Conservatism: History, Ideology, and Influence

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  • 0:01 Conservatism Defined
  • 0:40 An Example
  • 2:09 History
  • 3:32 A Note on American…
  • 4:44 Influence
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley
Conservatism is one of the major political philosophies of the Western world. In this lesson, you'll learn about its major tenets, its history and its influence. You'll also have a chance to take a short quiz after the lesson.

Conservatism Defined

Conservatism is a political ideology that values the creation and maintenance of stable societies based upon a hierarchy of power lodged in a traditional class of leaders and deep respect for traditional values and institutions. Conservatism isn't suspicious of the power of the state nor does it seek to limit its power. Traditional institutions, such as government and religion, along with traditional values are to be respected. Consequently, conservatism is suspicious of change, and if change is required, it seeks an evolutionary approach rather than a revolutionary approach. Let's look at an example.

An Example

Imagine a country called Conservia, which is a state that closely adheres to conservative ideology. Conservia is a small country run by a hereditary aristocracy consisting of a small group of families that founded the country several hundred years ago. Only members of the aristocracy may hold political office. Each family holds a seat in the country's Senate, which is the legislature. The Senator's vote in one of their members as Doge. Conservia has only one recognized religion and that has recognized moral authority over citizens. While citizens are eligible to become clergy, only members of the aristocracy hold high clerical offices.

The citizens of Conservia accept their position in the community and understand their responsibilities, including a patriotic duty to the State and the obligation to be productive members of the community. They also recognize the importance of their traditional values and institutions, including the Senate, the Church and the family. Citizens understand that they are part of a larger community, which may mean placing the needs of their community above their individual goals or aspirations.

Everybody knows their place in Conservia and does not seek to change it. When change is needed, the leadership takes its time and carefully considers what actions need to be taken. If change occurs, it does so incrementally and within the values and institutions of Conservia so as not to shock the tranquility of society.


The modern conservative school of thought can be traced to the 18th century British philosopher Edmund Burke and his 1790 work Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke found that humans were not just rational but also full of passion and prejudice and inherently unequal. However, according to Burke, despite the reality of unequal status and wealth, humans are interdependent. Society is 'organic,' or real, rather than just an abstraction created by the musings of philosophers. Burke believed that the state holds the wisdom accumulated by society over time and should be given a great deal of respect.

An important aspect of Burke's conservatism is the suspicion of change. According to Burke, change should only occur if absolutely necessary in order to avoid a greater evil. For example, a country that has remained neutral in times of war would only change that policy of neutrality to avoid the greater evil of being invaded and conquered. Any proposed change should be reviewed carefully in light of the facts on the ground rather than through a prism of abstract theory. In other words, change should be based on pragmatism. Likewise, the process of change should not be guided by abstract theory but be based on tradition and previous practice. According to Burke, radical change is always dangerous and can seriously disrupt society.

A Note on American Conservatism

American conservatives reviewing this lesson may be utterly confused at this point. That's understandable because traditional American style conservatism is better understood as classical liberalism, which values individual liberty and securing it through limited government. American conservatives seek to conserve the principles and values of the classical liberal tradition, which served as the ideological foundation for the United States.

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