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Conservatism’s Hour

After every election half the country sighs with relief while the other gnashes its teeth. What remain constant as Republicans and Democrats rotate through office are the intractable difficulties the nation now faces. From budget surpluses and confidence in perpetual prosperity at the end of the 20th century, America has arrived at trillion-dollar deficits and an economy razed by the Great Recession. The “indispensable nation” that emerged the indisputable victor in the Cold War 20 years ago is today a superpower still, but one mired in the longest war of its history—in Afghanistan, no less, graveyard of the Evil Empire—a superpower strategically adrift in a disordered new world of drone killings, terror, and rising regional powers.

What America needs most amid all this is conservatism: not the ideology of any party, but a disposition to conserve, and wisely invest, our national capital. The capital in question is not merely financial; Lord Salisbury, in an earlier era of humanitarian intervention and empire, warned against squandering “military capital” on unnecessary and unwinnable conflicts. More important yet is our civilizational capital—our habits and laws as a people, the written and unwritten Constitution. How has it fared? Our civil liberties and the civic fabric of American life have lately been torn to rags by both parties.

Confronted by systemic crisis, the parties prescribe a quick fix—quack remedies from invading Iraq to subsidizing Solyndra—while a people hard pressed by diminished opportunity and dwindling incomes stands ready to accept whatever is offered. This is a mistake: careful analysis and consideration, a competent diagnosis, must precede any cure.

[1]This is the task of the American conservative and The American Conservative. The watchword is realism—in foreign policy, in economic reasoning, and in life. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it,” urged Karl Marx. But change—“regime change” as practiced by President Bush, for example, or the “change” Barack Obama promised in 2008—is never salutary reform unless one first understands the realities of the situation. For America today, that means taking a hard look at our strategy and diplomacy toward others, at our monetary system as well as our taxes and spending, at our social order and popular culture, and at religion and philosophy, examining all of these things not through the lens of partisan politics but with a keen critical eye.

This is hard work, to be sure, but we undertake it cheerfully. For as we wrote ten years ago in our inaugural issue, “We believe conservatism to be the most natural political tendency, rooted in man’s taste for the familiar, for family, for faith in God. We believe that true conservatism has a predisposition for the institutions and mores that exist,” and America needs it now more than ever.

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25 Comments To "Conservatism’s Hour"

#1 Comment By Red Phillips On November 7, 2012 @ 12:20 am

Realism and conservatism are not synonymous. Often conservatives’ goals are unrealistic, like actually following the Constitution for example. Realism as you are using it here is a characteristic of moderation.

#2 Comment By Sam Bufalini On November 7, 2012 @ 12:29 am

It’s difficult to imagine the new Congress taking the reasoned and reasonable approach you advocate. Rather, the stage seems to be set for tea party ideologues to threaten to drive the country over the fiscal “cliff” if any plan to reduce the deficit includes a tax raise of any kind. Thank you, Grover Norquist.

#3 Comment By Aaron Gross On November 7, 2012 @ 12:41 am

Totally agreed that this is what Americans need, but elections are about what Americans want.

As David Frum once wrote, borrowing from a saying about war: In politics, amateurs talk ideology – professionals talk interest groups.

#4 Comment By R. J. Stove On November 7, 2012 @ 12:46 am


#5 Comment By Chris Horvath On November 7, 2012 @ 2:27 am

Perhaps it is time for the American Conservative to get behind Obama. After all, he, as a bright, thoughtful and dedicated family man, is quite conservative in his personal nature.

#6 Comment By bayesian On November 7, 2012 @ 2:59 am

@Aaron Gross

Of course I know the cliche that Frum is referencing.

I wish to credit Alison Brooks (from the old usenet group soc.history.what-if) and her husband (who was a Royal Marine Commando, disabled by a wound received in the Falklands and screwed by the Ministry of Defence under that heroin(e) of conservatism Margaret Thatcher) for the following, far more realistic version:

Amateurs study tactics.
Pseudointellectuals study logistics.
Professionals study promotion.

#7 Comment By aware On November 7, 2012 @ 5:39 am

Hard as it is to hear, real intellectual heft is now in the anachro-capitalist camp. Modern “conservatism”(Buckleyism actually) has dallied with and become enamored with the State to the point that it is not even an “alternative”, but a co-pilot of Leviathan.

Destruction of the State as it currently exists, with its fascist political/economic underpinnings, must be the only objective if liberty and the promise of America is to survive.

#8 Comment By kierkegaard71 On November 7, 2012 @ 6:18 am

The most natural political tendency is the pursuit of self-interest by any means necessary, not conservatism. This is why conserving family, faith, and the familiar is so difficult. The latter all call you to self-denial for your own sake and the sake of your immediate community. Loss of the value of the family, secularism, and centralization in DC have all occurred very naturally. Any triumph of the good will be a fight from beginning to end.

#9 Comment By peter terminello On November 7, 2012 @ 8:32 am

Conservatives and Liberals have to be open to each other when one side has a good idea support it and don’t worry who proposed it. I worked for Jesse Helms, Barry Goldwater, Floyd Spence, Ben Gilman, and Hamilton Fish, all Republicans. I am a registered Democrat. I consider myself a Goldwater Democrat because of what I learned from Barry Goldwater.

He was a friend and colleague of John Kennedy, yet he was prepared to run against his friend in 1964. That would have been a great election because two friends would have debated the issues and kept personalities out.

Barry once told me that JFK told him if he, Barry, lost, he could have a prime position in a Kennedy Administration. He was prepared to offer him the position of Secretary of Defense. Goldwater retorted that Kennedy could be his Secretary of State.

That is the way politics should be and the example is set by two friendly opponents and very patriotic Americans. There was a lot I disagreed with Goldwater about on the issues, but there was one thing he had and that was integrity and I fully trusted him.

I have friends that call me a conservative and others call me a liberal. I reject the tags and want to be judged on my support for issues.

I am against Roe v. Wade, one of the worst written Court decisions. I am also for a cap on how much an individual can make. I think there should be a $1oo,oo0,ooo cap and anything earned over that should be taxed at 100% or the earner can distribute it to any charity(s) of his or her choice.

Why can’t Washington be like the way it was when I first went there? Tip ONeill and Gerry Ford were best friends and opponents who made deals over dinner with their wives. That is the America I want. I don’t want the lesser of two evils elected to be president each time.

Edmund Burke had that greatr and simple philosophy: IF ITS GOOD,KEEP IT, BUT IF IT IS WRONG CHANGE IT. Simple and to the point.

The right and the left have to stop the hate.

#10 Comment By JR NYC On November 7, 2012 @ 10:08 am

What is economic realism? We can all agree on some semblance of caution and restraint in foreign policy but comparing Solyndra to the Iraq War is bizarre in terms of resources squandered and lives lost. Is economic realism more deregulation and further financialization of the economy? Is there any consensus on a prudential economic vision?

Whatever one thinks of Austrian economics conservative is not how I would describe it. We have a whole generation of economists that is incapable of considering the economic health of a country as a whole. All is seen in terms of the investor class that has zero incentive to actually invest in this country or steer credit away from speculation and into concrete development.

#11 Comment By Brooklyn Blue Dog On November 7, 2012 @ 11:46 am

Peter T:

Sounds like a wonderful world you once lived in. I hope we can all live in that world again. But we’ll never do it as long as we have partisan gerrymandering creating safe seats that make the primary the real election. The smoke-filled rooms so reviled by 1960s and 1970s reformers don’t seem so bad in retrospect, do they? Those corrupt old men aimed to pick the most electable candidates, not the most ideologically pure. Electable candidates are naturally in the middle, and have very little problem reaching across the aisle because the folks over there really only differ on a few issues. Horse-trading is possible. But ideological purity means that anyone who is not ideologically pure is the enemy. How can you compromise with the Devil?

Bring back the smoke-filled rooms of party elders scheming behind closed doors. Or at least assign congressional redistricting to nonpartisan experts and abolish partisan primaries. Take the control away from the left- and right-wingers who choose the choices we have.

#12 Comment By alixjune On November 7, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

Can conservatism be divorced from right-wing religious groups? That would help with the coherence, but also cost a big number of voters.

#13 Comment By vickie On November 7, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

Thank you for this editorial about what AmCon is about. Hopefully your efforts will be a place where there can be honest discussion on non-ideoloigcal ideas to conserve our family, culture and country.

#14 Comment By Gene Callahan On November 7, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

“Hard as it is to hear, real intellectual heft is now in the anachro-capitalist camp. ”

And you have, at this point, convinced .001% of the electorate! Almost there, mate.

#15 Comment By Cliff On November 7, 2012 @ 2:46 pm

Brooklyn Blue Dog suggests that we “at least assign congressional redistricting to nonpartisan experts and abolish partisan primaries.” I agree with this — it’s a start in the right direction, and it has the virtue, not found in most reform proposals, of being constitutional.

#16 Comment By SigLNY On November 7, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

It is real question whether any kind of conservative attitude can withstand the inexhaustible, dizzying pace of technological innovations, communication revolutions, and global re-ordering now underway in the world. Might conservatism make sense only for an era when radical change was optional, not inevitable, as it is now? Is any traditional ideological stance – whether conservative or liberal – sophisticated, nimble and fungible enough to prove effective in the modern world? Or is the system really just running itself. The rest is so much window dressing.

The cartoon is of Burke, the conservative hero. But Burke was essentially born in the world he died in. Now, we can’t even see 5 years on with clarity. The word demands change – technologically, culturally, economically – but conservatism preaches restraint. (After the asteroid hit, the conservative dinosaurs weren’t the ones who evolved into birds.)

In the end, we don’t even know what conservatism MEANS in this new world order. This is the ideological crucible that conservatism faces. Conservatism must somehow embrace change, welcome it, for change will come, faster and faster with each passing day. The only other option is to throw ones hands up in the air, call the whole thing hopeless, and become, like Timon of Athens, a isolated misanthrope, alone in a cave.

#17 Comment By The Wet One On November 7, 2012 @ 6:21 pm


More reasonable conservatives. Didn’t know such creatures existed still in the U.S.A.

Wonders never cease.

#18 Comment By R.S. On November 7, 2012 @ 10:52 pm

SigLNY – I disagree. Aside from demographics and sexual morals, is America in the midst of dizzying change? Think of your childhood – is the U.S. in 2012 anywhere as remotely different as you expected it to be? On the contrary, it is more stagnant than it has been in any of our lifetimes. I would argue that the doldrums of slow growth and reduced rates of change are actually contributing to the growth of the state. When the pie is no longer growing much, democracy becomes a zero sum game. And this in turn further inhibits the incentives necessary for economic growth and the downward spiral perpetuates itself.

#19 Comment By R. J. Stove On November 8, 2012 @ 12:45 am

I should clarify the fact that my original “Yeah” was a response to the article itself, not to the comments immediately above my own, of which comments I was totally unaware (when I made my own comment, no others had yet been posted).

#20 Comment By Daulnay On November 8, 2012 @ 2:14 am

R.S. – The world is changing radically, and your reply illustrated how little of that change you see. We’re undergoing a cultural transformation as radical as that from agricultural economies into the industrial revolution and market economies. You solely see the stagnation of economic growth, and miss the entire flowering of the information age over the last two decades. Lift your eyes from the economic mud at your feet, and behold the stars!

Our institutions are struggling to cope with novelty piled upon novelty, not stagnation. New institutions arise — the greatest competitor to Microsoft (at least in operating systems markets) is not any corporation or government, but the volunteer association of people creating and maintaining Linux. Add to that the many, many people joining or creating organizations to share and build other kinds of knowledge (Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, and on and on), and you have a ferment that hasn’t been seen in centuries.

Conservatism, if it is to stay vibrant, has to look into this windstorm and help our society protect the valuable parts of our culture that come under pressure. At the same time, we need to recognize and nurture the new institutions and practices that will strengthen our society, our culture, our families.

#21 Comment By Lulu On November 8, 2012 @ 2:18 am

We need to make and build useful things. That does not require a lot of analysis. We could all agree to disagree on every other issue until such time as our country’s infrastructure is no longer outclassed by Singapore’s, and the steel we need to build that infrastructure is manufactured here instead of in China.

#22 Comment By M. Scott Morris On November 8, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

It is not conservative to give equal mention to invading Iraq and funding Solyndra. I don’t think it’s conservative to give tax breaks to oil companies, but not to fund research for new forms of energy in this day of wildly fluctuating oil prices. It would seem a conservative thing to hedge one’s bets in the face of an uncertain future. Instead, the search for alternatives is scorned, and only its failures highlighted.

I’d like to see conservative fiscal policy that accepts the basics of household budgeting, more money in, less money out. Conservatives believed that once, years ago. Now, anything other than less money out is heresy.

Write all the editorials you want but it won’t separate conservatism from ideology. I don’t think you meant faith, family and fundamentalism, but that’s what your movement is wrapped up in. It’ll take a surgeon or a butcher to change that. As a concerned citizen, I hope you and yours pick a surgeon.

#23 Comment By 1euro On November 8, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

Dear friends,

I am an European left-leaning socialdemocrat (yes, a real one!), but I have been enjoying this thoughtful Conservative site for some time now, and I’m specially touched by this piece and the comments before mine. So I’d thought I’d like to share something with you.

You know why? In a certain way, we’re pretty much in a similar position. Both you and us are trying to ‘conserve’ things we honestly think are good for every individual and the society at large -for this purpose, it doesn’t mind if those things are family values or universal healthcare. Both of us are facing a rapidly changing world that destroys every attempt to ‘conserve’ things by the sheer force of its dynamics.

Here in the left we have also lots of people who thinks it all must be a great conspiracy -in our case, by the big corporations, the vulture financial capitalists, etc. I don’t share this view. The simple fact is that none of us can ‘uninvent’ things (scientific, technological, economical, social, etc) and as a result a new world is being born fast. And new worlds never were very much interested in ‘conserving’ anything from the old ones.

Maybe all of us are dinosaurs clinging to a lost world. But I still think and will probably think all my life that some things from that ‘lost world’ are valuable and should be preserved. And our problem is the same as yours: I am clueless on how this could be achieved. I continuously feel like swimming against the stream -probably the most powerful stream mankind has known. Maybe some of you will share the feeling in despite of our ideological differences.

You’ll probably be surprised to read that this Euro-Red encourages you thoughtful American Conservatives to keep up the fight. But I still do. Probably both of us have to re-evaluate how is this new world, how is it changing and becoming even newer, and rethink everything. I’d love to see how you do it. Hey, maybe then I’ll be able to borrow a couple ideas from you. 😉

Seriously, I wish you well. Obviously I don’t want you to win on most things, but I still think it is a good, valuable fight. Maybe, after all, it’s all about protecting our families, our friends and our people from the worst -wathever we think it’s ‘the worst.’

Best regards.

(Sorry for any error, English is not my primary language)

#24 Comment By Rossbach On November 8, 2012 @ 11:05 pm

Conservatism, rightly understood, is not an end; it is a means to an end: stability. Our pursuit of endless growth in every sphere (wealth, population, military superiority) has had us chasing our tail long enough. It has achieved nothing of lasting value. Growth for its own sake is the philosophy of a cancer cell.

#25 Comment By Probability of Error On November 12, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

“This is a mistake: careful analysis and consideration, a competent diagnosis, must precede any cure.”

Hear, hear. There is little better indicator of the falseness of what passes for conservatism in market-square today than the hysteria and panicked prescriptions that have followed Romney’s defeat.