You are here

Procedural and substantive conservatism

Like other political views, conservatism can be substantive or procedural:

  • A substantive conservative is conservative because he believes there are truths we need that can’t be demonstrated to be true or even articulated fully. He is attached to his own tradition primarily because he sees those truths embodied in it. Substantive conservatives are usually religious conservatives, since truths that are necessary but can’t be fully stated or grasped are a specialty of religion.
  • A procedural conservative is conservative simply because he likes change to be slow and deliberate. If change is slow it is likely to be more intelligent and less disruptive, and relative stability makes it easier for people to organize their lives productively. On ultimate standards, however, a procedural conservative is a relativist. Procedural conservatism fits modern ways of thinking better—in fact, it is entirely consistent with liberalism—so respectable well-connected institutional conservatism tends in that direction. Neocons are normally procedural conservatives, for example.

As long as America could be understood as a fundamentally religious and traditionally moral society the distinction could be overlooked. The Clinton years made it difficult to understand America that way, and so put the two forms of conservatism decisively at odds with each other. As a result, SCs see PCs as turncoats, while PCs see SCs as provincial, out-of-date, unrealistic or fanatical. It is hard to see what could close the gap. The conservative movement of recent decades, based on opposition to the ’60s as disruptive and nihilistic, therefore appears over. Those who dislike nihilism are going one way, those who mostly just dislike disruption another.

I might add—a few years ago I wrote a short essay to the effect that tolerance was once a procedural virtue having to do with how you treat people while pursuing your substantive goals, but had since become a substantive virtue that prescribes what goals you may have. So one could summarize what has happened since the ’60s by saying liberalism, which was once procedural, has become substantive, while conservatism, which was once substantive, has become procedural.



The notion that SCs tend to be religious is complemented by this week’s poll on whether religion is central to conservatism. One would think this site would appeal more to SCs than to PCs, and the poll’s results (thus far) suggest we are an overwhelmingly religious group, or at least that we think religion is very important.

As to those of us who dislike nihilism *even more* than we dislike disruption, which way do we go? There is much more to life than electoral politics, but to the extent that we’re concerned with it, in the foreseeable future, does the two-party system hold any promise? Think of that Republican convention in Philly in 2000. Then think of PJB’s debacle in the same year.



I’d link the coalition between the neocons (old New Leftists that realized that the New Left was a 5th column), traditional conservatives, the religious right and libertarianism as forged to fight the Cold War.

It remains unclear where each of these factions will go but Clinton co-oped the neocon economic agenda while still upholding abortion, affirmative action, and other aspects of social liberalism. So much so that the Democrats are, as a party, at least nominally fiscally conservative. His foreign policy was interventionist.

The 43rd President seems to represent a moderate brand which unites some elements of the traditional bloc, the religious right, while giving tax cuts and using gov’t in an activist way—in education for example. But has a politically motivated immigration policy. Some neocons & many libertarians are frustrated enough to bolt to the Democrats.


I don’t think that conservatives are so much against political rationalism as they are against mandated abstract equality.

If your kids can’t speak English, it’s not the taxpayer’s problem.
If demographics of prison inmates don’t match the general population, it doesn’t matter.
Employers should note be punished for hiring baed on ability and experience.
Immigration should not be open to everyone, only those most likely to assimilate.

In other words, your run-of-the-mill conservative takes WASP values as the norm and does not want to hear excuses when they are violated. Your neocons want to reinvent WASP values so that anyone eligible for MasterCard or Visa counts as a regular American.

It’s informative and useful to discuss particular concerns and views and the coalitions and oppositions among them, but I think general ways of understanding what the world is like are often decisive especially in the long run.

Why for example does mandated equality seem revolting to some and morally necessary to others? Personal interest and history no doubt have an effect but I think basic conceptions of man and the world play a role that overall is more important.

As to WW’s question, I have no new insights. I tend to vote for rightwing minor party candidates if they exist and if not for the Republican.

As the resident kook I view voting in a modern democracy at all as participation in a pagan ritual — the public worhip of the Equality God — much like lighting incense to the pagan gods in pre-Constantine Rome. It might be OK if martyrdom were at stake, and perhaps someday voting will become compulsory, but for my own conscience I can’t do it. I consider myself a good citizen attempting to emulate Paul of Tarsus the citizen of pagan Rome, but I certainly won’t light the incense voluntarily.