What Conservatives Believe: The Right Side of History
Updated: Jun 21
“The thinking conservative understands that PERMANENCE and PROGRESSION must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles*
Have you ever heard it said of someone that they were on the “wrong side of history”? Though the charge is ubiquitous in politics today it’s most often used by progressives accusing conservatives of being stuck in the past. Obama said of Mitt Romney during the 2012 Presidential debates: “When it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”
When people talk about a “right” or “wrong” side to history what do they mean? The idea gained popularity in the 20th century among Communist thinkers. Communists are fond of speaking of the inevitable conquest of the working class over the ruling class. To them history has preordained their eventual victory over capitalism, give or take a hundred million corpses along the way. President Obama uses this Marxist phrase quite liberally (no pun intended) to justify his foreign and domestic policies. But I don’t know many Marxists personally and I suspect when my friends speak of a “right” or “wrong” side to history they’re doing so in ignorance of the phrase’s devious origins.
This postmodern world often equates gender-identity and LGBTQ issues with the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Mind your views on whether self-identifying women with male body parts should be allowed to use the restroom of their choosing or you’ll be publicly-identified as a Neanderthal so amazingly primitive that you still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. Proponents of gay marriage are on the “right side of history,” or so we are told; meaning their argument to the opposing side boils down to “shut up.”
While conservatives are careful not to abandon norms, such as marriage, that have existed for as long as history itself, this fixation with history taking “sides” allows for a great deal of ethical horse-trading. This explains, in part, Obama’s evolving views on gay marriage and former President Clinton’s signing of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which he later disavowed. It’s one thing to change your position on moral issues over time as you give them proper consideration. It’s quite another to change your position because you believe history has updated morality itself and you’re along for the ride.
But what does history have to do with morality? As Jay Nordlinger with National Review put it, “Gay marriage is inevitable, people say: Better get on the right side of history. I say, gay marriage may be right or wrong, inevitable or evitable, but why drag history into it?” The conservative believes what lies before us has more to do with our active participation in the political process than with the cold, thoughtless march of unavoidable progression. As G. K. Chesterton observed, “…It is clear that no political activity can be encouraged by saying that progress is natural and inevitable; that is not a reason for being active, but rather a reason for being lazy. If we are bound to improve, we need not trouble to improve. The pure doctrine of progress is the best of all reasons for not being progressive.”
But a conservative’s hesitation to join calls to get on the latest historical bandwagon stem from more than just a belief that history is not intrinsically progressive. The conservative is often apprehensive about the outcome of sweeping political change, regardless of its merit. The conservative fears that some otherwise laudable political efforts may come at the expense of institutions that hold society together. Human institutions have developed and evolved over generations and, while tradition can be cumbersome (even appearing outright stupid to the outside observer), it is there for a reason and should only be altered with great care and trepidation. No one is smart enough or good enough to be completely trusted with smashing traditions at whim for the sake of the most fashionable opinions of the day. A certain impatience with political change is quite understandable: we all perceive injustices in the world and we’d like them to be addressed immediately. But we must take care that our impatience does not lead to carelessness, for carelessness leads to chaos.
Even those who self-identify as on the political right can get caught up in this errant folly. Former Oklahoma Senator Dr. Tom Coburn and Texas Governor Greg Abbot, frustrated by the seeming impossibility of getting anything accomplished in Washington D.C., are seeking to circumvent the national congress by calling for a Convention of the States. This never-before-used provision of Article V of the Constitution would allow for a two-third majority of state legislatures to amend the Constitution. This unprecedented move, while replete with the best of intentions, is essentially pitting the intellectual geniuses of our Founding Fathers against the political parties that gave us Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Such overreaching is common in political discourse. How often have you heard someone say that what we need is a complete overhaul of the government? “The system is completely broken” or “nothing ever gets done” or “we’d be better off if politicians were selected at random” or “reelect no one” or “what we need is a third party” or “all politicians are corrupt” or “politicians never do what they say they’ll do.” Bumper-sticker rhetoric rarely calls for a calm, collective approach to the problems at hand. Again, it’s not that all of these sentiments are wrongheaded, it’s that, should the call to arms be fully followed, we’d likely have a bigger mess than what we have now.
Reform, the gradual, deliberate, and contemplative change working within the present system, is less appealing than the rash alternative of scrapping everything and starting anew, but it stands a far greater chance of bringing about change that’s desirable, not just change you can believe in. Ever since the Goldwater era of the 1960s the conservative movement has found a home in the Republican party. That’s not to say the Republican party has always adhered to conservative principles or that some conservatives aren’t Republican. At times the party has even been hostile to conservative ideology such as providing for the largest increase in the size of government since the 1960s when they last held majorities in Congress under the Bush administration. Nevertheless, conservative advancements have come primarily through the Republican party. And a genuine “conservative” approach to the long-established two-party system would be to work within it rather than to spring for a third option. That is, a third party. There is no inherent virtue in a third party. Politicians are corrupt because they are people, not because they are politicians. Republicans err from conservatism because they’re more interested in power than ideology. A third party won’t change these sad realities. None of this is meant to suggest conservatism is forever wed to the Republican Party, but just that serious care should be taken when alternatives are considered.
Revolutions are a more severe form of obliterating longstanding traditions in hopes of a bright tomorrow. The Founders were right to fight a revolution for the cause of liberty against an authoritarian monarchy because they had exhausted all reasonable means of changing the regime from within. So, they took added care to provide us with a system of government that didn’t require bloody revolutions with little guarantee of a satisfactory outcome to enact desired change by enshrining our nation in a Constitution that has lasted relatively unaltered for nearly 230 years. Despite all this it is not uncommon to hear Americans calling for a modern day revolution as if they are honoring the spirit of our Founders. But many of our Founders (with the exception of Thomas Jefferson whose views were in the minority) were suspect, not welcoming, of further revolutions.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and especially in 2012 were heralded as the Ron Paul Revolution by his most ardent supporters, going so far as to depict the United States on fire to get their point across. These supporters weren’t interested in modifying the system of government we have but in a complete overhaul to take us back to a time where a foreign policy that didn’t envision nuclear weapons and a monetary policy that didn’t take into account global trade actually made sense.
Americans have a naturally skewed view of revolutions because of our founding. But most revolutions don’t end well. The French Revolution fought in the name of liberty ended in mass public executions within the country, war with most of Europe, and military rule by a man who crowned himself Emperor. The October Revolution in Russia sought a classless utopia and ended up with some of the most brutal dictators the world has ever known. With the exception of the tiny nation of Tunisia, the Arab Spring, with its promises of freedom and reform, gave rise to rogue terrorist groups and civil unrest so savage the entire continent of Europe has been flooded with more refugees than at any time since World War II. Volumes of books have been written delineating the horrors that followed those revolutions, not to mention the devastation following the revolutions in Haiti and Iran and Cuba and China.
These revolutions failed at their promises and brought far more misery and bloodshed than the regimes they eradicated. While the old regimes may have been deplorable and the aims of the revolutionaries noble, they failed because their push for progress outpaced cultural realities or miscalculated mankind’s penchant for power. That is, they sought sweeping political change without taking appropriate measures to ensure the institutions within the culture could sustain such a change.
While taking all this into account however, let’s not fool ourselves into the preposterous notion that all progress is tainted by an equal amount of regress. Humanity is not trapped in some hopeless system whereby every step forward in one sense brings us a step back in another. Conservatives are not fatalists. And conservatives are not the mindless old fogeys complaining about the “kids these days” and against any change whatsoever they are often portrayed to be.
Much ado is often made about how life was far better in some way in some past age or more primitive culture unencumbered with the cares of modern life. We may applaud the simplicity or the uniformity of some third-world country untainted by the stresses of cosmopolitan life but few advocate dwelling there. And it is an inescapable fact that the citizens of those countries are often plotting an escape. Real progress can be made, but it must be restrained by careful consideration of unintended outcomes, minority input, and a conservative’s penchant for tradition. The conservative believes that healthy societies possess both a strong permanence and a dynamic progression. Unhealthy societies usually have one far more robust than the other.
What kind of progress can be made without risking some regress elsewhere? What traditions must be maintained and what traditions are just in the way of real progress? What sort of change is favorable without altering the values that define us as a people? These are challenges every generation of conservatives must face by looking towards the future while maintaining a reverence for the past. If conservatism is to survive in the 21st century, it must be able to answer the challenge.
*The “What Conservatives Believe” series was inspired by Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles”. As a diligent student of conservatism my aim in this series is not to improve upon his manifesto—a task for which I’m hardly qualified—but to restate his ideas in a more digestible manner for the political layman who’d like to know what it means to be a conservative without having to read an academic paper.