Here I argue that conservatism is, first of all, an attitude to social and political change that looks for support to the ideas, beliefs and habits of the past and puts more faith in the lessons of history than in the abstractions of political philosophy. The attitude long predated the movement. Conservatives were skeptical and anti-utopian. They doubted the possibility of human, social or political perfection. Their attitude toward politics was comparable to the religious idea of original sin: people are unable to act entirely rationally or selflessly, human plans will go awry, well-meant actions will have unintended bad consequences. Planned societies are therefore impossible, and the attempt to create them will probably lead to chaos or tyranny. Similarly, they thought that human imperfection made war a permanent part of the human condition so that hopes for a world free of conflict were delusional. They thought of progress as possible, but not inevitable, and worried that ostensibly progressive changes were really sources of degeneration and decay.
Most of us have heard the saying, apocryphally attributed to various sources, about how a young conservative has no heart and a middle-aged progressive has no brain. It's amusing and dismaying to find oneself so neatly circumscribed by a platitude. It feels like getting outsmarted by a pet dog or cat. But nonetheless, it was indeed just shy of my fortieth birthday when I began to realize that my mildly-pessimistic temperament was much more deeply-rooted than my shallow affinity with modern leftish politics, and that this had significant implications I could no longer avoid reckoning with.
It was the phenomenon which I have come to think of as "third-wave political correctness" which forced me into this recognition (alternatively, "the social-media left"). The first wave was, of course, created by the baby-boom generation of the '60s. As Robert V. Daniels described it in his book Year of the Heroic Guerrilla:
The various movements of social protest around the world in the 1960s were akin in their ideology or in the loudly vented emotions that passed for such. They hated the established social order — governments that hid behind the democratic facade, corporate bureaucracies that smothered humanity with their technologies, and all forms of coercion of the powerless — minorities, family members and small nations. They were antiauthoritarian but intolerant, alienated but antiachievement, communitarian but antifamily. Infused with what Fraser calls 'the culture of insubordination', they sought self-realization in revolutionary action and approached politics as 'theater and confrontation'.
"Politics as theater and confrontation." The "loudly vented emotions" that pass for ideology. A brief tour around some current events/pop culture websites should be enough to demonstrate how little has changed in the half-century since the birth of the New Left.
In truth, the only thing that changed about me was my perspective. I have always been conscious of having what Michael Oakeshott called a conservative "disposition." But, chameleon-like, different facets of that disposition would present themselves according to my circumstances. I was a natural-born devil's advocate, and two years of debate class in school honed my instinct to search for the point or perspective that everyone else was overlooking. Growing up with my aggressively-right-wing family, I appeared liberal by default, and I was content to remain defined in opposition to them. Their support of the Iraq war seemed the antithesis of a conservative foreign policy to me, and I told them as much. Surrounded by fundamentalist preachers of intersectionality on the callow social-media left, though, I began to consciously notice that I had always thought identity politics is regressive and illogical. I had always believed that progressives overemphasized the collective over the individual. I had always been infuriated by the left-wing affinity for pretensions to mind-reading, also known as theories of "false consciousness" — essentially, the arrogant, rationalist assumption that if humans aren't doing what theory predicts they should do, the humans must be deficient. The only reason these various elements stayed fragmented in my self-awareness and hadn't combined into a more coherent worldview was due to what Christina Hoff Sommers recently referred to as "the liberal fear of looking conservative."
Shelby Steele has written often about what he calls the "dissociative" character of post-'60s liberalism. By that, he means it has been primarily concerned with distancing itself from America's various faults rather than solving them (or, as the case may be, admitting that some problems may be irresolvable). In public life, this takes the form of virtue signaling. In the social media environment, which is disproportionately dominated by people under the age of thirty with no interest in the minutiae of policy-making, "political" activity consists of little more than advertising one's personal platform. I stand for this, I oppose that; these are my allies, these are my enemies. Or, to repeat yet again, it consists of loudly vented emotions that pass for ideology. This is the second generation succeeding the '60s New Left to make demonstrative, passionate gestures in the direction of utopian change while betraying through their self-defeating tactics that they don't really believe any such change is possible. No attempt is made to convince those who don't already agree; no attempt is made to reckon with a reality which defies narcissistic willpower's attempts to redefine it. Numbly, dumbly, they keep repeating these patterns of behavior for lack of any better ideas or the desire to come up with any. Positioning themselves as morally superior to a demonized "conservatism" merely represents their frantic attempt to cling tightly to a fading identity.
Daniel J. Flynn makes a related point in his polemical book, A Conservative History of the American Left — ironically, for people who scorn conservatism above all else, the left has been predictably attacking private property, the profit motive, particularism, monogamy, the nuclear family, and religion as obstacles to true human flourishing, to no lasting effect, for over two hundred years now. Doing so has become an unthinking, comforting tradition itself. Yet perhaps due to their fixation on the glorious future, they fail to notice their own repetitive history. Why are poly relationships any more likely now to provide successful, superior alternatives to monogamy and nuclear families than they did in the early 1800s when socialist visionaries like Robert Owen, Charles Fourier and John Humphrey Noyes advocated them in vain? Why are we supposed to think that group love will ever be anything more than a fringe fad that rearranges relationship problems rather than solves them? Because young, unmarried, childless academic Fredrik deBoer thinks it's a good idea. And what does historical experience matter in the face of a good idea? Tomorrow is a bright new day, after all.
I recognized that the online virtue-signaling economy was an absolutely worthless bubble, and I withdrew any investment I had in it before it could collapse. At the same time, recognizing how progressives were compelled, for their own psychological needs as much as any potential real-world benefit, to relentlessly pursue "progress" for its own sake made me reluctant to identify with them any longer. And finally, as someone who favors the power of aesthetics to make life worth living whatever the circumstances over the power of politics to eliminate life's contingencies and unfairness, I rebelled against the progressive philistines who strive to subordinate the arts to their totalizing vision of politics above all else.
Still, nomenclature obscures as often as it clarifies. Edmund Fawcett, for example, positions liberalism as the reasonable, realistic middle ground, in between conservatism, which projects its idealism backwards into the imagined past, and socialism, which does likewise in the opposite direction. In Fawcett's telling, conservatism asks us to accept too much, socialism asks us to change too much, and only liberalism recognizes that we must simply do our best while hoping or praying for the wisdom to know the difference. His "four ideas" that constitute liberalism's core — social harmony is impossible, human power is not to be trusted, progress is both possible and desirable, and universal civic respect must be honored in the form of "negative freedom" — are perfectly compatible with Allitt's description of conservatism above. Perhaps they're both "classical liberals"? Or "small-c conservatives"? Or perhaps there's just a bit of overlap in that Venn diagram, and we shouldn't trouble ourselves overmuch trying to precisely define it.
Whatever we call this political philosophy, I would add one observation to it from my experience: agency is an unwelcome burden to many people, and they are always tempted to relieve themselves of it. Whether it's my right-wing relatives or social-media leftists, both of them know the yearning to dissolve one's agency in the rushing waters of teleology and the profound sense of relief that comes from believing they have discovered the essential truth, the skeleton key, the one-size-fits-all idea that explains history and predicts the future and therefore absolves them from doubting and questioning. The task, then, is to cultivate the strength to resist such delusions. To ask, before accepting certainty's intoxicating embrace, what I might have missed. To have faith, I suppose, that there's always something I missed, and therefore the search must go on.