“Every man participating in a culture has three levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world.
“The first of these are the thoughts he employs in the activity of daily living; they direct his disposition of immediate matters and, so, constitute his worldliness. One can exist on this level alone for limited periods, though pure worldliness must eventually bring disharmony and conflict.
“Above this lies his body of beliefs, some of which may be heritages simply, but others of which he will have acquired in the ordinary course of his reflection…These, too, however, rest on something more general.
“Surmounting all is an intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality, and this is the sanction to which both ideas and beliefs are ultimately referred for verification. Without the metaphysical dream it is impossible to think of men living together harmoniously over an extent of time. The dream carries with it an evaluation, which is the bond of spiritual community.” —Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, 18
The Liberal Ironist had a mounting concern–while at the Rally to Restore Sanity, actually–that this blog should move back in the direction of the philosophical–for the time being. He recalled and felt chastened by the prose of the great Conservative Realist quoted above, and thought it overdue for this blog to read and function less like an op-ed page–a lot less if possible. Unfortunately, this could’t commence last weekend, due to the “urgency” of reporting on the Rally itself (under considerable scheduling constraints, among them the need to watch horror movies on Halloween) and the obvious distraction of a certain midterm election of historic magnitude that brought a Republican wave back to power at all levels of government in all but the most-Democratic States. But both the Rally to Restore Sanity and the stunning Republican comeback in the midterm elections set the stage nicely for an exploration into the political thinkers, many of them long-dead, who continue to shape these events.
This blog will spend some time on the intellectual forebears of Conservatism.
Today the agenda is simply to offer a decades-old answer as to what political Conservatism is, and to try raise questions about its evolution as it gained political traction. One of the first things that warrants mention is that the term most-certainly does not strictly-connote what it once meant in connection with Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, 2 intellectual forebears of modern political Conservatism widely-separated in time. (Burke wrote his key Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1789–90; Kirk published the first edition of his touchstone work in 1953.) Kirk, in The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot, defines political conservatism as inhering in 6 characteristics, which I’ll list in abridged form here:
1.) “Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. A narrow rationality, what Coleridge called the Understanding, cannot of itself satisfy human needs…
2.) “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of man’s existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls ‘Logicalism’ in society…
3.) “Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a ‘classless society.’ With reason, conservatives often have been called ‘the party of order.’ If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum…
4.) “Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all…
5.) “Faith in prescription and distrust of ‘sophisters, calculators, and economists’ who would reconstruct society based upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power…
6.) “Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.” (Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 8-9)
Half of these 6 qualities seem like they clash even with the self-representation of most contemporary Conservatives. Belief in a natural law and that political problems are fundamentally moral or religious problems, and respect for property and propriety–#1, #4 and #5, respectively–are certainly core values of contemporary conservatism. #2–respect for the variety in human experience as opposed to uniformity, egalitarianism and Utilitarianism–is recognizable in Conservatives’ general mistrust of regulations governing local institutions, its impatience with bureaucracy and centralized measurements and bookkeeping. The Liberal Ironist already distinguished Conservatives from Liberals in a previous post on the basis of the former’s preference to invoke values as premises, as opposed to the latter’s preference to sidestep premises and use facts pragmatically in argument.
On the remaining 2 points–regard for class differences (#3) and non-ideological prudence in policy change (#6)–political Conservatism has simply evolved. #3 obviously never had a place in populism; it certainly didn’t describe religious conservatives since William Jennings Bryan who, their economic philosophy aside, are the forebears of the Christian Right. #6–aversion to hasty reform–also no longer seems to be a dominant concern among either the intelligentsia or the core Conservative constituencies. When one considers Neoconservatives, Libertarian-leaning Republicans and the Christian Right, only the latter constituency seems at all averse to far-reaching reforms of the law in either practice or principle–and most members of the latter group would probably make a consequential exception to outlaw abortion.
But the Liberal Ironist has already smuggled a premise into this long-digression–that of the tectonic factions of Neoconservatives, Libertarian-leaning conservatives, and the Christian Right. Isn’t the Conservative movement a package deal?
No, not at all; part of the Liberal Ironist’s upcoming posts on the intellectual background of the American Conservative movement will address the tensions among these different elements, and try to fathom the fascinating near-total silence (to date) of both the Tea Party movement and Congressional Republicans on either the ill-fated foreign policy declaratives of the Neoconservatives or the often-exclusionary and brand-laden cultural politics of the Christian Right.