Johnathan O'Neill and Joseph Postell respond to Bruce Frohnen's review of their American Conservatism, 1900-1930.
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.