Two of My “Conservatives for Progressives” Reflect on the State of Conservatism

Yesterday I lauded a variety of conservative writers whom I encouraged my left-leaning friends to include in their regular reading rotation.

One reason I recommended many of them is that they possess the rare ability to engage in critical reflection on their own movement. To wit, David Brooks’ New York Times column this morning and Rod Dreher’s follow-up to it in The American Conservative.

David Brooks
David Brooks – Wikimedia

First, Brooks — who looked back on starting his career with The National Review, where he found the “fusion of two mentalities”:

  • That of economic conservatives: “They spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty. They upheld freedom as their highest political value. They admired risk-takers. They worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace.”
  • And that of traditional conservatives who, for example, read Edmund Burke or had been influenced by Catholic social thought: “This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.”

For Brooks, Ronald Reagan exemplified the best of these two tendencies: that is, when “together they embodied a truth that was put into words by the child psychologist John Bowlby, that life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base.”

But as he looks out at the current Republican Party, its candidate for president, and self-described conservatives, Brooks finds one tendency prevailing:

In the polarized political conflict with liberalism, shrinking government has become the organizing conservative principle. Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse. These days, speakers at Republican gatherings almost always use the language of market conservatism — getting government off our backs, enhancing economic freedom. Even Mitt Romney, who subscribes to a faith that knows a lot about social capital, relies exclusively on the language of market conservatism.

Russell Kirk
Russell Kirk (1918-1994) – Creative Commons (Kirk Center)

Rod Dreher (mentioned by Brooks for linking to an essay by traditional conservative hero Russell Kirk) agreed entirely: what he was witnessing was “The Rout of Traditional Conservatism.” Dreher went a step further, however, in asking why “American conservatism has left Kirkian traditionalist conservatism in the ditch.” He started with Christian conservatives:

I blame my tribe on the Religious Right for some of this. We allowed the greater part of what we had to offer to the broader conservative movement to consist of making demands about abortion and homosexuality. These were, and are, very important issues, but the idea that Christianity has little to say to contemporary conservatism, and to American politics, beyond strong opinions on these two issues — well, the impoverishment of that vision is radical. That, plus the incorrect assumption that free-market capitalism is always and everywhere agreeable to Christianity and social conservatism has contributed greatly to the rout of traditionalists.

Then second, he observed that the conservative understanding of liberty had been detached from its traditionalist moorings:

The fusionists — that is, the people who forged the coalition between economic conservatives (many of whom tended to be libertarians) and traditionalists — understood that American conservatism stood for ordered liberty. Not simply order, and not simply liberty. Freedom and virtue were meaningless without each other. Virtue, in a political sense, had to mean something more than the sum total of free individuals behaving well. Virtue had to come from strong families and communities.

The fact that two such prominent conservatives can take such a clear-eyed, balanced view of a movement to which they’ve committed much of themselves gives me hope for the future of the right wing. While both identify some inherent tensions within conservatism, neither abandons it so much as calls it back to its true self.

Of course, if I were a Romney donor, a Ron Paul disciple, or a Tea Partier, I probably would respond differently to such hand-wringing by people who keep themselves somewhat detached from electoral politics and get paid to write no matter who wins elections.

But then I’m none of those things. I am not a movement conservative (economic, traditional, or any other kind) and so am viewing this discussion from a distance.

I’m not a diehard liberal either. (Though I’ll have a post in a day or two recommending progressives for my Republican friends to read.) I have my sympathies and biases, but they’ve never aligned neatly with any party or intellectual movement.

Indeed, as a Christian, I find few courses more perilous than choosing to lock step with any one political party or ideology. At best, that kind of secular loyalty may stem from a laudable but somewhat blinded passion for justice and righteousness, one that is insufficiently humble about the limits of human understanding and the effects of sin (both what we have done, and left undone).

But at its worst, alignment with any political ideology is sheer idolatry. As C.S. Lewis put it so well in his 1939 sermon, “Learning in War-Time”:

He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.

One thought on “Two of My “Conservatives for Progressives” Reflect on the State of Conservatism

  1. Lewis was correct here, as he nearly always was. My wife and I and our adult children are all “independents.” However, as Christians we study the values, positions and platforms of the respective parties and individual candidates and don’t find it too difficult to make our choices during election season. We’re not “single issue voters,” but there are some matters that force uncomfortable “alliances” with those whose values (e.g. Libertarian selfishness/self-focus) we definitely do not share. We treat each and every election as a brand new start as we consider our electoral options.

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