Patrick Deneen relayed this little nugget from R. Emmett Tyrell Jr., editor of the American Spectator, stating at their annual dinner that “conservatism” must remain a “movement,” otherwise it becomes an “ethos.”
If this is what Tyrell said and in context, and I have no reason to doubt the statement’s authenticity, then what we have here is a true demarcation line between those who see conservatism as mere organized political, social and cultural activity, no different than say, the anti-war movement (Remember them?), and those who see it as Burke and Kirk saw as being a state of mind. For the dictionary defines “ethos” as being from the Greek meaning “character”.
However, I wish to be bold enough to provide some context to where I feel Mr. Terrell’s thinking lies. When Mr. Terrell’s journalism career began in the mid-to-late 1960s, back when the Spectator was known as The Alternative, a youthful version of the National Review, back when there really was a conservative movement as compared to Conservative INC. of today, those conservative youngsters of the post-war generation congratulated themselves from liberating the term “conservative” from being a pejorative to describe bankers, or mill owners or cranks to one that “springs from the part of the author’s ability to give humanitarian reasons for following policies which usually have been associated with a lust for gain.” This quote was taken from a review of Conscious of a Conservative. In other words, to use an upcoming Christmas analogy, conservatism identified itself with George Bailey instead of Henry F. Potter. In so doing Right parties like the Conservatives in Britain or Canada or the Republicans in the U.S became popular because they no longer seemed to be parties based on privilege (wealthy land owners, aristocracy or factory owners) but upon a broad middle class. And it is from this middle class that sprung forth the movement itself from YAF college students, to Phillis Schlafly housewives, small businessmen, to Orange County defense plant workers, Religious-Right pastors and so forth.
There is nothing wrong with “movements” per say. But movements are organic. They create themselves. They create themselves from real people acting in concert first as individuals, then small groups, then as a mass as people identify with them. They are not created by politicians or professional activists. You can’t create a movement from Washington D.C. which is exactly what Conservative INC. tries to do everyday on its computer screens or its FAX machines or automated phone calls.
Perhaps the two best examples of movements in this manner are the Minutemen of 2005-06 and the Ron Paul presidential campaign of 2007-08. No politician, nobody from the Beltway told the Minutemen activists to go patrol the Arizona desert for illegal immigration. They just did so, because they felt strongly their country’s borders were being violated and the powers that be weren’t doing anything about it. So they sprung into action. Without them, Bush II would have never put National Guard units on the borders and a broad-based amnesty for all illegal aliens might very well have passed Congress with Administration support. Likewise, no D.C grouping told a few enterprising fellows to rent a blimp and have Ron Paul’s banner draped over it, it just happened. It was an idea they acted upon and put it in the air.
It’s one thing to say that even a conservatism that is an ethos needs a populistic sheen to it in order for it to succeed politically. It’s another to say conservatives have to be in state of perpetual political activism. This is almost impossible to achieve as Move On.org, Daily Kos and other Obamaite and left wing groups are finding out. Creating the “movement state” didn’t work in the Reagan or Bush I Administrations as Tyrell knows full well in his book Conservative Crack-Up, so why does he insist upon history repeating itself? And true to form in such history, what usually happens after a while is that movements degenerate into ideologies, when then degenerate into totalitarian dogmatism in which dissent is not tolerated, which only splits the movement apart into factions, and then it degenerates into money-making enterprises, schemes and scams. I do not know how Conservative INC. felt about The Minutemen per say, but I do know how some of them treated Ron Paul when he began to question official doctrine.
If Tyrell and others like him wish to reduce a man’s character, his prudence, benevolence and forbearance into sloganeering and bumper stickers, then that’s exactly what it will be and nothing more.