Defining conservatism

Noah Nelson, News Contributor

Conservative is a word often heard in modern rhetoric. It is commonly mentioned on various news outlets, social media and in conversation. However, defining conservatism and finding its meaning turns out to be a topic that is not agreed upon, according to Dr. Christopher Nichols, an associate professor within the School of History, Philosophy and Religion at Oregon State University.

Conservative arguments draw back to an original argument of doing what is natural for a state, and enforcing policies that the conservative believes is a foundational idea of the state. Conservative arguments heavily vary, depending on where they come from. In the US context, conservatives prior to the civil war argued that slavery was a natural development in a white supremacist state, while in Europe there were conservatives arguing for education and welfare too. Each group believed that their own beliefs were natural and necessary for their states development, causing prominent conservatives to have trouble figuring out what conservatism actually is.

“The most prominent conservative thinkers on the planet have struggled with trying to define conservatism,” Nichols said. 

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The roots of the word itself actually come from biomedical discourse during the late enlightenment period in Europe, according to Dr. Danielle Holtz, a Post Doc within the Center for Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania and an Andrew Carnegie Research Fellow at  Oregon State University.

Holtz explains that during this time, there were comparisons made between the natural development of an organism and the development of a state in what is called “natural nationalism” where a nation has to develop naturally according to its own needs just like how an organism must develop according to its own plan based on its needs. 

“The conservative principle is the thing that allows the organism to develop according to that plan,” Holtz said.

This principle became popular with certain politicians, like Andrew Jackson and John Calhoun during the early 19th century, centered around what is called the nullification debate. The nullification debate was an argument focused around the question of whether or not a state could veto a federal law. They asserted that nullification is a conservative principle because they heavily opposed certain tariffs put into place by the federal government that hurt the rural, Southern plantation economy, according to Holtz.

Along with this, the pressure from abolitionists grew larger, and with the Southern economy in even more danger, Southern politicians used the idea of traditional European conservatism to claim that the states had the right to veto certain federal laws that they saw as an attack on their natural interests. This included these tariffs and the movement to abolish slavery, both of which would damage the Southern economy. According to Holtz, this is the origin of the more modern American conservative rhetoric of states’ rights and small government.

Although the US saw a heavy association between conservatism and slavery during this time, conservatism is historically divided.