How does a Conservative differ from a Moderate? – Part 3 (How We’re Different)
Updated: May 25
Moderates—as we’ve shown in Part 1 and Part 2—have much in common with conservatives. Both recognize the dangers inherent in radicalized ideologies and stand athwart political extremism that seeks to undermine the rule of law and natural rights.
While conservatives and moderates may differ on which political policies they advocate, the true difference has less to do with policy squabbles or how strongly they hold their convictions, but in their understanding of the nature of humanity and the role and necessity of institutions. This difference is best reflected in how the conservative and moderate approach radical ideologies.
How We Approach Ideologies
To rehash where we left off in Part 2: the moderate nullifies ideologies and the conservative negates ideologies.
The moderate—seeing both the good and the bad in differing ideological perspectives—seeks to smooth out the rough, radical edges. What’s left is a nullified ideology, a sort of canceling out of extremisms. The moderate doesn’t reject or repudiate ideologies so much as they find a neutral path between them. The conservative, on the other hand, negates ideology. That is, the conservative actively denies the evidence or truth of ideological certainties. This is not a radical position, but it is also not a neutral position.
In this respect the conservative takes an active stance against ideologies whereas the moderate takes a passive stance. I don’t at all mean to imply that moderates are lazy or apathetic (though some are), or that taking a passive stance means they don’t object to ideological extremism strongly enough. Rather, I mean that the moderate seeks to deal with the symptoms whereas the conservative means to cure the disease.
The Disease of Ideology
In Part 2 I borrowed English philosopher Roger Scruton’s explanation for just what makes ideologies dangers: “[an ideology] occupies the space vacated by religion, and in doing so excites the true believer both to worship the…idea and to seek in it for what it cannot provide—the ultimate purpose of life, the way to redemption, and the consolation for all our woes.” Ideologies may be well thought out, complex, and persuasive. But because humans are spiritual beings, those who look to an ideology to provide the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything are ultimately going to be just as disappointed as Arthur Dent was when he was told the answer was 42.
The point is that one cannot simply rectify the problem by eradicating harmful ideologies and expect all to go well. One must replace ideology with a greater and healthier system of beliefs, worldview, religion, institutions, and cultural norms. That’s a tall order, but a necessary condition to avoiding the trap of the eventual radicalization of a population that’s roaming amok without sound, spiritual footing.
The great American experiment is a prime example. Our nation was founded on the notion that a secular government could govern a diverse population without some epic Ragnarök confrontation with warring religious factions. But our secular system was never designed to govern a purely secular population.
“It is crucial to the lives of all our citizens, as it is to all human beings at all times, that they encounter a world that possesses a transcendent meaning, a world in which the human experience makes sense. Nothing is more dehumanizing, more certain to generate a crisis, than to experience one’s life as a meaningless event in a meaningless world,” wrote journalist Irving Kristol. Kristol was concerned about a world sanitized of all undesirable religious authority. For a world cleansed of religious orthodoxy was a world vulnerable to the disease of ideological certainties.
Overly Idealistic Multi-Level Marketing PR Reps
Moderates rightly recognize the dangers in overzealous ideologies, but wrongly miss the root causes: a crumbling social order, loss of orthodox religion, institutional decay, and political movements that seek to undermine all of the above. I don’t at all mean that moderates aren’t particularly religious or appropriately affectionate to cultural norms, but that their religious convictions and cultural proclivities are largely separated from their understanding of how the world works. Their response to a world bereft of conservative institutions is insufficiently alarmed to do much about it.
Institutions require blood, sweat, and tears to endure. The moderate is content to believe all will be well so long as we chart a course between extremism; the conservative is convinced the only path between extremisms—the only path that secures an ordered liberty—runs directly through healthy institutions. It’s not that moderates are anti-institution—as so many on the political Left may be—it’s that they misunderstand the degree to which vigor and vigilance is necessary to maintain them. I shan’t launch into a lengthy defense of the necessity and importance of institutions in our lives—a subject I covered here.
In Part 2 I used the Niskanen Center’s Rules for Moderates to examine where the moderate and the conservative see eye to eye. And, while there is much common ground, the moderate’s clamoring for the middle approach comes off a bit like an overly idealistic multi-level marketing PR rep:
“We are globalists who share progressives’ desire to robustly address economic and social inequality, liberals’ commitment to toleration and civil liberties, moderates’ embrace of empiricism rather than dogma, conservatives’ belief in the wealthcreating power of free markets, and libertarians’ skepticism about the ability of technocratic elites to solve complex economic and social problems,” boasts the Niskanen Center. Seeking the good out of every side is commendable, but not always reasonable. Sometimes two points of view simply cannot be wed together in some cosmic middle approach. And some things aren’t deserving of compromise.
Author and theologian G. K. Chesterton warned of viewing reality through the lens of absolute moderation: “What we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.” Again, I do not wish to imply moderates aren’t adequately passionate in their beliefs; but their passions are often directed at nullifying extremism rather than examining when action that may appear extreme is warranted.
Senator Barry Goldwater was roundly criticized when he said, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” as he was accepting the Republican nomination for president in 1964. But this is the mark of a virtuous citizen. The act of laying down one’s life for the cause of liberty is heroic, just as waffling on the issue of slavery due to economic expediency is inexcusable. Extremism in the abstract—extremism within one’s political views or approach—is of equal concern to the moderate and the conservative. But extremism melded with discretion, purpose, honor, justice, love, reason, courage, and ten thousand other virtues is necessary for establishing order and liberty in a world naturally inclined towards chaos and bondage.
“No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?” asked Chesterton, “A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it…our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval. My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty.”
The Conservation of Conservatism
At the core of conservatism is an attitude that can be universally apprehended: the things we love are breakable and require effort to conserve. At issue is what exactly should we love and what efforts are required and appropriate for their conservation.
It’s easy to point out the dangers in radical ideologies. It’s more challenging to identify the dangers—and there are dangers—in the moderate’s worldview. And the danger in the moderate’s worldview is not in what they do, but in what they do not do. Centrism could work if things stayed the same. But the conservative worldview offers the greatest argument for progress: things do not stay the same. Things break down. If we hope to conserve the slightest bit of order or familiarity or value, we must do just that: conserve. There is no middle approach. To do nothing, or to strike a middle path may avoid the pitfall of heading down the wrong path. But reality is not a path; it is quicksand. It does not maintain itself; it requires diligence and vigilance.
The central disagreement between the conservative and the moderate is on the nature of humanity. Can humans coexist in harmony with nothing more than reason to guide them? Is liberty self-sustaining? Or is there something fundamentally flawed about the human machine that requires more than good intentions and good philosophy to hold ordered liberty together? Conservatives are convinced humanity is not basically good, and that institutions have developed historically to put a check against our base desires. However much moderates may agree with bits and pieces of this basic understanding, they do not recognize the necessity of these institutions, for they do not recognize the depravity of their own nature.