30 July 2016

Conservatism and Tradition

The most common description of conservatism  emphasizes adherence to tradition and resistance to change.

At one level, this seems an extension of the idea of conservative temperament that feels more at ease with the familiar. When we think of people with conservative temperaments, the people who come to mind live cautiously while avoiding risks. The appear financially frugal and prefer "risk free" investments.  Perhaps they establish routines in their day to day lives and experience uneasiness when obstacles frustrate those routines. And they do not like changes that threaten those routines. 

This temperament often receives affirmation by means of  connections to some larger community through institutional traditions. All institutions have traditions--families, neighborhoods, schools, churches, unions, businesses, political parties, and even nations. Depending on the formality of the institution, traditions recall the founding of the institution, reaffirm its mission and the ways, celebrate successes and those people behind them, and even begin new traditions--whether it is a church Founders Day or American Independence Day. Conservatism at this level-- devotion to tradition and opposition to change--is more of an emotion than idea and does not necessarily cohere into a political ideology or spur political action.

More commonly, however, conservatism is characterized as an adherence to traditional institutions and practices in the face of broader cultural and political changes. This approach improves upon the simple notion of temperament, but not by much.

Too often academics explore conservatism anthropologically as it manifests itself in societies that may not have much in common at all. Not much of anything can be learned when European monarchs, Islamic ayatollahs, Soviet politburo members, and heads of tribal chiefdoms are all described as conservative. The elucidation  of  conservatism as a devotion to tradition and resistance to change must be historically contingent.

As shall be seen, the only meaningful description of American conservatism notes its devotion to the constitutional arrangements of  1789--that includes among other ideas sovereignty of the American people, federalism, and the separation of powers,

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