Have you ever noticed conservative actors often seem hypocritical or inconsistent? Much can be learned about the phenomenon by distinguishing between three layers of conservatism. How to understand one another and how not to be manipulated, for example.
One does not simply separate conservative political actors from their hypocrisy. Whether it concerns larger-than-life scandals like the ultimate hard-on-crime president who’s chief of security worked for the cartels, or your cousin who preaches abstinence but prefers to sleep with virgins. The spectrum ranges from European anti-gay activist being caught at sex parties with other men, to industry-above-all politicians suddenly caring about the environment (or the poor, or feminism) when they are in the opposition. Not to speak of many conservative candidates suddenly discovering their inner socialist or liberal when there are not enough spots for men on their own parties electoral list. All political families are inconsistent to some extent, yet the international consistency of inconsistency is bewildering for the conservative right.
The good news is that there is a method to this madness. This essay is not a knock on conservatism as a whole, on the contrary, it is an attempt to understand (and partly redeem) different strands of conservatism. To do so, we will distinguish between three layers of conservatism: cultural conservatism, social conservatism and power conservatism. Each layer has their merits and unique connection to other ideologies. In the world of party politics, they are layered like an onion, with power conservatism being in the core, and with social and cultural conservatism as the more outwardly visible sides. My critique is focused on conservative political actors, not people with conservative opinions, whom I seek to better understand. The essay will argue that the real problem and risk is in the influence of power conservatism over the others, and the way concerned citizens are lured into supporting elites.
We start with the most outwardly visible layer, that of cultural conservatism. By cultural conservatism I refer to the recognizable motive of protecting traditions and cultural arrangements. This could refer to religious rituals (ritual slaughter, holydays, monuments) or religious exceptions (to public service, polygamy, etc.), but also to secular traditions such as the hunt or bullfighting. The true cultural conservative is motivated mainly by conserving the distinctness of the tradition. For example an advocate of boy (or girl) -only schools is not disgusted by girls, but wants to preserve the unique character of such a formative environment (the lack of distraction, I guess?). This also mean that religious fanatics are not actually conservative, as they do not base their (often revolutionary) views on tradition but on scripture or fantasy. Cultural conservatism pairs well with nationalism in protecting common heritage, and often conflicts with those parts of the identity-left (such as animal activists and cancelling feminists) who want to alter traditions. One might disagree with cultural conservatives on many things, it is important to remember that this stance in itself still leaves much room to find common ground on other, deeper issues.
What I will call ‘social conservatism’ deals with some of those deeper issues. This very diverse set of beliefs is united in a perceived need to protect and preserve the social fabric of communities and society at large. Social conservatives are particularly concerned with society’s ability to reproduce itself, and value what works for the community over the frivolous aspirations of individuals. Society is seen as an organism, of which the functioning is constantly threatened by disturbances and changes that come from very diverse angles, creating diverse social conservative activists. These could take the form of disturbances by markets, such as the effects of globalization on rural communities, or the massive destruction robotization could cause to our way of life. But the threat can also be seen in demographic changes in composition of families (family values y asi), migration or the legalization of soft drugs. Depending on the issue, social conservatives can be either strong allies (on social protection) or a hindrance to the Left. The point here is that while one might disagree, one also has to respect (and find common ground) in the moral reasoning that lays behind much social conservatism.
The latter is very different for our last layer: power conservatism. I name this third variant like that, because what power conservatives try to conserve are unequal power relations. The power conservative, especially those organized in political parties, seek to protect, preserve and if possible expand elite rule and privilege itself. Historically, these are the aristocrats defending feudalism, the court philosophers defending the king, the pseudo-liberals seeking representation but not for the poor, the colonizer playing the victim and the capitalist who cuts social spending. These conservatives explicitly defend classes and hierarchy, and believe that either by tradition or merit dominance deserves the respect of the dominated. This is a self-fulfilling prophesy, as the more their policies are enacted the more this inequality grows, proving the superiority and inferiority of both camps. While power conservatism is typically organized in one or two conservative parties defending elite interests, they sometimes bribe the lower classes by encouraging sexism or racism, given the poor some privilege of their own to believe in. This sort of conservatism is very compatible (and usually accompanied by) both neoliberalism and fascism, and is hard to swallow or even respect from a socialist perspective.
In a perfect world, a conservative party would combine all three layers consistently, with the first two greatly limiting the potency of power conservatism. In the real world, the danger I want to point out in this essay is that power conservatives can use the mask of the other layers to protect elite privilege. Most people have an instinctive dislike for elites, inequality and privilege and would not willingly support a political movement that tries to consolidate these social evils. This is why power elites often try to trick traditional or morally concerned people to supporting their political parties by cynically defending certain causes. Cynical, because they prove time again to not actually care about either tradition or community. While there is power consolidation on the inside, there are gun rights and traditional family roles on the outside.
A clear example is the American Republic Party, whose standard ultra-elite agenda is so out of touch with the needs of the majority, that the raw policy plan is completely unelectable. For the past decades they have resorted to ‘culture war’ to bind those intimidated by cultural change to them, as well as the millions who solely vote republican because of their position on abortion. Being the ‘party of faith’ is a (literally) cheap trick, that besides being free doesn’t even require any consistency beyond declaring it, looking at the many sex scandals. You think you are voting pro family, but really you bring about unpopular massive tax cuts for the rich.
In Mexico we can see this in the behavior of the Partido Action National (PAN), a far from saintly party with levels of corruption comparable to their centrist partner PRI. It is noteworthy that they are explicitly backed by the capitalist elite (Copermex), who in 2021 directly organized their political platform. I must note that voters of the PAN are not being tricked, since they actually support power conservatism, and feel appalled by the idea of the working class having a political voice of their own. This, however, dooms the PAN to remain the minority faction which they always have been. While their efforts to protect the community are minimal (hence not being true all-around conservatives), they do gain additional support by best representing the conservative stance on ethical and cultural issues. Yet to be conservative one does not have to carry the will of capitalist elites, as for example a small party like PES showed in 2018.
The latter is important. The vast majority of people are conservative in at least one way. For example your servant is social conservative regarding technologies such as robots and artificial intelligence. And I think the institution of the family needs to be better supported, but that is for another essay. The point is that lumping different strands of conservatism together is harmful in both directions. From the outside looking in, it stereotypes people with conservative stances and hinders collaboration and exchange amongst citizens and parties. From the inside out, it gives people who are concerned about certain traditions the false idea that they somehow have to be on the side of capitalist elites.
Power conservatism makes conservative parties visibly incoherent by supporting certain social or cultural agendas but not others (being both pro-life but against more healthcare, for example), or allying themselves with fascist or neoliberal causes that harm the fabric of society. Yet the above dynamic also goes for progressives, where many ‘woke’ people are tempted by identity politics to support elites (or trash their enemies) on the center or right that don’t have their material interest in mind. The real lesson here is that – as always with unmasking ideology – we have to look at class interests first to understand what is really happening. If we do so on the left, many conservatives can be worked with, as long as we pull their beard whenever we get the chance to see if it doesn’t come off.