At no time in American history have there been more voices overtly identifying as “conservative” in politics and the media. From newspapers and journals to websites, blogs, a cable news network, and talk radio, voices claiming the mantle of conservatism are everywhere.
Virtually no Republican politician would claim to be anything else, and right-leaning think tanks abound. We are, by almost all outward measures, at the high point of conservative political success.
And yet, what it means to be a “conservative” may be less clear than at any time since the Great Depression. Is it “conservative” to cut taxes, or is the “conservative” policy to reduce the debt we are saddling future generations with? Is the “conservative” policy to promote free and open trade, or is it to raise tariffs to protect domestic industries? Is it conservative to “conserve” the environment, or is it always “conservative” to limit the scope of government regulations? Is it the “conservative’s” primary responsibility to achieve policy victories through any means necessary, or to preserve the institutional arrangements of the constitutional order, even if it means losing some policy battles along the way?
Add to that the fact that despite having so many political outlets, most conservatives feel their country is pulling apart and their culture is disintegrating. How can all these facts be true—that conservatism is at its height, but there is less agreement on what conservatism is, and conservatives have the feeling they are losing the great battles for the future?
In this confusing time, conservatives would do well to revisit the foundations of their modern movement in the great intellectual battles of the mid-20th century. Long before Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh, and before Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater bestrode our politics, several great public thinkers were preparing the culture with the books and journals from which would spring a revolution.
Russell KirkRussell Amos Kirk was born in Plymouth, Michigan, on Oct. 19, 1918. He served in World War II, and received degrees from Michigan State, Duke University, and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. His dissertation at St. Andrews was published in 1953 as "The Conservative Mind." Before William F. Buckley founded National Review and long before the Heritage Foundation was dreamed of, Kirk’s masterwork reclaimed a long tradition of thought that he called “conservative.”
Before Kirk’s big book hit America’s political culture, there were those who were resisting the New Deal, who were concerned about cultural trends, and who were anti-communist, but there was no unifying movement and little self-understanding. With "The Conservative Mind," Kirk was able to demonstrate a long pedigree of great thinkers—from Edmund Burke and John Adams to Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot—who were “conservative” thinkers. The book shook America’s intellectual culture and provided a positive rallying point for a disparate group of thinkers and political activists.
WisdomFirst, we can learn Kirk’s lesson that “politics is the art of the possible.” The conservative mind is not a utopian mind. Conservatives deal with situations and people as they are found, not as they ideally would have them. Often, the conservative must settle for the deal that is possible rather than risking everything on an unlikely long shot that might end up doing more damage than good, or pressing politics and politicians for more than politics can offer.
Second, all political sides would do well to remember that politics isn't the highest thing. It may be justifiably said that government intrusion into nearly all spheres of life has called the reluctant conservative to do battle in the political arena. But he or she should come to it as a reluctant warrior called out of necessity to fight, not as the aggrieved and aggressive social warrior seeking the vanquishing of all enemies and the glory of party triumph. To many, politics has become a substitute religion and our disagreements holy battles. Kirk offers the corrective to the extremes.
Third, conservatives would do well to remember that, at their best, they are “conserving” what is good, true, and beautiful. In doing so, they are playing their part in an eternal chain of generations. When we get caught up in the momentary political battle, we often forget that being conservative means conserving what has been our inheritance and by so doing passing it on to the next generation. No one did a better job of reminding us of this essential role than did Kirk. We are a community, he would say—a community of the dead, the living, and the yet unborn. Obsession with any given moment or particular policy battles may not serve well this wider community we are called to conserve. This makes prudence the great conservative virtue in politics—taking the longest view possible and not settling for the expediency of the moment.