WASHINGTON, March 15, 2015 – The original post-World War II conservative movement asked the basic question that the 19th-century British Conservative Benjamin Disraeli said was essential.
The first thing a conservative must ask, he declared, was what it was it that he meant to conserve.
What those original modern conservatives sought to conserve was the American political tradition, which embraced principles such as constitutional government, division of powers, freedom of speech, press and religion and a respect for individual rights.
Today, some who call themselves conservatives have developed elements of an ideological cult, embracing a series of apparently non-negotiable “principles” that take it far from the sensibilities of those in whose name they speak. A contemporary “conservative,” it seems, must reject evolution, deny climate change, oppose any restriction on gun ownership, even for the mentally ill, and reject almost any role for government in American society.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., recently said of government, “We need to shut the damn thing down.”
To reject any element of this virtually religious creed is to be a “RINO” (Republican in name only).
What would Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan think of such an enterprise?
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who served in the last three Republican administrations, notes:
“Conservatives are rightly proud of our Constitution, yet many of them are disdainful of our government. But the Constitution created our system of government, and our goal in political life should be to reform that government back into one we can be proud of again. Understanding government in this way, and taking the steps necessary to enable it to work better and therefore regain the trust of the American people is a worthy calling. And a deeply conservative one, too.”
What early conservatives rejected was ideology, which, by way of Nazism, communism, fascism and socialism, made a wasteland of the 20th century. The American political tradition, from the beginning, was not against government, but was against its abuses, and wanted it to be limited so that freedom would be preserved. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison makes this clear:
“It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Russell Kirk, whose book “The Conservative Mind” really launched modern conservatism, believed that the major problem faced in the 20th century was its commitment to ideology.
In his book “The Politics of Prudence” (1993), he commends political prudence, one of the four “classical virtues,” as opposed to “ideology,” a word that signifies political fanaticism. In the initial chapters, some of which were delivered at the Heritage Foundation, he outlines the principles of conservative thought, summarizes important conservative books and offers brief accounts of eminent conservatives, among them Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Sir Walter Scott, T.S. Eliot and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The book, he tells us, is meant to be a “defense of prudential politics as opposed to ideological politics.” He hoped to persuade the rising generation to set their faces against political extremism and utopian schemes with which the world has been afflicted since 1914:
“‘Politics is the art of the possible,’ the conservative says; he thinks of political policies as intended to preserve order, justice and freedom. The ideologue, on the contrary, thinks of politics as a revolutionary instrument for transforming society and even transforming human nature. In the march toward Utopia, the ideologue is merciless.”
The ideologies that have been so costly in our time – communism, fascism and Nazism – are, Kirk points out, really “inverted religions.” But, he notes,
“the prudential politician knows that ‘Utopia’ means ‘Nowhere’; that we cannot march to an earthly Zion; that human nature and human institutions are imperfectible; that aggressive ‘righteousness’ in politics ends in slaughter.
“True religion is a discipline for the soul, not for the state…It is the conservative leader who, setting his face against all ideologies, is guided by what Patrick Henry called ‘the lamp of experience.’ In this 20th century, it has been the body of opinion generally called ‘conservative’ that has defended the Permanent Things from ideological assaults.”
Conservatism, Kirk writes,
“is not a bundle of theories got up by some closet philosopher. On the contrary…the conservative conviction grows out of experience: the experience of the species, of the nation, of the person…It is the practical statesman, rather than the visionary recluse, who has maintained a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of freedom…. The Constitution of the United States, two centuries old, is a sufficient example of the origin of conservative institutions in a people’s experience…the Constitution…was rooted in direct personal experience of the political and social institutions which had developed in the Thirteen Colonies since the middle of the 17th century, and in thorough knowledge of the British growth, over seven centuries, of parliamentary government, ordered freedom and the rule of law.”
The triumph of ideology would, Kirk writes, be the triumph of what Edmund Burke called the “antagonist world.”
This, in Kirk’s view, is “the world of disorder.”
“…what the conservative seeks to conserve is the world of order that we have inherited, if in a damaged condition, from our ancestors. The conservative mind and the ideological mind stand at opposite poles. And the contest between these two mentalities may be no less strenuous in the 21st century than it has been during the 20th.”
The basic difference between conservatives and the advocates of the many ideologies that clutter the intellectual landscape, including extreme forms of “libertarianism,” which often border on anarchy, and “neo-conservatism,” which are often confused with conservatism, relates to the nature of man himself:
“Man being imperfect, no perfect social order can ever be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent — or else expire in boredom…. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster; the conservative says, ‘We are not made for perfect things.’ All that we can reasonably expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are neglected, then the anarchic impulse in mankind breaks loose…. The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the 20th century world into a terrestrial hell.”
Russell Kirk advised the new generation to explore the past, discover the roots of our civilization and work to restore its sensibility.
“Time is not a devourer only. With proper use of the life-span allotted to us, we may do much to redeem modernity from vices, terrors and catastrophic errors.”
Many who now claim to speak for conservatism, among them glib radio talk show hosts and partisan politicians, have forgotten Disraeli’s question about what it is that conservatives really seek to conserve. If it is the American political tradition, embodied in our Constitution and in the thinking of the Founding Fathers, contempt for government and belief in virtual anarchy are no place to be found.
Neither is adherence to a form of political orthodoxy enforced by inquisition-like tribunals. Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison would find little they would recognize as an American political tradition in such phenomena.
Many of those who proclaim themselves most loudly to be “conservative,” are, in reality, something quite different.