Where the traditionalist takes the objects of his desire for granted, the conservative cannot. He seeks to enjoy them precisely as they are being—or have been—taken away. If he hopes to enjoy them again, he must fight for them in the public realm. He must speak of them in a language that is politically serviceable and intelligible. But as soon as those objects enter the medium of political speech, they cease to be items of lived experience and become incidents of an ideology. They get wrapped in a narrative of loss—in which the revolutionary or reformist plays a necessary part—and presented in a program of recovery. What was tacit becomes articulate, what was practice becomes polemic.
Corey Robin, “The Conservative Reaction,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 8, 2012
If we’re going to understand conservatism in terms of its role in maintaining social/political/economic power structures, and I think we should, it’s probably worth considering that conservatives generally don’t tend to agree that they’re the ones with the power. And while this seems absurd to those of us who don’t share their ideology — please tell us more about how the white, the wealthy, or the male are the ones really disempowered — the sincerity with which they believe should give us pause. I mean, I do believe the evidence is against them, but they will marshal statistics and theories of their own to demonstrate the correctness of their understanding. Trying to define an ideology in terms of its relationship to power structures doesn’t work if none of us can agree on what those power structures look like, and if the conservative might sincerely claim to be working to defend against the encroachments of the power structures they identify as social evils — labor unions, the cultural and academic elite, the media, the bureaucratically empowered, the urban — aren’t we just lobbing accusations of being in bed with the big shots at one another?
But perhaps the left and the right understand the nature of power differently, and are not just disagreeing about who is in possession of it. That is, perhaps the left understands power in absolute terms: who is in possession of it and who lacks it. The right, then, understands power in relative terms: who should properly have power that social change is eroding; who is gaining power she does not deserve or is not entitled to? Or, Mike Konczal:
Which is to say, if you are a person who tends to use a capital N “Natural” to describe your political ideology (“I believe in a Natural Order with a Natural Hierarchy, which I get from my engagement with Natural Rights as observed through Natural Law….”), as many conservatives do, then you are going to be likely to think that the dollar is a Natural Thing too. Like women wearing pants and voting, any attempt to disrupt the Natural Order is going to be dangerous. That the value of a dollar is a social creation, and that if there is excessive demand for money the government should provide extra supply for money, isn’t going to be a convincing argument.
Conservative thought thus saves itself, so to speak, by raising to the level of reflection and conscious manipulation those forms of experience that can no longer be had in an authentic way.
Karl Mannheim, Conservative Thought (1953)
Since the modern era began, men and women in subordinate positions have marched against their superiors. They have gathered under different banners—the labor movement, feminism, abolition, socialism—and shouted different slogans: freedom, equality, democracy, revolution. In virtually every instance, their superiors have resisted them. That march and démarche of democracy is one of the main stories of modern politics. And it is the second half of that story, the démarche, that drives the development of ideas we call conservative. For that is what conservatism is: a meditation on, and theoretical rendition of, the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.
No simple defense of one’s own place and privileges, the conservative position stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse. This vision of the connection between excellence and rule is what brings together in postwar America that unlikely alliance of the capitalist, with his vision of the employer’s untrammeled power in the workplace; the traditionalist, with his vision of the father’s rule at home; and the statist, with his vision of a heroic leader pressing his hand upon the face of the earth. Each in his way subscribes to this statement, from the 19th century, of the conservative creed: “To obey a real superior … is one of the most important of all virtues—a virtue absolutely essential to the attainment of anything great and lasting.”