Enlivening the Conservative Mind

By Russell Kirk

The wittiest of our public men, Eugene McCarthy, remarked a few months ago that nowadays he uses the word “liberal” as an adjective merely. That is a measure of the triumph of the conservative mentality in recent years—including the triumph of the conservative side of Mr. McCarthy’s own mind and character.

Perhaps it would be well, most of the time, to use the word “conservative” as an adjective chiefly. For there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is no ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed. In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than “Chaos and old Night.” This is by way of brief preface to some desultory observations on what the conservative mind requires today.

In America the great wave of public opinion sweeps in a conservative direction today, carrying all before it: as Tocqueville instructs us, such is the way with opinion in democratic nations generally. The Mexican-American voters clearly shifted in that direction less than two years ago, and will go farther still; now the polls of The New York Times and CBS suggest that the Afro-American population turns that way.

Both foreign affairs and domestic questions impel the nation toward long-range conservative policies. Yet could these tremendous conservative successes of recent years conceivably cease? Might the wave of public opinion begin to sweep back again, an ebb tide, carrying out to the great deep much American flotsam?

Yes.

From what cause?

Stupidity.

It was not altogether without reason, a century ago, that John Stuart Mill called conservatives “the stupid party.” Four decades ago, when in Britain the Attlee government abolished the university seats in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill declared that the Socialists were “against brains.” So the Socialists were and are. But a good many conservative folk in 1986, finding themselves only second-best in the pursuit of stupidity, try harder.

Some years ago I remarked in the course of a speech that conservative imagination is required in our time. A man of business in the audience retorted, “We don’t need any imagination: we’re practical.” That’s what I mean.

Less than forty years ago there commenced a renewal—regarded by liberals as a recrudescence—of conservative thought and imagination. Like Fabianism in Britain two generations earlier, but proceeding in an opposite direction, this “New Conservatism” contributed to grand-scale victories at the polls thirty years later. In the United States, as earlier in Britain, persuasive ideas combined or coincided with favorable circumstances; and thus the course of a great nation’s politics was altered, mightily.

In Britain, however, the intellectual successes of the Fabians and the electoral victories of the Labour party were followed by the development of periodicals, book-publishing firms, and university associations favorable to socialism. In the United States, au contraire, relatively few intellectual gains for the conservative cause have occurred since 1953. (The year 1953 was marked by the publication and cordial reception of conservative books by R. A. Nisbet, Daniel Boorstin, Clinton Rossiter, Russell Kirk, and others: a year in which liberals began to listen.)

True, several magazines of a seriously conservative cast are published today, although none of tremendous circulation. But also new liberal or radical publications have sprung up. The major book-review media are markedly more hostile toward any book suspected of political conservatism or religious orthodoxy than they were in the Fifties. As for book publishing, in the year 1953 there was but one consistent reputable publisher of serious books, Henry Regnery; in 1986 there still is but one, Henry Regnery, who obtains only slight assistance from the foundations and men of great means who presumably ought to be interested in keeping the conservative mind alive.

In universities and colleges, staffs are far more dominated by radicals than they were at the beginning of the Fifties—in part because of the violent New Left sillies who obtained posts during the late Sixties and early Seventies, and now are fortified by tenure. The larger foundations, most of them, are dominated by a Ford Foundation humanitarian mentality, which assesses the Fiend according to the degree of his conservatism.

Thus the conservative movement is enfeebled, intellectually and in backing, at the very hour of its popular ascendancy. (By the way, America’s bigger men of business, with very few exceptions, never have been of any help to really conservative causes; if they think of politics at all, it is much as they think of professional sports teams: “Winning is the name of the game.”) This may become a fatal impoverishment.

For the most pressing need of the conservative movement in America is to quicken its own right reason and moral imagination. The rising generation, already won to a kind of unthinking conservatism on nearly every college campus, must be made aware that conservative views and policies can be at once intellectually reputable and pleasantly lively.

Ballot-box victories are undone in short order, if unsupported by the enduring art of persuasion. A political movement that fancies it can subsist by slogans and by an alleged “pragmatism” presently is tumbled over by the next political carnival, shouting fresher slogans.

I am not implying that conservative folk should set to forming a conservative ideology; for conservatism is the negation of ideology. The conservative public man turns to constitution, custom, convention, ancient consensus, prescription, precedent, as guides—not to the narrow and fanatical abstractions of ideology. I am saying, rather, that unless we show the rising generation what deserves to be conserved, and how to go about the work of preservation with intelligence and imagination—why, the present wave of conservative opinion will cast us on a stern and rockbound coast, perhaps with a savage behind every tree. Conservative leaders ought to declare, with Demosthenes, “Citizens, I beg of you to think!”

The existence of various factions within the conservative movement ought not to alarm us overmuch. All large-scale political movements of reform, in the beginning, are alliances of various groups and interests that have in common chiefly a dislike of what has been the dominant political power. Journalists, for their own delectation, invent or cry up such labels as “Old Right,” “Traditionalists,” “Neoconservatives,” “Libertarians,” “New Right,” “Fundamentalist Right,” and the like. But these groups and categories overlap and intermingle. The more eccentric members of this loose conservative coalition may be expected to fall away gradually into fresher eccentricities—and no great loss will result. Varying emphases upon this or that aspect of public policy will remain among the several conservative groupings; but enough common ground can be cultivated to maintain a useful unity on certain large questions—supposing we abjure narrow ideology and condescend to think. If, on the contrary, conservative leaders complacently fancy that guessing and muddling through will suffice—why, future historians may describe the attempt to wake conservative minds and hearts during the latter half of the twentieth century as an intellectual Mississippi Bubble.

The principal demarcation among American conservative groups today, it seems to me, is the gulf fixed between (on the one side) all those conservative men and women who, taking long views, argue that intellectual activity and rousing of the imagination are required urgently; and (on the other side of the canyon) all those professedly “pragmatic” persons who think of a conservative government as one that keeps in office by serving or placating certain powerful interests—and so prevents worse from befalling those in the seats of the mighty.

The ideologue cannot govern well; but neither can the time-server. Conservative people in politics need to steer clear of the Scylla of abstraction and the Charybdis of opportunism. So it is that thinking folk of conservative views ought to reject the embraces of the following categories of political zealots:

Those who urge us to sell the National Parks to private developers.

Those who believe that by starving South Africans we can dish Jesse Jackson and win over the black vote en masse.

Those who would woo the declining feminists by abolishing academic freedom through a new piece of “Civil Rights” legislation.

Those who instruct us that “the test of the market” is the whole of political economy and of morals.

Those who fancy that foreign policy can be conducted with religious zeal, on a basis of absolute right and absolute wrong.

Those who, imagining that all mistakes and malicious acts are the work of a malign or deluded “elite,” cry with Carl Sandburg, “The people, yes!”

Those who assure us that great corporations can do no wrong.

Those who discourse mainly of the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderburgers, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

And various other gentry who abjure liberalism but are capable of conserving nothing worth keeping.

Is anybody left in the conservative camp? Yes.

There survives, even unto our day, a conservative cast of character and of mind capable of sacrifice, thought, and sound sentiment. That sort of conservative mentality was discerned in America by Tocqueville a century and a half ago, by Maine and Bryce a century ago, by Julián Marías twenty years ago. If well waked in mind and conscience, such people—really quite numerous in these United States—are capable of enduring conservative reform and reinvigoration. But if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall go forth to battle?