A Problem of Definition
Russell Kirk’s careful delineations in the earliest pages of The Conservative Mind make clear his awareness of a fundamental problem when we consider conservatism. It is a slippery phenomenon. Edmund Burke was a conservative, but so was the ancien regime for which Burke’s Reflections spared little criticism. The old apparatchik holdouts who hoped to reverse Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost and perestroika were conservatives, and so was the American president who told Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” What denominator is common consistently to conservatism in a way that helps us understand its role in politics?
In one sense, Kirk has solved this problem by tracing a line of Anglo-American conservatism that distinguishes it from the merely nostalgic or sentimental preference for what happens to be old. Seen this way, a reasoned conservatism is distinct from so many political ideologies we might name. It is a politics in the classical sense, a reflection on the community of human persons in a context of their concrete situations. Kirk’s conservatism is a morally informed prudence that eludes the slipperiness of all those conflicting nostalgias in its determination to hold to principles on a historically conditioned basis.
But any Kirkean conservative is inoculated against the easy expectation of panaceas. Conservatives in Kirk’s stripe know that merely having access to an explanation of conservatism (even one in an acclaimed book re-published in several editions across six decades) is not enough to disturb widely held misconceptions. Certainly the people most prominently associated with conservatism in the popular political imagination are strangers to Kirk’s refined vision. Popular conservatives from Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin to Rick Perry are notable for their apparent and profound disinterest in ideas. Descriptions of the Tea Party Movement as “conservative” come together with that movement’s caricaturish, historically underinformed view of our constitutional beginnings. Despite Kirk’s best efforts, conservatism in American political life today is identified most closely with anti-intellectual nostalgia for a lost golden age. The situation is startlingly alike to conservatism in American life as it confronted Kirk in the early 1950s.
This is worth our notice because those latter day, soi-disant conservatives are heirs to the conservative movement that began in the pages of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review, itself an effort to popularize Kirk’s conservative vision and to make it politically relevant. Today’s conservative footprint in American politics follows steps taken by Reagan and Goldwater down an intellectual path cut by Kirk. Yet that path has come round back to the same old problem of definition where it began. How can conservatism be defined in a way that is meaningful for politics?
Kirk concludes his book with an optimistic assessment that conservatives have outlasted their revolutionary and radical antagonists. Viewed on the sort of long arc of history natural to conservative thinking, of course he is correct. But the promise of conservatism he describes remains more theoretical than practical in politics. Perhaps Burke, himself, may have appreciated the irony that conservatism, though “not impossible to be discerned,” remains elusively “incapable of definition.”
Steven P. Millies is Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of History, Political Science, and Philosophy at the University of South Carolina, Aiken.
Posted: July 4, 2013 in Symposia.