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.

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3 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?

  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.

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