Conservatism and Progressivism: Two Irreconcilable Worldviews

Contemporary conservatism and progressivism are not just two points along some abstract right-left continuum, but are utterly different and irreconcilable worldviews. It is possible to illustrate this point by examining each side’s understanding of two, long-hallowed words from the Enlightenment – “freedom” and “equality”.


Ask a conservative what conservatism is about and the likely response will be that it is about freedom. What is meant by “freedom,” more than anything else, is the freedom from government interference. Conservatives want to be left alone to make their own decisions, to do with their property as they see fit, and are willing to relinquish to government only those things that cannot be reasonably entrusted to private individuals. Apart from a few anarcho-capitalists, no one believes that roads, the military, or the courts should be private enterprises. However, conservatives do not believe that it is the proper role of government to either right social wrongs or to artificially perpetuate them. They believe that, fundamentally, the individual should be free to prosper or to fail in accordance with his or her choices and abilities, and that each individual is responsible for his or her own destiny. Conservatives acknowledge that there are among us people who need and rightly deserve our help, but believe that charity is an individual virtue -- not, in most cases, the prerogative of government. Further, they believe that the purpose of charity is to raise the unfortunate to a state of self-sufficiency if possible, or to sustain them at the level of bare decency if they truly lack the capacity to support themselves. They do not believe that the purpose of charity is to produce economic equality or to undo the consequences of history.

Conservatives surrender some of their precious freedom to the social norms and standards of the nation, and usually the faith, with which they identify. To be an American conservative is, a bit paradoxically, to be one of a proud member of a nation of individualists. Most conservatives are overjoyed to embrace anyone who shares their worldview, their love of freedom, and some semblance of their culture. They are wary of people who hold views that are not compatible with their own. To be “free” includes the freedom to make one’s own judgements about other people, tempered only by the traditional and religious standards of their own culture.

Conservatives take a narrow view regarding the concept of equality. Equality before the law is what they usually mean when they use the word “equality”. Legal equality is important because it helps to protect the individual from the predations of government interference -- in other words, because it protects the individual’s freedom. Other concepts of equality -- such as economic equality and social justice -- are suspicious because they are almost always cast in collective terms. This group is oppressed by that group. Policies stemming from this sort of thinking punish innocent individuals -- and privilege undeserving individuals -- because they happen to be members of certain groups, not because they personally merit punishments or privileges. Moreover, such policies are inevitably the instruments of government planners trying to correct the perceived sins of nature, history, or both. Conservatives do not believe that human beings are wise enough to create utopias on Earth, and contend that most attempts to do so have produced conditions worse than those they attempted to remedy.


The watchword of the progressive is equality. Progressives believe that all people are fundamentally alike, and that such differences as happen to divide them are simply products of backward, traditional ways of thinking. They believe that science and good government will eventually eliminate all social conflicts by creating an ideal culture. They believe we should think of ourselves as citizens of the world -- that borders are an antiquated legacy of a nationalistic history which produced nothing but wars, injustice, racism and human suffering. The progressive seeks to acknowledge and accommodate every ethnicity and each new interest group that arises, uniting them in an entirely new form of society in which the only permanent standard is an ingrained and unshakable belief in compensating the aggrieved. They believe that everyone is entitled not only to basic food and shelter, but to medical care, a college degree, a cell phone, a vote, and such intangibles as respect and human dignity -- entirely regardless of their own behavior, legal status, or willingness to contribute to society. Progressives believe that conservatism, and in particular western and American conservatism, is the primary obstacle on the road to an ever more perfect world.

Progressives believe that examining the relative merits of non-Western cultures is an inherently racist undertaking. They believe that cultural and racial equivalency are not merely noble ideals, but scientifically proven facts. They believe that traditional western culture prospered mainly on the stolen labor of non-Western people, and that the more quickly this historical injustice is remedied by various kinds of affirmative action -- the better.

The progressive notion of freedom has nothing to do with freedom from government interference -- since government is itself the engine which must be relied upon to remedy society’s ills. Rather, progressives’ nod to the individual’s desire for freedom is the freedom from want (entitlements), sexual freedom (and the right to an abortion), and, most recently, the freedom of a self-defined and flexible identity (including being addressed by whatever pronoun suits you). Where the conservative surrenders freedom to long-established social standards in exchange for the freedom from governmental control, the progressive surrenders freedom to governmental control in exchange for a freedom from long-established social standards.

Two Irreconcilable Cultures

Not only are conservatism and progressivism opposed, they are absolutely antithetical. In their current forms, each culture has the functional goal of annihilating of the other. Nationalist conservatives cannot tolerate the destruction of their national identity. Globalist progressives cannot tolerate the very idea of nation states. Both sides believe that America was founded as a sort of experiment in individual liberty, but they see the American project completely differently. Conservatives see the founders’ work as a resounding success -- something to be cherished, defended, and amended only cautiously and sparingly. Progressives see America as a social laboratory whose work should be ongoing -- the vanguard of a new global utopia, reinventing itself continuously without either a stable identity or a set of guiding traditions.

Conservatives and progressives are not different merely in having differing views about the size and scope of government -- that is, merely disagreeing about the ideal point along an agreed upon continuum. We are different in kind -- two separate peoples in pursuit of two utterly different outcomes. We have reached the point where any notion of compromise -- of reaching across the aisle, of bringing people together -- is painfully naive and utterly futile. The separate cultures we have become can’t even agree on what the country is.