Conservatism: the Definition and Theory explained

Conservatism - Toolshero

Conservatism: This article explains conservatism in a practical way. Next to what it is, the definition, this article also highlights the conservatives versus the liberals, the characteristics of conservatism and the different forms. After reading you will understand the basics of this social and political philosophy. Enjoy reading!

What is conservatism? The definition and origin

Conservatism can be defined as a cultural, political and social philosophy. Its purpose is to promote and preserve traditional social institutions, customs and practices.

The principles of this political philosophy may differ from the status quo in the society in which it occurs. That is, it is not always clearly visible.

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In Western culture, conservatives try to preserve culture as best they can, such as social institutions, parliamentary government, property rights, and organized religion. Conservatives prefer practices and institutions that have shown stability in the past and are evolving gradually.

Supporters of conservative political parties resist modern influences and strive for traditional values. These values are not the same for all conservatives. Conservatives can hold widely differing views on society, economy and government.

Origin of the word conservatism

The first use of this term in a political context was in 1818 by François-René de Chateaubriand, who was trying to reverse the influences of the French Revolution. Historically, the term has been associated with right-wing politics. There is no policy that can be labeled as conservative, because the meaning of conservatism depends on what is seen as traditional in a particular place and time.

Conservative thinking in itself has changed as it adapts to traditions and national cultures. Some conservatives argue for more government intervention when it comes to the economy, while others favor a free market economy.

Conservatives vs. Liberals

In general, two ways of thinking are distinguished in national politics: conservative or liberal. Left or right. These two are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Conservatives and liberals have different beliefs and views on how society should be run. The main difference between the two is about how much of the past should be preserved for the future.

Conservatives are associated with right-wing movements and are characterized by a belief that progress must be managed in order to preserve culture and preserve traditional values.

Liberals are left-wing and more open to progress of all kinds. They rely heavily on the government to solve problems. Liberals are originally part of minority groups, but nowadays the liberals can also be the dominant group.

Liberals want existing structures and hierarchies to change and believe that holding on to tradition and traditional values only holds back a society. In the United States, the Democrats are the Liberal Party and the Republicans are the Conservative Party.

Introduction to Political Science with a Concentration on Political Ideologies  

Characteristics of conservatism

Frequently recurring themes when it comes to describing this political philosophy are tradition, realism and the use of hierarchy. Well-known political scientists see conservatism as situational. Situational conservatism is seen as the defense of established institutions of a time.

The chairman of the British Conservative Party in 1959, Quintin Hogg, said: “Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society, and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself.”


To be conservative is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient for the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. Those are the words of Michael Oakeshott.


Some political theorists define conservatism as a general defense of social and economic inequality. Right-wing politics believes that certain social order and hierarchies are inevitable, even natural, normal and desirable.

From this perspective, conservatism is not so much an attempt to preserve old institutions as it is a theoretical representation of the felt experience of power.


Conservatism, according to Noël O’Sullivan, is a philosophy of human imperfection, a negative and pessimistic view of human nature. The intellectual founder of the realistic right, on the other hand, argues that man’s state of nature is evil, mean and brutal, which requires a central authority.

Different forms

As mentioned before, this political philosophy is a broad concept. It therefore has different definitions and forms.

The most common forms are briefly explained below.

Liberal conservatism

This encompasses classical views of minimal government intervention in the economy. Individuals should be free to participate in the market and generate wealth without government interference. Yet a strong state is necessary for law and order, because people cannot be completely trusted. Liberal conservatism should not be confused with conservative liberalism.

Libertarian conservatism

This encompasses several political ideologies that are most prevalent in the United States. Forms of it include constitutionalism, paleolibertarianism, and Christian libertarianism. It advocates minimal government interventions in the economy and social life, but with a more socially conservative philosophy that emphasizes on authority, morality and duty.

Fiscal conservatism

This is a political and economic philosophy with an ideological basis in capitalism and free market economics. Fiscal conservatives are calling for tax cuts, reduced government spending and minimal government debt.

National conservatism

This is a political term mainly used in Europe to denote a variant of conservatism that focuses on promoting national interests and upholding cultural and ethnic identity.

National conservatism focuses on traditional family norms and social stability, as well as limiting immigration. National conservatism is also linked to traditionalist conservatism.

Cultural conservatism

This political philosophy supports the preservation of a nation’s heritage, or the shared culture that does not stop at a national border.

The shared culture can be diverse like western culture or eastern culture. Cultural conservatives hold to traditional ways of thinking and believe in traditional values and politics. They have an urgent sense of nationalism.

Social conservatism

Social conservatism differs from cultural conservatism, although there are some overlaps. Social conservatives argue that society is built on a fragile network of relationships that must be respected through duty, values, and established institutions. Social change is seen as suspicious.

Religious conservatism

This refers to conservative Christianity, Christian right, Islamism, and religious fundamentalism.

In most democracies, political conservatives try to uphold traditional family structure and social norms. Religious conservatives are usually against abortion, homosexuality, and sexual activity outside of marriage. This group of conservatives tend to expand the role of religion in society and public life and increase its influence.

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Now It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about conservatism? Do you consider yourself conservative? Or are you more progressive? What do you think about the existence of a right and left wing? Do you think the two political ideologies will grow closer in the future? Or do you possibly foresee an even greater dichotomy?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Apple, M. W. (2004). Creating difference: Neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism and the politics of educational reform. Educational policy, 18(1), 12-44.
  2. Dahl, G. (1999). Radical conservatism and the future of politics. Radical Conservatism and the Future of Politics, 1-176. Pierson, P., & Skocpol, T. (Eds.). (2007). The transformation of American politics: Activist government and the rise of conservatism (Vol. 122). Princeton University Press.
  3. Dorey, P. (2010). British Conservatism: the politics and philosophy of inequality (No. 33). IB Tauris.
  4. Paskhaver, A. (2021). Introduction to Political Science – with a Concentration on Political Ideologies. Retrieved 02/12/2024 from Udemy.
  5. LaFond, R., & Watts, R. L. (2008). The information role of conservatism. The accounting review, 83(2), 447-478.

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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