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The Rout Of Traditionalist Conservatism

In his new column, David Brooks cites this blog’s link to Russell Kirk’s Ten Principles of Conservative Thought, and reflects on how American conservatism has left Kirkian traditionalist conservatism in the ditch. Excerpt:

The economic conservatives were in charge of the daring ventures that produced economic growth. The traditionalists were in charge of establishing the secure base — a society in which families are intact, self-discipline is the rule, children are secure and government provides a subtle hand.

Ronald Reagan embodied both sides of this fusion, and George W. Bush tried to recreate it with his compassionate conservatism. But that effort was doomed because in the ensuing years, conservatism changed.

In the polarized political conflict with liberalism, shrinking government has become the organizing conservative principle. Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse. These days, speakers at Republican gatherings almost always use the language of market conservatism — getting government off our backs, enhancing economic freedom. Even Mitt Romney, who subscribes to a faith that knows a lot about social capital, relies exclusively on the language of market conservatism.

It’s not so much that today’s Republican politicians reject traditional, one-nation conservatism. They don’t even know it exists.

Read the whole thing. Obviously, I agree with it completely, especially Brooks’s observation that “the Republican Party has abandoned half of its intellectual ammunition.”

On that point: I posted the Kirk piece the other day in response to a friend’s request that I explain what I think a healthy

Russell Kirk

conservatism would look like. If you find yourself frustrated with the intellectually moribund state of the GOP and movement conservatism, I urge you to buy a copy of the historian George H. Nash’s “The Conservative Intellectual Movement In America Since 1945.”  It’s a highly readable, deeply knowledgeable account of American conservatism over the last few decades. It may shock readers who think conservatism began in 1980 to learn how deep and varied the various schools of conservative thought was — especially Kirk, Viereck, and the Traditionalists. They have all been eclipsed, as Brooks says.

I blame my tribe on the Religious Right for some of this. We allowed the greater part of what we had to offer to the broader conservative movement to consist of making demands about abortion and homosexuality. These were, and are, very important issues, but the idea that Christianity has little to say to contemporary conservatism, and to American politics, beyond strong opinions on these two issues — well, the impoverishment of that vision is radical. That, plus the incorrect assumption that free-market capitalism is always and everywhere agreeable to Christianity and social conservatism has contributed greatly to the rout of traditionalists.

The fusionists — that is, the people who forged the coalition between economic conservatives (many of whom tended to be libertarians) and traditionalists — understood that American conservatism stood for ordered liberty. Not simply order, and not simply liberty. Freedom and virtue were meaningless without each other. Virtue, in a political sense, had to mean something more than the sum total of free individuals behaving well. Virtue had to come from strong families and communities. Robert Nisbet saw all this in the 1950s, and wrote about it in The Quest For Community (see Patrick Deneen’s short essay on the value of Nisbet’s contribution).

Ever read that book? Ever read Kirk’s The Conservative Mind? Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences? These are treasure troves of traditionalist conservative thought and insight — all of it now so alien to what conservatism has become that to read them is like meeting a long-lost ancestor, a rich uncle who offers you an inheritance you didn’t know you had.

Turn off talk radio. Turn off the cable. Quit buying books from flashy Republican Party publicists. Take up the old traditionalist masters — Kirk, Nisbet, Weaver, and their philosophical school — and read. One day, their wisdom may revive American conservatism from the sterility and sloganeering of Conservatism, Inc.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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