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Remembering Conservatism

Remembering Conservatism

For half a century CPAC has been a place to glimpse the soul of conservatism. In recent years the conference hasn’t painted a pretty picture.

At the original CPAC in 1974, Ronald Reagan introduced three heroes released from captivity in Vietnam. Among them was John McCain. At CPAC 2019, professional entertainer Michelle Malkin excoriated McCain’s ghost. This year’s event featured insights from a reality TV pawn shop owner. Among the thin “serious thinkers” category at CPAC was a writer who predicted the imminent collapse of China…in 2001. Israel’s former UN Ambassador was followed on stage by a stomach-churning minstrel performance from YouTube entertainers, Diamond and Silk.

CPAC is now a trade show for the entertainment industry. “Conservatism” is merely a niche in that business, mostly clustered at the cheap end of your radio dial.

Shopping for a podcast targeted to anti-feminist millennials, a Twitter feed for pro-gun black voters, or a YouTube channel touting the war on men? Need an inflammatory speaker for your wildly unpopular campus event? Looking for an African-American who will defend your local police force after an “unfortunate incident?” This is your place. For a modest contribution, you can even purchase the services of Diamond and Silk who will agree to be your black friend.

Once upon a time, conservatives were as skeptical of capitalism as they were of socialist central planning. Finding themselves trapped in the 20th century between communism and capitalism, conservatives gradually made their peace with market enthusiasts. Under Cold War pressure they forgot their suspicion of Burke’s “sophisters, economists and calculators.” They were tamed, forgetting half or more of what conservatives are dedicated to conserve. With conservatism stripped down to the ethics of the market, no force remains to chase the moneychangers from the temple. Conservatism would still be relevant if conservatives could remember what it means.

In the midst of so much confusion and corruption, it’s valuable to remember that conservatism is not merely a party or a political platform, but a philosophy; a measured, prudent approach to social change. Barry Goldwater spent his life in passionate, conservative defense of abortion rights and birth control. Theodore Olson and Jason Lee Steorts both penned eloquent conservative cases for same-sex marriage. The roots of conservatism stretch back to ancient understandings of human nature expressed by Plato and the later philosophers of the Roman Republic. The American and French Revolutions inspired the first modern efforts to define conservatism in the English-speaking world, best articulated for that era by the British parliamentarian Edmund Burke. It’s best recent translator was Russell Kirk in the 1950’s.

Kirk helped found the National Review along with William F. Buckley. Through his influence on Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Kirk’s vision of conservatism became the pole star of the late 20th Century right.

In his 1953 book, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Kirk summarized conservatism in six central tenets:

1)   Belief in a transcendent order

2)   Respect for the complexity of human existence

3)   Civilized society requires orders and classes

4)   Freedom and property are closely linked

5)   Distrust of “sophisters, economists and calculators” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs

6)   Change is necessary, but it must proceed carefully, cautiously, and with an eye toward preserving core social institutions

Kirk believed that a natural order set in place by a transcendent power governs political life in much the same way that physics guides the stars. That natural order is imperfect and sometimes unfair, but it preserves us from the ravages of our animal instincts.

Efforts to remove natural inequalities or tear down traditional social roles through top-down political mandates risk unleashing chaotic forces that destroy humane values. That insight, forged in the French Revolution, was reinforced with new vigor by the Russian experience. Conservatism embraces change through evolution rather than revolution. The place to initiate change is first in the heart, then at home, emanating out into through the mediating networks of community to transform a society. Conservatives believe that people should transform a government, not the other way round.

Thanks to the demands of the Cold War, we’re all well aware of conservatives’ objections to communism. Also thanks to the Cold War, conservatives have forgotten their suspicion of capitalism. That’s a lapse with serious consequences.

Capitalism is an uneasy fit with a conservative world-view. For conservatives, a web of rights and duties govern public values. Capitalism replaces those rights and duties with an all-consuming profit ethic. It replaces values established by custom with prices set by markets. Markets assign a very low price to traditional conservative priorities like parenthood, service, or citizenship.

Communism threatens conservatives by replacing an established social order with central government mandates. Capitalism threatens conservatives by reducing human interactions to their momentary market value, unleashing  what Schumpeter described as “creative destruction.” Power in a socialist state is centered in the hands of bureaucrats. Power in a capitalist state becomes centralized in the hands of capital owners. Conservatives used to be wary of both.

Conservatives made their peace with capitalism in the 20th century because communism posed a far more immediate threat. Capitalism is not conservative. It is, however, thanks to its emphasis on markets, relatively friendlier to private institutions and personal liberty than communism. In time, conservatives who fought calculated social engineering from the left blindly embraced randomized social engineering unleashed by market forces.

When communism collapsed, conservatives found themselves disoriented. Communism was a much more entertaining rival than capitalism, and ultimately easier to restrain. Deprived of a contemporary purpose, conservatives continue to manufacture communists to oppose. Obama was a communist. Opponents of endless tax cuts are communists. At a moment when conservatives should have emerged to counter the most disruptive and dangerous tendencies of global market economics, they lacked a language to resist, becoming instead just one more pig at the trough. We needed another Russell Kirk for the Age of Globalization. What we got instead was a series of amateur entertainers performing cartoon antics on their YouTube Channel to “own the libs.” We got the class and character of conservative leadership that the market was prepared to reward.

What’s most likely to emerge from the dumpster fire of the Trump era is resurgent liberalism. Powered by a rising generation of youth sickened by the bigotry, cultish subservience and naked greed of prominent so-called conservatives, a looming triumph of the left will foster a renewed need for conservatism as a pragmatic, prudent brake on liberal ambitions. That force is nowhere evident at the moment.

A healthy society depends on a balance between liberal and conservative values. The tension between liberalism and conservatism might be summarized as the conflict between faith and reason. Liberals tend to approach public life with the mind of an engineer, seeing in society a great whirring of gears to be tuned, innovated and rebuilt at will. Old parts are merely tossed away to make room for new. By this top-down logic, as much power as possible should be concentrated in the hands of experts who will impose their plans for our betterment.

If liberals are engineers, conservatives are gardeners, in thrall to the organic balance of interdependent life, each organism in pursuit of its own interests toward the creation of a beautiful whole. Collective action, mediated through a limited, representative government, might trim or weed around the edges without attempting the wholesale reimagination of a society. Conservatives see value in history, culture and tradition in their own right, independent of their market value. They are less interested in optimization than in preservation. Conservatives protect institutions that tie us together not merely in the moment, but across time, from our forebears to those not yet born.

The liberal has a genius for innovation. The conservative preserves the gift of memory. Without the long memory and organic perspective conservatives offer, a society swings chaotically from one momentary whim to the next. Conservatives remain relevant even as the political movement bearing their name descends into rot. Having lost its skepticism for markets, conservatism as a movement has been overwhelmed by sycophants, salesmen and predators. Yet, our need for a humanizing counter-balance to cold liberalism will remain. Through a fog of entertainment and distraction, conservatives must recover their talent for memory by remembering themselves. Out of this dismal moment will emerge a kernel of renewal, because it must.


  1. DFC

    I don’t think there’s anything useful in nostalgia about what Conservative “was” back when Buckley and Kirk et al., were defining the Movement. Buckley was never more than a salesman. He lived in a personal focus group and adjusted the definitions of Conservatism not out of some firm integrity, but because he had a product to sell, and some flavors of it were displeasing to the market. Hence the presence of, and then the disappearances of, the likes of Kendall and Oliver. They were by Buckley’s own standards more “conservative” than he was, pushing the definitions to their logical extremes of exclusionary dogma and bigotry; and Buckley couldn’t let them offend the markets. (Garry Wills’s “Confessions of a Conservative” is great reading about the old days of National Review.)

    But the collapse we see now is happening not because Kirk and the ur-Conservatives have been abandoned. It’s because Kirk, Buckley, Weaver, and the others never said what Conservatism was. They said what it felt like. They offered sanctimonious subjective inductions as moral certainties. The flaw in the blueprint reveals itself when every Conservative has the duty to say what Conservatism feels like to him, and validates it himself, regardless of what it feels like to someone else. What “belief in a transcendent order” means isn’t even possible to define empirically, but every Conservative is entitled to say for himself what it is, where he is in it, and why the next guy is wrong about it even when the next guy is another Conservative. “Respect for the complexity of human existence” is the perfect dodge for avoiding questions of, say, climate science, or epidemiology, or whether Trump can classify documents in his head. Nobody advocating that “Civilized society requires orders and classes” is someone whose order would be less and class would be worse thanks to Kirk. That “freedom and property are closely linked” is a dangerous position when by Texas law, I can lease the land on my side of a property line for fracking, and poison your subsurface water thereby. “Distrust of ‘sophisters, economists and calculators’ who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs” is spectacular sophistry that lets the booboisie dismiss anyone and anything they don’t want to understand. And if “change is necessary,” then who gets to demand that it “proceed carefully, cautiously, and with an eye toward preserving core social institutions”? Isn’t that one of the arguments that the Confederacy tried to use to justify slavery?

    There may have been a chance sixty years ago for Kirk to set a “pole star” in the sky, but nothing in fluff about “belief” or “respect” or “orders and classes” or “freedom” or “distrust” was fixed, ever. Any Conservative could read the sky as he liked, and navigate by a zodiac of his own imagination. That subjectivity became Conservatism because Buckley needed readers, and voters, and buyers—“Janissaries” as he called them, “suckers” being too candid for him to say; which is why Buckley made a mischievous game of not saying what it was. What’s most remarkable about the Kirk/Buckley era polemics isn’t their brilliance. It’s that they’re still built into current Conservatism, like patent medicines that somehow remain on the shelves long after they’ve been proven useless and dangerous. The theories they sold us made us feel sound and solidly Conservative, but they became empty addictions to circular reasoning and dead imaginations. We see the effects of it now: whole sections of the country degraded physically and morally by the sanctimonies and delusions, places living in a theory and denying the fact of fact itself; places where common sense has fled and nihilism can buy a rifle on the way to school. The “genteel courtesy” was a lie in the first place, sadly, that’s the only lie Conservatives have shed.

  2. Skin makes a good point about the potential for positive change in the Republican Party. Say democrats sweep the 2020 election- taking total control of government as republicans did in 2016. The irrationality Dins has predicted is not far fetched. Why do I believe this? Because no one in their right mind can look at what is happening in our country right now and fail to see the extremism that exists. Defeating Trump does not kill the rabid, irrational base numbering millions of voting Americans. These people have had ringside seats and have cheered and supported all the ugliness, lies, humiliation, and irresponsibility of the man they somehow admire. I don’t know what to expect from people who have demonstrated such abject disregard for common sense, facts, and reason.

    Which brings me to Mike Brady’s thoughts about the looming financial crisis America faces. We are faced with a nation whose people are strongly divided in their views about the role of government and the type of leadership needed to secure power. Consequences of being wrong are not part of the calculus. America’s debt is approaching 4 trillion dollars and our ability to manage a severe economic downturn is complicated by both poor leadership and fewer tools of correction. This puts all of us at risk – young and old, working and retired. There is a group who continue to prosper. That is the subject of this provocative piece from Business Insider. It examines whether capitalism shares a large part of the blame for the division within America today, through the unexpected lens of Karl Marx and the challenging comments of Alexandria Olivio Cortez. As an older person who considers myself a moderate democrat, I find a lot of truth in this piece. Frankly, if there is any “good” to come from the chaos, possibly it will be in an honest re-evaluation of what is best for our society at this point in history. I’m open to trying something new even if it counters the status quo. What I seek is greater fairness.

  3. Interesting, from David Brin. Includes a repost of this bit:

    “Even conservatives now admit that conservatism has changed. Take the Ronald Reagan who Republican activists idolize in abstract; in real life he raised taxes, increased regulations, signed environmental laws, and (worst of all) negotiated countless compromise give-and-take, pragmatic measures in tandem with a Congress run by the other party. As did Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, giants who argued with genteel courtesy and who revered both knowledge and intellect, especially science. Even the most fervid Tea Party aficionado would avow that today’s GOP has little room for such things—as Goldwater and Buckley themselves proclaimed, to their dismay, before they died.”

    1. In practice, Conservatism in America tended to be about protection of property for white elites and white supremacy for everything else. It was not about king, church, and little battalions of civil society that Edmund Burke would reference. Trump took the mask off, said the quiet parts with a bullhorn, and destroyed all illusions of conservatism being about a strong defense, family values, small government, or lower taxes. He has shown it is merely a temper tantrum of white men wanting to be racist and keep control their womenfolk. I don’t mourn conservatism at all. It is dead and so let it die. However, it seems to have a zombie resilience even when all of the old precepts are shown to be false. You are too optimistic in thinking there is going to be a wide swing to the left. This zombie still has too much life in it.

      1. Conservative media, which exists to inflame rather than inform, is the ‘zombie’ animus which will keep our current abomination of conservatism running well past its expiration date. Whether someone is on the Trump train or not, consuming conservative media cultivates wildly inaccurate views on wedge issues in order to demonize Democrats – the Republicans must always be the lesser evil, no matter how awful their candidates and policies are.

        While we should absolutely outvote and marginalize Republicans at every turn, that’s still not getting to the heart of the problem, the people who still vote for them. Something needs to happen to break their faith in conservative media. How this would happen without being perceived as a partisan attack is beyond my ken. Sadly, I think we’re in for a lot of paranoia and violence until conservatism sorts itself out (or more likely, flames out).

      2. Well said, Bobby. The wild hares on the left (GMO and anti-vaxers) look positively “quaint” in comparison to what is happening on the right….frequently in the name of “god”. Hard times for reasonable people who use facts to guide their decision-making. My gosh, let’s hope that enough of them (rational ones) get out and vote in 2020. I don’t know how much more chaos and destruction our Democracy can handle.

      3. ” Many traditional Republicans are shocked by their party’s takeover by Southern conservatives and frustrated by their lack of options. These Republican and former-Republican dissidents tend to be higher-income enthusiasts of capitalism and trade, leaving little common ground on which to build a coalition with the remnants of the Democratic Party.”

        Yet, almost to a one, these traditional Republicans continue to support (financially) the GOP and ignore the worst abuses happening under their banner. Racism is certainly part of their calculus but power and money are drivers. IMO.

      4. My opinion for some has been that the South basically dominates The US political system. In so doing it has promulgated the racist and cruel policies of the old South. When I read Colin Woodard’s “American Nations’, early in 2018 followed by several histories of the antebellum South and Chris’ article in Forbes to which he linked above, I became convinced of that.

        Though Trump is a New Yorker, he is a classical New York businessman who has no morals other than profit. He inherited that approach from his father and grandfather and his racism also came from that source. His narcissism has made that tendency far worse.

        With the old South racists controlling the Republican Party the only solution I see is for that party to be totally defeated at the polls for several consecutive elections so that a new party, whether using that name or not, is born. To use Woodard’s divisions, with Greater Appalachia and the Far West solidly aligned with the South in the Republican coalition, that is essentially, if not impossible, a very difficult task.

        IMO, when the South last controlled the US for a substantial period of time, they led the the nation into the great catastrophe of the Civil War. I hope that does not happen this time., but we still have a society that is more divided than at any time since the immediate antebellum years.

        Perhaps, Trump is so bad that the more rational parts of our nation such as Yankeedom, the Left Coast, the Midlands, Tidewater and the rising El Norte will be able to ally with each other and take control of the government in 2020 and begin enacting reforms.

    2. I think posting You Tube clips in this forum is pretty low-brow, but this one strikes me as incredibly appropriate to your comment Chris re: The Tea Party. Aaron Sorkin writes in a pretty idealized left-wing setting, but man, sometimes he is bang-on. You can skip to 5:14 for the part that is truly appropriate.

      Remember, this was written over 8 years ago, when things were somewhat less partisan than today, if that is possible,

    3. Chris,

      I am pessimistic whether it will EVER be possible for Republicans to recover their rationality. There is increasing research showing that over the course of several decades of the “southern strategy” people with authoritarian inclinations have migrated from the Democratic party to the Republican party. Meanwhile, the more moderate “Rockefeller”–type Republicans have tended to move toward the Democrats.

      There are not necessarily more authoritarians now than there were before. But in the past they were more evenly distributed between the two parties and did not have the numbers to dictate party policy. Now these authoritarians have accumulated in the Republican party to an extent that they approach — or even exceed — a majority of the Republican primary electorate. At that point the crazyness of the party becomes self-sustaining.

      There is an idea among some establishment conservatives that the Republicans just need to lose badly enough to finally force the party to come to their senses and become more inclusive and reasonable. This may be true for establishment and elected Republicans but certainly NOT for Republican voters.

      You saw this play out after Mitt Romney’s defeat. The party saw the light and commissioned an “autopsy report” to show the way forward. But the party base rebelled so violently that any movement in that direction was quickly abandoned.

      I see it as much more likely that future defeats no matter how bad will just cause the Republican base react by doubling down even more — feeling more victimized and becoming even more resentful, insular and extreme.

      I don’t see how the party ever recovers from this, and I don’t see how in our political system any third party effort can become more than just a destructive spoiler.

      At this point it is hard to even imagine what a rational conservatism would even look like. But some people have actually made an effort to do this. It seems to me like a futile cry in the wilderness, but perhaps worth thinking about and pointing out to your readers.

  4. Are you sure that you’re on the side of what you’re calling conservativism rather than that of what you’re calling capitalism? Your pieces about the new global skill/information economy and urban/rural divides do not give that impression.

    1. No, I’m not sure.

      I have a foot in both worlds, and the foot I planted in capitalism is producing a lot more success and happiness than my remaining attachments to old world conservatism. A look at conservative, communitarian values with some admiration and nostalgia. But I live my life a thousand miles from my home, with day to day close social ties mostly to people all over the world rather than to my immediate neighbors.

      In reality, I’m part of the new transcience, and that life of few attachments and little real localism is working out extremely well so far. I am torn.

      1. Having a foot in both worlds – capitalism and conservativism – is complicated only because of the changes that have occurred within the Republican Party. Not because conservativism is inately bad (remember, I’m a bleeding heart liberal so take your compliments when they’re offered), but because those within the movement are savaging the core principles. Sadly, it’s where things are and as Rob notes above, trump is just a mouthpiece of deeply rooted selfishness and racism.

  5. I had to check this figure because I did not believe it when I first saw it. The deficit is up by 77% so far this year. I guess fiscal responsibility is right out with so called conservatives nowadays also.

    That damn tax cut that was going to pay for itself, isn’t. Oh wait, Trumps mouth was moving when I heard that. My bad.

    Chris, please post a link to “The Cargo is not Coming” . It was the first thing I ever read that you wrote. There are a lot of similarities between the islanders and the MAGA crowd . Really explains a lot now that I think about it. Common sense isn’t, rational thinking is rare, and some folks a way too easily trained!

    1. I’ve been impressed by Fed Chairman Powell who seems to understand that wages need time and opportunity to rise and is resisting policies that thwart wage increases. Business profits soared as a result of the tax cut you reference, but wage growth was nascent.

      America’s trade deficit is headed in the wrong direction and the market is cautious in their belief itrump’s tariff policies are going to ever benefit America. The success of negotiations with China have been elusive. So far, the economy has held firm but for how long? It’s been stated by many economists that under this administration, if there were a 2008 event, the tools to address it are not there.

    1. They linger. If you want to know what a conservative dinosaur looks like walking around in the present day, observe Senator Ben Sasse. He’s not a particularly remarkable conservative, he hasn’t been all that great, he’s just the last known specimen.

      Also, keep in mind that we’re talking about a philosophy. Politicians are rarely philosophers. Their philosophical positions are products of thinkers, shaped by processes that most of them know nothing about. Sasse is rare partly because he’s also an academic. There are practically no politicians walking around with a working knowledge of conservatism because that academic tradition largely dried up in the seventies.

      I did actually benefit from having an old-school conservative political science professor. He was a product of UC Berkeley in the 70’s, which turns out to be a surprisingly fertile ground for conservative thought at the time, one of the last holdouts, partly because the havoc of the 60’s had been felt so closely there.

  6. EJ

    That is a remarkable argument. Chris, your philosophical journey continues to amaze me; as much for its unusual destinations as for the articulacy with which you argue it.

    It occurs to me that you’re grasping for language to describe your thoughts fully. Might I suggest reading Adorno? He coined a lot of phrases that are very useful for this sort of discussion.

    In Adorno’s phrase, we can separate the use value of something from its exchange value. For example, if I were to put mercury onto a pizza then it would make the pizza less valuable to its end user; however, as mercury is more expensive than dough and tomato puree, it would raise its exchange value. Adorno argues that capitalism disregards use value and concentrates on maximising exchange value, to the long term detriment of everyone who ultimately has to use its products. This seems like a similar point to that which you’ve made.

    The reason I mention it isn’t just because you’re my friend and I want to recommend interesting things to you, but also because Adorno goes on to talk about the effects of capitalism upon media, news and art; and this is something which I know you have some thoughts about already.

  7. Chris, the entire theme of your argument is based on the concept that the liberal movement has power. That power does not exist.

    Regardless of what happens in Congress and the Oval office going forward, the judicial system is swung so far to the right that it will be decades before any liberal policies can be implemented. You are basing your argument on the assumption that democracy and the rule of law still exists in the United States. When Barr quashes the release of the Mueller findings, and when Congress’ subpoena for the results is killed by SCOTUS, democracy and the rule of law can finally be acknowledged as dead in the U.S.

    Or when the puppet tyrant and his cadre tell Congress to pound salt when it comes to demanding access to financials and people inside the tyrant’s organization, and the Senate, DOJ, and SCOTUS back him, same thing applies.

    Revolution, not evolution, IS what is needed, now.

    1. No. The premise of this argument is that health comes from balance. That balance has swung wildly out of kilter to the right, and from all indications it’s about to swing wildly to the left. Extremes beget extremes. We could use some real conservatives now, but we’re going to need them very badly when the ideological heirs of Bernie Sanders get their taste of power.

      As for evolution and revolution, here’s a thought I ended up cutting from the piece. Every gardener knows that sometimes the only way to restore a healthy natural balance is with a blaze.

  8. “I worry about the rise of the liberal counterweight as it has such a low bar to exceed. “

    Yes, that’s a very important point. The opposition party, if it’s fulfilling its proper role, is going to be keeping the party in power more honest. But after watching the disgraceful performances of the likes of Jordan and Gosar at the Cohen hearings, how can any reasonable person expect them to provide any principled opposition???

  9. There is no gentle, wise gardener tending the world around him in today’s conservative movement. Nor is there any careful pruning but rather crude slashing that leaves the garden in disarray. Destructive weeds aren’t pulled, they are allowed to suffocate the root stock that feeds. Nourishment is constrained and advice, ignored. There is no joy in planting or tending, only in harvesting, and this bounty goes to so few.
    I am sorry for the changes to conservatism you describe Chris, because I have always believed in checks and balance within our democratic form of government. Like many people here, I used to “vote the person, not the party.” No more. I believe in the value of representative government and the power and innate goodness of people. So many things have changed and I frankly don’t know how our country survives such turmoil and selfishness. I worry about the rise of the liberal counterweight as it has such a low bar to exceed. These are difficult times and I am unsure which America will emerge for my children and grandchildren. This is exceedingly sad and equally frightening.

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