Iowa is upon us. 2012 is upon us. How will it all end? It may just all end in tears. Tears because Obama wins, or tears because the GOP did not offer a viable alternative. Whatever happens, one thing is for sure: this is a time to stand up for conservative principles.
But, just what on earth is a conservative, and can one win the White House this year?
To answer this means agreement on just what a conservative is, and your answer to the second part of my question depends on the answer to the first part.
Simply put, Conservatism is a set of instincts and principles guiding decisions, which are applied according to historical context. Today’s conservative may discuss different situations and policy options then an 18th Century conservative, but then they will adhere to some broad principles as if there had been no intervening centuries. The conservative whom is central to American modern conservatism is Edmund Burke, and he spelled out some core conservative elements of thought:
- People are basically religious, and religion is the foundation of civil society. A divine sanction infuses the legitimate, existing, social order.
- Society is the natural, organic product of slow historical growth, with institutions drawing on the wisdom of previous generations.
- People are creatures of instinct and emotion as well as reason. Prudence, prejudice, experience, and habit are better guides than reason, logic, abstractions, and metaphysics. Truth exists not in universal propositions but in concrete experiences.
- The community is superior to the individual. Rights derive from duties. Evil is rooted in human nature, not in any particular social institutions.
- Apart from an ultimate moral sense, people are unequal. Social organization is a complex of classes, orders, and groups. Hence, differentiation, hierarchy and leadership are the inevitable characteristics of any civil society.
- A presumption exists “in favor of any settled scheme of government against any untried project. “Man’s hopes are high, but his vision is short.” Thus, efforts to remedy existing evils usually result in even greater ones.
We find echoes of these elements in the influential 1953 essay “The Conservative Mind”, where Russell Kirk offered what he called “six canons of conservative thought”. Like Burke, the divine plays a foundational role:
- Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience
- Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life
- Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes
- Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected and that economic leveling is not economic progress
- Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters and calculators”
- Recognition that change and reform are not identical
In 2012, how many of these foundational canons of thought are taught in our educational system? Again the answer is simple: none. What does happen is that these foundational principles are undermined and dismantled at every level of education and public life. To be a conservative is to swim against the cultural tide, against the consensus which is taught in schools and parlayed by the chattering media.
Winning a political election means appealing to the consensus, and today’s consensus is not tolerant of principles, or even thought for that matter. In today’s climate, a conservative cannot win the election. You can only look at the GOP field and vote for the consensus candidate, in other words the nearest thing to an electable conservative. This is not a ringing endorsement of Mitt Romney, but he is the only candidate who can compete with Obama.
But then in the grand scheme of things the presidential election is a mere sideshow, because the real battles lie ahead in establishing a new conservative agenda for an America systemically in doubt and unsure. The enlightenment trajectory of Europe down the road to Welfarism, with its self-destructive repudiation of civilized principles, is the trajectory America is now following.
The answer is not to be found in this election, a new conservatism that tackles the causes of decline in enlightenment civilization is needed. A new Burke or Kirk is needed, because conservatives cannot simply look at Obama as the cause of America’s identity crisis, he is a symptom of the decay of the principles these thinkers set out so clearly.
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