Why I am a Conservative

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By Justin Naylor

When I first joined Better Angels and had to claim my political leaning, it wasn’t easy. I’ve been registered as an independent my whole life, and have voted for Republicans, Democrats, and even third-party candidates. With our Founding Fathers, I’m skeptical of factions, and political parties themselves—especially in our current primary system—seem to be one of the main forces driving our polarization.

Sometimes I resent even the distinction of red/blue. After all, don’t our political views fall not into neat and tidy boxes, but onto a messy and sometimes jumbled continuum? Sometimes I wonder whether instead of red and blue, we need to open up the whole box of crayons to describe our varied political leanings in a more nuanced way. Magenta, anyone? But of course, such a scheme would be impractical. As imperfect as the red/blue framework is, it works as a roughly accurate way to frame the conversation and get things started.

Nonetheless, as I pondered how to identify my own political leaning, I took a step back, and the answer became pretty clear: Putting aside political parties and color-coding, I realized I identified more strongly as a conservative than as a progressive.

Political leanings seem to me to be largely a function of personality. Just as we all have personality preferences – introvert vs. extrovert, or thinking vs. feeling – so too do we have political preferences. In an ideal world, perhaps we’d be pretty balanced in these preferences, and we’d make decisions using both the head and heart, both intuition and logic. But in reality, we all inevitably tend to emphasize one aspect of human experience over others, sometimes a little bit, others a lot. This is fine, as long as we understand that there are other ways of experiencing the world.

As in personality, so in politics. What we call “conservatism” and “progressivism” are really two ways of approaching the world, neither of which is “correct” in an objective sense, but both of which are valid and necessary. At the heart of the difference is a tension between law and freedom, or between letter and spirit. Conservatives tend to favor law, structure, duty, order, and predictability. Progressives by contrast tend to favor freedom, flexibility, compassion, creativity, and flexibility. Conservatives tend to err on the side of tradition, even if that tradition is oppressive. Progressives tend to discount tradition, even if that tradition is the glue holding society together. I see truth in both of these fundamental perspectives, but I have to claim a preference for conservatism.

I claim the label “conservative” because I’m inclined to be skeptical and cautious. I often crave change and progress, but my inclination is always to go slow. To paraphrase GK Chesterton, it’s important never to take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up. This seems like great wisdom. In an effort to make things better, there’s a danger of making things worse. A witty college professor of mine once responded to a student who earnestly expressed a desire to change the world by asking her, “But are you going to change it for the worse or for the better?” The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I claim the label “conservative” because I’m inclined to trust tradition. To quote Chesterton, “It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time.” In other words, we need to consider not only the opinions of those living in our own time and place but the opinions of those many who have come before. A former student of mine recently put it quite eloquently:

“Dismantling traditions and cultural mores is such a dangerous game and should be undertaken with the most solemn sense of responsibility, not the cavalier attitude of a rebel. It’s our duty to challenge traditions, but it’s also our duty to defend them.”

Earlier generations shouldn’t get a veto, perhaps, but they should get a vote. By contrast, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently asserted that “we are going to transition this country into the future and we are not going to be dragged behind by our past.” Although we shouldn’t be slaves to the past, we should recognize the collective wisdom of human thought expressed through time in a way that AOC discounts more than I would.

I claim the label “conservative” because I believe in decentralization. Human beings naturally crave autonomy, the ability to shape our own lives to the greatest extent possible. Of course, we also live in communities, and there is much essential to life that we could never do alone. Still, the more control we have over our own lives and our government, the more we feel empowered, and the more we can flourish. As a result, when important decisions that affect our lives come from so great a distance that we can’t feel ownership or even connection to them, we tend to feel disempowered and alienated.

The more locally a problem can be handled, the greater the stake we feel in the decision, and the more likely the problem will be solved in a way that makes sense for our local community. One of the beautiful things about our system of government is the division between our local city and state governments and the federal government. I think much of the current alienation we feel about politics comes from the fact that meaningful political decisions have largely moved from our local governments to the more distant and impersonal federal government.

Finally, I claim the label “conservative” because I’m inclined to see a person as an individual rather than as a representative of a group. I acknowledge that the ways we are divided by identity – gender, race, religion, etc. – are important, but I find them less important than the things that make someone an individual. I believe we can be more or less color-blind, gender-blind, etc., and that however much individuals might fail to live up to this ideal, it is ultimately a more respectful and honest way to interact with another human being than to make sweeping generalizations based on immutable factors like race and gender. To many progressives, the claim that I can be “color-blind” is itself a kind of racism, but I don’t see it that way. When I interact with another human being different from myself, I want to connect primarily with what unites us rather than what divides us.

Some might not identify with my personal view of conservatism. To them “conservatism” might mean something quite different. There really is a kaleidoscope of political understandings that we would do well to acknowledge more clearly. But if I must choose a side, if I must come down on the side of either tradition, decentralization, and individuality, or the side of innovation, centralization, and identity politics, I will choose the former. I am a conservative.

More to explore

Johnologue 1: Uniting America

Better Angels leader and media director John Wood, Jr. calls upon us to “Unite America,” addressing the challenges and arguments against depolarization in this special episode of The Better Angels Podcast.

The Damage of Bashing the Other Side

This week offers a wonderful textbook case for one of the favorite technique of polarization: Instead of arguing the pros or cons of a controversial issue with the goal of working toward resolution, cynically use—indeed, supercharge— that issue to bash the other side.

Patriotism and Diversity, Shallow and Deep

What we need is a deeper patriotism and a deeper diversity, each of which values citizens as individuals with their own combinations of values and beliefs, instead of pigeonholing them or criticizing them for failure to live up to our preconceptions.

6 thoughts on “Why I am a Conservative”

  1. Well said, thanks. I think our values and our politics have short-circuited, leaving too little space for people to bring different beliefs while still bringing integrity.

    I like to think there are liberal and conservative values, more in an accumulative way (think “value rich”), rather than as a spectrum. A healthy community would have a lot of conservative and liberal values.

    So, for example, “Hollywood” often strikes me as a culture that really *lacks* conservative values —> commodifying sexuality in a way anathema to family-values —> rather than a place that *has* liberal values.

    I wonder if pushing this frame would help people get along better?

    Political movements are often built mostly by people who share a set of values when they are being their best. And sometimes these are mere shadows: values are hard, so sometimes people who would have type-x values if they were being true will team up like a gang, but not bother to really exhibit those values. There are times and places in history where you have to stand against your natural inclination: liberals should have opposed Stalin, full-stop; conservatives should have opposed Hitler.

    There can come a point where we have switched from “having values” to team-identity… a completely different thing from actually holding those values and doing work in the world to exhibit them. Maybe part of the way out of the current mess in the US is together finding the better parts of all our value systems — and welcoming people who emphasize different good values — while loosening our team-identity-around-values?

    1. Hi Stephen!
      Thank you for your comments. I really like your term “Team Identity”. I also like the idea of focusing on shared values – and recognizing that the value of preserving positive traditional values and embracing positive change are both needed and harmonious. I think possibly that many conservatives and liberals recognize this. I think that what we’re seeing now in politics is something else. Reactionary politics and the politics of radical change is what we’re seeing here. Oh, and about Hollywood and family values, I wonder if the real issue with Hollywood is actually simple economics. Sex sells. It isn’t truly a conservative or liberal value here at work but capitalism. If we stopped watching open sexual expression in movies, they’d stop making them. There would be no pornography if no one bought it. In my opinion, it will sell until we regulate it – but then you get into arguments about freedom of speech. It’s just something our society is going to have to grapple with until we decide what’s truly in our best interest. We need to define better what freedom really is.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful essay. Your comment about wishing to be”colorblind “ and interact with others as individuals is very estimable, and is of course the ultimate goal. However, there has been much psychological research done using brain scan techniques that has found strong evidence of unconscious reactions in white individuals’ brains when they view a black person’s picture that are not present when they view a white person’s picture. This is not, of course, innate, but is a relic of the US tradition of inequality of treatment of black people and the social learning that went along with that. The good news is since it is learned, it can be unlearned. However, it is impossible to consciously focus on unlearning something that you don’t think is a problem.

    Furthermore, while I respect that many people think highly of tradition, and agree that there are some traditions worth upholding, we need to take a closer look to see which individuals and groups the tradition was benefiting. It is often those folks who are more partial to upholding the tradition.

    1. Justin Naylor

      Trina, thanks for your thoughtful and constructive comments on my piece! Your concern about unconscious bias is certainly reasonable and I do agree that it is a problem. I suppose my point is that if I’m thoughtful about the possibility of unconscious bias, I’m hopeful that it can be overcome, as you suggest is possible too. My concern would be someone who argues that we really can’t root out prejudice or bias in ourselves no matter how hard we try. That is a bleak way of looking at things that I do not want to adopt. I think the more we focus on race the more we get mired in the muck. I think our goal should be to get out of the muck and onto firm ground. On that firm ground, we’re all just people, and that’s how I prefer to interact with others, regardless of race. If you haven’t read John Wood’s recent piece on race, I highly recommend that as well.
      Regarding tradition, I agree that we need to look at what’s propping up certain traditions. I’m not opposed to challenging tradition, as long as we do it with caution and real consideration.

      1. Hello Justin and Trina! Just jumping in on the conversation. I agree, Trina, that there is often unconscious bias in wanting to maintain the status quo. If it is beneficial to you, why change it? But I also think that people support ideologies that do not benefit them. For instance, many handicapped folks will vote conservative even though the benefits they depend upon could be threatened. The same can be said about minorities and women voting conservatively. They do so for reasons that most likely come out of childhood experiences and what they identified with. I wrote about that in my original reply to Justin’s article.

        I’m so very impressed with your thoughts, Justin. And I truly agree that change should be brought about with great consideration and forethought. It’s an ideal worth promoting. Revolution often results in a new regime oppressing people in a different way. But, revolutions can also bring positive change – and when revolutions are voted upon and supported by a majority of people, it doesn’t seem like a revolution, but simply, that we have already changed and our institutions need to follow. We do not all change at the same rate or feel a need for change in the same way. There’s a saying that liberals don’t like each other – and in my experience, that’s somewhat true. We all want different kinds of changes and we want to implement them differently. I think conservatives may say something similar about what values they’d like to keep or change. Who knows how many subgroups truly exist within our two parties.
        I do think that both sides have lost the kind of civility and respect that I would like to see returned to our national discussion – and a willingness to look past the very radical approaches to where I believe most of us are – in the middle right or left.

  3. JYOTI JOSAHENTARA

    Wow! What a thoughtful and beautiful expression of why you are a conservative! Thank you. I very much appreciate your sharing. Like you, I think independently and share values beholden on both sides. Yet, unlike you, if I have to choose a side, I’m a progressive.

    I’ve thought a lot about this. I believe that it all depends upon our childhood experiences and the identity we took within it. Most families I know produce both conservatives and liberals within the “tribe”. My father was a Republican (and a farmer, like you) and my mother was a Democrat. My three siblings are all conservatives, leaving Mom and I the liberals. I was always seen as the “different” one (even by Mom). I wanted to break out of the mold and prove my worth. Girls (and women) were suppose to be inferior to boys (and men). Girls were stupid, clumsy and whores. Boys were superior, athletic and smart. If I excelled at something, it was only because I worked so hard at it – not that I had talent or intelligence. I was supposed to get married, have children and support my husband, not go to college and have a life. I experienced my childhood as extremely oppressive. When I went to college, expressed my goals (which didn’t include getting married and having a family), my entire family stopped speaking to me. How dare I?

    My upbringing may seem a bit extreme to some, but these labels, beliefs or judgements human beings enjoy placing upon one another are extremely harmful to those receiving those labels – especially in childhood, because it becomes part of one’s identity. We all absorb our family’s belief systems in whole. We “project out” or “repress in” the parts we choose not to identify with. I was extremely controlled as a child and I was punished for expressing myself or not following the rules – which required me to be subservient. I just so happened to be a naturally smart little girl – straight A smart – but it’s taken most of my life to overcome that early conditioning. I was 35 before I could actually even FEEL my intelligence.

    From my perspective, progressives challenge harmful labels that keep individuals from truly being the human beings they are or could be. For me, this is most likely the biggest reason I’m a progressive. I’m a white woman born in the early 50’s. I totally identify with black people – any oppressed or repressed people. It feels terrible and it causes much pain. The thing is, we individuals form a collective. Women are oppressed. Minorities are oppressed. It feels terrible and we don’t want more people growing up oppressed. It doesn’t make for a good society. If you are oppressed, you are naturally unhappy about it.

    I think this qualifies as “family values”. All children should have the same supportive foundation and opportunities to excel in life. I believe this is all progressives are asking for. On the other hand, is sex in the movies and pornography truly something that has been created by liberals? I hate pornography. It diminishes us and true values of love and respect. From my experience, men have created pornography, both liberals and conservatives. I honestly don’t think that valuing the individual is any one ideology’s rightful claim. The truth is, we’re all individuals. We all belong to groups within society and the society at large. Farmers tend toward conservatism. Teachers tend toward liberalism. These are social sub-groups.

    It’s interesting to note the difference within these two professions. My father loved farming and this is the part of him I loved the most. Deep inside of me is a happy farmer. What I know about this profession is that the weather can make or break you. The weather is something you can’t count on to be positive. It changes when you don’t want it to. It is something you can’t control and most farmers do everything in their power to beat the odds – to minimize its negative effects upon their crop – to win over nature while cultivating it. Farmers want stability and control. Farmers are people of the earth and the earth is solid – something we manage.

    Teachers, on the other hand, have the goal of bringing out the best in a child or person – which requires minimizing any negative conditioning and opening up the student’s mind. They are teaching new ideas and introducing wider perspectives than the student may have previous known. They themselves must embrace new ideas – new methods – new perspectives themselves in order to present educational materials. It isn’t about managing the unpredictable, flexible and variable as farmers must. It’s about embracing it – taking up the challenge of growth, change and becoming.

    In the 60s, my stay at home Mom went to college to become a teacher. My father saw it as the beginning of the end of their marriage. And he was right. They divorced soon after her graduation. In my mind, they were actually more alike than not in their world views. They shared many of the same beliefs about the American Dream. But my Mom had been oppressed and she wanted to do something besides being a Mom. But she didn’t really give me that much support – as I was female competition. We human beings are so complicated – and still operating on a very unconscious level. My Mom gave me her example rather than support, because women of her generation often felt threatened by other women. She often said she was jealous of me.

    Anyway, in conclusion, I think most of us have both conservative and liberal values. I know I do. I think individuality, family values, opportunity and a stable government are important to all of us. It just depends upon what we identified with in our childhood experiences that determines what “side”, if you have to take one, you have to claim.

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