The Problem of Conservativism

What is there left to say when those that came before have already gotten all of it right?

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.

Political theory has a long history, and a long history of relatively consistent change. Certainly there were long, long periods of stagnation during which one particular ideology dominated others and was accepted as the most accurate or useful or applicable ideology. And there were times (as recently as the 1990s) when political theory was considered fixed or dead (see the general consensus among academics that political theory had essentially died as an arena of new thought before the publication of Rawls’ Theory of Justice, and the both older and more recent concept of the ‘end of history’ as detailed by Marx and Fukuyama. And yet the publication of Rawls’ Theory of Justice proved political theory to be alive and well, and the end of history prescribed by Marx and Fukuyama respectively failed to materialize with the failure of Marxism and the escalation of problems in the Middle East. Indeed, if history reveals to us anything, it is that the end state prescribed by so many theories and theorists and academics is never really the End. The problem that plagues Conservative political theorists is the belief that one of those previously described end states indeed should be the end state. Someone has already gotten it right.

But if someone in the past got it right, or at least got the big picture right, where does that leave the modern Conservative political theorist? He can, and very often does, become a defender of an ideology – some times pursuing the stability of the status quo, other times seeking changes to a currently predominant ideology that is not the got it right. But because of the conservatism that the Conservative political theorist holds, he is almost automatically impeded from developing any theory of his own. The new, creative, original vision of politics (regardless of what that vision actually is) that youth and academia are drawn to will not be generated by the Conservative theorist. He is put at something of a disadvantage at the outset: ‘it is wonderful that John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty!’ will say the libertarian, but what else is there for the libertarian to do but to praise and proselytize? How can you develop a new and original theory that is right, when the theory that is right already exists?

The short answer is that you can’t. Perhaps changes can be made to particular details of a theory or ideology, but if that theory or ideology is sufficiently right, there is little room for originality. This is the dilemma that the Conservative political theorist faces. The new and exciting work that so many gravitate towards exists in other, newer, and more original sets of ideas. The Conservative doctoral candidate expected to produce original research and ideas in his thesis is unable to present a new and original ideology; he must instead focus on that which already exists, which has already been examined and analyzed and researched. Perhaps some new approach or perspective or interpretation can be found for this material, but the material itself is already there. The Grand New Unified Theory isn’t new at all to a Conservative; it’s already there, and often it’s been there for a long time indeed. All that remains is to explain it, to affirm it, to promote it. But ‘it’ is not new.

How dreadfully boring to those looking for new and exciting ideas! Academia is fascinated by a new idea. Its very newness makes it fascinating – it is untested, not fully understood, full of possibilities not yet reached and implications not yet found. So much more interesting than that old idea that people have been talking about for so many years. That idea was new and glamorous and exciting a hundred years ago or so, but now? It’s been around; we understand it; we’ve known about it and its implications for years and years, and there is no real potential to find any ‘newness’ in it. The Conservative theorist sees these new ideologies and concepts, and finds flaws, problems, and vagaries. ‘We already have this theory here, and it works, and it is right,’ says the Conservative; ‘we should be focusing on implementing this ideology that we already know about; it works, and it is right.’ But this case is far more difficult to make than that of his opponent. The new, shiny, virgin idea – teeming with undiscovered and untapped potential – sings a far sweeter siren’s song than the old.

This problem, of course, is not isolated to the realm of political theory. A similar situation can be seen in many fields. Film critic Duncan Shepherd, rather conservative – if not curmudgeonly – when it comes to film, describes his admiration of Clint Eastwood: “…from my perspective, no American filmmaker since Griffith, before his decline in the mid-Twenties… has so towered above his compatriots… Griffith and Eastwood, a distant tandem, are of course very different cases. For the former, film was in its infancy and competition was thin; for the latter, film has slid into a state of decrepitude – affluent decrepitude, but decrepitude all the same – and competition is once again thin. Griffith was inventing an art form; Eastwood is conserving it.” ( But it is neither Griffith nor Eastwood that is taught in film schools and venerated by youth. It is instead that “affluent decrepitude” – either the big pictures full of special effects or the avant-garde films of directors like David Lynch and Todd Solontz – that draw so many. Well-made, competent, and powerful as Eastwood’s films may be, they are not new; they lack the innate curiosity of the unseen. They’ve been done before, if not as artfully or skillfully.

Which is the problem faced by Conservatives generally, and it is magnified in fields that demand or venerate new and original ideas and creativity. In describing the art of teaching and the qualities that a good teacher must have, the late University of Chicago professor and novelist Norman Maclean wrote, “[the teacher] must have another gene that gives him the power to lead students to making discoveries – ultimately, he hopes, to the power of self discovery… However, many of these stirring discoveries may have been made, indeed should have been made, before by other men and women, and hence are not publishable in a scholarly journal.” (from “‘This Quarter I Am Taking McKeon’: A Few Remarks on the Art of Teaching”) Many of these stirring discoveries may have been made, indeed should have been made, before by other men and women, and hence are not publishable in a scholarly journal. Whereas once those discoveries represented pinnacles of thought and new ideas and concepts, now they have been done before; they are to many now things, once understood, to be filed away before the search for the next new thing. The dilemma of the Conservative is to make an old idea a beautiful and captivating one – without changing it into something that it isn’t – and then to make that captivating beauty last, unblemished by the passage of time and the creation of the new. This is a hard path. The potential of the road untaken is powerful and it calls out to many; it is so powerful, however, that roads less taken may indeed be taken more than the one road that is most traveled by.

This is the puzzle of the Conservative, and it is indeed a difficult one. But in its difficulty, at least, there may lie solace, though that solace has not been best expressed in the words of a Conservative. That which is worth doing is indeed worth doing well, despite hardship; we do things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Two roads diverged in a wood, and they –
they were the same.

Tags »

Date: Friday, 31. March 2006 18:05
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: The Political Hack

Feed for the post RSS 2.0 Comment this post


  1. 1

    One question– I had more in the process of reading it, but you cleared those up in the later paragraphs– What’s the deal with the last two lines? Why are the two roads the same?– by “roads” I assume you mean the shiny new theories and the tried and true ones. Do you mean that the new ones will become old, or do you mean that the old road is now the road less travelled by because everyone is attracted to novelty?

  2. 2

    er hmmm, another question. What have people already gotten right? What is this mysterious perfect conservative theory? I haven’t heard of it.

  3. 3

    I meant the latter, but I suppose the former works just as well. Somewhat similar to how Wilson would see things in my writing that I didn’t intend or notice, at least not consciously, but that worked regardless. That’s a good point about the new and shiny becoming old and worn in time, though. I hadn’t really considered it, but it is, of course, what will happen.

    Though it may take longer for some ideas than others, depending on the ideas and the circumstances in which they’re considered – look at Marxism – people in the US (well…. lots of academia) are in love with it and think it’s really neat and wonderful and etc. People closer to where it was practiced (Eastern Europe, Russia) or even really examined in a great deal of depth (Great Britain) have a far more dismissive attitude for it: ‘ah, yes, that was an idea, and it was interesting. But, it doesn’t really work, so that’s that.’ It’s so very far away from the perspective and approach we see in the US.

    I imagine that’s true of other ideas/concepts as well, though those are perspectives on something that doesn’t work, as opposed to something that does; looking at perspectives of things that are good in *practice* instead of just in theory might be something worth doing.

  4. 4

    On your second comment, Lauren, people (or some persons) have already gotten most things right. People have also gotten a lot of things wrong. Hard-core realists argue that Thomas Hobbes got almost everything right (at least in regards to international relations); Libertarians argue that JS Mill and David Boaz and Milton Friedman got almost everything right; etc. The problem being that the ‘more exciting’ set of ideas (to many, though not to me) is that which is brand new, or – better yet – so far undiscovered.

    The theories and papers that people fawn over are those that offer something *new*. A conservative, by definition, is a proponent of something not new; the ‘conserve’ root of the word is important here. Yes, conservatives in the American context want change, but they don’t want change to something completely new, they want a change towards something that has already existed (or towards some ideal represented in something that once existed).

    Conservative itself, and its elements, remain largely those that have existed in the past (and existed to quite a good effect, I’d argue); things like ‘neo-conservative’ ideas aren’t really new at all, but just repackaging ideas that have already existed – a libertarian-ish economic perspective and a liberal interventionist-ish foreign policy and a classical liberal’s love of democracy combined. These aren’t new things. Now, they may all work wonderfully, but you don’t see academia in huge support of these things (often they won’t even address it as something new [they’re right here, it’s not really ‘new’], and as a result argue against sincerity of those proclaiming neo-conservative policy as right [they’re wrong here – on two counts: first, proponents of neo-conservative do indeed hold these beliefs sincerely {witness the outrage of neo-conservatives at Niall Furgeson’s book ‘Colossus’ which argued for neo-conservative actions but not for neo-conservative reasons}, and, even if these was just a cynical front, it doesn’t change the argument itself, which should be addressed {ie even if they only say this to make something palatable, is what they’re saying to make something palatable wrong? Would that ‘superficial’ level itself justify actions? So many people avoid talking about this and instead take the lazy cowardly way out by saying ‘that’s only a front, and not what they REALLY believe!’} but currently isn’t on any real significant level]). Many people care more for that which doesn’t yet exist than they do for those things that do exist and work, and as a result disparage or degrade that which exists and works. And that, I would say, is a problem that those who do believe in currently existing workable systems need to address; we need to make currently existing and workable systems things that people want. At least, that is, when they’re the right currently existing and workable systems.

  5. 5

    Seems to me that the Conservative takes ideology that has a proven foundation and looks for what is obsolete and discards it. The Liberal is the risk taker who will jump off a cliff if they believe they might fly, which if it worked would be deemed innovative and brilliant. If not, you just never hear of the experiment again except in the next election. With both you must consider the source, secure in the tried and true, but amazed by the brilliant discoveries of the Liberal when they do find a new answer. I prefer the position of the secure observer 🙂

Submit comment

Login required