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.
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.