There has been much commentary concerning a David Brooks editorial that in turn cites Rod Dreher’s article on what it means to be a conservative. Both Brooks and Dreher return to Russell Kirk and his ten principles of conservatism, to define what Brooks describes as the lost half of the “conservative mind.” That half is concerned primarily to conserve what is best in our religious, social, and cultural traditions, and less so with Brooks’s other half, the free-market economic determinism that so often passes for “conservatism.”
Brooks and Dreher are right to focus on Kirk’s traditionalism, his respect for custom and limits, and his rejection of economics as the end of life. His ten principles remain valid today as ever.
Yet that is not the whole story, for it creates the temptation to see Kirk as a reactionary figure with little to offer contemporary politics. If he was a reactionary, it was of a decidedly forward-thinking kind. In the 1950s, Kirk was already arguing that liberalism was dead; the age that was to replace it—what he called the age of the Image—was upon us, and the true battle was for the imagination. In that sense, both conservative and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, are heirs to the post-liberal order that has emerged since the 1980s, when a market-fueled libertarian “right” is joined to a choice-happy “left,” with few noticing the mutations of language and politics that have resulted; aside from Kirk, others who identified the same themes are Wilson Carey McWilliams and Christopher Lasch, neither particularly conservative as we now understand that term. Instead, both sides argue within a narrow framework defined by the market and individual rights.
Rather, as early as 1982, Kirk was suggesting that “the Post-Modern imagination stands ready to be captured. And the seemingly novel ideas and sentiments and modes may turn out, after all, to be received truths and institutions, well known to surviving conservatives.” With liberalism moribund, it “may be the conservative imagination which is to guide the Post-Modern Age.” As I have tried to argue, Kirk was creating an imaginative and rhetorical space to work out alternatives to an individualistic liberalism that is now just as much part of the Republican Party as it is of the Democrats. It is a lesson Republicans could usefully relearn.