If we think of conservatives as being opposed to reform, and wanting things to go on as they are, what happens when conservatives lose on an issue but refuse to accept it?

For example, many conservatives in the US are anti-abortion and would probably want the Roe v. Wade decision to be reversed. However, that decision has been in effect for half a century now. How could a conservative not favor "conserving" it? Most of them have lived their whole lives under it. Doesn't it make sense to call these people reactionaries rather than conservatives? Is it just careless language, or is there some grace period in which conservatives can make a comeback to block a change after all? It seems to me that as soon as a decision is officially made, those who accept it would be the conservatives while those who reject it would be reactionaries.

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    This is the same question as "why is the group called liberals in america not in favor of economic liberal policies" or "why is the democratic people's republic of korea so undemocratic". Names are just names and people calling themselves conservatives generally do so because they agree (on certain points) with other people calling themselves conservatives.
    – DonFusili
    Sep 14 '18 at 10:15
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    A reactionary is someone who is more conservative and less progressive than you are. Sep 14 '18 at 10:21
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    "If we think of conservatives as being opposed to reform", we are committing a strawman logical fallacy by making up a definition that isn't correct and arguing against it.
    – user4012
    Sep 14 '18 at 20:33
  • That sort of thing is why I don't really believe that "conservative" and "liberal" are real ideologies. Nobody's ideology is "keep everything the same" and nobody's ideology is "change everything".
    – user253751
    Sep 15 '18 at 12:33
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    @user4012 Apparently, that is one of the definitions: A person who favors maintenance of the status quo.
    – Rayce1950
    Sep 16 '18 at 10:00

I'll start by defining conservative. A very succinct definition comes from Michael Oakeshott from his influential essay "On being Conservative".

To be conservative, then, 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 to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

So a conservative likes the status quo. He doesn't think the status quo is perfect, but he doesn't want to risk it unnecessarily in search of something better. He wants to conserve it. This definition, like all definitions of conservative is not clear and tight. How do you define necessarily? How much sacrifice is worth it to conserve what currently is? Won't that sacrifice in itself destroy the sufficient, convenient society? Society is constantly changing despite anything you do, how do you make reforms to bring things back to the known good? Unfortunately, there are not easy answers. Edmund Burke, arguably the father of modern conservative thought, says that a conservative must rely on prudence to navigate these difficult questions.

Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all.

So a conservative must prudently respond to attempts to risk his society in pursuit of utopian dreams. In Burke's time this involved incredible sacrifice in life and property to oppose the radicalism of the French Revolutionary states.

A reactionary, on the other hand, is a much simpler ideal. A reactionary merely wants to return society to a previous state of existence. This pursuit can, however, be in itself a utopian idea. Imagine trying to retun a contemporary European state to an absolute monarchy. Such a goal would tear the current societal order apart and reshape it into a new one distant in time and structure the status quo. The means for doing this could also be radical and would probably have to be to have a chance of success. Reactionaries need not prefer present laughter to utopian bliss, in fact they often are rather radical.

Conservative reforms, however, are often reactionary. Reactionary reforms are a return to something that has already been tried and known, conservatives prefer that to changing society along abstract concepts like liberty or equality.

Let's apply this to your example of abortion in the United States. Since this is a touchy subject, note that I'm trying to describe an existing opinion, not endorse it as correct. A conservative reactionary would attempt to prudently remove Roe v. Wade and, over time with lawful legal reform and return to a previous state of the country where the humans in utero were protected by law. After thinking about this problem, the conservative decides that even after 50 years society would not be upended by this change if the end was pursued with care. A radical reactionary might try to stack the court, secede part of the country from the whole, or seize power in an attempt to preserve the lives of the unborn. The line between their methods is not obvious and it relies on prudent statesmanship to distinguish conservative reform from mere reactionary action.

Note that in this case, there is also a very conservative position to leave Roe v. Wade alone. A conservative, even one who thinks abortion is immoral, might be wary of overturning a strong legal precedent and brand even the conservative reactionary above as rather radical. This conservative might think the prudent course is to change the culture of the United States with prayer or private education. This would promote reform with less risk to the sufficiently good, familiar order of society than the risk created by a contentious legal action.

  • Good answer. On "..that has already been tried and known...", that tends to beg the question -- and brings up the question of whether what was tried succeeded or failed; the failures past being that which motivated many reforms.
    – agc
    Sep 15 '18 at 0:50

While Lazarus's answer is excellent as far as theoretical underpinning of conservatism, there's another answer:

"conservative" isn't just a philosophical definition.

It's also a political brand/team.

This is true in general, in political science (and based on recent findings from psychology); but even more impactful/important in a two-party system (resulting from FPTP elections) like USA.

As such, "conservatives" are very often not people who fully follow official Burkean/Bucklean philosophy, but people who - for lack of a better analogy - root for the "consevative team/brand".

As such, they often support the general bouquet of political/ideological positions associated with their team, even if they are not doing so out of deep reason and conviction (this is true of all sides of political spectrum, of course).

Support for pro-life position (and calling it "anti-abortion" is misleading, they aren't opposed to abortion per se, they oppose to what they consider taking of fetus's life) is part of the brand, regardless of whether that support fits with some meta conservative philosophical position.

This is true for a vast variety of individual positions in that bouquet. Support for things like prayer in school and "In God we Trust" on coins is basically support for newfangled ideas that were radical changes introduced recently, taken in isolation.

So is support for prohibiting kneeing at NFL games - such idea was literally invented a couple of years ago, and contradicts hundreds of years of established precedent of conservative support for free speech. Yet, the opposition to kneeing is part of the brand, and that's enough for many people to either blindly take it on, or happily and easily rationalize it in their head.

As a bonus point, there's no single "conservative" brand either. Conservatism in US encompasses at the very least, so-called "fiscal conservatives" and "social conservatives" - not to mention even weirder striations, such as isolationist vs. jingoist conservatives (double irony points because, at the birth of Teddy Roosevelt's Jingoism movement, it was a progressive one and all conservatives were isolationist - nobody tell that to national security hawk wing of Republican Party).

  • 2
    Interesting answer, but please do try to work in something about where reactionaries fit into the conservative family of brands.
    – agc
    Sep 15 '18 at 0:53
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    @agc they merely fit same brand because there's only 2 to pick from.
    – user4012
    Sep 15 '18 at 11:07

Well, let's look at the definition of reactionary:

of, pertaining to, marked by, or favoring reaction, especially extreme conservatism or rightism in politics; opposing political or social change.

The main characteristic of a reactionary is opposing change. So using your abortion example, the reactionaries of the abortion debate are the pro-choice side, wanting to keep the status quo.


disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.

The pro-life side wants to restore the traditional conditions, so they are conservatives.

Of course, different sources may use different definitions. But I can tell you that this was my first thought, that reactionaries resist change (in any direction) while conservatives want to restore positive aspects of the past.

  • Re "The pro-life side wants to restore the traditional conditions..." except that traditionally a lot of herbs, and later patent medicines, were used to cause miscarriage.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 17 '18 at 6:35

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