Conservatism: What’s Wrong with It and How Can We Make It Right?

Photo by Michael John Grist. Used by permission.

Photo by Michael John Grist. Used by permission.

The American conservative movement is facing a crisis. While a strong plurality of voting Americans identify as conservative, it’s apparent to anyone who’s watching that college students are more liberal than ever, and even those who may have identified as conservatives ten years ago are now identifying as libertarians, “pro-liberty,” or, in many cases, not identifying at all.

At the same time, the content of conservatism has become more ambiguous, to the point where people with radically different philosophies can all identity as conservative. Some self-styled conservatives would like to grow the size of the federal government to promote American interests and ideals abroad, while others plant their roots in the soil of community, decentralization, anti-interventionism. Some conservatives oppose almost any restrictions on the free market, while others see meaningful regulations as part of a prudent, conservative economic order. The list of disputes goes on and on.

The stakes of these disputes are higher than simply satisfying a craving for self-definition or reaching young Americans. Conservatism is the only sane alternative to progressive liberalism, which eschews all tradition in the name of endless “progress” (though what we are progressing toward is never clear), guided by the all-too-visible hand of the omnipotent State. If conservatives cannot agree on their own premises, they will fail to mount a counteroffensive. Without a vision of the good—without the proper institutions of civil society that conservatism seeks to preserve—modern, individualistic, democratic man will succumb to the soft despotism of the omnicompetent State.

We have to take a step back and ask, What’s wrong with conservatism, and how do we make it right? Over the course of the next eight weeks, the Intercollegiate Review will try to answer these two questions. We’ve asked journalists, scholars, and public intellectuals, each representing a different strain of thinking on the Right, to identify why conservatism has failed to develop a cohesive vision of a well-ordered society, and to offer a solution to our current crisis. Our contributors will include Timothy Carney of the Washington Examiner, Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute, Kevin Gutzman of Western Connecticut University, Mark Mitchell of Front Porch Republic, George Neumayr of the American Spectator, Gerald Russello of the University Bookman, and Jonathan Tobin of Commentary magazine. Student columnists Chase Padusniak, Elisabeth Cervantes, Ian Tuttle, and Danielle Charette will be tasked, each week, with writing their own responses to each contribution—to keep the conversation going and to connect the rising generation of conservative thinkers and activists with the scholarly debate.

While acknowledging the need for a conservative vision, we must take seriously Russell Kirk’s understanding of what it means to be a conservative:

Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata. So far as it is possible to determine what conservatives believe, the first principles of the conservative persuasion are derived from what leading conservative writers and public men have professed during the past two centuries.

Perhaps it would be well, most of the time, to use this word “conservative” as an adjective chiefly. For there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.

The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. . . . The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects.

It is with this humility and understanding that we approach our questions.

Week 1: Politics, Ideas, and the West by Samuel Gregg
Week 2: Roots, Limits, and Love, by Mark T. Mitchell
Week 3: The Duties of a Free Citizen, by Kevin Gutzman
Week 4: Rescuing Freedom from Despair, by Jonathan Tobin
Week 5: Want Truth? Work for Beauty, by Gerald Russello
Week 6: Go Radical or Go Home, by George Neumayr
Week 7: Reject Jingoism and Groupthink, by Daniel Larison
Week 8: It’s Time for Free Market Populism, by Timothy Carney



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  • David Kidd

    Self-examination is always a good thing, especially when it comes to the questions this series proposes to consider. But isn’t the attempt to “fix conservatism” fraught with more than a little irony? Having nodded to Kirk, do you then propose to do exactly what he says conservatives can’t do–viz., assemble a conservative dogmata or, worse, a conservatism “that can win again?” I can see the value in political coalition building among self-styled conservatives, but I’m having trouble seeing how the thing itself (conservatism) can be reinvigorated by these means.

    Nevertheless, I’m sure the contributions will be well worth reading. Kudos to the Editors for organizing this exchange.

  • TruthTeller

    FORGET, PLEASE, modern “conservatism.” It has been a failure because it has been, operationally, de facto, Godless. In the political/civil government realm it has ignored Christ and what Scripture says about the role and purpose of civil government. Thus, it failed. Such secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God they are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

    ”[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn.

    “American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”

    In any event, “politics,” for the most part today, is whoring after false gods. It will not save us. Our country is turning into Hell because the church in America has forgotten God (Psalm 9:17) and refuses to kiss His Son (Psalm 2.) See, please, 2 Chronicles 7:14ff for the way to get our land healed.

    John Lofton, Recovering Republican
    Active Facebook Wall

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  • Howard

    “Conservatism” is in trouble? No kidding. We’re told we should vote John McCain, because he is a conservative. We’re told we should vote for Mitt Romney, because he is a conservative. So, according to party leaders, was Alen Specter.

    Well, if all those men are conservatives, I want nothing to do with conservatism. I’ll call myself something else. Right now I’m leaning towards “Chestertonian”.

  • nickthap

    “eschews all tradition in the name of endless ‘progress’ (though what we
    are progressing toward is never clear), guided by the all-too-visible
    hand of the omnipotent State.”

    From the get-go, you’ve defined your foes incorrectly. How do you explain liberals’ interest in sustainable development and conservatives penchant for suburban sprawl, just to cite one example?

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  • markolinux

    Although he dismissed the idea of conservatism as an immutable list of beliefs or dogmas, Russell Kirk did propose six (later expanded to ten) principles that outlined a “body of sentiments” that fairly well defines what conservatism is. It would have been a good thing, I think, to have included them in this introductory article. I hope at least that they are referred to by the authors participating in this symposium.

    It would be interesting to see how what we call “Western Civilization” correlates to that body of sentiments that Kirk set forth.

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  • AndrosPetros

    Conservatives are in denial. Despite the impossible attempt to stand completely athwart history, conservatives appear as rootless as their liberal counterparts. Conservatives depend on the isolating mobility of individual transportation as much as anyone, even a liberal. Conservatives we know are not agrarians. They are not rooted in their childhood homes. They are politicians. Conservatives may be shaped by thinkers and authors, like anyone, but they are shaped by land and place as little as a travelling salesman. Perhaps that is what the modern conservative has become, a desperate salesman. Instead of conserving a great tradition, he advertises elections, pointing us only to his name on a ballot. And yet our conservative has already bought into big government for defense and for special business subsidies. Our conservative shops at Wal-mart rather than farmers’ markets, and for education, well, as Jacques Barzun points out, college youth are degree purchasers, obtaining an education by accident (if at all) when pursuing a degree, not unlike a hunter chasing his dinner and catching stubborn burs along the way. An alternative to liberalism has failed to convince even conservatives, who can seldom be distinguished from their liberal friends. The image conservatives have sculpted for themselves is not one of agrarian beauty juxtaposed with an enduring moral order and the curse of Adam that accompanies it, family blood sustained by daily sweat. We do not see artist, farmer, or parishioner when we hear “conservative”. Instead the iconic conservative is a suit-and-tie businessman, a man of the city and not the country. If he can earn his own way financially, the logic goes, then he is well on his way to supporting the more important aspects of life: fellowship, family, and faith. But the conservative icon is not a proud, if humble, father with his wife and children in their home. The conservative image remains one of the rootless businessman, or the ambitious Republican, apparently concerned most with personal gain, and especially financial gain. The conservative alternative to entitlements, charity, has failed. The dollars donated to charities are not acts of generosity, but merely an alternative to paying it to Washington. Charity does not help the wandering poor in our own neighborhoods, who are not our “friends” on Facebook. It would appear that we are all libertarians now.
    When we hear of grassroots organization and people in the streets we do not imagine conservatives like ourselves. We imagine advocates of gay marriage and women’s’ so-called rights, including abortion. The laissez-faire attitude of Republicans shows itself when conservatives cannot mobilize their own “communities,” which are seldom the face-to-face communities conservatives say they prefer, but the intangible techno-communities. This does not mean community is dead. At Central Michigan University, located not far from Russell Kirk’s estate, corporal communities supporting local grocers and markets thrived; they were the coffee houses, organic produce markets, and thespian clubs populated by people who described themselves as liberals. The question is not how to maintain organic communities, for as long as people are organic, communities will arise organically. The question is a matter of value. People who appreciate personal relationships within the context of commerce, like the liberals at an Ann Arbor, MI, farmer’s market, for example, value humane relationships like conservatives do. Some of their social values, however, are incompatible with a humane and free society. When my wife was pregnant at a Thanksgiving dinner with notably liberal friends, the turkey was tolerated so long as it remained both in the corner and out of discussion: one of the hosts was a vegetarian. By the end of supper, however, the topic of abortion comfortably surfaced between our liberal hosts and their liberal guests, notwithstanding my pregnant wife sitting in the same room. Possibilities for conservative people to influence their liberal or immoral neighbors have been suggested, notably by beautifying a place. But recall that of the plausibly conservative people who do decide to get married, more than half of those people find divorce a more-appealing alternative to holy matrimony and lifelong monogamy. Conservatives must begin by being the change they wish to see.
    In “The Prospects for Conservatism,” Richard Weaver wrote: “Conservatism would not be a political philosophy, and it could never have held together a political following if it were nothing more than this.” The fracturing and failing of the conservative political following shows how hollow it has become. In the end, however reluctantly, our Republican and conservative congressman pass the same bills invented by liberals; they poise themselves as obnoxious roadblocks to progress without an alternative. Weaver continued to write in his “Prospects” that primitive conservatism, largely rooted in agrarian life, requires leaders to articulate the conservative alternative in the battle of ideas. But mostly urban, who are the spokesmen for conservatives in the battle of the budget, let alone the battle of ideas? Glenn Beck? Rush Limbaugh? Perhaps, but even these interlocutors are keenly destructive, rather than constructive. They seldom offer a refreshing alternative, but instead illustrate masterfully the looming doom for the nation, the conservative, the powerless individual. Conservatism may be reactionary by nature, but it must also invest the future with hope and imagination, not merely despair. Advertising safes, gold bullion, and tax services, our popular conservative radio hosts encourage isolation and mistrust rather than community, and they offer little momentum to a sense of American can-do, will-do. The conservative as desperate salesman has reappeared, profiting by advertising and appealing to conservatives’ worst fears rather than their better angels.
    The single biggest casualty of mass media and mass policy (Conservative or Liberal, both are massive) is conversation. Conservatives have dropped out of the conversation between the generations, as removed from aging grandparents as their children are from real mealtime discussions. We stay in touch texting each other across the same room. At restaurants we hear thumbs clicking away and see those bright LED screens that darken our appreciation of each other. And we have stopped talking about our ideas of the good, the beautiful, and the true. In my college days I frequented a locally-owned pipe shop in town. Some of my friends became employed there and some of the employees became friends. One day I started a conversation with a stranger (how dare I!), a “liberal-looking” and attractive girl. Between her and my friend and me we discovered that, despite our opposing political affiliations in a two-party system, we shared the same idea of what feminism ought to mean. We agreed that going to work does not fulfill the extra responsibilities of being a spouse and parent; providing for your family means more than providing a paycheck. We discovered, through the fellowship of the briar pipe, that we shared sensible ideas of adult responsibility quite irrespective of Washington’s one-or-the-other politics. If conservatism is the negation of ideology, conservatives must advocate for themselves in order to break the mold Washington would place them in. Conservatives believe in ideas more practical and too poetic to be merely political. Congressional conservatives defend only a temporary budget at best, and not the Permanent Things. Conservatives need conversation in place of radio consternation and Washington slot-categorization.
    Some years ago a pastor in my high-school home town organized a march against the handful of gargoyles inhabiting a cluster of churches on three adjacent blocks, believing them to be demons. My father, also a pastor, laughed at the idea, as he explained to me that gargoyles are meant to frighten away the very spirits this other pastor believed them to be. What Kirk would trade for one of these poor, tattered gargoyles, conservatives must also trade. The great traditions we wish to conserve are a little better, I dare say, than tattered, even if university professors who post spaghetti-and-meatball monsters and “pastafarians” on their doors do mock God. If conservatives mean what they say, that Conservatism is not a political ideology, they must abandon their political life-rafts and return to the oaken tradition, however waterlogged, and begin to fight anew, first in their own families and then in communities and elections. Conservatism does not require a majority or an election to be practicable. A real chance lies open before conservatives for renaissance and renewal. Kirk said, “There is nothing more conservative than conservation.” If we would agree, let us turn off the fear-mongering radio and roll up our sleeves to plant some trees with our children. Let us forget ballots and remember our shovels. Let us renew our own marriage vows and paint a godly portrait of the institution of marriage, properly understood. Let us love our neighbors as ourselves, inviting them to church. Then, when a perennial election does approach, people who are not Conservatives, or reluctant liberals, but sensible Americans, described by the adjective conservative, will cast their ballots accordingly. Conservatives have not been cultivating their own culture, but it is not too late to redeem the time. Russell Kirk and the great tradition we wish to share will orient us aright. For renewal conservative people need leaders just like Kirk, those who lead by example, and not by majority. After all, “One man with courage makes a majority.” It is fitting to return to Kirk, the author of the Conservative Mind. Let us hear him in his own words:
    “The twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, for the
    regeneration of the spirit and character – with the perennial problem
    of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding,
    and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded.
    This is conservatism at its highest.”
    ― Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind

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  • Piotr Chomicki

    “We have to take a step back and ask, What’s wrong with conservatism, and how do we make it right?”
    That little sentence right there shows all your problems. It implies that you are not in the habit of stepping back and looking at things in proper perspective and yet that is the entire essence of political conservatism: looking at things soberly, with deliberation, and using prudence instead of rushing to judgment.
    Conservatism is not a political ideology or philosophy. It is the disposition of a human person to emphasize prudence over action.