Time for a Conservative Reformation

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The fate of conservatism is thought to be hanging in the balance these days, and with it, perhaps, the fate of the country, of a political party, of presidential candidates, of a movement.

Well, good.  Now is the time for reevaluation or, dare I say it, reformation.

“Conservatism isn’t just passivity,” wrote Joseph Sobran in a November 2006 syndicated column (“Hijacking the Conservative Movement”).  “It’s active maintenance.  An old house needs repair and painting, a garden needs weeding, trees and shrubs need pruning.  To conserve is to renew.  Conservatism can’t mean neglect.”

A chronicling of the years of neglect can be found elsewhere, but Joe’s admonition, which really amounts to common sense, raises an important point: If we are to have any hope of seeing conservatism renewed, if a conservative reformation is in the offing, we must know what we are reforming, and what the standards are by which we can evaluate the effort.

For example, when a purportedly conservative magazine attacks a politician for not being a conservative, the scenario presupposes that we know, or are about to be told by actual conservatives, what it means to be conservative.

The lead editorial in the February 15 issue of National Review, which was singularly devoted to demolishing the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, is based on that presupposition.  Let us cut to the chase:

Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.

Hold your fire, Maud.  Beyond the myriad personal attacks that fill this particular issue of NR—many of which criticize candidate Trump for being the sort of person who engages in personal attacks—one phrase in that damning editorial jumps off the page: “conservative ideological consensus.”  Anyone can read the rest of the editorial, and all of the conjoined op-eds, to divine the specifics of Trump’s statements and proposed policies that violate the aforementioned broadness of consensus.  For a moment, we may set aside the unsavory details of this magnum excretion and focus on its overall shape.

Conservative ideology?

Didn’t Russell Kirk, whom no one (save a fringe extremist disdainful of the conservative label) seems willing to disown, say that conservatism is “the anti-ideology”?

Why yes he did, and here’s where the reformation begins, and yes we can (so to speak) reclaim this most maligned yet vital word—conservative—free of all factional prefixes and hyphenations.  Now is the time to begin, although, as conservative T.S. Eliot argued in “Little Gidding,” so was yesterday, and so will be tomorrow.

Ideology is an abstract pseudo-philosophy that claims it has the power to explain everything.  All of the cumbersome facts of life are forced into its mold.  And whatever doesn’t fit gets discarded or repurposed.  What emerges from the mold is called good.  The rest, ergo, is not-good, and may be denounced as—well, pick your favorite fashionable insult: racist, populist, fascist, anti-intellectual, protectionist, unpatriotic, un-American . . .

That sounds more like a religion than a political philosophy, you say.  And you would be right.  Except religion requires certain other vital elements, most notably unquestionable divine revelation, which ideology lacks.  Matters of revelation, religious dogmas, are axiomatic (M.E. Bradford’s preferred term).  That is, they are established apart from mere reason (though they are not unreasonable) and must simply be accepted.  Reasonable arguments may be used to defend religious dogmas from their unbelieving detractors (call it apologetics), but mortal men do not speak dogmatic truth into existence.  Ideology, on the other hand, treats abstract notions that are the product of human reason (“American exceptionalism,” “self-government,” “free trade,” “we must fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here,” “nation of immigrants,” “individual liberty,” “religious freedom”) as if they are axiomatic and, thus, are unburdened by historical context or rhetorical nuance.  If you say X, you have violated our ideology, and you must be rejected, case closed, the end.

Hence, Kirk called ideology “inverted religion.”

If you deny that Jesus Christ is God-made-flesh, you are not a Christian.  We know this axiomatically, from revelation, passed to us authoritatively through the Bible and the teachings of the Church.

By contrast, the Solons of “conservative ideology” declare that, if you say that you want to ban Muslims from entering the United States, then you are against religious liberty and, therefore, not a conservative.  But how do we know that religious liberty is an absolute good that conservatives must defend whenever anything or anyone deemed “religious” is restrained or repulsed?  Because “Congress shall make no law”?  Well, certainly, the First Amendment exists, and it has something to say (or rather deny) concerning the power of the federal Congress to interfere with religion within the states compacted under the Constitution (by consent).  But the Bill of Rights is no Two Corinthians.  It was born of a particular people in a particular place and resulted from compromises made by political factions—Federalists and Antifederalists.  “Religious liberty” is a concept distilled from a political document.  It is not absolute truth; it is not the Word of God.

“Ideologues,” Kirk writes in The Politics of Prudence, “vie one with another in fancied fidelity to their Absolute Truth; and they are quick to denounce deviationists or defectors from their party orthodoxy.”  We now arrive at the all-important qualifier of the “Against Trump” editorial: “the conservative ideological consensus within the GOP”—with a capital P, and that rhymes with T, and that stands for Tool.  For the truth is, the “conservative ideology” is a tool of power.  It is a weapon of war wielded against enemies of the establishment of the Republican Party.  Armed for battle,

the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation.  This narrow vision brings about civil war, extirpation of “reactionaries,” and the destruction of beneficial functioning social institutions.

So what if America is dependent on China for cheap manufactured goods, and who cares if that means the elimination of good-paying middle-class jobs?  Only a liberal would be against free trade!

Setting aside any practical evaluations we might make of a particular policy advocated by a particular political party, periodical, or candidate, we may safely arrive at a very important conclusion: “Conservative ideology” is not conservative.

What, then, is conservative?  If conservatism is the “anti-ideology,” what could the word conservative possibly mean?

Answer: A conservative seeks to preserve the good that has been passed down to him.  Oh, and this is a delightful thing.  It means that the world is the conservative’s oyster, so to speak, and that, if those who are known as conservatives are characterized by artless misery, then the label has been misapplied.  What is good and worth preserving we know because it has passed the test of time, and we have inherited it.  It is not the product of abstract arguments but the province of real, axiomatic truth (e.g., what a family is, what a country is, what a man or a woman is, what justice is).  Furthermore, because axiomatic truths do not fall from the sky (à la Muhammad’s revelations), conservatives are compelled to preserve and reform the means by which these truths are distributed.

It follows, then, that conservatives are interested in culture—indeed, in cultures—but reject multiculturalism, another abstract, power-hungry ideology.  “The West,” as we now describe the corpse of Christendom, has a culture.  America, a part of the West, has a culture.  Southeastern Tennessee and the Arkansas Delta (the lands of my ancestors) have cultures.  Northern Illinois, and my little hamlet of Cherry Valley, together with the big city of Rockford, have cultures.  My church has a culture.  My family has a culture.  Knowing what culture is and does (giving shape to human lives), it makes the greatest sense for a conservative to be most interested in the culture that is nearest: that of the family and the community.  Ideologies invert reality, making that which is least important for the preservation of the good (conservatism) seem most important.  “Conservative ideology” makes culture subservient to politics.  Conservatives know the opposite is true.

“Being neither a religion nor an ideology,” writes Kirk, “the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata.”  Conservatism has very important things to say about the nature of politics and the composition and goals of our political parties, but the politicization of conservatism—its transformation into “conservative ideology”—has robbed conservatism of its genius and moral authority.  “Ideological conservatism” functions like a secular church, and it loves to elevate and excommunicate.  But for all of its grasping at power, it is powerless to preserve the things that matter most to real people.  And its message resonates only with ideological converts.  NR is preaching to a shrinking choir.

Resisting the urge to ideology means resisting the temptation to draw rigid political lines, to attempt to divide and conquer under the banner of some alternatively prefixed conservatism, including the “paleo” one.  (That label, I have on good authority, was coined largely in jest as a form of well-earned mockery aimed at the “neo” vintage.)  The deep appeal of conservatism is not, ultimately, political but traditional, and is not (contrary to the politicized critics of the “paleos”) limited to proponents of Catholic social teaching, Southern patriotism, or Pat Buchanan’s political career.  It is not based on race or party affiliation.  It is incarnate in real Americans who are members of real families planted in authentic American cultures, who instinctively resist the alienation of ideology.  They are (to borrow again from Kirk) “popular conservatives”—and not “populist conservatives.”

“My immediate point is that popular conservatism has a Readers Digest mentality, rather than a National Review mentality.”  That last statement, written by Kirk in 1993, was intended not necessarily to denigrate NR, for which Kirk had written, but to emphasize the fact that adherents to “popular conservatism” may neither recognize themselves as conservatives nor care to read intellectual analyses of conservative politics.  He thus took comfort in the fact that, while “one tenth of one per cent of the American population” (remember, this was 1993) reads National Review, no self-described leftist media organ enjoyed any larger amount of devotion, whereas the numbers of popular conservatives, who are “concerned primarily for order and security, rather than infatuated with the dreams of avarice, or moved by the vice of envy,” are legion.

Because his supporters are popular conservatives and not conservative ideologues, Donald Trump may take comfort in that disparity as well, and we may take comfort in the fact that the conservative reformation that he has helped to inspire depends not at all on the turning of his political fortunes, one way or the other. 

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