What kind of conservatism is possible today? Conservatism has always emphasized tradition. Since the goods tradition promotes can be difficult to articulate—if things were otherwise the goods wouldn’t have to be embodied in tradition but could be taken straight—and since the opponents of tradition refuse to admit the reality and value of traditional goods, the impression has grown up that conservatism is defense of existing habit simply as such. That impression is a distortion. The conservative preference for stability has always been subordinate to more ultimate concerns that could not be clearly stated because they were transcendent. “Conservative Stalinist” is thus an oxymoron.
The fact conservatism has never clearly distinguished means and ends has made it vulnerable to changed circumstances. As time has passed, public institutions and ideals have become more and more permeated with egalitarian hedonism. The same spirit has crept into the attitudes and habits of the people, and even into institutions such as church and university that once stood for something very different. As a result, a preference for established institutions and habits no longer promotes traditional goods as it once did. Conservatism as it was no longer makes sense, and has to change.
But how should it change? The possibilities have been:
- Emphasis on what is accustomed. Conservatism keeps its form while losing its soul, and becomes a simple preference for what is settled at present, whatever that may be. This view became incoherent when “what is settled” came to include things like “the American tradition of progressive reform” or “the quest for equality.” An emphasis on what is accustomed can therefore only be rhetorical today. The claim that “true conservatism” is allegiance to what is settled, so that a true conservative like Edmund Burke would cherish the 1964 Civil Rights Act if he were alive today, is a specialty of academically-oriented liberals who think conservatives should just shut up, and to some extent of their faux conservative running dogs.
- Emphasis on goods conservatism is concerned to foster. On this understanding conservatism keeps its soul but becomes a form of radicalism. In radical times that’s hard to avoid, since in the absence of reliable settled understandings the alternative to radicalism becomes doing what you’re told by whoever is in power. The issue that divides various forms of conservatism, however, is just what goods to foster:
- Mainstream conservatism is concerned to foster goods that motivated American institutions until their post-60s radicalization, and that still retain their hold on the American people. These include personal discipline and ambition, opportunity, economic prosperity, and national greatness, with decency of conduct and residual religiosity in the background. Neoconservatism is a sort of intellectualized version of this mainstream conservatism.
- Other forms of American conservatism—the constitutionalist/patriot movement, for example—are concerned to foster goods that characterized earlier stages of American life. These include populism, local, family and individual independence, and conservative decentralized evangelical religion.
- It seems that the foregoing forms of conservatism want to reverse the development of liberalism in American society and stabilize it at some point in the past. One wonders whether the effort makes sense, or whether America was founded from the beginning on a conception of self-defining equal freedom that cannot be stabilized and has inevitably swept away all other goods. The European New Right would take the objection a large step further, and say that universal equality is a necessary implication of Christianity itself, so that to go forward we would have to go back to pre-Christian pagan Europe. One could no doubt continue the line of thought indefinitely back to the Big Bang.
What follows from these considerations, I think, is that the most important issue for conservative thought today is less tactics or even strategy than orthodoxy. What complex of practice, thought and symbol can endure through changes and remain a standard for social life and political action? What can we accept wholeheartedly as true? Without some sort of Archimedian point on which to stand, judge and propose goals for American society it seems conservatives are forever doomed to complaining and foot-dragging, with never a chance to offer effective principled resistance or even articulate a way of life for themselves independent of the corruptions of the world around them. Conservatism no longer makes sense except as a term for orthodoxy that emphasizes its ties to the past and embodiment in tradition. The present, it seems, is not a time for politics as ordinarily understood but for truth and how to live it.