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Has the Conservative Mind Forgotten How to Think?

What does it mean to be a conservative in the Age of Trump? Has “owning the libs” become the essence of conservatism? If so, what does that say about the current state of the conservative movement? What does it say about its ability to make America great again—or even to exercise substantial influence over any part of the culture?

Russell Kirk helped give that movement its name in 1953 when he published The Conservative Mind. At the time, America’s thinking class did not consider conservatism a respectable intellectual tradition. Lionel Trilling, one of the country’s leading intellectuals, summed up well the dominant view. “In the United States… liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” In Trilling’s opinion, conservatives were not serious thinkers and instead conversed “in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Because of this, Trilling confidently declared it to be a “plain fact” that there were “no conservative… ideas in general circulation.” His contemporary Louis Hartz held the even stronger view that there had never been conservatives in America and that its tradition was fundamentally liberal.

Kirk agreed with Trilling. He believed that conservatives did not pose a severe threat to liberalism’s dominance of post-war American politics. He originally wanted to call his book The Conservative Rout, and he began the concluding chapter of The Conservative Mind by observing that “conservatives have been routed, although not conquered.”

Looking back, we now know that Trilling and Kirk were both wrong. Conservatism represented much more than “irritable mental gestures” and conservatives were not in danger of being routed. If anything, conservatives were on the cusp of a massive offensive that would push liberalism back from society’s commanding heights, in large part thanks to The Conservative Mind. At a pivotal point in history, Kirk’s book helped transform conservatism from a marginalized strain of thought into a respectable intellectual tradition in its own right, capable of competing with liberalism for dominance of American politics.

Yet instead of the victorious end to history that many on the right predicted, especially after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed a few years later, the conservative movement has been plagued by divisions and infighting between its different factions. In light of their disagreements, conservatives appear to have sidelined substantive issues in favor of “owning the libs” on the campaign trail and on cable news. Their remarkable unity on this front implies an unwillingness to grapple with their own divisions and suggests that somewhere along the way, amidst their internecine battles, autopsies, purges, reinventions, and renewed promises, the conservative mind forgot how to think. In the process, conservatives have become ideologues aspiring to rule America just like their liberal opponents purportedly did in decades past.

Introducing America to Conservatism

The Conservative Mind was an instant success. The New York Times proclaimed, “Mr. Kirk’s account of the ideas, decisions and beliefs [of conservatism] merits the responsible attention of all informed persons who are not rattled by unpopular labels.” The Washington Post called it a “landmark in contemporary thinking.” And Time magazine devoted an entire section in its July 6, 1953 issue to an extensive review of The Conservative Mind.

Because of Kirk, everyone was paying attention to conservatism. Much to the chagrin of Trilling and his like-minded colleagues, liberalism was no longer America’s sole intellectual tradition. The Conservative Mind helped jumpstart the post-war conservative movement by introducing Americans to an intellectual lineage of which they were, at best, only faintly aware and that explained the lived experiences of ordinary men and women better than the abstract theories of the left. What Kirk intended to be a “prolonged essay in definition” would eventually be read by millions of people and would inspire those who would go on to become some of the nation’s most influential leaders. Barry Goldwater would later say that “Kirk gave the conservative viewpoint an intellectual foundation and respectability that it had not attained in modern society.” And Ronald Reagan contended that Kirk helped “to renew a generation’s interest and knowledge” of conservatism.

A Divided Movement

Admittedly, conservatives have disagreed over the definition of conservatism since the movement’s earliest days in the 1950s. What we know today as the conservative movement is and always has been a coalition comprised of different factions that agreed to set aside their philosophical differences and work together to defeat communism abroad and stem the tide of democratic socialism at home.

Yet by removing the threat of communism from the equation, the end of the Cold War made it harder for conservatives to continue ignoring the areas where they disagreed. Similarly, the 1994 Republican Revolution convinced many conservatives of the utility in prioritizing policy questions, as well as electoral and legislative politics, instead of the hard work needed to update the movement’s intellectual foundation in a post-Soviet world.

Amidst these developments, the philosophical fault lines in the conservative movement that were always present just below the surface quickly reemerged. However, the movement, dominated at that point by neoconservatives, ignored them, choosing instead to focus their political efforts on winning elections in pursuit of political power. Consequently, the disagreements underpinning those divisions persisted unaddressed. They festered and, instead of going away, only got worse. As the dynamism of disagreement disappeared within the movement, many conservatives, not just neoconservatives, lost interest in thinking deeply about what they were trying to conserve. There was no point. In their mind, winning elections, political power, and narrow questions of public policy became more important than safeguarding the ideas on which they believed America’s past progress depended. To the extent that most conservatives acknowledge those ideas at all in politics in recent years, it has been to use them as soundbites to win votes in elections.

Once unmoored from the intellectual tradition identified by Kirk, conservatism became a caricature of its former self in the eyes of the American people. Neglecting conservatism’s intellectual foundation also made it possible for politicians to claim to be conservative on the campaign trail while governing in a decidedly unconservative manner in Congress. Politicians have correctly surmised that the ends-justify-the-means mentality, so prevalent among conservatives today, can be used to excuse almost anything.

Not an Ideology

Self-professed conservatives’ narrow emphasis on questions of public policy instead of engaging with the ideas underpinning policy makes it easier for them to rationalize their inconsistent voting behavior. They invoke exigencies in the environment that left them with no choice and make empty appeals to abstract theories to justify their decisions.

While policy obviously matters, advocating policy prescriptions that depend on simplistic formulas derived from abstract and ahistorical reasoning is hardly conservative. According to Kirk, “the conservative abhors all forms of ideology.” He reminded us that “a priori designs for perfecting human nature and society are anathema to the conservative who knows them for the tools and weapons of coffeehouse fanatics.”

Instead of “ideological dogma,” the true conservative subscribes to “general principles in politics,” which are “arrived at by convention and compromise… and tested by long experience.” In contrast to the so-called conservatives who approach the world with an ideological mind, the genuine conservative mind takes as its foundation life’s inherent complexity. In thinking about the world, conservatives do not dismiss the concerns of a troubled spouse, an annoying neighbor, or a confused child whenever they contradict their worldview.

The Conservative Mind Must Think Again

To be fair, “owning the libs” is much easier than thinking. Grappling with life’s complexity is unnecessary when everything going wrong in our world is always the liberals’ fault. But by viewing the world in such terms, today’s conservatives demonstrate that they have more in common with the “coffeehouse fanatics” that Kirk warned us about than they would like to admit.

If conservatives really want to make America great again, they should start by thinking about what it was that made America great in the past. And they should think deeply about what will make America great in the future. As Kirk wrote in The Conservative Mind, “both the impulse to improve and the impulse to conserve are necessary to the healthy functioning of any society. Whether we join our energies to the party of progress or the party of permanence must depend on the circumstances of the time.”

Distinguishing between the traditions that should be conserved and those that should be reformed, as well as identifying those that should be discarded, takes discernment. It requires thought. It demands that the conservative mind start thinking once again.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on November 14, 2019 at 08:12:48 am

I have read and taught and learned from Kirk for years. Along with Burke, Disraeli, C.S. Lewis and a few (quite a few) other conservatives, he has shaped my thought. I am a radical democrat and I continue to value them. We become great as a people when we have thinkers and traditions are all intelligent and worthy of honor -even those of our rivals and enemies.

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Anne Norton
on November 14, 2019 at 08:13:58 am

P.S. and Kirk’s ghost stories! (Ancestral Shadows)

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Anne Norton
on November 14, 2019 at 08:28:25 am

I agree with Kirk's definition of the conservative: “the conservative abhors all forms of ideology.” He reminded us that “a priori designs for perfecting human nature and society are anathema to the conservative who knows them for the tools and weapons of coffeehouse fanatics.” Of course, that leaves out Originalists and Libertarians, not to mention anarcho-capitalists and Isolationists.

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Alan Kahan
on November 14, 2019 at 10:16:17 am

[T]he conservative abhors all forms of ideology.

Doesn't that become recursive? The conservative ideology is to eschew all (self-conscious) ideologies?

Who is more dangerous: The person who lives with the influence of an ideology and knows it, or the person who lives under the delusion that he's free of all ideological influences?

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nobody.really
on November 14, 2019 at 10:59:29 am

"Who is more dangerous: The person who lives with the influence of an ideology and knows it, or the person who lives under the delusion that he’s free of all ideological influences?
Reply"

That is a good question.
However, the example you offer, "[T]he conservative abhors all forms of ideology" may not serve as the best example.

One may rigorously reject / disown / disregard a practice / tendency without oneself succumbing to that very tendency.
Rather than the conservative abhorrence for ideology itself being an ideology, perhaps, it could be more aptly characterized as an 'epistemological' stance, and as this essay is about "thinking" that may very well be what the essayist had in mind.

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gabe
on November 14, 2019 at 11:38:07 am

[T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

John Maynard Keynes

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nobody.really
on November 14, 2019 at 17:09:12 pm

Uh! Well - Are you now equating "intellectual influences" with ideology?

If such is the case then EVERYONE, above the age of 18 months, is an ideologue.

My reading of Keynes would indicate that he would not make such a claim.

Of course, we ALL have intellectual influences.
The trick is to be able to consider / approve / disapprove these influences.

Gee, wasn't the above essay about "Thinking"?
Isn't that what a "consideration" implies / entails?

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gabe
on November 15, 2019 at 08:46:12 am

“We become great as a people when we have thinkers and traditions are all intelligent and worthy of honor -even those of our rivals and enemies.”

Not all thoughts and traditions are worthy of honor, for not all thoughts and traditions are grounded in Truth. Error has no rights, although error can often help to illuminate that which is true.

Caritas In Veritate; Veritas In Caritate, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. Amen

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Nancy
on November 15, 2019 at 08:52:09 am

That should read:

“We become great as a people when we have thinkers and traditions are all intelligent and worthy of honor -even those of our rivals and enemies.”

Not all thoughts and traditions are worthy of honor, for not all thoughts and traditions are grounded in Truth. “Error has no rights”, although error can often help to illuminate that which is true.

“Caritas In Veritate; Veritas In Caritate”Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. Amen

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Nancy
on November 15, 2019 at 11:54:50 am

James Wallner writes about "faultlines," without actually discussing any. But if conservatism means anything at all beyond a sound bite, some need to be discussed. There are several worthy of note because doing so explains why "owning the libs' is about all 'conservatism' is these days.

The biggest is an inner tension within American conservatism because it has historically supported the constitution and the American revolution, which were basically liberal in intent and tone. E. J. Dionne has analyzed this at some length. Goldwater was a good example, and could easily have been called a classical liberal.

Then there is a kind of visceral conservatism that is not ideological but, to use Oakeshott's memorable image, sees the country on an open sea where keeping the ship of state afloat is the primary task. Not deliberately splitting the society and enabling all to have a stake of some sort in it seems to be the policy implication of such a view.

Then there is Southern conservatism, rooted in support for the principles of the Confederacy and blindness to the truth of slavery, even though what makes Southern conservatism not conservative by American standards was slavery's intellectual impact . Starting at least with J. C. Calhoun, Southern thinkers recognized the incompatibility of the Declaration of Independence with their society, and explicitly rejected it.

Having cut itself free from the American Revolution's largely liberal foundations, they needed a new foundation for legitimacy. One was Southern religion, as the Southern Baptists separated from America Baptists over slavery, and with it, accepting a much more hierarchical and authoritarian kind of religion. See Philips' "American Theocracy" for a good discussion- and Philips is a conservative of some sort.

For more secular forms, since the U.S. had little to offer intellectually, they were drawn to more European defenses of the old order challenged by liberalism. That meant either Hobbesian authoritarianism or defenses of hierarchy rooted in visions of feudal society, which meant defenses of hierarchy and domination. Small surprise these folks feel comfortable with Putin's Russia and overlap with some fascist thinkers.

Conservatism's incoherence today beyond attacking anything liberals favor is based on the incompatibility of Southern 'conservatism' which leans towards European style authoritarianism, and American conservatism with ots blending of liberal and Burkean insights.

I write as someone who thinks a viable conservatism rooted in Humean, Burkean, and Hayekian insights about complexity, tradition, and anti-utopian thinking has a great deal to offer, but except for occasional articles in the American Conservative, today seems to be an endangered species. This approach is ideological only in the sense that it sees some values as superior to others, but emphasizes cultivating their emergence and growth rather than deliberately constructing society to achieve their better expression.

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Gus diZerega
on November 15, 2019 at 13:22:48 pm

Indeed, not all traditions are worthy of honor. It should be our common project to encourage not only the honorable and intelligent among our own tradition but to recognize, value and encourage those who differ from us in their ethical approaches to the world. We also need to recognize , with grace and humility, our own fallibility.

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Anne Norton
on November 16, 2019 at 00:24:57 am

I am not completely persuaded by Mr. Wallner's argument. I would suggest that the complaint regarding conservative thought is not one of quantity, or even substance, but rather one of balance and execution. One advocating the conservative position must consider, at a minimum:

I. The rationale and benefit of conserving anything;

II. Assuming that conserving things is worthwhile, what specifically should be conserved; and

III. How to go about conserving those things.

Each of these three considerations are themselves practical, being means to some particular end, and the conservative must necessarily be concerned with the nature of that end. Conservatism must have a telos, because to paraphrase Seneca, no wind favors a ship without a destination. Conservatives ought to be concerned with the consequences and purposes of conservatism. The issue may be summarized by asking what conservatives define as "better" in terms of cultural and societal issues. This is true both temporally, i.e. how will conservative principles make the future better than the past, as well as critically, l.e. how those principles are better than competing ones from conservatism's opponents. This is the elementary subject of conservative thought, but I am not convinced that it has received insufficient attention. There have been many many contemporary thinkers, such as Voegelin, and Sir Roger Scruton, Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II, et al. who have articulated goals served by conservative principles. It is on this point that conservatives must have vibrant thought and keep burning an intellectual and moral flame.

Once conservatives have defined and articulated a definable goal, in terms of cultural and societal flourishing, they must then contend with the three issues presented above, and this is where it may seem that conservatives have forgotten how to think. Mr. Wallner's objection to "owning the libs" and focusing on winning elections is an observation regarding the third point, i.e. how to go about conserving things worth conserving. It may in fact be that a measure of political power is necessary to conserve some things that are worth conserving. Perhaps there are conservative principles that can endure a dearth of political support, like candlesticks buried in the monastery garden to keep them from the barbarians, but perhaps not. It is not clear whether Mr. Wallner is making some sort of opportunity cost claim, that contesting and winning elections deprives more substantive conservative thought of oxygen, or whether conservatives are distracted by electoral politics to the neglect of more fundamental concerns, or something else. Political gamesmanship is not however conclusive proof of conservatives forgetting how to think.

The second issue, what is worth conserving, is a battle that may have surprised conservatives. It should be noted that the contest is not simply one between liberals and conservatives, but also involves opposition from libertarians, neoconservatives, populists, etc. What perhaps was not expected is the vocal opposition from nihilists, anarchists, bigots, fascists, demagogues, and misanthropes who declare that there is nothing in the past or present worth conserving. These claims are cloaked in cultural Marxism, historical revisionism, tribalism, and denial of inherent human dignity. The assault makes the first issue, whether there is a point to conserving or preserving traditions, culture, history etc., seem moot.

If Mr. Wallner perceives a deficiency in conservative thought, I suspect that it is upon this last point. Perhaps too many conservatives have viewed the value of tradition, cultural inheritance, and the lessons of history as self-evident, and neglected to sufficiently defend them against what many times are hateful and evil doctrines. Maybe the problem is not that conservatives have forgotten how to think, but rather how to fight.

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z9z99
on November 16, 2019 at 10:39:53 am

Z:

"Maybe the problem is not that conservatives have forgotten how to think, but rather how to fight."

If i may append this statement?

"Maybe the problem is not that conservatives have forgotten how to think, but rather how to fight and WHOM to fight.

"What perhaps was not expected is the vocal opposition from nihilists, anarchists, bigots, fascists, demagogues, and misanthropes who declare that there is nothing in the past or present worth conserving. These claims are cloaked in cultural Marxism, historical revisionism, tribalism, and denial of inherent human dignity. "

And whom shall we credit for this deficiency in knowledge / culture and political history?

Conservatives must confront the reality of mass "educational indoctrination / deconstruction" and those who have so assiduously fomented this devilish and nihilistic fermentation that corrodes the very bonds, both philosophical / political and cultural / moral that had previously supported a rational and dispassionate approach to the American polity.

And yet, it is even worse than acknowledging that an entire generation (Millennials, Gen X) have been denied accurate knowledge and understanding of their heritage and instead have been taught to loathe and belittle their own history and culture.

One may be surprised to learn that a surprisingly large proportion of Boomers are as ill-informed as are Millennials and thus also display a predilection for "owning the libs" OR "owning the conservatives", dependent upon disposition.

The fight shall never be won until and unless one recognizes all the players in the engagement - and the intelligentsia / the Academy must be confronted and properly challenged.

Take over the school boards!

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gabe
on November 16, 2019 at 13:53:11 pm

[…] Has the Conservative Mind Forgotten How to Think?-By James Wallner […]

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Perspectives on Conservatism - floridatenthamendmentactioncenter.com
on November 19, 2019 at 04:58:34 am

Ms. Norton,

Are you the same Anne Norton who wrote Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire?

I loved the book: anyone who wants to know what has gone wrong with some branches of conservatism should read it.

To everyone, the author of that book (and several others) considers herself a post-modernist who is on the Left, but she is smart, readable, and honest. Just as she can learn from Burke, Lewis, and Kirk, so also those of us not on the Left can learn from her.

Dave Miller, a physicist in Sacramento

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PhysicistDave
on November 19, 2019 at 06:27:19 am

Real conservatism is more of an attitude of caution, conservation, and humility than it is an ideology. Liberalism, a philosophy based on the moral and practical merit of liberty is not incompatible with a conservative approach. Neither conservatism nor liberalism are incompatible with the notion of progressive change. All are dimensions of interest which govern political-economic action; interest being literally what people find interesting.

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ROGER B WILSON
on November 19, 2019 at 13:35:41 pm

Thanks, Dave, that is one of my books and I appreciate your kind words. My debt to a number of conservatives (some of them my teachers) is acknowledged there too. So is my grief at the harm some forms of conservatism -and liberalism- have done in our politics.

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Anne Norton

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