There is a story, which if not true should be, that a student once regaled Russell Kirk with a listing of the different kinds of conservatism—libertarian, neo, paleo, and so on—then asked “which kind are you?” to which Kirk replied “I am a conservative.” I was reminded of this story when reading in these pages an essay by our esteemed editor, Stephen Klugewicz, in which he criticized various “boutique conservatives” for losing sight of the real importance of our military and the real virtues of its members in these dangerous times. Mr. Klugewicz’s point, I think, was that too many conservatives have become too bound up with a very specific and narrow conception of the good life (and too broad a conception of its enemies) to leave room for a proper conception of military honor and necessity in our contemporary, sadly hubristic times.
Agreeing with Mr. Klugewicz’s central point, I want to look a bit more closely at his characterization of many conservatives as members of “boutique” micro-movements too small and splintered to allow for a truly conservative vision of the good life and its requirements. I like the term “boutique conservative” so much that I fully intend to hijack it for my own use, hoping that readers will fail to look up its origins and so perhaps mis-attribute it to me. That said, the very notion of boutique conservatism raises two important questions: first, what does this phenomenon tell us about the status of conservatism itself—does it still exist in any coherent form? And, second, how did we get to this point?
It makes sense to take the second question first because of the background it provides to our current situation. Kirk himself did much to bring conservatives to a primary level of intellectual self-awareness by forging a tradition of political thought and action leading back through the founding era to Edmund Burke and, through him, to the longer, deeper, more fundamental tradition of Christian humanism. The conservative movement he helped form (along with figures such as William F. Buckley, Jr., Friedrich Hayek, and Robert Nisbet) already had diverse, potentially conflicting elements. Indeed, Frank Meyer’s notion of a “fusion” of traditionalism and libertarianism as the proper content of conservatism rested on the notion that these two, primarily social and economic defenses of persons and communities in the face of state power could forge an effective alliance and an effective common philosophy. Set forth during the early 1960s, fusionism made a significant amount of sense during a time in which the United States still held onto its Judeo-Christian culture and its respect for the institutions, beliefs, and practices undergirding ordered liberty.
Yet, even during the formative era of post-war conservatism, there were clear tensions within the movement due to the different assumptions of its varying members regarding human nature, the role of religion in public life, and the extent to which governmental power might be trusted, especially at the federal level. The strong presence of “cold warriors,” many of them atheists and/or former communists, within the conservative movement brought forth strenuous argument about America’s place in the world, expansionism’s costs to the United States, and the potential dangers of an American empire. In addition, conflicting impulses in the face of both repulsion at racial abuses and dangerous federal overreach in addressing those abuses caused repeated conflicts.
Such tensions remained the center of intra-conservative conflict at least into the Reagan Administration, which many thought would usher in a time of renewed vigor as well as policy victories sufficient to restore limited government and respect for traditional social institutions and virtues. Instead, conservatives splintered and became often hostile factions within a Republic Party largely beholden, as always, to corporate interests most concerned with stable markets, an expanded, cheaper workforce, and the expansion of governmental subsidies and barriers to entry for new businesses, and the opening of new overseas markets and resource sources. The fundamental divide came to be seen as that between “neoconservatives” committed to an expansionist, “democratizing” foreign policy and a moderate form of liberalism on domestic social and economic policies, and “paleoconservatives” committed to restoring limits on federal power in both domestic and foreign affairs.
Neoconservatives solidified their ascendance during the Administration of George W. Bush through a second Iraq (and Afghan) War, as well as an expansion of “results-oriented” federal programs in education and healthcare. Dissatisfaction with these policies and deep problems with their consequences as institutionalized in a seemingly endless war of attrition in the Middle East, and vast expansions of federal programs produced apathy among many conservatives at the same time that the Democratic Party coalesced around Barack Obama’s vague promises of “Hope and Change.” Now, after six years of an aggressive leftism that surprised many, conservatism appears to have cracked and perhaps broken. The Presidential primary season thus far shows political interest among many in a return to a more conservative approach to governance, yet at the same time Republican majorities in Congress appear committed to saving nationalized healthcare from itself and surrendering on fundamental social issues like religious freedom, executive power, and the definition of marriage.
It seems clear that conservatives have been blocked from any significant amount of political power at least since the end of the Reagan Administration. And even that Administration was a battleground on which conservatives lost more fights than they won. As the nation runs headlong into a form of Euoropeanization, with the state taking over the role of parents even as it redefines parenthood itself, it is hardly surprising that conservatives would cast about for some means of saving our culture, or at least for some safe haven to which they might retreat so as to raise their children in relative peace.
I personally have great sympathy for these impulses and for many of the people and partial solutions following from them. The question is whether these impulses should be taken as the determining factor of a chosen way of life, or rather as one element in a vision of the good life and of what conservatives should do to restore it. A brief synopsis of a few major boutique benefits and limitations will have to suffice, here.
Given the dearth of common sense and humanity in most urban politics and polities, a conservative cannot help but have sympathy for small town values and pine for the close communities and practical virtues of what today is called “agrarianism.” But the tactile is not the holy, the close-knit is not the fraternal, and the local and the particular cannot survive in isolation from the general and the universal. It is the diversity of associations, with all their conflicts, that is necessary to maintain order and liberty, meaning that the local has a much larger place in a good society than it currently is afforded, but should not itself be confused with any good society in itself.
Generally required to worship within a church of appallingly bad architecture, viewing liturgical art barely achieving the level of kitsch, asked to sing along to liturgical music at its best Protestant and at its worst insulting to the ear, and listening to “homilies” filled with self-satisfied leftism and calls to “welcome” unrepentant sin as mere self-expression, traditional Catholics in particular cannot help but sympathize with the desire for a return to the beauty and reflectiveness of our tradition. Even those of us (including this writer) lucky enough to belong to parishes with uniformly prayerful, faithful, and intelligent priests have seen enough over the years to share such frustrations and desires, particularly given recent noises about “developments” rejecting the sacramental nature of marriage. But the Church is not—and is not supposed to be—all of the world. The removal of Christianity from public life is a great sin and a great impoverishment of our culture. That said, the answer cannot be to simply leave public life to its own devices, or to declare war on those who commit various (sometimes imaginary) errors. Without the Church there would be no Western Civilization, for it was the Church’s action in countering the power of secular rulers that made recognition of human dignity and the importance of everyday, non-“heroic” life possible. Because religion is so important, it cannot be walled off from the world that would reject it, and it must not be allowed to become another cultural battleground, lest the faithful become victims of the charismatic and manipulative, or mere disinterested bystanders. There may be reasons to fight (I’ve been in a few of them myself). But sometimes good enough must be enough, so that we may worship together and work together, whatever the cost, for a culture of life.
Observing what our policies have wrought in the Middle East, with ISIS murdering thousands of Christians as it closes in on moderate (or at least less radical) regimes throughout the region, no conservative can fail to regret the hubris of the last 15 years. Not mere invasion, but radical programs of “democratization” have put innocents in harm’s way by grafting Western leftism onto traditional cultures. Moreover, no one who takes the Fourth Amendment seriously and values ideals of personal liberty and limited government can help but wish for an end to the War on Terror’s police regime that taps our phones, prods our privates at airports, and empowers a radical justice department to bully and even imprison those who oppose its radical agenda. But rejection of empire and imperial politics need not and should not lead to rejection of our nation, its fundamental character, and the brave men who seek to protect it.
These times, at the tail end of a long period of truly radical governance in which “our” party has been represented by people more concerned to maintain their own power and status than to further the common good, have brought chaos. There currently is no coherent conservative movement. There are only scattered groups and organizations that occasionally cooperate to pursue loosely related causes. Under such circumstances it is easy for people to focus on one aspect of our cultural decline and seek a single answer to it—or a single place to hide from it. But this is the counsel of despair. And, while despair may seem a reasonable reaction, it remains a sin. Like all sins, despair has its comforts. Given the splintering of conservatism, it makes sense, in its way, to seek out a small group of like-minded folk who share our niche and open our own boutique movement, catering to a select clientele that shares our vision. But the boutique, while a comfortable place, also is a lonely place, and one that can survive only if the street on which it sits survives as well. Its isolation prevents the cooperation necessary for its long term survival.
Far, (far!) be it from me to demand any “big tent conservatism.” Indeed, one of our biggest problems is that so many who are not conservative (the minions of big business and of empire chief among them) have taken the name or had it thrust upon them. Nevertheless, clear thinking requires a more comprehensive vision than can be gained from inside the boutique. Conservatism cannot die because what it values—a life of virtue, dedicated to family, church, and local association set within a government of ordered liberty and oriented toward eternal happiness—is permanent. It is incumbent on those who seek the good life, then, to recognize that every element of that life is necessary; not just convenient, but necessary. And this entails working within the traditions of our nation, even if those traditions are no longer valued by the majority of the people, to revive the culture and redeem the time.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.