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Conservatism as a political and social philosophy promotes retaining traditional social institutions in the context of culture and civilization. Conservatives seek to preserve institutions like the Church, monarchy and the social hierarchy, as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity, while others, called reactionaries, oppose modernism and seek a return to "the way things were". The first established use of the term in a political context originated with François-René de Chateaubriand in 1818, during the period of Bourbon restoration that sought to roll back the policies of the French Revolution. The term, historically associated with right-wing politics, has since been used to describe a wide range of views.

Conservatism as a political and social philosophy promotes retaining traditional social institutions in the context of culture and civilization. Conservatives seek to preserve institutions like the Church, monarchy and the social hierarchy, as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity, while others, called reactionaries, oppose modernism and seek a return to "the way things were". The first established use of the term in a political context originated with François-René de Chateaubriand in 1818, during the period of Bourbon restoration that sought to roll back the policies of the French Revolution. The term, historically associated with right-wing politics, has since been used to describe a wide range of views.

There is no single set of policies that are universally regarded as conservative, because the meaning of conservatism depends on what is considered traditional in a given place and time. Thus conservatives from different parts of the world—each upholding their respective traditions—may disagree on a wide range of issues. Edmund Burke, an 18th-century politician who opposed the French Revolution but supported the American Revolution, is credited as one of the main theorists of conservatism in Britain in the 1790s. According to Quintin Hogg, the chairman of the British Conservative Party in 1959, "Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society, and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself.". In contrast to the tradition based definition of conservatism, political theorists such as Corey Robin define conservatism primarily in terms of a general defense of social and economic inequality. From this perspective conservatism is less an attempt to uphold traditional institutions and more "a meditation on – and theoretical rendition of – the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back."