I often reserve my Sunday afternoons for trips to the local university library. These visits are bittersweet, for although I live in an area of the country which is considered to be “very conservative” and is very Republican (the Democratic Party often does not field a complete list of candidates in an election), I rarely have any trouble finding available in the stacks works by and about the major conservative writers whom I esteem. Am I truly the only reader of Kirk, Weaver, and Voegelin in a town with a university of 30,000 students?
Today was a typical jaunt which led me to the stacks on a quest to find the following works: The Counter-Revolution by Thomas Molnar, Paul Elmer More and American Criticism by Robert Shafer, Democracy and Populism by John Lukacs, and Democracy without Nations? by Pierre Manent. Lucky for me, I had absolutely no problem in acquiring these works as they were neatly situated on the shelves. “Neatly” is key here, for this library is not one of the better organized ones that I have frequented. If a book is easily found, it has probably not been borrowed for a long time. Sure enough, after finding each work, I opened the front covers and found the following dates for the most recent readings: the More book was last borrowed in January, 1968; Molnar had one perusal in January, 1974; I am the first to borrow the Manent book (published 2007). But the Lukacs book was borrowed in April, 2006 (I am pretty sure that I was the previous borrower).
So what does this say about conservatives and conservatism? How is the conservative imagination to be enlivened if, as I believe, self-described conservatives limit themselves to…to what? Fox News? Sean Hannity? Mornings on the Mall with Glenn Beck? Lunch with Limbaugh? Sure, this is only one man’s experience in the great American Outback, but didn’t Professor Carey hit the proverbial nail on the head when, writing in 2005 about the future of American conservatism, he recognized that the leadership of the Republican Party showed little interest in the roots and traditions of conservatism and that “the Republican Party has, so to speak, changed its spots virtually without attracting much critical attention”? And that George W. Bush’s “aggressive foreign policy, perhaps best described as Wilsonianism on steroids, has its roots in the traditions of the Democratic Party and clearly runs counter to well-established conservative principles” [Modern Age, Vol. 47, pp. 292-293]? How do we keep alive the great tradition when our leadership has vacated our heritage?
Many years ago, in graduate school, I overheard someone assert that one difference between the two major political parties was that Republicans did not read books, and Democrats read the wrong books. Browsing the shelves of university and public libraries has not disabused me of that assertion. What is a force for optimism, however, is the fact that our literary heritage is still available (Dr. Kirk once wrote, “in and age of progressive inflation, one commodity alone remains stable, or increases little in price: classical works”), and is being kept alive through blogs like this, through independent educational centers (thank you, Barbara and Winston), and at select schools and universities. We are few, a happy few, but we have our work cut out for us.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.