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The Conservative Disposition

What does it mean to be a conservative? What are the general principles underpinning conservatism? In recent years, the rhetoric surrounding politics suggests that a conservative is a Republican who runs for elective office against a Democrat. And conservatism consists of whatever talking points help them win.

This doctrinaire view of conservatism is starkly different from the disposition of traditional conservatism. The conservative disposition personified by Americans like Irving Babbitt and Russell Kirk rejects the simplistic arguments that proliferate in today’s politics. It instead takes life’s inherent complexity as its intellectual foundation. That is, the conservative disposition rejects ideological dogma and subscribes instead to general principles that are not derived from ahistorical abstractions but that instead emerge out of convention and experience.

Kirk outlined many of these principles in his landmark book, The Conservative Mind. They ranged from “belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law” to the conviction “that freedom and property are closely linked” and that “hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress.”

The Republican candidates running under the banner of conservatism in next month’s special elections to fill Georgia’s two Senate seats do not exemplify the conservative disposition. Their brand of conservatism is ideological. Implicit in it is the assumption that the world is clearly divided between good guys and bad guys and that ahistorical reasoning is all that’s needed to tell them apart. In a recent fundraising pitch, David Perdue referred to his campaign as “the last line of defense against a far-Left, socialist takeover of our country.” And Kelly Loeffler warned donors, “The stakes have never been higher.” Karl Rove, the National Finance Chairman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, summed up for prospective donors the importance of winning each race. “America’s fate rests on the outcome of these Georgia races,” he writes, as if Perdue and Loeffler are modern-day Washingtons crossing the Delaware.

Messages like “Support me because my socialist opponent wants to destroy America!” help Republican candidates win elections. But experience suggests that they won’t translate into conservative policy victories in-between elections. When coupled with the fact that candidates do not exhibit the conservative disposition and rarely tell voters the details of their conservative views, their failure to enact conservative policy while in office reduces conservatism to a collection of policy prescriptions that depend on simplistic formulas derived from abstract and ahistorical reasoning. And people come to see conservatism merely as a doctrine that opposes progressivism; the other side of the ideological coin.

Yet this view of conservatism is inherently unconservative. And it ironically impedes conservative victories on the campaign trail and while in office. In reality, conservatism is not an ideology. It is a disposition to preserve the moral order and political truths that have been revealed to mankind over the course of history. The conservative disposition has been present in the DNA of Western Civilization for thousands of years. And the general principles it defends are essential to progress, not opposed.

The intellectual foundation of conservatism that is inherent in the conservative disposition came unmoored from the general principles it sought to put into practice. The means-ends bent of ideological conservatism gradually replaced the conservative disposition as events like the 1994 Republican Revolution convinced many conservatives of the utility in prioritizing policy questions, as well as electoral and legislative politics, at the expense of historical and philosophical pursuits. And once detached from tradition, ideological conservatives quickly lost sight of policy and became obsessed with tactical questions, reflecting their new win-at-any-cost mentality.

Admittedly, it is hard to get past the present morass of ideological conservatism. Doing so requires thinking about politics, not policy and procedural tactics, in holistic terms based on questions of standards, traditions, and human nature. Many people—many of them conservatives—have lost sight of the conservative disposition amidst the scandal-driven debates and news coverage of recent years. They have become transfixed by the phenomenon of continually breaking news to report the latest gossip out of the White House and from Capitol Hill. For them, ideological conservatism is a surer way to win elections. It is a means to an end; a Marxist mentality. And like Marxism, this conservatism is ideological because it is based on a rigid worldview. It is attractive to Republicans because it makes their jobs easier by giving them the tools to delegitimize their opponents, reducing uncertainty, and presenting them with prefabricated jingoistic appeals that they can use to appeal to the American people in elections. Neglecting the conservative disposition makes it possible for Republicans like Loeffler and Perdue to claim to be conservative on the campaign trail while governing like the complete opposite in Congress. Republicans have correctly surmised that the means-justify-the-ends ideological mentality so prevalent among conservatives today can be used to excuse almost anything while simultaneously delegitimizing their Democratic opponents.

But widespread acceptance of the conservative disposition is more prevalent than this caricature suggests. Conservatism is based on common sense—its principles are revealed in men’s and women’s lived experiences throughout history. Its principles help people learn how the world works—or should work—without repeating past mistakes.

Conservatives acknowledge that standards link the past and future (or tradition and progress). Standards give people a sense of right and wrong. They are not a means to an end. And they can’t be changed. T.S. Eliot calls standards “the permanent things.” Antigone alludes to them in Sophocles’ famous play when she defies King Creon to bury her dead brother. Antigone justifies her act of defiance by citing the gods and “the great unwritten, unshakable traditions” that supersede the king’s authority. In the 1770s, Americans distinguished between conventional law and natural law when they questioned another king’s right to rule them without their consent. And in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked the same concept in his letter from a Birmingham jail. “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law… Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” King appreciated that improving man-made codes require a standard against which improvements can be measured.

…ideological conservatism is concerned with winning elections, political power, and narrow questions of public policy. It offers straightforward answers to every sort of political question. And in doing so, it has more in common with the progressivism that it opposes than it does with the conservative disposition.

Conservatives understand that progress is impossible without tradition. People need tradition to identify the standards that should guide their behavior. Absent divine revelation, there is simply no other way for them to evaluate change. Tradition is the vital link that connects the past and present and thus makes future progress possible. According to Russell Kirk, “true progress, improvement, is unthinkable without tradition… because progress rests upon addition, not subtraction.”

Similarly, George Santayana famously observed, “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement; when experience is not retained…infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In other words, without a knowledge of the past, people cannot know their tradition and thus are incapable of identifying the standards that should guide their conduct in pursuit of a better life. That is why ideological programs disconnected from the past usually end in tyranny.

Conservatives understand that progress requires standards and tradition because they acknowledge that humans are flawed beings. Standards and history lessons help people check their appetites by enabling them to learn from past mistakes. Progress is impossible when people give in to the intoxicating allure of their own perfectibility. Edmund Burke notes that Englishmen, as well as Frenchmen, “would soon see that criminal means, once tolerated, are soon preferred. They present a shorter cut to the object than through the highway of the moral virtues.” Burke rightly understood that anything is possible once we discard that inner check in each of us. When that happens, “public benefit would soon become the pretext and perfidy and murder the end—until rapacity, malice, revenge, and fear more dreadful than revenge, could satiate their insatiable appetites.” It instead takes hard work and discipline. According to King, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.” It only happens “through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God.” In short, people approximate perfection through the act of attaining it. They aren’t born that way.

To be fair, conservatives disagree on what conservatism means. This is because the conservative disposition has given rise to diverse schools of conservative thought regarding the relationship between individuals and society. For example, some conservatives emphasize the rights of the individual over the duties imposed on individuals by their membership in a community while others emphasize the opposite view. Yet despite their differences, both views articulate complex standards that should guide human behavior. They both appeal to history and tradition as the way in which those standards reveal themselves to humans. The ability of this conservatism to accommodate both of these perspectives underscores its non-ideological nature. Both sets of conservatives, each in their own way, acknowledge the importance of the conservative disposition to making progress.

In contrast, ideological conservatism is concerned with winning elections, political power, and narrow questions of public policy. It offers straightforward answers to every sort of political question. It is little more than a way of obtaining and maintaining political power with which to remake the world. It therefore has more in common with the socialism and progressivism that it claims it opposes than it does with the conservative disposition.

Looking beyond electoral advantage and narrow policy questions suggests that people make progress when they face the future while looking to the past. The challenge is using prudence and judgment to recognize when change is needed and when it is not.

Reader Discussion

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on December 29, 2020 at 15:06:49 pm

Wallner is correct in distinguishing between the conservative Politician or (ostensive)ideologue and the conservative disposition. Clearly, there are different sensibilities, behaviors and understanding between the former and the latter. One ought not to be surprised that there are apparent and manifest differences in governance and rhetoric.
However, what seems to me to be a rather glaring oversight is a discussion of the LACK of a conservative disposition in the citizenry. This absence of such a disposition is to found not only in our woke citizenry but also in the general populace which suffers from a dearth of historical knowledge and understanding, is content to passively accept both governmental benefices AND (moderate, until now) deprivations, and which is unable (or unwilling) to justify either governmental imposition.
If asked about Santayana, most would recall only Carlos Santana and Oye Como Va:
https://youtu.be/J7ATTjg7tpE
Some thoughts on this:
Is the citizenry indisposed to the conservative disposition BECAUSE conservative *politicians* have long ceased to exhort the citizenry with such rhetoric?
Or because the citizenry have simply grown content, sated with governmental benefices?
Or because, for well near seven decades, our educational system has failed to impart such understanding / knowledge resulting in a level of historical and philosophical ignorance that would be quite unheard of prior to mid-century?
Or does it simply no longer resonate with the citizenry?
Or because government has grown so large, has invaded every sphere of life that the citizenry no longer realizes / recognizes its own power AND the necessity to strive for themselves to correct and counter the Leviathan, again content to receive rather than to give of themselves.

In defense of the "politicians" (OMG, I cannot believe I am going to do this), what effect would it have to proselytize the conservative disposition to a citizenry that is either incapable or unwilling to receive and act upon the "message."
How successful would the "politician" be were he to employ such rhetoric in the face of Leftist preachings and "offerings" (free things)? Consider how much worse the "true" conservative would fare.
Conservatives (true or political) would then fare as well, if not worse than the Libertarians who normally may be depended upon to act as spoilers.
What then?
What would be the composition of the Legislative? The Judicial and the Executive?

I do not approve of the actual governing philosophy of the conservative politician; but I fear the governing philosophy of the Left which is constrained only be the half-hearted commitment, and, Yes, vote seeking behavior of the conservative "politician."
I would prefer that for a transition period, the conservative "politician" deploy some rhetoric recognizable to the properly "disposed" conservative as a means of re-educating the citizenry. After all, one dare not expect such education to issue forth from the K-16 educational monopoly.

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gabe
on December 30, 2020 at 13:25:33 pm

Gabe,

You raise a number of valid questions, in response to which I would offer the following:

Mr. Wallner is on the right track, and at least suggests an important relationship between conservatives, ideologues and traditions. I would expand on this further and claim that the crucial point is found in the difference between facts and truths. An episode of Northern Exposure contained a brief discussion of the issue with the physician saying that the facts change but the truth does not, and the DJ saying that the exact opposite is true. An internet search of the question returns various philosophical musings of varying usefulness. A working concept of the distinction is useful to the issues raised in Mr. Wallner's essay, and without pretense to philosophical rigor, I would suggest the following:

Facts are observed, and truths are appreciated. Truths may be appreciated by inference from the facts, by deduction, perhaps by revelation, but in any case truths are conceptions that are accepted by higher reason that conform with the nature of existence.

As an example, if you have two guests in your home, and two more arrive, the facts are that you now have four guests and this reflects the truth that two plus two equals four. We now have the basic premise: that facts underlie truths and the facts result from truths.

History is full of facts and these facts were observed, and considered, and led to beliefs that may or may not have been truths, and our ancestors incorporated these beliefs into a set of traditions. To the extent that these traditions reflect truth they survived, and truths about the world were passed on through them. This is the basic premise and justification of conservatism.

Over time however, when the facts of history are obscured or misrepresented, or ignored, people begin to question whether what is passed down is in fact truth. This is the phenomenon underlying Santayana's observation regarding not remembering the past. The truth does not change simply because we lose sight of it. It also does not change because we tinker with our perception of the facts. The reason why there seems to be a lack of conservative disposition is that affluence and apathy and cultural laziness, have led a lot of us to lose sight of, and appreciation for the source of those truths that got us where we are. We are content to think that the only relevant facts are those that occurred within living memory. We think we know better. We think we can prescribe our own truths. This is a source of the shallowness and "ideology" in conservative thought.

If you may recall, you, Paladin, and I has a brief discussion regarding the difference between an idealist and an ideologue. I proposed that the difference is that idealists have a fantasy about how the world should be and ideologues have a delusion about how the world is. Another difference is that idealists respect facts, and thus, truth, and ideologues do not. Ideologues think that truth is not appreciated as much a prescribed. Thus, when confronted with facts such as that pure socialist ideology leads to totalitarian excesses, or that identity politics is found in every genocidal atrocity throughout history, the ideologue adheres to delusion rather than appreciate the truths suggested by the facts.

In summary then, conservatism does tend to look backward, for the simple fact that many unchangeable truths relevant to human existence were appreciated in the past and were passed along in various traditions. (This is not to say that this is true of all traditions). The modern activist, who is disappointed that some of those truths are inconvenient to personal interests, or who lacks the courage or energy to defend them when the fickleness of fads and fashions are leading to dead ends, will only accept those truths at the painful cost of having to rediscover them.

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z9z99
on December 30, 2020 at 15:26:40 pm

Z:

I so very much appreciate and value your commentary. In it, I detect a thread of reasoned or rational optimism. That is to say that the logic of your reasoning AND "observations" (see R. Richard) compels you to what would previously been considered the logical end of an analysis / proposition, e.g.,
"The modern activist, who is disappointed that some of those truths are inconvenient to personal interests, or who lacks the courage or energy to defend them when the fickleness of fads and fashions are leading to dead ends, will only accept those truths at the painful cost of having to rediscover them."
This is commendable, laudable even and I do so commend you.
BUT (and there is always a but (when dealing with the woke))....

Herewith an "observation" of mine:

When the woke are confronted with countering dialogue, more importantly with countering facts, the immediate, and unfortunately SUSTAINED, response of the wokesters is to retreat into their "fantastic" (literal meaning here) world wherein ONLY those facts supportive of their dystopian fantasies are recognized. Indeed, countering facts are simply not recognized. They are supported / encourage in this intellectual / ideological misadventure by the Titans of Truth, The Information Barons, who not unlike their 19th Century predecessors, the robber Barons, have and ruthlessly maintain a monopoly on Truth AND facts.
If we wonder why it is so difficult to relieve the woke, and the "passively woke", it is because first the woke possess a predilection for retreat into fantasy and secondly because they are permitted, indeed encouraged, to deny both traditional truths AND present countering empirically proven facts. Thus, they retreat ever further into their hardened fantastic shells.
You may have observed, as have I, that when confronted with countering facts, the woke may go "numb, dumb and quiet." I have found it nearly impossible to draw them out of this "recuperative" numbness as it allows them to continue to deny "facts."

Thus, I am not as optimistic as you may (appear to) be.

Still, we must all of us make the effort to convince them that the pain of rediscovery is not quite as severe as the pain of delusion.
Perhaps, in your words, I, and others may find encouragement and the courage to act as modern day Horatius on every street corner.

We, all of us, seem to await a leader.
We are the Leaders and ought to act / speak to counter the woke idiocy.
gotta go!

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gabe
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on December 29, 2020 at 09:37:43 am

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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.