What is Social Conservatism?

Understanding Social Conservatism

Social Conservatism is the ideology of social hierarchy and tradition that mixes liberal and conservative views. It comes in political and economic forms. It is one of two dominate types of Conservatism (the other being its predecessor classical conservatism).

Generally, where classical conservatism wants to maintain tradition, social conservatism wants progressive change toward what it perceives as traditional values (it is a type of progressive conservatism). This is especially true in terms of social issues, as the name implies, where it tends to directly oppose “progressive” social liberalism’s socially left-wing social reforms.

This is complicated by the fact that some (not all) traditional values in a liberal nation are necessarily classically liberal in the first place (for example, states’ rights). The reason this is complex is because classical conservatism tends to want to maintain order and keep to tradition, where social conservatism tends to pair liberty with tradition (making it a sort of hybrid ideology of the right, like social liberalism is on the left).

Things are further complicated by the fact that the liberal policies that the socially conservative ideology favor tend to act as a means to a socially conservative ends (for example, states’ rights to not enact a socially liberal progressive social policy).

Despite the complex mix of left-right / liberal-conservative views, social conservatism can be seen as a socially right-wing ideology, rooted in classical conservatism, that generally focuses more on social issues than other classical issues of state.

In other words, unlike classical conservatism, which takes a classically conservative position necessarily, social conservatism tends to mix left-right ideology voter issue to voter issue, from a generally (but not always) right-wing perspective.

Lastly, although social conservatism tends to be somewhat populist in spirit (with many of its ideological factions being well described as “right-wing populist“), there are certainly elite and populist factions with socially conservative viewpoints (just like it is with the other major forms of liberalism and conservatism.)

TIP: In America conservative means either classical conservative-liberal or social conservative (generally a mix of the two; which thus also includes classical liberal planks). The modern tea party, religious right, and a Trump voter whose main issue was immigration and the wall… are more toward social conservatism. That said, this complex ideology with classical liberal planks is near impossible to pin down due to its wide array of single voter issue positions (each of which tends to mix left-wing and right-wing planks). If one term is closely related to modern social conservatism in America, it is paleoconservatism. Other socially conservative ideologies include 21st century nationalism and right-wing populism.

Social Conservatism in the Political and Economic Forms

In the political from, social conservatism is probably best expressed as the ideology of social hierarchy, tradition, individualism, and small group collectivism (where individualism is important, but equally as important is the in-group and its collective traditions). More than classical conservatism, classical liberalism, or social liberalism, social conservatism is difficult to explain due to it both embracing some liberal and conservative values and rejecting other liberal and conservative values. Essentially, it is a right-wing version of social liberalism, a right-wing version of classical liberalism, and a left-wing version of classical conservatism focused on planks like nativism, nationalism, individualism, and small-group collectivism.

Social conservatism generally doesn’t want to use authority, except for when it does. It doesn’t generally want social welfare, except for when it does for its in-group. It generally sees itself as classically liberal, except for when it wants to legislate traditional values. It generally wants rapid progress toward traditional values, by means of classical liberal deregulation and individual and small group rights. It generally sees itself as conservative, except for in its rejection of the ruling elite conservative order. It rejects social progress, except when it wants to progress toward socially conservative changes at a revolutionary pace. Etc. These positions all make sense when you think about them one-by-one, but they can be difficult to denote in any clear and simple way.

So then simply we can say, this paleoconservative ideology rooted in social hierarchy and tradition is generally difficult to define due to its mix of left-and-right views, but is none-the-less one of 4 major modern political ideologies. With that noted, people tend to be socially conservative on some “single voter issues” and have differing liberal and conservative view on other issues (although that speaks to the mixed nature of social conservatism in the first place.)

In the economic form, socially conservative economics is any economic system based on nativist, nationalist, and protectionist policies that otherwise favor the free-market. Taxes make sense for the military, but otherwise social spending is rejected (at least on a national level rather than a smaller group level). The free-market is embraced, but ruling elite are often treated with utter disdain unless they hold socially conservative values.

TIP: There are so many single voter issue factions that are socially conservative that it is very hard to point to one example. Reagan was very socially conservative, but only in some ways, and otherwise he was also very classically liberal… but so are many social conservatives. So many changes happen in a progressive state that rarely does a single ideology push back against all of them… Although see the John Birch video below.

What is a Conservative?

TIP: There has always been social conservatives. It used to be that classical conservatism was the only way, and those who resisted we could call liberals (for as long as they kept their heads). However, after the liberal revolutions that all changed. From that point, anyone who wanted to go back to the old ways was being “socially conservative.” Likewise, as other changes happened, those who didn’t want to “modernize” were being socially conservative. A slave holder, or one who carried torches in the street against Free Masons from the anti-mason party, or the Know-Nothings, or the confederates. These groups that resisted change were all socially conservative. However, modern social conservatism arises in direct response to progressivism and the progressive era. So, from one frame, social conservatism is the opposition philosophy of social liberalism.

This is The John Birch Society

Social Conservative Values and Figures

Examples of Social Conservative Values. Restrictions on immigration, A pushback against the social programs (of all types), decentralization of the federal policy, restoration of controls upon free trade, greater emphasis upon nationalism and isolationism, pro social hierarchy in terms of gender, ethnicity, and race. They stand against “big government” (the are anti-social liberalism). Their ideology is well expressed by what liberals lovingly call “the Vast right-wing conspiracy“, a marriage of all the minority social conservative movements from John Birch, to big industry polluters; to evangelical movements; etc (AKA movements that pushback against social liberalism). From the rejection of social liberalism to The Conservative Coalition.

Import Figures and Movements of Social Conservatism: Robert Filmer, John C. Calhoun, Southern Democrats of Lincoln’s era, the America first movement, Murray Rothbard, Goldwater Republicans, etc.

TIP: listening to Goldwater era social conservative libertarian Murray Rothbard explain away the Civil War is one good way to get an introduction into social conservatism.

Murray Rothbard: The Civil War and Its Legacy (American Economy Lecture #1)

The Origin of Social Conservatism

The roots of Social Conservatism: The second someone wanted to change something in the first society and a small group resisted that change, social conservatism was born.

The Evolution of Social Conservatism: Over time, especially in the 1700s and 1800s, those who resisted liberal and progressive change were seen as socially conservative. No one wants to be associated with Hitler, and I get that, but one should note that the NAZIs were essentially a socially conservative army (in the same way the Communists were a radical evolution of progressivism, the Fascists were a radical evolution of its antithesis.)

Social conservatism compared to liberalism and classical conservatism: Classical liberalism and social liberalism are, in many ways, the antithesis of classical conservatism and social conservatism respectively.

To give you a sense of this, the following chart compares liberalism and conservatism in their social and classical forms based on the liberal “virtues” of liberty and equality (see learn more about the differences between liberalism and conservatism):

Sphere of political action Liberal Left-Wing The Left-Right Balance Conservative Right-Wing
Liberty Favoring Freedom (Classical Liberalism) Balanced Liberty Favoring Authority (Classical Conservatism)
Equality Favoring Collectives (Social Liberalism) Balanced Equality Favoring Individuals (Social Conservatism)
Left-Right Chart Liberal Vs. Conservative

This chart shows the different types of liberalism and conservatism as the political “left” and “right”.

TIP: As you can get a sense of from the above charts, in terms of classical forms of governments: Conservatism is the ideology of Monarchies, and Liberalism is the ideology of Democracies (meanwhile, the ideal mixed-republic‘s ideology is somewhere in the middle despite being favored by classical liberals.) Likewise, in terms of their social forms, social conservatism is the ideology of social hierarchy and nativism and social liberalism is the ideology of egalitarianism and inclusion. A person may be inclined toward any ideology due to their personal tastes, but generally speaking they are all valid and naturally occurring pieces of the same puzzle meant to temper each other.

TIP: Social conservatism ranges from any position that rejects social change to the militant ultra-nationalist fascism at its most extreme. Be we talking about Hitler, the Spanish Inquisition, or the Witch hunts… the ugly side of social conservatism is hard to ignore. With that said, each liberal and conservative ideology has an ugly side. Extreme social liberalism can become socialism and dip into communism in an extreme, liberalism can turn into oligarchy (if no controls are put on the free-market), and classical conservatism is what everyone rebelled against in the first place. Our founders wisely called for a mixed-government for these sorts of reasons. Those who push back against overly PC culture from a centered paleoconservative viewpoint are “being socially conservative,” and its hard to not see the admirable qualities of stances like this. Thus, while it can be easy to focus on the dark side of social conservatism, and its push to conserve back to a time when it was OK alienate others, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the naturally occurring resistance to quick social change in favor of tradition in a democratic republic. That force is a natural check and balance and a valid position.

TIP: All the good points aside, NAZIS, Confederates, Anti-Masons, Witch hunts, the Inquisition. These are all socially conservative movements. Pushing back toward tradition can be just what the doctor ordered, or it can look like the European witch hunts. There aren’t a ton of great ways to say that, but hey extreme progressivism created the Communists and extreme liberalism the Jacobin revolution. So its not like the other ideologies don’t have their faults and don’t create their own versions of angry villagers.

Top 10 Most Brutal Witch Hunts in History

Different types of Social Conservatism

Different forms of Social Conservatism: Finally, let’s look at some different forms of social liberalism to hammer in the point that this ideology is really a single term under which many different forms fall.

  • Social Conservatives in General: These are conservatives who favor tradition but don’t want to aggressively follow the progressively socially conservative Tea Party or even a paleocon movement. Many religious families and traditional families who identify with the right-wing are in this group. These are people who don’t favor a progressive social policy, but instead favor traditionalism. Many conservatives are both generally classically and socially conservative.
  • Single Voter-Issue Social Conservatives: This vast group includes all single-voter issue factions who resist progressive change or favor tradition on any issue. The fact that all these views are so different is one of the main things that makes social conservatism complex to explain. After-all resisting a given change can mean taking a classical liberal position (which can be very confusing to explain for a single-issue, never mind a collection of single-issues that forms a given ideology).
  • Paleocons: Paleoconservatism is the normal and respectable social conservative ideology. It’s not fascist, it’s not liberal, and it’s not classically conservative. It is just an ideology of tradition, limited government and civil society, along with religious, regional, national, and Western identity (or “fill-in-the-blank-country” identity).
  • Confederates, Know-Nothings, and Fascists: These were early social conservative movements that we can call fascist to the extent that one can call the socially liberal left progressives socialists. These types were in both parties in the U.S. at points, but since the 1930s have increasingly favored the Republican party. Globally they tend to join Nationalist Populist parties under names like “National Front.” They sometimes call themselves “neo” or by other names, but in all cases, they are generally “reworked to be palatable to a modern audience.” No one wants to be associated with these groups, but they were dominate social conservative factions of history who were a the heart of a number of wars (as the Communists are to the social left, these types of groups are to the social right).
  • Tea Party “Right Wing” Populists: The progressively socially conservative big tent of ideologies. This ranges from moderates who identify with other conservative ideologies, to right-leaning libertarians, to radical ideologies that want socially far-right policies.
  • The Religious Right: Many on the right are more religious than political. They are classically conservative in wanting order and tradition. They are one of the most traditional right-wing groups in this respect. However, a part of the religious right is more than this; they are part of the groups that got organized by the social conservative strategy to be politically active. Thus, now we have some mobilized evangelic religious groups that are blurring the lines between the church and state, and the Republican playbook and Bible, while seeking religious national and state policies. In essence, the political religious right is seeking progressive social change toward traditional religious beliefs and conservatism, and is properly socially conservative in this sense. Remember that there is a classically religious right and a modern social conservative religious right. This is particularly relevant in America. Here we should keep liberal Christians’ agendas in mind too, as religious political groups are in no way only found on the right. The push and pull between religion and politics goes back some time. I suggest looking into the tension between Protestantism and Catholicism although it is only indirectly related to this topic.

Author: Thomas DeMichele

Thomas DeMichele is the content creator behind ObamaCareFacts.com, FactMyth.com, CryptocurrencyFacts.com, and other DogMediaSolutions.com and Massive Dog properties. He also contributes to MakerDAO and other cryptocurrency-based projects. Tom's focus in all...

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Why don’t we just tell the people the truth in plain English, without all the nonsensical political jargon used to confuse the average person in society? Social Conservatism subscribes too and in many cases enables blatant abuse of the economic systems by means of removing regulative barriers that were actually meant to maintain the critical balance necessary in a fair, equitable and supposedly ‘civilized’ society!


Interesting article. Well done. Being a Social Conservative I agree it’s hard to define us but you did a good job here.

An interested reader

“Nazi” is derived from “National Socialism”. It is nothing to do with social conservatism.

“Social” here is a modifier of the word “conservatism”.

A social conservative is simply one whose conservatism is principally expressed in, or derived from, matters such as the family, relationships and society.

It may be complemented in this way with other modifiers, such as economic, environmental etc. This gives rise to the complexity you try and capture in your article, and some of the confusion within it as it is quite possible that a person (a “social conservative”) may hold economically liberal views.