Three Kinds of Conservatives

Why distinguishing individual, social, and political conservatives can better help us understand contemporary politics.

We tend to use “conservative” and “the right” interchangeably. Someone who is a conservative is also on the right, and someone on the right is a conservative. Synonyms by themselves aren’t a problem, but they sometimes obfuscate distinctions that can actually be helpful in thinking through thorny political issues. This is one of those instances. It’s true many who are “on the right” are also “conservative,” but it’s not necessary that one exists alongside the other. They are not, in fact, synonyms. But our conflation of multiple concepts under these few terms gets worse. Because conservatism doesn’t mean just one thing. Instead, it’s (at least) three, and while they frequently correlate, it's not a necessary correlation. Teasing out these concepts—the right from conservatism, and the three kinds of conservatism from each other—gives us a clearer perspective on contemporary political culture.

The first way one can be conservative is in a personal  sense. This entails holding conservative, or “traditional,” preferences regarding how you want to live your life, and seeking to realize them. You might strictly follow a religious faith, decide to buy a farm and live a simple life, only listen to classical music, or just generally frown on what the kids these days are up to. Your conservatism is about a desire, need, or commitment to live in accord with a tradition of some kind, refusing to be pulled away from it by what’s novel and innovative. Personal conservatism is about how you want to lead your life, but doesn’t make demands on others about how they lead theirs.

The second kind of conservatism is social. Social conservatism is ultimately an aversion to social and cultural dynamism. It is a distaste for change, or a longing for the culture to reflect the values of the past—sometimes an imagined past. The social conservative might also be a personal conservative, of course, but what distinguishes the two is that social conservatism is about wanting others to live a certain way, and thinking it’s wrong for them to not conform to the particular set of socially conservative preferences and values.

The third conservatism is political conservatism. Personal and social conservatism hook onto personal and social preferences. They’re about how one would prefer his life to be, or how he’d prefer the broader culture to be. But they say nothing about the role of government and how it ought to relate to conservative beliefs. Political conservatism, on the other hand is, about how the institutions of government should operate. One is a “conservative” in a political sense by emphasizing the wisdom embedded in past or existing laws and institutions, and worrying that changing them, too quickly or too dramatically, even in the name of progress, risks making things unintentionally worse. Political conservatism understood in this way isn’t necessarily an attempt to use the state to enforce a set of conservative values, but instead a philosophy of slow and deliberate change, informed by a perspective on tradition that says traditions persist for a reason, that they have embedded value we might not immediately recognize, and so “the way we’ve always done things” isn’t irrational inertia, but a rational appreciation for unarticulated knowledge and lessons from the past.

As noted above, it’s not just that these three conservatisms are conceptually distinct from each other, but that none of them necessarily mean the same thing as “the right.” Many conservatives, of all three varieties, are also on the right, but it’s possible to be conservative, in any of the three senses, while not being of the right.

To be “on the right” is to have a certain perspective about the nature of people, and the proper relationships between them. It is to believe that egalitarianism is wrong because humans aren’t equal, and that this inequality is natural, just, and ought to have consequences for the way society is structured, how power is exercised within it, and who is privileged in terms of status and control. For right-wingers, these inequalities map onto categories like gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, and religious faith. They result in natural hierarchies, which it is wrong to interfere with, either by transgressing the boundaries between the classifications and groups, or by seeking to use social or state pressure to flatten natural hierarchies. Instead, the role of social and state pressure is to reify “natural” hierarchies, to police boundaries, and to maintain this unequal—but intrinsic and just—order. Right ideologies thus are about a particular conception of how the world is, or at least how it would be if it weren’t for improper interference, and a reactionary response to any drifting—or pushing—away from that.

Let’s look at an example. Donald Trump is, by the definition above, on the right. He absolutely believes people are by nature unequal, and that those inequalities map onto race, gender, nationality, and so on. He’s racist, and sexist, and wildly bigoted against ethnicities and nationalities not his own. But is he conservative? Certainly not of the personal sort. There’s no tradition, no strict set of values, no deep religious faith, he holds to. He probably is socially conservative, because he believes that the culture should conform to his right-wing preferences, that social dynamism is a threat, and that coercion to make that the case is acceptable and necessary. Finally, he’s not a political conservative. He places no value on the wisdom embedded in existing institutions, and would burn the entire system to the ground if it meant getting his way. Trump’s not even politically moderate. He’s a radical, through and through, wanting to, with all haste, replace the existing political regime with an autocracy he leads. To call Trump a political conservative, but also to call someone like David French a political conservative, is to immediately recognize the incoherence of conflating the three varieties of conservatism with each other.

This doesn’t mean they’re always distinct, of course. Most people on the right are socially conservative. Most political conservatives also have at least some right-wing tendencies, and so tend to view as “wise” and worth preserving those institutions and traditions that, at least in part, reinforce right-wing social orders and hierarchies. Personal conservatism, if faced with a sufficiently dynamic culture, can drift into social conservatism, which can then manifest as political conservatism (“Let’s use the state to slow down or stop social change”) or political radicalism (“Let’s overthrow the existing order and replace it with a reactionary authoritarianism devoted to enforcing gender, racial, and religious hierarchies”). 

Even with these blurry lines and interrelations, if we’re to make sense of the contemporary political scene—and especially if we’re to understand the threats to liberalism posed by right-wing preferences or the ways individual and social conservatism can lead to illiberalism, authoritarianism, and fascism—knowing what it means to be on the right, why that’s not necessarily the same as being conservative, and how conservatism is really a bundle of overlapping but distinct ideas, can give clarity to our analysis.

Join the conversation

or to participate.