Liberal and Conservative: Politics as Mood or Ideology?

“Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.”—Winston Churchill

Sometime in the 18th century the terms “liberal” and “conservative” hardened into quasi-ideological nomenclature. Though the political use of such phrases may now be indispensable—as a necessary shorthand—it is worth reconsidering. In light of Churchill’s quip, are we dealing with these terms as doctrinaire beliefs or passing moods? In fact it would seem that they can be analyzed in both ways.

T. S. Eliot once described liberalism as a “negative” quality. He did not mean that as a condemnation. He was simply describing its mood; as one of criticism. Where it fails is when it is not balanced by positive social content. In other words, liberalism was sure of its starting point, but not its goal. If it does nothing more than strip down, negate and censure, it will blindly tear apart useful traditional structures (along with unnecessary ones). The irony is that while undermining conservatism it assures its own extinction and the emergence of false “positive” content, usually in the guise of totalitarianism.

[Liberalism] is a necessary negative element; when I have said the worst of it, that worst comes only to this, that a negative element made to serve the purpose of a positive is objectionable. In the sense in which Liberalism is contrasted with Conservatism, both can be equally repellant: if the former can mean chaos, the latter can mean petrifaction. We are always faced both with the question “what must be destroyed?” and with the question “what must be preserved?” and neither Liberalism nor Conservatism, which are not philosophies and may be merely habits, is enough to guide us (T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, 1940).

The answer would seem to be a party “political philosophy.” Yet Eliot warns that such notions belong to revolutionary parties, not to parties in the Western tradition. Clearly he means that politics are an improper setting for full philosophical debate.

Politics should not confuse the moral with the “ideal,” which is often a mask for the personal and subjective. Contrast modern idealism with the Politics of Aristotle. According to Eliot the permanent value of the founder of political science is that he is anything but doctrinaire. Aristotle’s “political theory was founded on a perception of the unconscious aims implicit in Athenian democracy at its best. His limitations are the condition of his universality; and instead of ingenious theories spun out of his head, he wrote studies full of universal wisdom.”

It may be that the solution to the tension between liberalism and conservatism lies in stripping them both of “political philosophy” and treating them more as moods or habits. But that means restoring the strong supra-political framework and restraints of earlier times. In such an environment the radicalism associated with those “under 30” worked itself out naturally. It was not aggravated or perpetuated by ideology. The natural conservatism of those “over 30” was still in place to balance it, yet without heavy-handed statist controls.

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