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Russell Kirk

In his column, David Brooks cites Russell Kirk’s Ten Principles of Conservative Thought, and reflects on how American conservatism has left Kirkian traditionalist conservatism in the ditch. Excerpt:

The economic conservatives were in charge of the daring ventures that produced economic growth. The traditionalists were in charge of establishing the secure base—a society in which families are intact, self-discipline is the rule, children are secure and government provides a subtle hand.

Ronald Reagan embodied both sides of this fusion, and George W. Bush tried to recreate it with his compassionate conservatism. But that effort was doomed because in the ensuing years, conservatism changed.

In the polarized political conflict with liberalism, shrinking government has become the organizing conservative principle. Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse. These days, speakers at Republican gatherings almost always use the language of market conservatism—getting government off our backs, enhancing economic freedom. Even Mitt Romney, who subscribes to a faith that knows a lot about social capital, relies exclusively on the language of market conservatism.

It’s not so much that today’s Republican politicians reject traditional, one-nation conservatism. They don’t even know it exists.

Read the whole thing. Obviously, I agree with it completely, especially Brooks’s observation that “the Republican Party has abandoned half of its intellectual ammunition.”

On that point: I posted the Kirk piece the other day in response to a friend’s request that I explain what I think a healthy conservatism would look like. If you find yourself frustrated with the intellectually moribund state of the GOP and movement conservatism, I urge you to buy a copy of the historian George H. Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement In America Since 1945. It’s a highly readable, deeply knowledgeable account of American conservatism over the last few decades. It may shock readers who think conservatism began in 1980 to learn how deep and varied the various schools of conservative thought was—especially Kirk, Viereck, and the Traditionalists. They have all been eclipsed, as Brooks says.

I blame my tribe on the Religious Right for some of this. We allowed the greater part of what we had to offer to the broader conservative movement to consist of making demands about abortion and homosexuality. These were, and are, very important issues, but the idea that Christianity has little to say to contemporary conservatism, and to American politics, beyond strong opinions on these two issues—well, the impoverishment of that vision is radical. That, plus the incorrect assumption that free-market capitalism is always and everywhere agreeable to Christianity and social conservatism has contributed greatly to the rout of traditionalists.

The fusionists — that is, the people who forged the coalition between economic conservatives (many of whom tended to be libertarians) and traditionalists — understood that American conservatism stood for ordered liberty. Not simply order, and not simply liberty. Freedom and virtue were meaningless without each other. Virtue, in a political sense, had to mean something more than the sum total of free individuals behaving well. Virtue had to come from strong families and communities. Robert Nisbet saw all this in the 1950s, and wrote about it in The Quest For Community (Ed., see essays by/about Robert Nisbet here).

Ever read that book? Ever read Kirk’s The Conservative Mind? Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences? These are treasure troves of traditionalist conservative thought and insight—all of it now so alien to what conservatism has become that to read them is like meeting a long-lost ancestor, a rich uncle who offers you an inheritance you didn’t know you had.

Turn off talk radio. Turn off the cable. Quit buying books from flashy Republican Party publicists. Take up the old traditionalist masters—Kirk, Nisbet, Weaver, and their philosophical school—and read. One day, their wisdom may revive American conservatism from the sterility and sloganeering of Conservatism, Inc.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of The American Conservative.

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9 replies to this post
  1. As the saying goes: sad, but true. This is not, however, a malaise limited to conservatism (Inc.). I remember that, in my youth, a cursory glance at the shelves next to the cash register in most supermarkets revealed tabloids. "President revealed to be space alien" and the like were usually the cover leads. I wondered who read stuff like this and patted myself on the back for my country's fine tradition of freedom of speech protecting even such marginal endeavors.

    Fast forward to our day and age, and the tabloid has become mainstream. Those who would practice critical popular journalism are now the margin.

    The spiritual shallowness of our democracy is reflected in our popular politics. Why are such banalities like "free contraceptives" or "gay rights" even subjects of national debate?

    It's because we have a generation of people brought up in relative affluence combined with total historical ignorance for whom the great existential challenge of their time is buying birth control pills at a reasonable price.

    Sienkiewicz, a good Polish writer, described a similar situation in his many images of Nero's court in his Quo Vadis.

  2. God bless the Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannitys, Ann Coulters and the Tea Party folk. I’m not being disingenuous. They are growling guard dogs baring their teeth at the sight or smell of the insidious socialist agenda that for years was creeping around the baseboards of America and is now in full throttle with the Obama regime in power. They labor passionately to expose it at every turn and I applaud theme for their passion.

    But that, unfortunately, is all they do and it can be very counter-productive to the proselytization of true conservatism since the left holds them up as the standard bearers of conservatism, and their virulent anti-left rhetoric is interpreted as hateful, resulting in a distorted public view of the profile of the conservative. The socialist dem party has parlayed them to define conservatism, but I submit that they would have little knowledge or even perhaps use for Kirk’s Ten Principles.

    If the conservative movement had a purveyor with the mind and heart of Kirk and the flair and charisma of Buckley America would not be in the throws of fighting off it’s imminent demise nurtured by the Obama regime’s policies. But conservatives are not in the business of cultivating terrestrial saviors; that’s in the bailiwick of the socialist left. What America and the conservative movement needs is more steak and less sizzle; more Kirk and less Coulter.
    When Vice Lombardi took over the reins of the Green Bay Packers the Packer franchise had been losing for almost ten straight years. They were at the bottom of the standings, and morale was sagging. After seeing the dismal Packers in a couple of practices he got so frustrated with what was going on with the players that he blew the whistle. “Everybody stop and gather around," he said. Then he knelt down, picked up the pigskin, and said, "Let's start at the beginning. This is a football”.

    What America needs are leaders with a true understanding of conservatism to huddle up America and say, “this is conservatism”.

  3. As a "traditionalist conservative" laboring in the vast and complicated machinery of the "conservative movement," I was pleased this morning to come across a line from Kirk's autobiography, where he describes his literary friends:

    "[T]hey had come to understand that politics is the preoccupation of the quarter-educated, but that it cannot be abandoned wholly to the quarter-educated."

    That, I think, sums up why I continue laboring in a field that is so tempting to abandon at times.

  4. As I'm writing this on my phone, I'll keep it short. Makes good copy, but in what sense is big business at all Conservative. The rhetoric may have some relation, but the reality of so much subsidised business, so much regulation barring competition, so much public / private sector cooperation suggests to me, it is only Conservative when certain segments want to create camaraderie amongst the troops.

  5. I read Brook's article, and was on board with him until he got to talking about how government should take a more active role in society ( i.e. increase domestic spending,etc.) and this to me shows that he only understands part of what he was writing about. Conservatives love the small, the prudent, the familiar, the local, and the tried-and-true. And we also believe that any attempts to reform society should come from the efforts of individuals within voluntary associations working toward showing how a life performed with virtue, grace, and merry hearts is far more fulfilling than a life without it. Government has no business trying to "reform" society, least by throwing money at social justice programs.

  6. Maybe Brooks' point is that, given present circunstances, a harsh application of "economic conservative" would cause more harm than good. Traditonalists usually talk a lot about prudence, and that means assessing the status quo and, if necessary, make some gradual reforms. If you take over a society which has had a significant presence of governmental services in a long period and proceeds to only slash, slash and slash them, you will probably be more a radical than a conservative.

  7. You had me interested UNTIL you tried to define Ronald Reagan as a sort of Traditional Conservative. It is rather obvious that you have drunk a large quantity of the Reagan Narrative Kool Aid in which he is described as the greatest president that America every had, rather than one who was first and foremost a friend of corporations and the uber rich.

    Unless it is just a pack of outright lies, the book THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD: RONALD REAGAN AND THE BETRAYAL OF MAIN STREET AMERICA by William Kleinknecht presents a vastly different picture of Reagan than the current Conservative meme. His destruction of economic restraints upon the corporations of America unleashed a torrent of ruin upon smaller companies who were plundered mercilessly, bought, dismantled for their profits, and then sold off piece by piece while their workers sat at home and collected unemployment. Let us also not forget that he was the point man in the attack upon the Glass-Steagall Act, an attack that, after it was finished by Clinton, allowed bank and Wall Street profiteers to engage in the profligate actions which culminated in the crash of 2008.

    Reagan? Surely you jest!

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