Like the ancient parable of the blind men describing the same elephant from different perspectives, conservatism can mean many different things to many different people. Indeed, given the relatively straightforward and down-to-earth meaning of the word,conservatism actually lends itself to considerable linguistic legerdemain. One can use the word to refer to a temperament, an ideology (or ideologies), an objective tendency, or simply an unwillingness to heed the forces of progress as fashion dictates.
It seems to me that the future of each of these varieties of conservatism is assured. The conservative temper stems from the crooked timber of humanity and the accumulated scar tissue of experience. The objective tendency, whether imposed by external forces, threadbare budgets, impertinent facts-on-the-ground, or a general lack of popular enthusiasm, also seems baked into the human experience for as far as the eye can see. For related reasons, there will always be realists who counsel the hotheads to slow down, earning at minimum the label “conservative” if not “reactionary.” In this sense, while there may not always be an England, there will always be something called conservatism.
The one with the cloudiest future is ideological conservatism. Will enough Americans remain committed, or at least open, to the bundle of principles that define modern American conservatism to sustain the movement and the Republican Party, which imperfectly carries its banner?
My short answer is an equivocal yes. My hedge stems from the fact that it will be hard, for all the reasons we’ve all heard already: demographics, the changing nature of the economy, etc. But there’s one factor that hasn’t been adequately discussed: the fading of conservatism’s libertarian brand.