23 July 2016

Conservatism and Temperament

Conservatism is sometimes described as a kind of temperament or behavioral disposition. Based in part on nature and part on nurture, temperament seems to have more to so with desires, preferences, and even emotions than any coherent system of political beliefs.

No doubt that individuals exhibit different temperaments. We all know people who dress plainly, budget frugally, exercise caution in their day to day activities, and never explore the exotic--whether its food, music, or places of interest. And we know others of an opposite bent. Although there may be social science research out there to the contrary, it is difficult to see how  temperaments serve as the foundation for a people's political and social views.

Although some conservatives posit the notion of a conservative temperament, the idea seems more useful to liberal critics. They contrast the conservatism's barely-able-to-be-articulated-temperament with liberalism's clearly delineated commitment to reason, science, universalism etc. No one ever talks about a "liberal temperament."

And if there is such a thing as a conservative temperament, conservatives and liberals disagree over what it means. The former sees the "conservative temperament" as affection for neighbors and kin rather than abstract "mankind," preference for familiar well-worn paths to uncharted waters, and understanding the value of what is accessible now against the longing for what is beyond the grasp. The latter sees the "conservative temperament" as nationalistic, xenophobic and even racist, fearful of change, and blind to the promises of progress.

Liberals appreciate such "conservative temperament" only as a subject for psychological analysis.

Social scientists have investigated the relationship between temperament, governing style, and prospects of success of individual presidents. The idiosyncratic behaviors of individuals or even personality types shed little light, however, on the existence of a "conservative temperament."

One could argue that a "conservative temperament" regarding politics manifests itself in a reserved approach to governing. This suggests a conception of governing as  limited activity with a cautious approach to change. There may be something to this, but the notion becomes inextricably complex by the play of specific issues and the imperatives of maintaining political power. Depending on the issues, liberal or progressive politicians can become just as cautious and resistant to change as any conservative.

Caution in government seems to be less about temperament than about that other rival definition of conservatism: a commitment to tradition and an aversion to change.


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