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Two Kinds of ‘Conservative’ From the Start

There's more to conservatism than opposing FDR. (Lissandra Melo / Shutterstock.com

My essay in the University Bookman’s symposium on the 60th anniversary of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind looks at why Kirk’s Burkean conservatism has for so long been misidentified with the GOP’s Chamber of Commerce conservatism. Ironically enough, Kirk played a role in abetting the confusion—others of a Burkean or even Tory bent, like Peter Viereck and Clinton Rossiter, were quite antithetical to the “business liberals” whom the New Dealers had branded as conservatives. (I use the term “business liberal” because they were people who used classical liberalism in support of a pro-business agenda, whereas more radical classical liberals were, like some of today’s consistent libertarians, strongly opposed to crony capitalism.) But Kirk was more critical of the welfare state than most neo-Burkeans were, so his work became something the business liberals could assimilate, adding Kirk to their libraries alongside Mises and Rand. That Kirk, Mises, and Rand would have been appalled by this promiscuity doesn’t matter; politics makes strange bedfellows.

(My own view is that while the unthinking political assimilation of these traditions would become a major problem for traditionalists and libertarians alike, both camps should have engaged one another intellectually, and each had valid criticisms to make of Washington’s growing power. Robert Nisbet had a very good perspective on all this, as did European figures like Bertrand de Jouvenel.)

My Bookman piece conveys my hopes that the confusion of six decades is clearing up, thanks to the terrible things the country has experienced in the last dozen years:

there are grounds for optimism—nay, confidence. The first is that business liberalism—a.k.a. movement conservatism—has failed comprehensively: militarism, paranoia, and get-rich-quick/beggar-thy-neighbor schemes will always have a following, but a generation of young Americans who have lived with the consequences of needless wars and neoliberalism—unemployment and cultural disillusion, to name two—are hungry for an alternative. The left offers a neoliberalism leavened, if that’s the word, with New Deal welfarism. That sells better than the GOP’s business liberalism does. But an authentic conservatism, articulated with good cheer, could beat both kinds of liberalism because only an authentic conservatism meets the needs of modernity’s orphans. Getting the message out is the hard part.

And naturally I suggest The Conservative Mind is a good place to start. Another would be Nisbet’s Conservatism: Dream and Reality.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, Modern Age, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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