In 1974 I had a book published under the title "Conservatism as Heresy". It is now online here. The very title was a challenge to the dictionary definition of conservatism, which refers to support for the status quo or opposition to change. And it was obvious that the definition had problems. It was before the era of either Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher but there were already rumblings from conservatives of dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire for change. And not long afterwards Thatcher and Reagan upset the status quo comprehensively -- to cheers from conservatives.
So what, then, IS conservatism? There has not been much discussion of that. In their usual deaf and blind way, the Left insist on sticking to the dictionary definition despite all the evidence to the contrary. So they don't debate what conservatism is.
Roger Scruton wrote a book in 1980 called "The meaning of conservatism" and he summasrizes his thinking here. He has many valuable insights but he is more a reactionary than a conservative. Is there ANY American -- conservative or not -- who would agree that "the future is the past"? That is Scruton's summary of a core conservative outlook.
And there have of course been a variety of conservative philosophers and intellectuals who have offered their definitions. I summarize them one by one here. Of them all I like Ronald Reagan's comment best: "I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.... The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom" And that definition is by now mainstream among conservatives themselves.
But Trump has come along and upset that applecart. Trump is no libertarian. Restrictions on trade and immigration are the antithesis of libertarianism. And a concentration on national greatness is unknown to libertarians.
But we should not have been be surprised at Trump's irruption onto the scene. The libertarian party has been standing in American elections for many years and getting nowhere. It is a outrider in American politics, not a main player. Libertarian ideas do help conservative thinking but they are not the whole of it.
And yet Trump has gained wholehearted support from a majority of conservative voters, first in the primaries and then in the presidential election. And despite his ups and downs most of those voters still support him. People who had found their only refuge in the wishy washy Republican party suddenly found a new champion who was much more after their own hearts. The previous GOP offering to Trump in a presidential election was Mitt Romney. Need I say more?
So I think the GOP old hands will have to accept it sooner or later that Trump has taken conservatism back from the siren of libertarian and Leftist ideas and given it new heart. Trump has redefined conservatism. And non-establishment conservatives love him for it. I do.
But after such an upheaval someone is going to have to pick up the pieces and define the new core of conservatism. And I want to add a few thoughts in that direction. And I hope in what I say that I can point to an underlying core theme that explains all the ideas that have been and are described as conservatism. That is a big ask but I think I can get most of the way there.
For a start, there can be little doubt that conservatism is NOT a selection of political policies. The policies that conservatives have espoused over the last 200 years or so have been all over the shop. Finding a common theme among them could only give something impossibly vague. No. We have to go down to the psychological level to explain conservatism. And Scruton and many other conservatives over the years have been agreed on that. I am not being at all innovative is saying that. What I hope to do is to zero in on exactly WHAT psychological trait separates conservatives from others. And I obviously have to explain Leftism too. The great opponents of Left and Right obviously cannot be understood by themselves
And my proposal for the psychological trait that ties all conservatives together is in the heading of this essay. I believe that conservatives are dispositionally contented. They are not contented with everything nor are they contented at all times but contentment is their natural state.
And that contentment leads to some obvious policy preferences. They like their traditional religion and don't like to be told it is wrong (about homosexuality, for instance) and they don't like new laws that might upset arrangements they are content with. They are for instance comfortable with the age-old division of labor between the sexes so don't at all see the point of setting quotas for the proportion of women in business management or politics. And they see no reason why their normal descriptions of people as "fat", "short", "retarded" etc. have to be changed.
And, in the normal human way, they like best people of their own kind and that extends to groups of people as well as individuals. They are proud of their ancestors and proud of their country. They are happy to be what they are and happy about how they got there. The constant Leftist need to denigrate their ancestors and their fellow countrymen as "racists" just does not feel right to them and makes no sense. They like their country and want to make it great again.
My own 1974 claim that conservatism was heresy reflected the fact that, already at that time, the political consensus had settled around policies that tended to disturb conservative contentment. In particular, Australia had just come out of a long reign (1949 to 1972) of somnolent conservative governments into an era governed by a Leftist Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, who seemed determined to upset everything he could.
I could go on from there with more examples of the role of contentment but I think other examples of conservative policies springing from a contented disposition are pretty easy to think of.
So what is Leftism? Leftists are the discontented people. They dislike heaps in the society around them and want to tear down as much of that as they can. And there is more to it than mere discontentment. They are also angry and hostile most of the time. Their natural inclination is to be angry with everything. They probably are never really content. They are always looking for ways to destroy anything that provokes their anger. They often achieve their policy aims but that does not content them for a moment. There are always new "injustices" to attack. They are insatiable. They never reach a state that they are remotely happy with. They somehow think that there is a new Eden around the corner but they can never seem to get anywhere near it.
For example, they think homosexuality should not be illegal. They get that. Then they want homosexuals to be broadly accepted socially. They get that. Then they want homosexuals to be able to enter into a form of marriage, They get that. Then they want all criticism of homosexuals, including Bible criticisms, to be stigmatized as "homophobia". And they are mostly there with that. And just around the corner "homophobia" will be illegal.
So we see why there will always be a fierce political polarity. Leftists have had many triumphs in destroying existing arrangements and they want more. Although conservatives would rather be left alone to enjoy their friends, their families, their church, their sports or their national identity, they will always have to gird up their loins and try to block Leftist destructiveness. Though sometimes the Left sabotages itself, with the implosion of Obamacare being a good example of that. Leftists are so angry that they usually can't think straight. They overlook important realities and thus generate "unexpected" outcomes that destroy what they set out to achieve.
It may be noted that the account I have given of conservatism is not a million miles from the old claim that conservatives oppose change and support the status quo. Where my account differs is that it takes note of what conservatives have to face. The idea that conservatives oppose ALL change is absurd. They oppose destructive change. There is always a torrent of actual and proposed Leftist changes that have to be opposed to prevent chaos and preserve order. Leftists think their changes are so obviously right that conservatives could only oppose them through an ornery disposition to oppose ALL change. The idea that conservatives might have good reason to oppose their changes they just cannot consider. The idea that conservatives oppose all changes whatsoever is just Leftist propaganda.
My claim that contentment is an enduring psychological disposition does imply that it is hereditary. And the evidence that the level of happiness/contentment in us is substantially pre-set is strong. See here.
And all the general population surveys show conservatives to be happier. Pew, for instance, reports that: "Some 45% of all Republicans report being very happy, compared with just 30% of Democrats and 29% of independents. This finding has also been around a long time; Republicans have been happier than Democrats every year since the General Social Survey began taking its measurements in 1972"
Leftists hate that finding. In their usual projective way, they think conservatives should be miserable. So there have been innumerable attempts to explain it away -- even going to to the lengths of measuring the crinkles around the eyes of congresscritters! You couldn't make it up.
I put up an earlier version of this essay a year ago. It has some points additional to those above.