How does a Conservative differ from a Radical? Part 1 (Contextual Matters)
Updated: Apr 4
What is the polar opposite of conservatism?
When I was but a Jedi youngling in the ways of conservatism I had in mind that its opposite was liberalism. Among my youthful indiscretions I listened to untold hours of the Rush Limbaugh Show where I was informed over and over that liberals were the enemy. As talk radio radicalized over the years I eventually turned away from it entirely, though I certainly recall how other hosts also used “liberal” as a political pejorative from Sean Hannity—“We’re now going to hear from big liberal John out in San Diego”—to Mark Levin—“Get off the phone you liberal phony!”—to Michael Savage—“Liberalism is a mental disorder.”
(For what it’s worth, liberalism actually has a lot in common with conservatism as I explored here.)
In its simplest form, conservatism is the mindset of conserving what we have—the established order, the institutions and traditions and cultural norms we’ve developed and the laws we’ve enacted. There is a term for the mindset of upsetting the established order. Radicalism is the attitude of discontent—sometimes extreme hostility—towards those same institutions and traditions and cultural norms. The conservative wants to keep things as they are while the radical demands change.
Well then, is radicalism the exact opposite of conservatism? As you might expect, it’s not quite that simple.
For all their differences, there is at least one thing conservatives and radicals have in common: they’re both strongly defined by context. It isn’t enough to simply say a conservative wants to conserve and a radical wants change. We have to untangle what they’re trying to conserve or change.
This similarity also distinguishes both conservatism and radicalism from most other political viewpoints. Most political worldviews offer prescribed answers to questions of justice and liberty and equality. Conservative author Russell Kirk clarifies this idea by showing how conservatism differs from that common approach:
“Strictly speaking, conservatism is not a political system, and certainly not an ideology…Instead, conservatism is a way of looking at the civil social order. Although certain general principles held by most conservatives may be described, there exists wide variety in application of these ideas from age to age and country to country. Thus conservative views and parties have existed under monarchical, aristocratic, despotic, and democratic regimes, and in a considerable range of economic systems. The conservatives of Peru, for instance, differ much from those of Australia, say; they may share a preference for the established order of society, these conservatives of the Spanish and the English heritages; yet the institutions and customs which these conservative factions respectively wish to preserve are by no means identical.”
Most political points of view can be adequately understood without having to muck about in tedious contextual details. Classical liberalism advocates unshackling the individual from arbitrary power and external restraints. Marxism invites the working class from around the world to unite and seize the means of production from their capitalist overlords. Populism insists that the people should push back against the establishment.
It’s not that contextual details are unimportant to these views—classical liberals often attempted to wed their ideology to Western societies they deemed capable of self-governance; Marx believed the communist states would evolve first out of advanced, industrial, Western nations; populists generally have some particular notion of who represents “the people” and “the establishment” based on historical grievances—the point is that these views are appealing to some abstract, universal principle to justify their political demands.
And while conservatism certainly has some elements of universal truths within it—as we’ll explore later in this series—much of the worldview is dependent on the context of the culture in which the conservative dwells. Where a liberal or a Marxist or a populist might work to export their ideological framework abroad as some kind of cure-all for whatever nation or civilization is willing to give it a go, conservatives are less inclined to believe the ideas and policies they’re advocating are entirely transmittable.
“Conservatism offers no universal pattern of politics for adoption everywhere,” continues Kirk, “On the contrary, conservatives reason that social institutions always must differ considerably from nation to nation, since any land’s politics must be the product of that country’s dominant religion, ancient customs, and historic experience.” While there are similarities between conservatives of different nations, conservatism will always be uniquely homegrown. Conservatives are trying to conserve what’s been handed down to them by their forefathers, not some universal, abstract ideas that transcend differences of time, place, and culture.
The kind of homegrown conservatism advocated by Saving Elephants is of a uniquely American variety. And the cultural heritage bequeathed to us by our American Founding Fathers contain some—wait for it—universal, abstract ideas that transcend differences of time, place, and culture. This peculiarity of American conservatism has led to no small amount of confusion and has made the American variety of conservatism truly exceptional—that is, unique and not necessarily superior—to all others. As Jonah Goldberg often points out, “America is the one place in the world where being a conservative has always meant being a liberal in the classical sense.”
What does any of this have to do with radicalism? During the Enlightenment, being a “liberal in the classical sense” was understood to mean being a radical. It meant opposing the conservative monarchs of European politics and led to the now universally used political terms of Left and Right: Those on the Left wanted to change the monarchy while those on the Right favored conserving that institution.
Adding to the confusion, the American colonists who immigrated from the Old World to the New had developed an entirely unique culture and history from those of the European monarchs. As such, what it meant to conserve the histories and traditions of our European cousins meant something entirely different back in the thirteen original colonies. Here it meant preserving the ideas inherent in the British commonwealth more than the institutions of the Crown.
Fast-forward to our present day and we have a bit of a definitional mess on our hands: a conservative is one who conserves their culture and institutions, but the American culture was built upon a revolution, which is a tool most familiar to radicals. But if American conservatives are conserving radicalism, how is it that conservatism and radicalism can be said to be opposites? Is it simply a matter of allowing enough time to pass so that what may have been radical in one generation is now conservative in ours? If so, wouldn’t that make conservatism a rather arbitrary idea?
Conservatism may be highly contextual, but it is anything but arbitrary. But to understand this we have to look deeper at the context of American conservatism and—for the sake of clarity—compare it with some other contextual example. Fortunately, history has provided to us an excellent case study, for shortly after the American Revolution there arose the French Revolution. The former exemplified the conservative approach while the latter epitomized radicalism. Two revolutions, two very different approaches. And that is where we’ll turn in Part 2.