In "The Conservative Mind" (1953), a founding document of the American conservative movement, Russell Kirk assembled an array of major thinkers beginning with Edmund Burke and made a major statement. He proved that conservative thought in America existed, and even that such thought was highly intelligent--a demonstration very much needed at the time.
It was "needed" I guess because somebody would pay for (remember the Olin Foundation and all that?), and because the nasty accomodations to labor that had happened in Europe and to a lesser extent in Japan might have happened in the United States. Oh, yes in 1950 we had "lost" China - as though it was ours to begin with or at least as though it was ours rightfully after defeating Japan's imperialist ambitions...oh, whatever...and as for Korea, well, below I guess we'll pay no attention to the fact that the UN intervened in Korea against the Communists, but whatever...
Today we are in a very different and more complicated situation. Nevertheless, a synthesis is possible, based on what American conservatism has achieved and left unachieved since Kirk's volume. Any political position is only as important as the thought by which it is derived; the political philosopher presiding will be Burke, but a Burke interpreted for a new constitutional republic and for modern life. Here, then, is my assessment of the ideas held in balance in the American Conservative Mind today.
This sounds - and has sounded to moderates and progressives for a while, at least as far back as the 80s- to be an echo of the type of rhetoric we've heard from Marxists. The similarity to it is always remarkable.
Hard utopianism. During the 20th century, socialism and communism tried to effect versions of their Perfect Man in the Perfect Society. But as Pascal had written, "Man is neither angel nor brute, and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the brute." In abstract theory was born the Gulag. One of conservatism's most noble enterprises from its beginning was its informed anti-communism.
This itself is a crude abstraction both of Communism and Socialism, but also a crude abstraction of any thought centrist and leftist. We can agree that "in abstract theory was born the Gulag," but we can also see that from its beginning- remember the John Birch Society, remember Father Coughlin, and yes, never forget the conservatism's historic ties to Fascism and Nazism- conservatism's militance against liberal and libertarian thought has been present.
Soft utopianism. Both hard and soft utopianism ignore flawed human nature. Soft utopianism believes in benevolent illusions, most abstractly stated in the proposition that all goals are reconcilable, as in such dreams as the Family of Man, World Peace, multiculturalism, pacifism and Wilsonian global democracy. To all of these the Conservative Mind objects. Men do not all desire the same things: Domination is a powerful desire. The phrase about the lion lying down with the lamb is commonly quoted; but Isaiah knew his vision of peace would take divine intervention, not at all to be counted on. Without such intervention, the lion dines well.
So here- if we are to take Hart at his word- "Conservatism" has always been opposed to a straw-man. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt in pursuing the New Deal admitted that he was experimenting, to see what works. The shorter version of this paragraph is "We're realists! They're not!" but in making this claim "conservatism" ignores the great thinkers of the center and left, as well as traditions outside of its own narrow western-centric sphere.
Conservatism can only make this claim provided the reader has no idea about what existentialism was, or postmodernism, or even what
Madhyamika Buddhism is.
The nation. Soft utopianism speaks of the "nation-state" as if it were a passing nuisance. But the Conservative Mind knows that there must be much that is valid in the idea of the nation, because nations are rooted in history. Arising out of tribes, ancient cosmological empires, theocracies, city-states, imperial systems and feudal organization, we now have the nation. Imperfect as the nation may be, it alone--as far as we know--can protect many of the basic elements of civilized existence.
It follows that national defense remains a necessity, threatened almost always by "lie-down-with-the-lambism," as well as by recurrent, and more obviously hostile, hard utopianisms. In the earliest narratives of the West, both the Greek "Iliad" and the Hebrew Pentateuch, wars are central. Soft utopianism often has encouraged more frequent wars, as it is irresistibly tempting to the lion's claws and teeth. The Conservative Mind, most of the time, has shown a healthy resistance to utopianism and its various informing ideologies. Ideology is always wrong because it edits reality and paralyzes thought.
Progressives and liberals have never disputed that there was a role for nations in the world in which we find ourselves, and that we need to defend ourselves. But what we have noticed, and to which conservatives have never even lip service, except for Reagan at the brink, was that nations must be able to pull back from the brink of utter annihilation or we will go over that precipice. We must attempt to make peace, even though we're flawed, even though we might be cheated because the alternative might be mass suicide.
Constitutional government. Depending on English tradition and classical theory, the Founders designed a government by the "deliberate sense" of the people. The "sense" originated with the people, but it was made "deliberate" by the delaying institutions built into the constitutional structure. This system aims at government not by majorities alone but by stable consensus, because under the Constitution major changes almost always require a consensus that lasts over a considerable period of time. Though the Supreme Court stands as constitutional arbiter, it is not a legislature. The correct workings of the system depend upon mutual restraint among the branches. And the court, which is the weakest of the three, should behave with due modesty toward the legislature. The legislature is the closest to "We the people," the basis of legitimacy in a free society. Legislation is more easily revised or repealed than a court ruling, and therefore judicial restraint is necessary.
The absurdity of this paragraph is breathaking, but subtle, so let's coax it out: Conservatives believe that the Civil War never happened, that our "constitutional" structure would have solved the problem, that it didn't matter that untold slaves suffered, it didn't matter that the Klan ran rampant, it didn't matter that religious minorities' had lesser liberties than religious majorities. As for this progressive, I realize that there are indeed flaws in the US constitutional structure, and that they were put in to "seal the deal" between the free and slave states, and that the structure of the US constition was such as to favor wealthy interests over middle class and poorer classes. If you don't like the judiciary getting involved over seeing that the middle classes and poorer classes get whatever scraps of liberty this constitution entitles them to, then give them the liberty to which they're entitled. But otherwise, quit whining.
Free-market economics. American conservatism emerged during a period when socialism in various forms had become a tacit orthodoxy. The thought of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman informed its understanding of economic questions. At length, the free market triumphed through much of the world, and today there are very few socialists in major university economics departments, an almost total transformation since 1953. But the utopian temptation can turn such free-market thought into a utopianism of its own--that is, free markets to be effected even while excluding every other value and purpose . . .
. . . such as Beauty, broadly defined. The desire for Beauty may be natural to human beings, like other natural desires. It appeared early, in prehistoric cave murals. In literature (for example, Dante) and in other forms of representation--painting, sculpture, music, architecture--Heaven is always beautiful, Hell ugly. Plato taught that the love of Beauty led to the Good. Among the needs of civilization is what Burke called the "unbought grace of life."
So the free market is a god unless it interferes with an abstract notion of "beauty?" Huh? Progressives and liberals understand that the "free market" is an abstraction and is often used to swindle others. Period. People want to be able to earn a good living, to be healthy, and to make as many of their own decisions as possible, but they live with others.
Religion. Religion is an integral part of the distinctive identity of Western civilization. But this recognition is only manifest in traditional forms of religion--repeat, traditional, or intellectually and institutionally developed, not dependent upon spasms of emotion. This meant religion in its magisterial forms.
What the time calls for is a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum, established as history, and interpreted through Greek philosophy. The representation of this metaphysics through language and ritual took 10 centuries to perfect. The dome of the sacred, however, has been shattered. The act of reconstruction will require a large effort of intellect, which is never populist and certainly not grounded on emotion, an unreliable guide. Religion not based on a structure of thought always exhibits wild inspired swings and fades in a generation or two.
This was one of the most interesting passages of the article to me, since it takes an implied swipe at Evangelicals as well as religious progressives and of course, Jews.
To "conservatives" then, there is no place for Buddhism, Taoism, Deism, Islam, Judaism, as well as Pentacostalism, Quakerism, and atheism and agnosticism, no matter how well informed or developed. Why? Because Jeffrey Hart said so.
Hart goes on to talk about how the right to life movement is "utopian," but to me it seems Hart's heart isn't in it, but he suspects that his position is open to precisly the attack I make here: conservatism is every bit as ideological is the straw-men ideologies it purports to attack.
Wilsonianism. The Republican Party now presents itself as the party of Hard Wilsonianism, which is no more plausible than the original Soft Wilsonianism, which balkanized Central Europe with dire consequences. No one has ever thought Wilsonianism to be conservative, ignoring as it does the intractability of culture and people's high valuation of a modus vivendi. Wilsonianism derives from Locke and Rousseau in their belief in the fundamental goodness of mankind and hence in a convergence of interests.
Again, we're supposed to forget that it was the UN that went up against the North Koreans, and it was the UN that eradicated small pox, and it was the UN that did the successful Gulf War I, and it was the UN that has intervened in places to actually stop bloodshed.There's more in Hart's article that attempts to fault the Republican party for not being PC from a conservative point of view, but it's irrelevant to my points here.
In summary then, with its own ideology and abstraction and selective reading of history, as well as its ad hoc justifications for its existence masking its real purposes for its existence, "conservatism" is an ideology, and one that seeks not to improve the lot in which we find ourselves, but to keep a status quo, even if that status quo is George Orwell's vision of a boot stomping on a human face for eternity.