The task of the conservative intellectual remains the same as it has always been, though acquiring new urgency. That task is to keep alive the wisdom that we are heir to and must keep and hand on…
Carlyle defined history as ”the essence of innumerable biographies.” This is only one of the many inadequate but suggestive definitions of history, numerous enough to fill a small volume, that have been put forward, but perhaps it is sufficient to excuse a bit of autobiography as pertinent to the last quarter century of American conservatism. That phenomenon has been with us long enough now to allow a degree at least of historical perspective. A once-resilient Goldwater Youth has begun to feel the preliminary twinges of mortality in his bones, and therefore perhaps can review usefully the history and thus the present status of that intangible but real phenomenon, conservatism, which has been a significant determining influence as he has gone about his personal and professional life.
I believe that it is descriptively accurate to say that most of us who regarded ourselves as “intellectual conservatives” before 1964 are in a state of demoralization and discouragement at the status of conservatism in 1986. I think this is true both of those who have entered the government in recent years and those who are, like me, merely perplexed observers on the fringes of public life. The degree of disappointment may vary with situation and temperament, but it is the predominant mood—notwithstanding the apparent flourishing of “conservatisms” on every hand and the common agreement that we have a great deal to be thankful for in the present condition of the commonwealth, compared to what might have been.
The Goldwater campaign, for those who came of age about the time I did, was the central public event (though not, I think, the formative influence) of the time. For those who had eyes to see, it revealed for all time the arrogant deceitfulness of the media lords and lackeys and the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Republican establishment of that day. More importantly, it revealed, in retrospect, how far we had to go to translate into popular and political success ideas that we knew in our hearts would appeal to the majority of the American people, properly heard.
Those of us who regarded ourselves as intellectual conservatives came from a variety of regional, ethnic, and ideological backgrounds, as was only fitting in a large and various republic. We had our differences (more significant than we, or at least I, realized at the time) which we argued heatedly but usually with chivalrous respect. We were united by common enemies. In these somewhat more relaxed times, it is difficult to recall the embattlement of conservatives within the academy—where we could expect to meet usually hostility, sometimes vicious, and the best we could hope for was amused condescension. It took, I will not say courage, but a certain stubborn perversity to make one’s way, and allies were welcome. But we had positive sources of unity as well. We might differ in our primary heroes, but we could share a general and eclectic admiration for the mentors of the movement—Kirk and Buckley, Burnham and Weaver, Kendall and von Mises, Molnar and Meyer, and many others. This consensus was captured by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which on some campuses provided the only evidence of an intellectual dialogue that in tone and quality was respectable in the light of the best traditions of the West. The working platform was summed up neatly enough by George Nash as agreement (allowing for differences of emphasis) on tradition, the free market, and anti-Communism.
And despite our differences, we can, in historical perspective, be accurately seen as one movement. And not only that, but as a movement that was in some sense or other, a success. While there has been an entrenchment and institutionalization of totalitarian radicalism, in some places, in the last quarter century, it is also true that the academic dialogue is today more open to ideas from what might be loosely described as the Right than at any time since the 1920s. In the voting booth, which alas is no longer sovereign (if indeed it ever was), the rejection of institutionalized liberalism has been resounding and today represents the view of the overwhelming majority of decent Americans. The extent to which that mandate has been translated into policy ought not to be underestimated. The control of inflation and taxes—which is another way of saying the expansion of the liberty of the citizens; the firming up of defense; the first hints of reform in the degraded judiciary—these are limited but quite real successes. Nor should we discount the value of the revolution wrought in Presidential style. We have a Chief Magistrate whose dignified informality, whose candid and good-natured simplicity (in the best sense of that word) reflect some of the best of the national character and who has restored some badly needed poise to the public life.
Why then, the malaise that I mentioned among the Old Guard? There are many reasons. Conservatism, despite heroic efforts to put a different face on the matter, must always involve some pessimism and skepticism. That might even be a virtue in a society in which public demeanor is often a compulsive optimism. We can also attribute something to the unavoidably imperfect connection between ideas and the public sphere. It is a truism that those who launch ideas into the world often see them come back in unrecognizable form. John Dos Passos observed that in setting about to correct evils, the liberals of his generation forgot that man is an institution-building animal, that their ideals would be codified and bureaucratized by others. The consolidator and preserver is a different kind of man from the thinker and creator. The disciple inherits and converts to his own. There is no getting around this, Madison subverted Jeffersonian democracy, as Martin Van Buren did the Jacksonian variety, and as Sumner and Stevens did Lincoln’s Reconstruction.
Still, when all is said, this does not exactly describe what has happened to the conservative intellectual movement. We ought to have had more success than we have had in translating ideas into a regime. The ball has been dropped too many times. There have been too many weak stands and too many unnecessary retreats. The other side did it far better than we have done. Perhaps because they had a head start; perhaps because they have learned to use the vast leverage provided by the conservative virtues of our Constitution and fellow-citizens to keep the load rolling in the direction they want it to go. Put it another way: Has no more been accomplished because it was impossible, or because the effort was not made or was not made in the right way? Whichever way the question is answered, a certain degree of disappointment is our reward.
But I do not believe we have yet uncovered the two main reasons for the alienation of the conservative intellectual from the conservatism of the day. First of all, we have simply been crowded out by overwhelming numbers. The offensives of radicalism have driven vast herds of liberals across the border into our territories. These refugees now speak in our name, but the language they speak is the same one they always spoke. We have grown familiar with it, have learned to tolerate it, but it is tolerable only by contrast to the harsh syllables of the barbarians over the border. It contains no words for the things that we value. Our estate has been taken over by an impostor, just as we were about to inherit.
A Confederate soldier, who when captured preferred to serve in the Union army rather than face prison, was referred to as a “galvanized Yankee.” Galvanized conservatives (as well as Georgia snake-oil salesmen) are numerous and flourishing now that we seem to be the winning side, and the Old Guard cannot help but catch on the wind from the Potomac a faint but unmistakable odor of opportunistic betrayal. Of course, it is exceedingly natural for a party in pursuit of victory and consolidation of power to welcome newcomers, and even to take its old faithfuls for granted. Yet the relative degree of influence which each shall be allowed is a choice. That we have lost this decision, for whatever reason, says nothing about the merits of our claims. And tactical decisions can yet be amended, to some degree at least. In this there is hope.
But the conservative intellectual must grapple with something even more daunting than an enemy salient in his territory. In the early 1960s, it was possible to take for granted that the social fabric of the West, in its American form, was relatively intact. And that, therefore, a change of leadership and emphasis and a firm dealing with the foreign foe would put us right. I do solemnly wish that I will be proved wrong here, but history has moved on and the signs of the times suggest that we must come to grips with the much more serious and difficult crisis of the unraveling of the social fabric itself. For if our original stand, our old conservatism, meant anything at all, it meant, on its bottom line, a defense of the traditional social fabric of the West, which we deemed to be threatened.
Civilization is primarily a spiritual phenomenon, though it may have material expressions. Civilization begins with the successful combining of the universal with the particularities of a time, place and people. Such a combination results in forms of behavior, standards, which are the substance of civilization. These are revealed in both high culture and folk culture, neither of which can exist without them. The standards are a great and providential achievement—nothing less than the imposition of order on the chaos of existence, an order that rests not upon outward coercion but upon the inward apprehension of its beauty and fitness. Tradition concerns itself with the preservation and transmission of this achievement. A conservative, a.k.a. a traditionalist, is one who understands the importance and difficulty of this task. Far from being preoccupied with a dead past, he is the most forward-looking of men, for his function is to understand, adapt, preserve, and transmit the essence of civilization to future generations. He must save it from wanton destruction, from deadening inertia and inflexibility, and from indifference. One of the most successful exercises of this function in history was the American Revolution, an inspired adaptation which preserved the essence of British liberty.
Since the life of man is here and now, and since culture can only be transmitted in the forms in which it has been cast, traditions are necessarily particularist. One cannot be a traditionalist in general, as one can be a liberal or a Communist. A traditionalist can only be so about a particular tradition. American conservatism can mean nothing else but the preservation of the traditions of Western civilization. There is wide room here, since proliferating variety and independence of judgment are hallmarks of the Western tradition. But there is an irreducible core of givens: religion, implying at the least a demeanor towards the universe, our fellow man, and ourselves that can be summed up as reverence or piety; concepts of manhood, womanhood, and family—by which is meant not niches in which people are to be confined, but ideals that people aspire to fulfill in realization of their highest ethical potential; liberty—by which we mean not aimless and arrogant nonconformity, but freedom of thought and action tempered by responsibility to community and obedience to lawful authority.
It is possible, of course, to become so obsessed by the forms of a tradition as to lose its essence. The dustbin of history is full of societies which died in an inflexible worship of forms. This is not a danger that besets Americans, even American conservatives. It is also possible for tradition to be violently interrupted, That is exactly what the radical wishes so that he can create the world anew. We need only to mention the names of Lenin, Hitler, and Mao to make this point. But this, too, is a danger from which America, relatively at least, is immune.
Our danger is indifference. The liberal, who is a most characteristic type of American, relates to civilization as a fish relates to water. He is unconscious of its existence and therefore of its need to be cherished, cultivated, and handed down. It will never occur to him that endless attrition by criticism, pollution, indifference, and the introduction of innovations and eclectic elements could damage it. The liberal lacks all reverence toward, even awareness of, the universal and the forms which symbolize it. In the simplest terms, he is a man incapable of making the connection between what he regards as a happy liberation from outmoded repressions and the proliferation of divorce, pornography, rape, perversion, child abuse, abortion, and callousness.
The conservative, considering himself to be in touch with the tradition of the West, faces in 1986 a society in which the everyday virtues of honesty, loyalty, manners, work, and restraint are severely attenuated. So far as one can tell, millions of people are so cut off from all standards of value that they actually believe that Walter Cronkite is wise, Edward M. Kennedy is a statesman, Mr. T is a model for youth, and Dr. Ruth is a guide to the good life. We have a society in which educated and apparently decent mothers join their subteen daughters in viewing musical “performances” by obscene and tasteless degenerates, which degenerates become millionaires. A society in which a “serious” book is represented by the vulgar and trivial memoirs of Lee Iacocca, and in which aspirations to culture are satisfied by government subsidies to untalented and decadent poets and artists. A society in which the appointed guardians of the Constitution are so far out of touch with the essence of ordered liberty they are sworn to uphold that they have cavalierly taken a Constitutional provision whereby the States forbade the federal government to interfere in the exercise of religion and warped it into a grant of power to the federal government to interfere with the exercise of religion by the States.
The task of the conservative intellectual remains the same as it has always been, though acquiring new urgency. It is not primarily a political task, although it has unavoidably political dimensions. That task is to keep alive the wisdom that we are heir to and must keep and hand on—something more and higher than equality, a high standard of living, and a good love life—as fine as these things may be in their place. The liberal cannot help us here, even if he now dwells on our side of the border and at times calls himself a conservative. None can do the job but those who know what needs to be done. Among the proliferation of conservatisms, let us discriminate. Let us nourish as kinsmen those who will help in the essential task, no matter how outlandishly provincial their accents and clothes. As for the rest, let us go to the marketplace of ideas as honest traders, aware of the quality of our goods and determined not to be taken in by any interloper, no matter how plausible, finely turned out, and full of seductive promises.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with the gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (Volume 21, Number 3, Spring 1986). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.