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forgotten conservatives

Several times in his dense treatises, John Taylor of Caroline, the systematic philosopher of Jeffersonian democracy, warned that political terms are treacherous and their exact meaning must be examined with care. Because, words are themselves weapons in the eternal campaign of designing men to achieve power and exploit their fellows. Let them control the terms of the debate and you have already conceded the battle.

Not only are political terms subject to deceptive use, but their connotations are inevitably relative and change with time and circumstances. So it is with “liberal” and “conservative.” During the second half of the twentieth century those terms fairly clearly described a division in the American polity. One had a pretty good idea of the difference between a “liberal” and a “conservative” and could predict which way either might jump. That is no longer the case.

Beginning with the upheavals of the Sixties, for obvious reasons the number of people who called themselves “liberals” began to decline and “conservative” self-identification began to rise from a long spell in the doldrums. There was a great deal of discussion of exactly what “conservatism” is. There were traditionalists, libertarians, anti-communists, and others who agreed on a need to challenge the dominant liberal regime. The argument over what constituted an American conservative was never concluded. It was pre-empted by the rise to power of “neo-conservatives” under the wings of Ronald Reagan.

Soon the “neoconservatives” became the accepted, respectable Right in American discourse and the erstwhile conservatives became an irrelevant and possibly dangerous fringe, disdained equally by all decent people, whether “liberal” or “conservative.” The new conservatives, however, were a rather peculiar band to carry that name. They were Trotskyites who had replaced their hereditary agenda of global socialist revolution with one of a global revolution of “democratic capitalism.” Unashamedly embracing Machiavellian tactics against opponents and against the American people, they gloried in “big government” and fervently planned to project American armed force around the world, the national debt be damned. None of this could be considered a “conservative” agenda or way of proceeding.

This was hardly what the millions of “conservatives” who voted for Reagan, the self-declared enemy of big government, had bargained for. However, it was probably inevitable given the political ineptitude and naïve decency of conservative leadership; given that Republicans had always had a weakness for moralistic crusading; and given that “neo-conservatism” did not much bother the state capitalist elite, who really control the Republican party. It could even be boasted that now the Republicans had the guidance of bona fide “intellectuals” whom they had so long lacked (though the claim of William Bennett and other neo-conservative luminaries to the status of “intellectual” might be questioned).

We have chosen to be guided by Russell Kirk’s classic The Conservative Mind in identifying who is a conservative. According to Kirk’s once-honored teaching, a conservative is one who values “prescription,” that is, who defers more to established custom and wisdom than to rational speculation, who insists that inevitable change should be cautious and reconcilable with the wisdom of the ages. A conservative avoids being a “provincial in time,” recognizing a responsibility to the past and the future; he would not willingly burden future generations with debt by spending up everything for present notions and pleasures. An American conservative will certainly honor the true “Constitution for the United States” as it was before greed, ambition, ignorance, and deceit distorted it beyond all recognition. An American conservative naturally remembers the warnings of the most revered forefathers about “entangling alliances” with foreigners.

A conservative tends to value voluntary community, a larger sphere for private society, and a smaller sphere for government, especially the federal government. Fundamentally, a conservative is one who accepts that the world was endowed by its Creator with an enduring moral order (as described by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man). In his love of Creation a conservative delights in the proliferating variety of life among free people, the direct opposite of “multiculturalism,” which is an enforced monolithic non-culture. A conservative knows as well that man is forever imperfect, that evil comes in many comely guises, and that not all “progress” is progress.

Thus the duty of a conservative in politics, society, and culture is to exercise what Kirk called “the moral imagination,” to keep in touch and in tune with the moral order to which all questions must ultimately be referred and to which the giants of the past, upon whose shoulders we stand, have pointed the way. In understanding conservatism in American history one must avoid a common confusion. In America, Kirk pointed out, an acquisitive impulse has often been mistaken for a conservative disposition. Thus there is a frequent erroneous identification of conservatism with capitalist interests. Conservatives generally believe in the necessity of private property for civilization and accept the utility of free markets for general prosperity. That does not necessarily make them support corporate welfare or international conglomerates, which can be as destructive of social order as socialism and have a dubious relation to true private property and free enterprise.

By this measure, the American regime today cannot be considered to be to any significant degree “conservative.” The United States in the early twenty-first century, in fact, has no politics at all in the strict sense. Presidential elections do not address real issues but revolve around personalities. Congressmen are elected according to their adroitness in delivering the pork and are careful to leave all important and potentially divisive decisions to the president and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Both parties are in essential agreement on a settled, semi-imperial order and they can hardly be told apart. Both are eager to please Wall Street and happy to let the masters of media set the terms of national discourse. Both are content with a government that brings more and more of our life under federal control. Neither seems to think that a military presence in more than one hundred countries or a catastrophic national debt are anything to worry about. Both are committed to the ongoing demographic and cultural transformation of the American population by mass immigration. Both are in the process of legitimizing changes in age-old morality of sexual roles and practices, although at a different pace.

It might be timely then to pay some attention to some of the numerous admirable people who have exemplified and preached forgotten conservative ideas. The men we have chosen do not agree completely among themselves. That is no problem, because conservatism as defined by Russell Kirk is not an ideology or a fixed program but a “disposition.” All of our subjects exemplify some lost aspect of American thought. Often they will be seen to be prophets as well as sages.

This is an excerpt from Brion McClanahan and Clyde Wilson’s, Forgotten Conservatives in American History, (pages 11-14) and is published here by permission. Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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6 replies to this post
  1. The True, truly forgotten Conservatives in American History were the Loyalists. Since most of these were forced to leave the newly formed United States due to persecution, there has not been true conservatism in America.

    In the Anglo-shere, the term conservative means a form of liberal. America is a liberal project in toto so no there can not be a conservative in America.

    I'm a Monarchist. I adhere to the Old Order and that includes hierarchy. No social hierarchy, no conservativism. The rejection of aristocracy and distinctions of rank, (distinctions of rank is a Natural Law and rejection of the same is ensconced in the US Constitution) put the FFofA and their constitution as liberal. The same criteria of holding custom and established tradition should be applied to the FFofA and they were not conservatives.

  2. Every institution that one wihes to conserve was an innovation one day. You argument sacralizes European "classic conservative" and in fact immobilizes conservatism as the result of the traditional aristocratic order. But chanve there is, and the notion of conservative as a "disposition" or some generic "canons" makes it much more flexible and renewable. Even if we adopt you concept of a "true" conservatism, there would be still a difference between the modern "factions" of American (Western?) politics and names should be given to them.

    By the way, even the liberal democratic order ('liberal' in the original, not the American, sense) has hierarchy. But it tends to be economical, not hereditary, and, yes, different from that of the Old Regime. But I can't see why that would be a bad thing, since the sacrality of social differences was discredited a long time ago. So, what would be the reason for adopting it today? Whose merit would justify a new hierarchy in the old sense?

  3. Mr. (Lord?) Wheeler:

    From afar, monarchy looks attractive, even romantic, but to which royal person would you defer? Elizabeth II? Charles, if he ever becomes king? Perhaps William seems agreeable. What about the Saudi family? In the Arab world, they count as royalty as much as the members of Elizabeth's family. And let's not forget that illustrious monarch Emperor Hirohito. In America, social distinctions are determined most conspicuously by money. Are you as rich as Bill Gates? If he were to drop his napkin and order you to pick it up–without the promise of a good job at Microsoft since duty is its own reward–would you comply? I believe in showing deference to men and women of great accomplishment, but I will bow only to Christ. Each society has its own form of conservatism; even the Soviets got all giddy over military parades and other bombastic displays of patriotism (Mother Russia and all that). In contrast, conservatives in America tend to be proud of their success and the hard work that made it happen. Initiative in the context of community–that's the American conservative formula.

    Respectfully,

    Ken

    P.S. I noticed that you are a writer. You wouldn't want the queen censoring your work, would you?

  4. As the quite brilliant Dr, Brad Birzer has written on these pages, the Republic is dead. The Constitution is but a piece of paper to Obama and Romney. We cannot return to Monarchy, but Democracy has obviously failed us as well.

  5. Conservatism as a philosophy and disposition does not require the adoption of any particular form of government; it adapts itself to the circumstances and traditions of a particular people. For this reason, it makes little sense for an American to be a monarchist and call himself conservative. At the same time, it is true that there is a deep levelling impulse within American democracy that means that a true conservative in the American context must be suspicious of many quintessentially American tendencies (materialism, atomism an "I'm as good as you" notion of equality) that will undermine the American order itself if given free reign. Unlike most modern Republicans, it is the task of the conservative to recognize the inherent contradictions in the liberal order, and attempt to preserve those features of it (constiutional governance, individual freedoms, the rule of law, civic culture) that are worth preserving. It is a difficult task because ours is not a habitually conservative people, in the true sense.

    America is a "liberal project" in many ways, but the opposite of the conservative is not the liberal but the radical (or perhaps the progressive), and it often has fallen to conservative forces to defend the achievements of classical liberalism from the civilizational vandalism of its ideological successors.

  6. I think to become “erstwhile” (former), conservatives would have needed to change. Rather, the neoconservatives, or pseudo-conservatives, supplanted the conservatives in their influence and dominance in the movement and the Republican party. It seems to me that conservatives need to ally themselves with libertarians for there to be any chance of reversing the expansion of the federal government.

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