Myself leaning slightly liberal, I agree with Republican policies sometimes. However, the ones being spewed out lately, which have the soothing effect of chalk on a blackboard.

But what is the reason for that? What are liberals and conservatives antagonize each other? What are they disagreeing about?

Stanford Enclopedia of Philosophy had just a bit to say:

Conservatism and its modernising, anti-traditionalist rivals, liberalism and socialism, are the dominant political philosophies and ideologies of the post-Enlightenment era. Conservatives criticise their rivals for making a utopian exaggeration of the power of theoretical reason, and of human perfectibility. Conservative prescriptions are based on what they regard as experience rather than reason; for them, the ideal and the practical are inseparable. Most commentators regard conservatism as a modern political philosophy, even though it exhibits the standpoint of paternalism or authority, rather than freedom.

Is that really what Republicans are doing? Is restricting immigration an expression of doubt towards human perfectibility? (Just to name one example)

Originally I wanted to say "what is conservatism" but that is too broad.

then I asked "what is conservatism in politics" but that could include other countries ( Germany or Australia or Kenya or Japan all have conservative branches). For now - this election year - I would like to focus on US politics.

And I might be making a wrong assumption that all conservatives are the same or that conservative=republican in all situations.

If I asked this on https://politics.stackexchange.com/ maybe I will get more of a political answer. Instead here I am emphasizing philosophical principles which govern American conservative thought. The stuff they have in common.

  • This feels really definitional to me
    – Joseph Weissman
    Sep 7, 2016 at 0:14
  • @JosephWeissman my question is terrible. no doubt Sep 7, 2016 at 11:33
  • Even though this is nominally philosophical, might benefit from philosophical consideration (and political philosophy is on-topic here), this question seems more essentially political, asking for a political description of the terms. Can you reword to make more philosophical? Also make more specific (eg like limiting to just your immigration and perfectiability.)
    – Mitch
    Sep 29, 2016 at 15:32

4 Answers 4


You are asking about Republican conservativism. And I think it is important to consider that the central organizing principle of the Republican party is not outright, straightforward Conservativism as one might find in European Conservative parties.

After all, its founders favored a massive upheaval in society, removing substantial wealth from slaveholders, based on abstract principles, and risking ongoing change that might easily get out of hand. That is not Conservative.

And there is not some stark break with tradition where the party became our Conservative party. Historically one can point at the Southern Strategy, the solidification of Evangelical influence and some other strategic corners taken by the party where they absorbed Conservative blocks that are too simplistic and extremist to be truly consonant with their central tenets.

And one can argue that this broadening has left the party unstable. The nomination of Donald Trump is an indicator of a caricature of abstract, groundless and principle-free reactionary sentiment taking it over, at least temporarily. He is an embarrassment to many high-profile Republicans. But the fact those leaders admit they are embarrassed, suggests the party's tenets are not totally lost.

The party's official charter is not based on outright traditionalism or limited change. It is defined in terms of individual responsibility.

  • This does imply keeping units of government small, so that accountability can be traced and missions of segments of the system can be kept clear and concise.

  • It involves holding people to some objective and recorded moral standard, and therefore promotes a historical, rather than a theoretical construction of the constitution.

  • It suggests local government not be imposed upon, even when those smaller units of government do things that the Federal government is restrained from doing -- like allowing a limited degree of religious interference in legal decisions.

  • It involves allowing people and institutions to succeed or fail economically based upon time-honored rules, rather than protecting the poor from the rich.

  • It involves keeping the system to be maintained bounded and protected from outside interference, so it promotes a foreign policy that involves strong military positions cooperating with a limited set of clear allies almost completely and defending them against all others.

All of these trends lead it to have a core that will always overlap with traditionalism. But obviously, although it suggests we accept and work around tribalism and racism rather than fighting with them, it firmly resisted slavery, which deprives the poorest of the poor of the opportunity to be accountable. It also, in its search for clear boundaries, has led to Constitutional due process amendments that have in the long run had largely liberalizing consequences. They also recognized that in order for folks to honorably handle failure, it should not be deadly, and they simplified and re constructed the bankruptcy laws that ultimately led to the creation of the Federal Reserve.

So it is not always aligned with Conservative forces.

  • Masterfully written, puts my answer to shame. Sep 7, 2016 at 4:00
  • you are right! i forgot there was a big switch in the US Dems <--> Reps in the 19th century. Merely adding to my confusion. Sep 7, 2016 at 11:33
  • Is I see it, it was really an odd sort of rotation. To the right of the Dems were the Whigs, who were in favor of decentralization (which was perceived ultimately to lead to corruption). They so thoroughly lost out that a new party needed a way to stand to the Right of the inherited Democratic agenda of trust in the equalizing power of centralization, without being too close to the Whig agenda, so he contrasted it with a principle of individual responsibility rather than straight localism. Lincoln with his agenda on bankruptcy and slavery was the ideal representative.
    – user9166
    Sep 7, 2016 at 15:15

In general:

Conservatism (or conservativism) is any political philosophy that favours tradition (in the sense of various religious, cultural, or nationally-defined beliefs and customs) in the face of external forces for change, and is critical of proposals for radical social change.

In the United States, the current acknowledged conservative party, the Republicans, is now (but not historically) made up of several different kinds of conservatives. The first is generally categorized as "social conservatives," who advocate the preservation or restoration of what they consider as "Judeo-Christian values." In practice, the core US social conservative issues are:

  • limiting sexual activity and expression to the boundaries of heterosexual, monogamous, lifetime marriage
  • opposition to abortion
  • preservation of traditional gender roles

The next category is "fiscal conservatives," who advocate small, decentralized government, reduced taxes, and an end to spending on programs of social welfare. In addition, it's an open secret that a large, but unacknowledged third portion of the modern conservative coalition is composed of what might be called "racial conservatives," those who wish for a return to an older version of the US with a stratified racial hierarchy. This group left their original home in the Democratic party when LBJ passed civil rights legislation, and has reliably voted Republican ever since. Rounding out the grouping are libertarians, who are fiscally conservative but socially liberal, nationalists, who overlap strongly with the racial conservatives, and anti-federalists, who favor the reduction of federal governmental powers in favor of the restoration of more local independence and control.

That coalition has fractured in the current (2016) election. The fact that Trump's core base of support comes from the racial conservatives and nationalists (and that his claims to fiscal and social conservativism are tenuous at best) has resulted many fiscal and social conservatives --who are themselves not the most natural of allies, even in the best of times --being forced out of the movement. It remains to be seen whether that coalition can be put back together after the election concludes.

  • Money isn't the primary objection to large government. You left out the "States Rights" agenda which is the actual conservative influence (reactionary attempts to undo the consolidation of the executive branch by Democrats in opposition to all older 'Right-wing' parties before Republicans emerged) binding many of these positions together.
    – user9166
    Sep 7, 2016 at 18:59
  • 1
    For instance, your 'racial' conservatives originate as States Rights ex-Confederates. The religious are there because more local control used to let them dominate their State and local governments and play shell games around the 1st amendment, etc. The hawks are there because they think at least half the budget should be spent on the 'listed powers' in the Constitution, and a huge military is a way to starve out powers appropriated from the States... These are not libertarians, because these people want their local governments to be more interventionist and consolidate with them tribally.
    – user9166
    Sep 7, 2016 at 19:02
  • 1
    I've edited to address. However, it's unclear to me how much of an actual practical role "states' rights" takes as its own principled position, versus as a pretext for cooperation by otherwise opposed interests. It's also a loaded and controversial term, since it's often cited in support of the widely debunked claim that Confederate succession was not primarily about preserving the institution of slavery. Sep 7, 2016 at 19:13

In terms of ideology, the US republican party seems to constitute many different streams of thought, including sometimes seemingly contradictory ones (for example small government and low taxes while still somehow maintaining a large military). There dominant ideological strain seems to be a belief in free market principles, and libertarian notions of personal freedom (for example in their support of the second amendment, their opposition to environmental regulation, or the idea that school and education should be locally managed as opposed to centrally managed), accept when it comes to abortion rights and to drug regulation, where they seem to take a more strictly traditionalist stance.

From the SEP quote:

Conservative prescriptions are based on what they regard as experience rather than reason;

In the GOP discourse and among my republican friends, this usually translates as "Experience has shown that communism failed while capitalism succeeded", or "free-enterprise works better for providing certain services than government agencies". For example they point out to the fact that customer service tends to be faster and more efficient in private for profit corporations than it is in government administrations (consider the difference between calling AMEX customer service vs dealing with the IRS customer service).

They also consider themselves pragmatic in the sense that they believe that free market capitalism is driven by realistic expectations of human behavior (work well-get more money/work poorly-get fired). Socialist and communist are idealistic in the sense that they appeal to workers sense of duty to the nation or to their country men, something which might sound good in theory, but seems to fail in practice.

I don't have any references for this, as it is stuff I picked up mostly from TV and Radio, but here's a list of philosophers, or philosophically inclined thinkers I've heard mentioned as having had influence on the GOP's ideology.

  • Ayn Rand: It was mentioned often during the 2012 presidential election that she was a strong influence on Paul Ryan.
  • Milton Friedman is mentioned as having a strong influence on the Reagan administration.
  • Leo Strauss, Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama are mentioned as having had a large influence on the neoconservative movement within the GOP, and by extension on the foreign policy of the 2nd Bush administration.

Although I've never heard his name mentioned in any media discussion of the GOP, Robert Nozick's ideas as expressed in "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" seem to be very closely aligned with those of the US republican party, in particular his ideas that the state shouldn't do anything other than law enforcement, and his "Wilt Chamberlain" argument against income redistribution.

  • "... for example small government and low taxes while still somehow maintaining a large military ,,," The pre WWII GOP was against US involvement in WWII. If you're interested in American conservatism, you might read up on the transition of postwar Republicans from isolationists to interventionists.
    – user4894
    Sep 7, 2016 at 0:59

As the flip side of my defense of the idea there are Republican principles separate from Conservatism, I would like to lay out how 'Republican', or basically American, Conservatism varies from its more general forms elsewhere. And that, contrary to surface appearance, Conservatives in America really do have something in common.

Conservativism in the United States is not about maintaining centuries-old structures, with standing claims of hegemony, like it can be elsewhere. It can't be, because we only became a country two centuries ago. What traditionalists here therefore tend to fall back on is clarity, simplicity, finality and forthrightness. They want to preserve the literal content of our civic institutions, or at least the original intended meaning behind our foundational traditions. The basic principle is that what is allowed to grow and adapt will get out of control, so we need to continually pin it back to the past, or we will become weak as a nation.

They want a very literal reading of the Constitution, which limits the power of the Federal authority, and particularly extends very little power to the Presidency, federal Departments, and all other Federal Executive authority.

Although this 'States Rights' agenda is often blamed for being a cover-story for regional interests, such as Confederate slavery. It seems clear (to Conservatives) that the enumeration of responsibilities for the Federal government is meant to favor regional interests over uniform governance in all other realms outright, and no cover story is ever needed.

As part of that, they want as few ongoing mandates upon the Federal government's future actions as possible. (Our originators did not even want a standing army, just the ability to train militia and draft them at need, so deeply did they want to limit governmental promises. Modern Conservatives would not join them there, but the underlying principle remains -- often in the form of Milton Friedman's theory that democratic government can only grow, and so should do so a slowly as possible, or the 'Two Santa System' (symbolized by Bush II's giving away the surplus income tax) intended to immobilize the government by keeping revenue low and maintaining fiscal dread, until spending can be rolled back.)

Since a few of the original colonies (from Pennsylvania to Maryland) were established as religious reservations meant to get extremist leaders to move out of England, American Conservatives want to be allowed to be religiously literalist, often in an Evangelical or traditionally Roman Catholic way, and to have the government either back hegemonic religious positions, or get out of the way, and let regional authorities reconcile them.

They also want to promote a civic and moral framing that allows the original and historical behavior of 'Great Americans' to remain honorable and unsullied. (History like all other things, including, impossibly, scientific understanding, should be finalized early.) So they want to restrain attacks upon traditional biases incorporated into our laws early on, including regionalism, White racism, and traditional gender roles.

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