Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What is conservativism?

How many times have you heard or read the words "soul-searching" after the recent election? As in this headline: "After Romney loss, GOP soul searching begins." There is indeed a great deal of discussion and debate among those who consider themselves "conservative" over the direction of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. But who defines conservativism, and how should conservativism be defined? That is the deeper philosophical issue behind these discussions. 

As you might expect, such a broad label as "conservative" can cover many strands of thinking. It can refer to social conservatism, which emphasizes family values issues like traditional marriage and the sanctity of life. It can refer to fiscal conservativism, belief in limited government and lower taxes. It can refer to neoconservativism, an offshoot of conservativism led by former liberals who were too hawkish in their views of national defense and foreign policy to remain liberals.

These three strains of thinking have not always been intertwined, and some would argue they are mutually exclusive. But in 1980, a political candidate of singular charisma forged a coalition of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and defense hawks to sweep into power. The Reagan coalition brought these disparate elements of conservative thinking together, uniting socially conservative evangelicals in the south and socially conservative Catholics in union households in the north; Wall Street fiscal conservatives; neocons; and even some libertarians.

In this sense Reagan was the successor to FDR, whose magnetic personality brought together the New Deal Coalition. Indeed, Reagan managed to break apart various elements of the New Deal Coalition as many disaffected Democrats looked for a new ideological home. But political coalitions are by their very nature uneasy alliances at best, and Reagan's coalition was destined to break up just as surely as was FDR's. Without a once-in-a-generation figure like Reagan or FDR to weld the factions together by force of personality, disintegration is inevitable.

So in the aftermath of Romney's defeat, "soul-searching" has begun. And I would propose that this soul-searching begin with a return to first principles. One of the reasons the conservative cause has hit upon hard times is that a narrow strain of conservativim has become dominant, led by media entertainers rather than serious thinkers. As a result, most self-professed conservatives imbibe the shallow, shrill message of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and know little if anything about the founding father of modern conservativism, Russell Kirk. 

Russell Kirk (1918-1994) was a "man of letters," born and raised in Michigan. After graduating from St. Andrews University, he briefly taught history at Michigan State before becoming disenchanted by MSU's growing emphasis on size. Returning to his hometown of Mecosta, Kirk devoted himself to writing and lecturing on the subject of conservativism. In the 1950s he helped to found The National Review, the flagship journal of conservativism for many years. Kirk's most famous work was his revision of his doctoral thesis, The Conservative Mind,   the definitive study of the foundations of conservative philosophy.  

Over the next few weeks I want to explore Kirk's thought, and analyze how far afield popular conservative thinking has strayed from the principles Kirk set forth, principles which I also believe can trigger a Renaissance of conservativism. 

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