Conservatism is an ideological tradition that emerged in Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century, and one of its defining features is resistance to social change. Conservatives like Edmund Burke or later Michael Oakeshott argued that change comes best at a slow, measured pace, because, they argue, too rapid political change can destabilize a society. Reactionaries, on the other hand, have always pushed this objection to change so far to the extreme that they do not merely resist it but actively want to reverse it and back turn the clock -- usually to a nostalgic past of their own imagination, rather than to a historically accurate one.
Contemporary American "conservatives" are actually reactionaries, and they have been getting more reactionary with time. Our conservatives have achieved retrograde policies on wealth inequality, taxes, labor unions, social welfare, guns, and deregulation, and they now seek further regress on women's rights, abortion, science, education, child labor, voting rights, and more. Today's conservatives seek to impose a dystopian combination of 1950s families with all their sexism and disciplinary authoritarianism, 1940s race relations with all their white privilege, 1920s religious views with all their monkey-trial ignorance, and an 1800s economy with all its exploitation, poverty, filth, and misery. They are nostalgic reactionaries to the core.
There was once a time when conservatism was somewhat different: it argued for a stable, well-ordered society but one in which change was not rejected, but rather accepted if slow enough that society could adapt to it. Indeed, conservatives felt that accepting slow but necessary change was imperative: indulging in reaction and resisting all change, or worse wanting to turn back the clock, only stifled social forces for that change and causing a build-up of pressure that, if repressed, would explode in the kind of social and political turmoil that conservatives sought to avoid. Allowing for necessary change was thus a conservative virtue, and resisting it was imprudent and irresponsible. This made space for social advance: liberals were already progressive, and conservatives could live with progress if they had the time to adjust. But today, America’s conservatives actively seek to roll back hard-won gains in social and political justice. Conservatives are to social progress what Luddites once were to technological progress.
Resistance to necessary change causes misery. It makes conservatives unhappy because it enables them to refuse to accept reality. (Aside from political conservatism, even a tendency to resist needed change in one's personal life can cause pain.) Our reactionary "conservatives," unable to adapt to changed circumstances or new evidence, become defensively mired in nostalgic fantasies of a pure golden age; every step from their imagined Eden, no matter how much of and advance it actually is, is instead perceived as a corruption of the natural, right, god-given order of things. This outlook fuels social paranoia, retrograde policies, and resentment against representatives of social progress, whether liberals, intellectuals, or oppressed groups that have achieved hard-won rights, because social progress is perceived as degrading the original pure state. Then to them, politics becomes a war to defend the natural innocence and purity of the imagined past, a war in which, ultimately, all other good things may be sacrificed: decency, civility, fairness, the well-being and lives of others, even democracy.
Resistance to needed change not only fuels conservative social neuroses, it makes everyone else miserable, degraded, and unfree by maintaining or re-imposing injustices upon them. Conservatives have always resisted what Martin Luther King called the moral universe’s long arc of justice, opposing at every turn the expansion of equality, rights, and inclusion for workers, women, ethnic and racial minorities, and the GLBT community. The denial of justice to all who do not fit their definition of "Real Americans" immorally makes those others to suffer undeserved misery and unhappiness. Furthermore, class oppression, exploitation, and debt slavery have impoverished many, squeezed the middle class, and maintained an international proletariat in sweatshop conditions. Conservatives have also always opposed advances in philosophy and science and the arts; the only progress they accept is technological change, because they can profit from it. By opposing the advance and expansion of knowledge, they have slowed or prevented the availability of medical treatments, hindered the discovery of solutions to humanity's problems, and hampered the intellectual development of untold numbers of people. Indeed, they depend on the willful ignorance of a stupefied section of the populace to maintain them in power, and so have a vested interest in promoting ignorance.
Conservative refusal to progress on these fronts -- identity, class, and knowledge -- has degraded our public spheres, severed connections between people, and reversed any previous progress of democracy. Apart from whatever material misery it makes, conservative reaction has increased alienation and thus decreased community and solidarity, which not only itself causes massive unhappiness, but goes counter to the original conservative goal of stable, well-ordered societies.