Let me be clear: Conservative democracy is not an illiberal democracy. Indeed, a conservative democracy is a liberal democracy. Let me explain. Democratization depends on liberals, but its consolidation depends on conservatives. A conservative democracy is likely an incomplete democracy, but at the same time it guarantees widespread support for democracy. Now, plenty of theorists have written about the role of liberalism in democracy, but few explain the importance of conservatism. Theorists will even portray conservatives as the opponents of democracy, because they do represent an obstacle for democratization. But the world’s oldest democracies turned the corner long ago where conservatives transformed into its staunchest defenders. Democracies might begin as the project of liberals, but their success always depends on the support of conservatives.
So, conservatism is commonly misunderstood as a support of authority or hierarchy. Let’s understand it instead as a commitment to institutions. The role of authority and hierarchy in institutions give the appearance that conservatism values authority and hierarchy for their own sake. But conservatism takes on the characteristics of its culture along with its traditions. In many ways, conservatism appreciates the world as it is. In contrast, liberalism imagines the world as it should be. Liberalism recognizes the flaws and imperfections of society, while conservatism embraces the community with all of its virtues and vices. Indeed, conservatism in its purest form becomes almost communitarian. It defends its institutions, because they represent the culture and traditions of a community or people.
Liberalism has become Conservative
Over time liberalism has transformed traditional societies, so it is only natural it has also transformed conservatism. The conservative has never wished to remake society into something else, but rather desires to allow it to naturally develop and flourish. So, the difference between conservatives and liberals is less about ambitions or aspirations than about perspectives. Even in a liberal society, conservatives and liberals will view social problems differently. Liberals appeal to ideals. They look inward for answers, while conservatives look outward into the community and its institutions. The irony, of course, is democracy is never an introspective form of government. It depends on collaboration and deliberation. It thrives on an organic and vibrant community. So, the consolidation of democracy involves an evolution beyond liberalism. It requires a transformation into something shockingly conservative.
It is puzzling how liberalism turns inward to improve society, while conservatism remains complacent despite its outward perspective. The difference between them involves different views of society. John Stuart Mill, the author of On Liberty and Utilitarianism, viewed society as a composite of individuals. He argued the best outcomes delivered the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Conservatives view society or community as something more organic. Every community, for them, involves a series of interconnected relationships under the umbrella of overlapping institutions. The common good involves the whole of the community rather than the sum of individual outcomes. Surprisingly, the conservative perspective adapts easily to democracy. In many ways, conservatism adapts to democracy more easily than liberalism. Conservatives embrace their social environment, so consensus is easier for them to accept. Liberals, on the other hand, feel comfortable as an outcast or gadfly and will challenge popular opinion.
The downside of liberalism is its tendency toward narcissistic individualism. The downside of conservatism is its complacence. Nevertheless, conservatives do accept the need for change and reform. So while some conservatives will always resist change, others recognize communities inevitably evolve. But they assess change in the context of institutions, because institutions represent the vehicle for social relationships. A conservative can support reforms designed to strengthen institutions. Indeed, strong institutions represent strong social ties. But they will almost always oppose reforms that threaten or abolish institutions.
Marriage as an Institution
For example, conservatives, until recently, largely opposed the legalization of homosexual marriage. They viewed it as a threat to the institution of marriage. But many conservatives have changed their mind on the issue, because they realized homosexual marriage did not weaken or disrupt the institution. Homosexuals wanted the right to marry, because they also valued the institution. Liberals had long argued marriage was a right, but this was not a compelling case for a conservative. Rather conservatives needed to believe the adaption of marriage into a more inclusive institution made it stronger. Liberals recognized injustice far earlier, but the more compelling case relied on a conservative perspective. Indeed, the consolidation of LGBTQ rights will likely rely on a shift of conservative opinion.
Some among the far left may advocate for the abolition of marriage altogether. Some describe it as a fundamentally patriarchal institution. Indeed, the far right does desire a return to a more patriarchal society. But most conservatives have adapted to a more egalitarian form of marriage. It retains some patriarchal legacies, but has made significant progress over multiple generations. Conservatives, on the whole, will never accept the abolition of an institution as fundamental as marriage, but they can adapt to an increasingly egalitarian form of marriage. Of course, sometimes an institution is fundamentally unjust. Slavery is an example where no amount of reform would make this institution acceptable in a democracy. In this case, liberals had to convince conservatives this institution was a cancer on others.
Institutions do not have an independent existence. Different institutions overlap each other. For example, the line between marriage and the family is nebulous at best. The role of the institution is to offer a contextual framework for behavior. Context defines relationships between people. It establishes authorities and hierarchies, but also sets the stage for unexpected friendships and collaboration. Within each institution, norms and rules for behavior will develop. Modern societies develop anxiety, because so many institutions overlap one another that it becomes difficult for some to recognize the right behavior for any given situation. Still, different institutions will reinforce one another. Norms and behaviors carry over from one institution to another as a consistent culture develops. Institutions evolve over time to fit into a larger culture. But some institutions cannot adapt as the culture evolves. Slavery was incompatible in a democratic America. Apartheid was incompatible in a democratic South Africa.
Conservatism then reflects a commitment not to each individual institution, but the intersection of different institutions into a community. Nonetheless, conservatism is often expressed as a defense of individual institutions. The great crime of conservatism is tendency toward social complacency. Liberalism is the antidote for a conservative malaise. But a healthy community, a healthy democracy, depends on an equilibrium between the two. It relies upon an alignment between these two distinct perspectives. The consolidation of liberal democracy represents the acceptance of liberalism and democracy as synonymous with the culture and values of the larger community. It requires a transformation of liberal ambitions into conservative traditions.
Tension Between Liberals and Conservatives
Nonetheless, the tension between liberals and conservatives extends into democracy. Liberalism focuses on the rights of individuals. It focuses on both human rights and political rights. Democracy becomes translated into the language of rights where people have rights to vote and rights to express opinions. But democracy does not function well merely as a series of rights for individuals. It requires a mechanism for collective decisions and action. The atomization of individual behaviors and opinions undermines a democracy when everybody expects to get their way. Conservatism makes democracy sustainable through a reorientation of the individual away from rights and toward responsibilities and obligations. The conservative becomes the guardian of liberal democracy along with is traditions and institutions. Conservatism is the antidote to liberalism’s narcissistic individualism.
Democratic governance confers a range of rights and privileges, but it depends upon a commitment to the group. It demands obligations and responsibilities both spoken and unspoken. Indeed, participation in democratic governance is not simply a right, but a responsibility. Moreover, participation is not simply about the expression of one’s own opinion, but the inclusion of others into deliberation. Great leaders find they focus less on their own ideas and opinions. They find ways to involve others. Democracy demands leadership from every citizen. This means everyone has a responsibility to encourage others to speak, but also a commitment to find consensus. It’s not about winning an argument, but finding a resolution. Moreover, democracies must govern. The nihilistic argument from today’s political right that government does not work undermines a core democratic principle. If government does not work, how can democracy work?
Is this really Conservatism?
Now I may have confused some readers, because conservatism is often described as a philosophy of the right. They have implicit notions of conservatism developed over a lifetime. But conservatives exist on the political left and right. Most will gravitate toward the political center. Liberals, on the other hand, do not exist only on the left of the political spectrum. Conservatism and liberalism are not political philosophies so much as political perspectives. They speak distinct political languages. Liberals focus on rights and privileges, while conservatives focus on obligations and responsibilities. A lot of “conservatives” in the United States are really liberals in disguise. The right to bear arms, the right to not wear a mask, and the right to express unpopular opinions rely on the language of rights rather than obligations or responsibilities. They will even pervert the language of liberalism into a right to impose their opinions onto others.
Moreover, American “liberals” have become surprisingly conservative over time. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn recognize a phenomenon where “liberals” will talk left, but walk right. The pandemic has shown how “liberals” understand shared responsibilities and obligations, while “conservatives” have shunned them. Democracy demands shared responsibilities and obligations, but it requires a conservative perspective to understand them. Liberalism has the power to shake a people free from authoritarian complacency, but conservatives make democracy sustainable. The challenge in an early democracy is for its institutions to survive long enough for its traditions to take root, so conservatives begin to defend them rather than view them as an interruption from past traditions.
Nonetheless, liberalism never completely goes away nor should it. Conservative democracy becomes complacent over time. It consolidates its gains, but fails to aspire for something even more democratic. Liberals can challenge conservatives to reinterpret their institutions into something even more inclusive. But liberalism can also become corrupted over time. The language of rights and the focus on the individual can become self-serving. It gives license for groups to focus on their rights without regard for their obligations. Moreover, the language of rights easily becomes translated into the right to impose opinions upon others. Liberalism converts into a political narcism that becomes difficult to escape.
Chantal Mouffe offers a different perspective. She has embraced the political in what she describes as radical democracy. It gives license for radical demands, because it presupposes a pluralism of opinions in democratic society. But it fails to consider how minorities become easily marginalized in an aggressive political environment. Radical voices of the left may offer a platform to elevate some ideas, but many will remain left out unless citizens recognize a responsibility to seek out their opinions. Ordinary citizens demonstrate political leadership when they elevate the voices of others especially when those opinions do not reflect their own. Radical democracy is not misguided in principle, but makes many assumptions. It makes many liberal assumptions which ultimately require conservative sensibilities to succeed.
Democracy is an Obligation
As I bring this section to a close, I must admit my thoughts on conservatism and liberalism may come across to some as controversial. Others will argue I have changed the meaning of both terms so much to make my argument incomprehensible. But my goal is to offer a resolution to what I have described as the democracy paradox. Some theorists like Thomas Frank have argued citizens have a right to democracy. But what happens when people reject this right and use democracy to elect authoritarian leaders? Conservatism understands democracy as a responsibility. It is not something people can set aside nor a right some choose to exercise. It is an obligation some choose to deny, but never goes away.
A Few Sources
Oren Cass (2021), “A New Conservatism” Foreign Affairs
Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony (2017), “What is Conservatism?” American Afairs
Jennifer Lind and William C. Wohlforth (2019), “The Future of the Liberal Order Is Conservative” Foreign Affairs
John Stuart Mill (1859), On Liberty
Chantal Mouffe (1993), Return of the Political