Conservatism, Russell Kirk once said, is "the antithesis of ideology". Ideology, representing much of what we historically find on that side of the philosophical road known traditionally as the Left (which is not to say there is no such thing as leftist philosophy) in the form of organized bodies of ideas, concepts, doctrines and fundamental premises, presents us with some substantial differences from what should be properly termed, in the modern conservative sense, a political philosophy.
Conservatism is not an overarching, explanatory template through which one may discern the underlying or essential meaning of the human condition, a settled trajectory to history, or in any sense, a teleology of the human condition. It is not, like so much within the historic Left, a secular alternative to traditional religion. Conservatism is a general set of ideas, a way of perceiving the world and the human condition, a certain habit and orientation of mind, and a psychological approach to the world that attempts, as best it can, to blend a realistic conception of the tragic/banal fallen world in which we live with an open ended search for "the highest in us", as the late Truman G. Madsen titled a book of his in the late 70s). As Kirk himself said of it in The Politics of Prudence, it is "neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata." It is "the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order." It has ideals, but it accepts the limitations of humanness and the human condition, and does not try to bring its ideals to fruition at any cost simply because they would be desirable and because the world would be a better place with those ideals realized.
Conservatism avoids, and indeed is severely critical of what Dr. Thomas Sowell has called "the vision of the Anointed" and "the search for cosmic justice", both terms used in reference to the tendency of the Left to seek the ultimate development and perfection of mankind and society through political action, social engineering and enforced societal collectivism.
For the historic Left, humans are destined for an inevitable progress towards a utopian future in which all of mankind's fondest hopes and dreams will be realized in a world of paradisaical human happiness and abundance. The only thing keeping humanity from approaching this utopian vision are institutional, or structural defects within society, or ideologies, beliefs, and institutions (such as free market economics, individual rights, the family, marriage, traditional religion, western concepts of property, economic competition, gender roles etc.) fundamental to the structure of society, which, if eliminated, would clear the way to the realization of a the desired heaven on earth.
Ideology tells us how such a future is to be realized; it provides, in its core form, a simple yet dramatic explanation for the meaning of the human condition, an explanatory framework for the course of history, and an overall plan for the restructuring, reformation, transformation and redemption of society through the principles of the ideology. Ideologies, as they have existed, particularly in the 20th century, offer simple, clear, dualistic grand narratives of a history of oppression and victimization by a dominant "them" - a ruling class, dominant group, or "power structure", the dynamics of which are understood to be at the root of most if not all social and historical phenomena. They are (primarily in their non-academic, popular forms), simple, emotionally and psychologically charged, prescriptive templates for social change and political activity.
Their prescriptiveness is always present in that what Marx called praxis is always a part of an ideological explanation for any human phenomena. Nothing that is ideological does not have relevance to political action. All true ideological principle are embodied within and related to the acquisition and wielding of political power.
Ideology looks at the world as it is (what Dr. Sowell calls the "tragic vision") and feels alienation, despair and rage at the inequities, disparate outcomes, tragedies, and vicissitudes of mortality, and is fired by a passionate desire to right all of these wrongs.
Conservatism, as a political philosophy, sees the same world, and desires to right as many of its wrongs as possible, but within the framework of a realistic assessment of what is possible given the very real and intrinsic verities of human nature and what in the gospel we would understand as the inherent conditions of mortality, or the Telestial sphere of existence, that are inextricably linked to our eternal progression.
Ideology, as Kirk pointed out, is best understood as a Christian heresy that attempts to do through secular, political means what religion seeks to accomplish through the changing, renewal and reformation the individual heart, one heart at a time. As W. Wesley McDonald points out in his Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, ideology is virtually synonymous with political fanaticism, and its fundamental premise, that the world of mortality may be be "converted into the Terrestrial paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning", is inconsistent with the fundamental premises of western civilization and representative, liberal democracy. The ideologue "immanentizes religious symbols and inverts religious doctrines". As a religion of politics that attempts to fulfill all of the fundamental needs that are the primary concern of religion, ideology is always set against the existing order, whatever that may be, in a perennial attitude of "revolution"; it is, until all of its demands are met, in a permanent state of antagonism to the existing state of things, and its cry is always overthrow, rebellion, and the dismantling and destruction of the old order.
Ideology has little patience for human frailty and weakness, nor for the core attributes of human nature (both mortal and, from a LDS perspective, spiritual) and seeks the thorough transformation of human character, many times in great, wrenching social upheavals that, it is theorized, will "liberate" human beings from the "institutional" and "systematic" oppressions that are the cause of the world's benighted state.
The political philosophy of conservatism, on the other hand, while it always seeks and desires progress and change for the better, also realizes that compromises are necessary with the "veil of tears" in which we find ourselves as well as with human nature as it is given within that world, lest in attempting change and societal development, greater, and perhaps far greater harm is done to the human condition than was the case even taking into consideration all the prior evils which it was desired be eliminated.
Conservatism is an imperfect human framework of interpretation and understanding that, while it accepts and respects the existence of eternal verities or "the permanent things", as Russell Kirk termed it, does not attempt grand schemes of social reformation in their name, nor to see all human beings as pegs to be fitted, by whatever means necessary, into the ideological holes of the"better world" of wide eyed academic theorists. Unlike ideology, conservative philosophy values the freedom, liberty and individual agency of each human being, including the freedom to fail, to sin, and to relinquish one's human dignity, if one so chooses, more than it values freedom from sin and failure if this is to be achieved through the imposed collective renunciation of freedom itself.
Conservatism values slow, developmental, incremental change that preserves valuable traditional societal structures, values, principles and traditions, while eliminating the dross that accumulates or is left over from prior ages. Leftist ideology seeks, either evolutionarily or revolutionary, thorough the destruction and delegitimizing of the past and present social order, establishment of a new social order in which humans will be free from the shackles, limitations and restrictions of all previous social, moral and economic conditions.
Conservatism is an intellectual pursuit; it is a philosophy grounded and steeped in the joy of the exploration, discovery and articulation of ideas. Its tools are critical thought, close, nuanced reasoning, the cut, parry and thrust of civil, critical debate, the values and rigors of classical liberal education, a sense of the tragedy and limitations of the mortal world while retaining a belief in an overarching cosmic purpose and meaning behind even its most wrenching complexities and dilemmas, and a conviction that there are things in the universe above and beyond man that it would be well for him to try to comprehend and conform himself to, lest he "change the world", in his passion for "liberation" and "freedom" and in his "vision" of a "better world" into a hell within which the very purpose of the mortal probation would be crushed and ground to powder, even if each and every grain of that powder were equal with respect to one another in their crushing.
Leftism (or its shadow, modern "liberalism") seeks to overcome the effects of the Fall, not in the way in which the Book of Mormon and the New Testament make clear is the only way in which this can be achieved, but through politics and through various ideologies that tell of a golden age in the past (pre-capitalist, agrarian society in which workers were not alienated from their work, ancient pagan societies who worshiped female deities and accorded woman higher social status, ancient Egypt, where black Africans had achieved amazing feats of technology, science and political organization, primitive "indigenous peoples" who lived in harmony, balance and unity with the environment etc.) that was uprooted and destroyed, always by western peoples and values ("capitalism", modern technology, classical liberal political ideas, "the patriarchy", the Protestant work ethic, the right of private property, inalienable rights etc.) and which a messianic ideology (Marxism, various schools of utopian and revolutionary socialism, feminism, environmentalism, Afrocentrism, multiculturalism etc.) offers a means of salvation and an eschaton (always a "revolution" of some kind, in which the bad things are done away and the world is given a kind of new birth) in which all wrongs are righted and all human problems and challenges overcome.
Leftism then, is, in every sense of the term, a form of idolatry, and its close approximation of religion, close enough to displace it from both the mind and heart as the focus of one's convictions and priorities in mortality, forges it as a strong competitor with the gospel as the primary frame of reference and template through which we comprehend and negotiate our mortal experience, including the many problems and challenges of the political realm.
How compatible is each of these views of things - conservatism and leftism - with the restored gospel?
A discussion of that to follow shortly.