresponsible democracy.” he once told congress in 1992 (The Guardian, 2018). This shows that still today, conservatism is still an ideology highly described by a sentiment of anti-democratization and a will to go back to a more glorious past with a strong hierarchy, authority, and power that nearly resembles one of a king.

Finally, In Europe, the exasperation with regard to the political class, the European Union, unemployment, stagnation or lower wages, and mass immigration that has been simmering for several decades, will be added to the shock of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, whose devastating effects continue to be felt on the continent. The widely shared impression that the governments in power for decades have not listened to the grievances of the people, are content to consolidate their hold on political and economic power, and are unable to provide solutions to problems such as immigration, structural unemployment and inequalities have led to widespread loss of confidence in democratic institutions. These factors have all largely contributed to the rise or re-emergence of populist parties, which pit the wisdom of the people against the corruption of the elites, or extreme right parties in Europe. Since 2008, political groups such as the National Front in France, the Alternative for Germany, the Danish People's Party, and the Party for Dutch Freedom have all had considerable electoral success (Chideya, 2016). Although none of these parties won an absolute majority, the increased presence in national parliaments forced traditional parties to listen to their demands. In Europe, there is a growing closeness between the positions of conservative and far-right candidates. This anxiety-provoking feeling of insecurity pushes European countries to return to tried and tested conservative values of the family against the individual, religion against changing morals, the nation against federalism, and 'protectionism' against globalization.

Nevertheless, some conservatives and again Edmund Burke, are not necessarily against change. In fact, as Burke says, conservatives need to accept “change in order to conserve” (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790). Since defending tradition is one of their basic purposes, conservatives are willing to adapt or reform their traditions. Indeed, Burke also says “A state without means to change (…) is without the means of its conservation.” (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790). Here, we can also prove it with the example of the English Monarchy. Indeed, the Monarchy, in the late 17th century, was reformed into a constitutional monarchy. In order to stay, it had to adapt to the current environment. So it can still be argued that conservatism is not against democratization but only wishes to have slow changes in order to lead correctly without creating chaos and instability while still holding on to experience and tradition.

Although the defense of traditions and reaction against democratization are two different traits of conservatism, we can still see a link between the two of them. Indeed, as Michael Oakeshott said in Rationalism in Politics (1962), conservatives “prefer the familiar to the unknown, fact to mystery, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss”. Here, we can see that in the conservative ideology, it is mostly believed that governments should strictly enforce the values of tradition and especially those concerning family, order, and hierarchy in order to insert a leader that would guarantee its people's safety, stability, and the safeguard of the nation’s identities. The most obvious example that could illustrate that is the Iranian Islamic Revolution. The principles of the conservatives of the new Iranian government are a sharia-based society defending the principle of velayat-e faqih, consecrating the primacy of religious power over political power, and with a guide whom they consider to be designated by God. The Iranian Islamic radical traditionalists are generally anti-Western, and with the establishment of paramilitary forces, less than two years after the fall of the monarchy, the conservative forces removed from the political scene the nationalist and liberal elements who participated in the Revolution. This revolution can be seen as a reactionary one as the Iranian people wanted to gain back their autonomy and keep the values that Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi seemed to be erasing. Indeed, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi wanted to transform his country on the Western model. The Shah attacked the bazaar, a symbol of the traditional Iranian identity which he preferred to transform into Western supermarkets, accusing them of contributing to inflation. As a result, the “dissatisfaction with the present and the distrust of the future” (Andrew Heywood, Palgrave, 2015) of the Iranian people allowed Khomeini to re-establish ancient Islamic traditions. This shows that one does not come without the other either. A society that reacts against democratization needs to defend long-established traditions that bring security and experience, and a society that desires strong traditions are anxious about the principles of democracy that seem too abstract.

Conclusively, the objectives of conservatism are a never-ending argument between different ideals. It can have different meanings or goals depending on what people believe. Non-conservatives will mostly understand conservatism as a reaction against democratization because it contradicts the modern and progressive era. However, conservatives will say that it is better understood as a defense of traditions because it is the essence of their ideology regardless if it contradicts or not democratization in order to create a stable and safe environment for the people. However, the debate does not have a clear answer as both defense of traditions and the reaction against democratization can be linked. To truly understand conservatism, one has to comprehend every aspect of it and the context in which this ideology is used.

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