In the months since the 2012 presidential election, much attention has focused on how Republican fortunes have shifted because of demographic changes in the United States. The number of minority voters is growing quickly at the same time the percentage of minority voters who vote Republican is shrinking. That story is important, but it is just one part of a larger problem that ought to worry conservatives.
Russell Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind (1953), identified a short list of things that conservatism resists: “industrialism, centralization, secularism, and the leveling impulse.” To most readers today, that list probably looks a little puzzling. It names four prevalent social forces of the past century that have been accepted, if not always welcomed, in most parts of world. A conservatism that defines itself as resisting what now looks like faits accomplis faces significant disadvantages. It’s hard to recruit followers to a lost cause. By itself, nostalgia might be enough to power an ideological movement, but not to form a winning electoral coalition.
When William F. Buckley Jr., a disciple and promoter of Kirk’s conservative vision, founded the National Review in 1955, he proclaimed that its mission was to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” American conservatism as we have known it for three generations began with this imperative, which has now led it to a political impasse. Yelling “Stop!” may be good theater but it does little to thwart history.
Eventually, Buckley begat Barry Goldwater, and Goldwater begat Ronald Reagan, who stitched together an unlikely coalition of evangelical Christians, rural populists, and economic libertarians. But those halcyon days of American conservatism did not last long. Conservatives were quick to call George H. W. Bush an unworthy heir to Reagan, and punished him in the 1992 election for breaking his oath not to raise taxes. (In a 1993 memoir, John Podhoretz wrote about a dinner party where former President Reagan reportedly told intimates, “I guess I really effed it up in 1980”—that is, by picking Bush as his running mate.) It was around this time that conservatives coined the term “RINO” to describe Republicans like Bush the elder: “Republican in name only.”
By the time Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, Reagan’s conservative coalition had hardened into a rigid ideology as bent on policing dissent within its ranks as it was on restoring America to a fantasy of pre-1960s purity. But the biggest battles in the culture wars—which Barack Obama would later describe as “the psychodrama of the baby boom generation…played out on the national stage”—came after the election of Bill Clinton (the first baby boomer in the White House) and continued into the presidency of George W. Bush. The old conservatives themes remained the same: small government, traditional values, and a strong national defense. But the tone became ever more strident. Suddenly the struggle was for control not just of government but of the nation’s soul.
Since then, the Republican Party seems to have wandered away from the sort of reasoned conservatism Russell Kirk celebrated. Kirk, who traced the history of modern conservatism back to Edmund Burke (1729–97), was no less wary of state power than contemporary conservatives are, and, like them, he believed in a universal moral order. He derived both of these convictions from Burke, and identified them as general characteristics of conservatism. But a close look at Burke’s conservatism reveals some surprising complications.
Burke was a member of Parliament during a tumultuous time. He is remembered best for his opposition to the French Revolution, but he was also a passionate advocate for American revolutionaries. He supported religious toleration for Irish Catholics and the rights of Indians under the rule of the East India Company. Some commentators have said that Burke’s defense of individual liberty and constitutional government (as opposed to absolute monarchy) make him a liberal, but Kirk offered a more enigmatic explanation: “Burke was liberal because he was conservative.” Burke’s conservatism was not nostalgia; it was not the preservation of what was old because it was old. Rather, it was a devotion to principles that had endured and achieved acceptance because they mostly worked. He did not champion the British system of government because it was British but because that system had proved durable and helped Britons flourish. “He detested ‘abstraction,’” wrote Kirk. Instead, Burke preferred a politics that took account of “human frailty and the particular circumstances of the age.”
In other words, conservatism—or at least Burkean conservatism—is not a one-size-fits-all program. Instead, it is a disposition to honor and protect what already works in a particular place at a particular time. It moves from practice to theory, not from theory to practice. But it does not try to freeze-frame history. As Kirk wrote, “Burke has no expectation that men can be kept from social change.” Societies and governments change as surely as the world spins, and conservatives will no doubt resist some changes more ardently than others. But a real conservative always values the community he’s seeking to protect more than his own resistance to an unwelcome change. “Conservatism,” Kirk wrote, “never is more admirable than when it accepts changes that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general reconciliation.” Certainly, Kirk did not mean that conservatives should acquiesce to evil with “good grace.” Rather, Kirk was pointing toward a truth that many self-described conservatives no longer recognize: Political order is not an ideal to be reached through ideological struggle. It is a daily negotiation to salvage what is best in ourselves and in our history from ordinary human frailty and the entropy of human institutions.
One reason many conservatives were so surprised by the results of the 2012 election is that they’ve become detached from this Burkean understanding of conservatism. Negotiation is not in their lexicon. Instead of addressing and, when necessary, accommodating the concrete circumstances of their own age, they have spun a cocoon around themselves. From within its closed comfort, they reassure themselves that an earlier, better America is still within reach—one where all families resemble the one in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, where (nongovernmental) institutions enjoy unquestioning trust, and where minorities are forever in the numerical minority. Conservatives succumbed to a nostalgia that not only doomed their electoral hopes but also raised fundamental questions about how they would govern.
If, as Rush Limbaugh lamented the day after the election, conservatives “have lost the country,” that is mainly because they have lost touch with the country. A conservatism blinded by nostalgia and out of touch with how people actually live will be powerless to conserve anything.
The real challenge for conservatives, as for their rivals, is to identify the best ways of managing the dislocations of an industrial (or post-industrial) economy, of mitigating the tendency of centralization—whether of money or of power—to homogenize everything it touches, and of dealing with the complex consequences of a radical pluralism that can make everything seem contestable. No political party can claim it has found perfect solutions to any of these problems. As much as Americans accept the blessings of modern life, we crave thoughtful solutions to the new problems it has created. Conservatives won’t be up to the task of offering such solutions until they emerge from their cocoon.
Steven P. Millies’s thoughtful piece identifies the central issue of conservatism: conservatives want to conserve but cannot be trapped in, or by, the past. Contemporary conservatism, with few exceptions, fails this test. It combines a libertarian conviction that all government should be as small as possible with a contradictory instinct to use state power to shore up moral standards or bring “democracy” to some hapless nation across the world. For Millies, conservatism should instead be a form of political crisis management, balancing the competing claims of modern industrial society with those of tradition, pointing a finger now and again at some excesses, but not moralizing and certainly not standing “athwart history, yelling Stop.”
In saying that Republicans are wrapped in a 1950s cocoon, Millies accuses them of thinking that the world should not change and that, if it does, they should change it back to some imaginary ideal state. But then again, some on the left look forward to an equally imaginary utopia of universal health care, sexual liberation, and government-induced equality of condition. The right looks backward for its ideal; the left looks forward. But both have their attention fixed on an illusory perfection. From Russell Kirk’s perspective both are mistaken. As Millies acknowledges, Kirk was opposed to any kind of ideological perfectionism.
Millies’s critique, however, echoes an argument against conservatives that has existed since at least the ’50s, when modern conservatism began. Gordon Lewis, in a review of the first edition of Kirk’s 1953 classic The Conservative Mind, focused on the “weakness of logic characteristic of all conservative thought: it erects a philosophy which must oppose fundamental change and then, when change has been effected by the operation of social-cultural factors, it proceeds to incorporate its compelled accommodation to the new facts as an example of the remarkable wisdom of willing concession.” Thus, conservatives must either be mere temporizers who first resist social change and then offer it their post facto blessing, or reactionaries outside the march of history. Neither response is likely to be successful, socially or politically.
Kirk was doing something quite different, which is why he distinguished between reactionaries and true conservatives. He was concerned with the centralization not just of political power but also of money. He was concerned with cultural homogenization, but also with the loss of a sense of overarching order that binds one generation to the next. He saw the parallels between the radicalized Baby Boomer and the hyper-libertarian, and was as opposed to Ayn Rand as to Lyndon Johnson, each of whom he thought had adopted a reductionist view of the human person. Randian man, Kirk believed, was cut off from family and community and so became a monster of selfishness, while Johnsonian man was essentially a social engineer, for whom individuals were only cogs in a wheel called “the Great Society.” Kirk did not seek a “middle ground” between these two reductionisms. Instead, he wanted conservatives to rethink the connection between history and progress and the claim tradition had on our daily lives. So on some issues Kirk sounded like a conservative; he certainly had little use for ambitious federal programs. Yet, like his hero Burke, he had empathy for those who had been marginalized by history or the dominant culture. (There isn’t much evidence of such empathy in contemporary conservative thought.) And he shared the view of T. S. Eliot and the historian John Lukacs that individuals shape history and tradition rather than simply receiving it passively. This gives Kirk’s conservatism its respect for true pluralism.
But this is one reason Kirk is misunderstood among contemporary conservatives: he speaks in a language they no longer use. Kirk tried in his writings to create a rhetorical space in which to examine what a postliberal world might look like, as he was convinced liberal reason was a short-lived historical phenomenon. His evocative books present an alternative to liberalism’s story of inevitable progress toward the end of history. Rather than trying to “thwart” history, Kirk believed there was an important element of mystery in social change, as there was in each person. The idea that we understand where history is headed well enough for liberals to advance it or conservatives to thwart it was foolish, in Kirk’s view. To talk of metaphysical “history” as a justification for policies that threaten or destroy concrete human goods was a liberal trap, and conservatives were wise to avoid using such language.
Conservatives must use their own language, invoking community (not as an anodyne abstraction, but as a concrete historical reality), duty (not only rights), and freedom (not license). But while he believed in eternal norms, Kirk did not believe these entailed a single set of policies to be applied across all times and places, and this makes translating his work into a political program difficult. There is a role for government—Kirk was no anarchist—and even for activist government, but local initiatives were preferable to federal programs; policies could vary from place to place according to local needs and customs. Kirk, following Orestes Brownson, called this “territorial democracy.” He would have no sympathy for the hawkish American exceptionalism that now dominates the Republic Party, since nothing corrupts tradition and community more than large-scale military establishments. Kirk might think it more conservative to have universal health care and a noninterventionist foreign policy than the reverse. Similarly, economic conservatives’ obsession with open borders and “global capitalism” undermines the stability necessary for a social order that protects and fosters community. Thus, a Kirkian conservatism would focus on reducing military commitments abroad, and controlling immigration at home. But it would also probably insist on better conditions for workers and more stringent environmental controls.
Millies is right: The conservative coalition has cracked, perhaps beyond repair, but neither economic nor social conservatives have enough strength on their own to create something truly new. Kirk, along with Christopher Lasch and Wilson Carey McWilliams (both longtime Commonweal contributors), represents a lost tradition of American thought, one that is attentive to the importance (and fragility) of local community, respectful of cultural variety, and therefore committed to the structures of American federalism. It is a tradition worth revisiting.