The similarities between left and right populism present a historic opportunity. Will conservatives take it?
Go Radical or Go Home
This is the sixth contribution to ISI’s symposium Conservatism: What’s Wrong with It and How Can We Make It Right?
The fundamental problem with “modern conservatism” is that it is not very conservative anymore. Leftist premises seep into it more and more with each passing year. As America careens from one bad idea to the next, it becomes increasingly obvious that liberal principles influence both sides of the debate with varying degrees of intensity. Liberals push full-blown political correctness while timid conservatives offer to advance it a bit more slowly.
One of the dominant culture’s most successful rackets is to label any “conservative” position, no matter how feeble, “extremist.” This ensures that skittish conservatives will eventually step away from even that weak position. Under the pressures of this mau-mauing, last year’s liberal position becomes this year’s “conservative” one, and then a little time passes and even that position is deemed reactionary. This phenomenon is on display during economic and size-of-government debates—such as when liberals and conservatives squabble pointlessly over the rate of growth of federal programs that should never have been created in the first place—but it shows up even more starkly on moral issues.
To take just one example: look at the craven stance of conservatives on the issue of homosexuals in the military. In 1992, they denounced Bill Clinton’s proposed policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as a dangerous relaxation of a total ban on homosexuals. A few years passed and leading conservatives announced that the new conservative position was to support Clinton’s change. A few more years passed and congressmen, such as Paul Ryan, informed conservatives that clinging to Clinton’s policy “was a step in the wrong direction” and that they should “move on.”
For those keeping score at home, the “conservative” position is now to support cheerfully a homosexualized military. It is only a matter of time—just look at the profusion in recent years of mindless articles trumpeting a “conservative case for gay marriage”—before a GOP presidential ticket supports homosexual nuptials and then tells appalled conservatives to “move on.” If modern conservatism consists of little more than conserving liberal changes to society, what good is it?
What would Russell Kirk, were he alive today, say about such developments in conservatism? Would he not pronounce conservatism dead? After all, as he wrote, the existence of God and his immutable moral law form the only true foundation of conservatism:
Men and nations are governed by moral laws; and those laws have their origin in a wisdom that is more than human—in divine justice. At heart, political problems are moral and religious problems. The wise statesman tries to apprehend the moral law and govern his conduct accordingly. We have a moral debt to our ancestors, who bestowed upon us our civilization, and a moral obligation to the generations who will come after us. This debt is ordained of God. We have no right, therefore, to tamper impudently with human nature or with the delicate fabric of our civil social order.
The natural law is the philosophical core of conservatism. Any movement that abandons or downplays it becomes just another species of liberalism. A conservatism without the natural law is simply willful liberalism in a more stuffy guise, moving more glacially than the left, but essentially conceding the lie that man is the measure of all things, and deciding that all political disputes, no matter how obviously they bear upon the God-given nature of man, are to be resolved by power and man’s desires. A conservatism without the natural law ends up destroying fiscal and foreign-policy conservatism too, since without principles rooted in reality upon which to deliberate about the size of government proper to human beings, limited government evaporates and defense policy turns hubristic.
Conservatism is not about conserving bad customs or evil traditions. It exists to conserve principles that originate in reality—a reality that comes from God and is made known to man through his reason.
The emptiness of a movement that lives without the natural law can be seen in “conservatives” anointed by most TV networks to offer tepid replies to the leftist narratives they’re pushing. A “conservatism” that involves a lot of pretentious throat-clearing and perhaps the recitation of a classical tag or two before coming to some politically correct conclusion is worthless. It is no wonder that the broader culture sees such conservatives as feckless buffoons and snobs. They stand for almost nothing, save the persistent wearing of bow ties.
“Modern conservatism took form about the beginning of the French Revolution, when far-seeing men in England and America perceived that if humanity is to conserve the elements in civilization that make life worth living, some coherent body of ideas must resist the leveling and destructive impulse of fanatic revolutionaries,” wrote Kirk.
“In England,” he continued, “the founder of true conservatism was Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France turned the tide of British opinion and influenced incalculably the leaders of society in the Continent and in America. In the newly established United States, the fathers of the Republic, conservative by training and by practical experience, were determined to shape constitutions which should guide their posterity in enduring ways of justice and freedom. Our American War of Independence had not been a real revolution, but rather a separation from England; statesmen of Massachusetts and Virginia had no desire to turn society upside down. In their writings, especially in the works of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, we find a sober and tested conservatism founded upon an understanding of history and human nature. The Constitution which the leaders of that generation drew up has proved to be the most successful conservative device in all history.”
The ultimate solution to conservatism’s crisis, then, is a renewal of these roots and a repudiation of all the modern manifestations of the French Revolution, wherever they appear, whether in the Democratic or Republican parties, whether in secular culture or in churches.
Religion could serve as the most powerful engine of this renewal, but it too has been deformed. The truth is that almost everything in America has been liberalized, including religion itself. This explains America’s culture of religiosity without religion: “God talk” persists but it means less and less, as Americans try to shoehorn secularist morality and philosophy into their creeds.
References to “God” don’t mean much in a culture where the lifestyles of the “religious” and the non-religious are almost indistinguishable—in a culture where pols on both sides of the aisle punctuate every speech with “God Bless America” before trotting off to gay fundraisers. God-talk in this culture has become nothing more than a projection of modern fads, currents and desires—an appropriation of religion for essentially secularist purposes.
The theism of which Kirk wrote, properly understood and forthrightly stated, holds little to no sway over the ordering of American society. It has been dislodged, whether politicians admit it or not, by de facto atheism. Not the will of God but the whims of men determine the “common good.” Underlying almost all political discussions in America is the assumption that secularism is identical with “reason” while theism represents “mere opinion”. Thus any politician who argues against legislation on the grounds that it violates a God-given moral law is dismissed out of hand.
America’s founding fathers would enjoy little standing in today’s debates. They did not consider the existence of God and the natural moral law a mere opinion or guess but a truth accessible to reason—a truth upon which they based the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. Were a politician to write such documents today, he would be rebuked for “imposing religion” on his fellow Americans.
Either conservatism returns to these first principles or it will continue to wither away.
Transcending Liberalism by Chase Padusniak
What’s Natural about Natural Law? by Elisabeth Cervantes Moore
Rubber, Meet Road by Ian Tuttle
“Modern Conservatism” Is as American as It Gets by Danielle Charette
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