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.