Conservatism prospered in the half-century following the Second World War, but following wide-spread rejection at the polls, substantial policy defeats, and ever-souring popularity, the time has come for conservatives to reexamine and reaffirm their first principles. In this year, which celebrates the sixtieth anniversary of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, conservatism faces an identity crisis similar to the one confronted by Kirk in the 1950s; nevertheless, like Kirk’s, the present generation is presented with an opportunity to embrace cultural renewal and to reject the dogmatic fanaticism of ideological politics.
In its modern usage, the word ideology is not synonymous with benign philosophy; rather, its contemporary meaning invokes a messianic, almost religious veneration of abstract ideas that promise perfection in the political order. A secular fanaticism parading under the rubric of genteel intellectualism, ideology cares nothing for the soul and scoffs at the idea of a spiritual order beyond the reach of state authority. Under its dictatorship, everything must succumb to the omnipotence of an abstract idea to which all individual and social actions are subordinated. Communism’s displacement of the dignity of the human person in favor of statist equality is the most prominent example, while the libertarian’s unrelenting fixation upon absolute freedom is another. Ideology admits no dissent and tolerates no compromise; thus, a vigorous defense of civilization can only be constructed upon the rejection of this corrosive metaphysic.
The problem of ideological politics is typified by certain factions of the Tea Party who, although espousing principles congenial to most conservatives, highlight the dangers inherent in excess each time their self-appointed leaders claim the exclusive right to set the “conservative agenda” and excoriate those who refuse to adopt their policies in whole. “Be my brother or I’ll kill you” was the Jacobin creed, yet the contemporary heirs of Edmund Burke dangle perilously close to adopting this as their motto each time they endeavor to attain ideological uniformity. Such an embrace would amount to a total abdication of the very principles conservatives seek to exonerate.
Conservatives must be chastened by the knowledge that radicalism on the right will not effectively combat radicalism on the left. Well meaning conservatives must not allow ideological fury to capture their sympathies, nor can they allow the onslaught of recent liberal victories to drive them to commit the same errors as their opposition. J.R.R. Tolkien warned that it is dangerous to know too well the arts of one’s enemy. Consistent with this admonition, conservatives must eschew the temptation to displace one ideology with another. The battle of ideas cannot render meaningful gains if it is fought on behalf of any ideological system, regardless of whether it leans right or left; rather, it is a war that must be waged between ideology on one side and prudence on the other.
Political conservatism must not be tethered to any particular body of inflexible policy goals. It possesses no body of infallible tenets and claims no absolute creed. It accepts the world as an imperfect place, populated by imperfect beings. The conservative approaches public affairs through the lens of tradition and seeks to preserve the intermediate institutions that form the building blocks of society: churches, civic groups, guilds, and private charities. A robust conservatism strives for order in a world terrorized by extremes and seduced by simplifications. Accordingly, the conservative’s first concern must be the cultivation of virtue within the soul, as a tolerable social order can only be realized–and genuine freedom appreciated–if individual persons are motivated by a desire to comport with the laws of nature and submit to the will of a higher authority. A genuine conservatism promotes the idea that order in the soul precedes order within the community.
Conservatives, however, face the near-Sisyphean task of rebuilding a charred public image. Once proud to extol the virtues of prudent change, political conservatives now have the appearance of unapologetic naysayers, enemies of modernization, and villains bent upon preserving the narrow interests of the rich, the powerful, and the elite. They, we are told, are not “for the people.” This apocryphal narrative must not go unchallenged.
While progressives claim to represent the interests of the marginalized and weak, conservatives must reaffirm that liberal efforts at legalizing drugs, encouraging desperately ill people to consider suicide, and ushering young urban moms into abortion clinics are policies that devastate those already struggling at the fringe. Political apologetics extolling the virtues of absolute individualism and moral relativism are purchased at the expense of the most vulnerable: unwed mothers, terminally ill patients, children, and impoverished families.
Under the veneer of humanitarianism, an avalanche of progressive policies entrench generations of America’s poor into a permanent underclass both economically and socially. In the search for utopia, the political left hampers the American dream, destroys liberty, and strives to make virtue obsolete. A burgeoning welfare state encourages economic dependency and degrades the concept of personal responsibility. The poor are victimized by smug, paternalistic policies that sweep root causes of poverty under the carpet while preserving the sanctity of picture-perfect neighborhoods, unblemished by the denizens of the nearby soup kitchen. Progressivism promises much more than any political system can deliver, but contemporary conservatives have utterly failed to communicate this point. Instead, liberal dogma has been challenged by the right’s dogma of a different stripe.
In the alternative, a genuine conservatism rejects the concept of political perfection. It recognizes that order is the first need of a civilized people, and that political theories promising earthly salvation constitute empty frauds. A genuine conservatism is chastened by the knowledge that political perfection is the fantasy of the naive do-gooder, the opportunist, and the unscrupulous politician whose own position is bought with the redistribution of government dollars. To that end, conservatives embrace James Russell Lowell’s admonition that “at the devil’s booth all things are sold. Each ounce of dross costs its ounce of gold.”
While radicals hurriedly exert their energies in furtherance of the latest fads and fashionable causes, conservatives remain steadfast in their opposition to a politics enslaved by a lofty metaphysics that promises much and delivers nothing. Focused upon the cultivation of the soul, the conservative seeks to better his family, church, and community. He forges ahead–smiling, cheerful and confident–knowing, with Plato, that this world of discord and vice is ultimately a world of shadows. Ultimate victory, he concedes, may lie beyond the boundaries of corporeal existence.
The genuine conservative is a custodian of inherited customs, a guardian of the permanent things which constitute the fabric of civil society. Imbued with a reverence for old conventions, prejudices, and habits, he “combine[s] a disposition to preserve with an ability to reform.” He finds peace in the reality that each generation is connected by a primeval contract in which the living, the dead, and the unborn coalesce in an eternal union. He understands that this community of souls demands constant renewal lest it cede the “mystic chords of memory” to the desolate corridors of indifference.
Tending to his “little platoon” and desiring to contribute to the good of his community, the genuine conservative embraces the challenges of his age without permitting them to become the focus of his being. Respectful of dissent and suspicious of extremes, he never succumbs to despair or self-pity. In his quest for eternal salvation, he strives to reject those appetites which wage an unyielding battle with the better angels of his nature, and finds strength in the knowledge that the only life worth living is one that seeks ends beyond its narrow existence.
The genuine conservative is not motivated by fear, avarice, or power. The very constitution of his being is directed toward the perfection of his soul, yet he does not hesitate to distill his principles into judgments regarding public affairs. Rejecting the promises of false idols and the prophets of a decadent culture, he confronts the conjurers of political turmoil with imagination and hope. He does not retreat from the battle of ideas, for he knows, with Edmund Burke, that “when bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
Refusing to accept defeat, the genuine conservative continues his struggle in defense of the permanent things and embraces the prospect that ultimate triumph cannot reside within the boundaries of our troubled political order.
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