The Problem with the Conservative Movement is Movement - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Problem with the Conservative Movement is Movement

What does it mean to be a conservative? Well, Michael Oakeshott once wrote an essay titled “On Being Conservative” and not “On Conservatism.” Oakeshott’s title is deliberate because it reflects his insistence that being conservative is about having a particular disposition. He explains:

The general characteristics of this disposition are not difficult to discern, although they have often been mistaken. They centre upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be. Reflection may bring to light an appropriate gratefulness for what is available, and consequently the acknowledgment of a gift or an inheritance from the past; but there is no mere idolizing of what is past and gone. What is esteemed is the present; and it is esteemed not on account of its connections with a remote antiquity, nor because it is recognized to be more admirable than any possible alternative, but on account of its familiarity.

It is becoming increasingly popular to speak of a “conservative movement.” This is a questionable term because it denotes not some deep paradoxical truth but a shallow oxymoronic contradiction. Being conservative means having a disposition to conserve the familiar; movement means making a departure from it.

Some argue that “movement conservatism” is a necessary phrase to describe the non-partisan activities of conservatives. But in fact, adopting the language of change, innovation, movement, progress, and revolution contradicts the conservative disposition.

Principles are characterized by their rootedness. Movements are characterized by their rootlessness. Of revolutionary movements Eric Voegelin says, “A movement lives in that it moves. The radical revolutionary must make the revolution into a permanent condition; there can be no compromise or stabilization of the achievements at a definite point.” A movement thrives on unrest, which is directly opposite to the conservative disposition to appreciate familiar elements of the present.

To understand the foolishness of the idea of “a conservative movement,” we must ask ourselves: When does the conservative movement end? The only answer: It doesn’t because it can’t. As Voegelin notes, the unchangeable nature of man makes for constant obstacles to achieving any ever-receding utopian vision aspired to by believers in historical movements.

In a recent speech, Ron Paul said that to be a conservative in the Soviet Union would have meant wanting to conserve Marxism. Given that there are many elements in current political regimes that conservatives oppose, it is worth asking: What in the present do we seek to conserve? If something from the past ought to be rekindled, renewed, reformed, or returned to, then this is a different matter than conserving. If something ought to be changed, then this innovation may, but not necessarily, lead to some sort of improvement.

For Oakeshott, being conservative is the fitting disposition toward certain activities that are based on enjoyment rather than utility. Friendship, patriotism, and fishing, for example, are activities not practiced for utilitarian purposes but for the intrinsic enjoyment derived from participating in something familiar, for its own sake, and a good in itself.

The “conservative movement” blends an appreciation for some elements of the existent regime with the simultaneous goal of changing it. However, movement goals are not real goals because the fulfillment of the goal would be the destruction of the movement. If we emphasize the movement in the “conservative movement” we support a perpetual revolution that ignores the idea of strongly rooted principles in favor of new and progressive innovations.

Hannah Arendt sums up the challenges of these phrases well when she says, “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.” Perhaps the reverse is equally true: The conservative will become a revolutionary as soon as the familiar regime becomes undesirable.

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