Conservatism is all about maintaining the status quo. It assumes that the status quo is essentially ok, while change is best avoided. The idea comes from philosophers like Edmund Burke who figured the reason conventions and structures get to endure in the first place is because they work. Of course if you’re in the middle to upper strata of society and reasonably comfortable, then maintaining the status quo is more desirable than it is for those getting a raw deal. The Conservative position is comparatively easy to translate into political action because it concerns maintaining or removing influences to keep life as it is, or was. There isn’t a lot of philosophical disunity because the simple overarching rules are more individual liberty and less state influence: if in doubt, do less or nothing and ensure the status quo. Of course conservatives do changes things, but they usually cloak their actions in the rhetorical meme of ‘restoring things to how they were’. Overall Conservatism appeals to those who need or prefer simple answers to complex problems.
The weakness of a conservative position (apart from the obvious moral problem of disregard for those at the bottom of the heap), is that it doesn’t deal with change very well. Sometimes change comes from without, such as the effects of the Global Economic Crisis, and sometimes from within, when disaffected groups start do insist on change but either way trying to conserve the past isn’t often a very useful guide for how best to adapt. When the world insists on changing in novel ways Conservatives tend to be at a bit of a loss. The other obvious objection is clearly the past, or the status quo, hasn’t always been worth conserving: slavery, dowries and capital punishment spring to mind but there are countless injustices that have been abolished as societies have progressed towards civility.
Progressivism on the other hand takes the view that regardless of how things are now they can always be better, and that civilised societies have a duty to improve the lot of all their citizens, not least of which the weakest members. Progressivism is much more problematic as a guide for political decision making because it involves modifying existing structures, or making altogether new ones, to achieve a better state of affairs. It also provokes disagreements not only about how to achieve progress, but also more fundamentally, about what constitutes progress in the first place. This familiarity with change, ambiguity and complexity however gives an advantage to progressives when adaptation is the only option.
So Progressivism requires a lot more thought on behalf of its adherents, a lot more effort if you believe its harder to make something new than it is to keep things as they are, and often leaves progressives at odds with each other about what to achieve and how to achieve it. Fortunately on the whole it also seems to attract smarter, more compassionate people.
And then of course there’s Neo-Liberals, who pretend to be conservative while really seeking radical change, but that’s another story…