Lazy Sunday LXXX: Big Ideas

So many of the West’s problems are fundamentally spiritual in nature.  Our politics are no longer the pedestrian, earthy wranglings over how to maintain the roads (clearly not) or what the marginal tax rate should be.  Even the most mundane of political discussions become theological battles about the nature of Truth itself.  It’s ironic given the Left’s wholesale embrace of postmodernism’s rejection of Truth.

As such, it seemed like an opportune time to dedicate a Lazy Sunday to posts about big ideas.  It’s easy to get bogged down in the details—the Devil is in them, after all—but it’s also important to grasp at the makeup of the entire forest, not just its diversity of trees.

With that, here are some of my own stabs at understanding the dark forest in which we moderns find ourselves:

  • What is Conservatism?” & “TBT: What is Conservatism?” – This post kicked off the first run of my History of Conservative Thought Class, in which begin exploring the ideas of Russell Kirk.  So much of what Americans consider to be “conservative” today is really an abstract ideology, whereas Kirk’s conservatism varied from one society to the next.  It did, however, contain some similar elements across cultures.  Kirk is mostly forgotten in conservative circles today, which is unfortunate; it would behoove us to know more of his thought and work.  
  • Resist the Black Pill” – It’s easy to get discouraged with the state of the world at present, especially here in the United States. Even with the efforts of President Trump and his MAGA cadre, there are long-term concerns for the future of our country.  The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett is one sign of hope, though whether or not the Court will return to true constitutionalism is still an open question.  What we can know is that nihilistic despair is a sin, and our hope comes from the Lord.
  • What is Civilization?” – This post dealt with a lively discussion between Milo and a couple of groypers, Steve Franssen and Vincent James, about the future of civilization.  It’s an intriguing debate about whether or not abandoning the cities to progressive destroyers represents an abandonment of civilization itself (my answer would be no).

That’s it for this brief Lazy Sunday.  Here’s hoping these posts give you something to chew over as you head into your week.

Happy Sunday!

—TPP

Other Lazy Sunday Installments:

Donate to The Portly Politico

Support quality commentary on politics, education, culture, and the arts with your one-time donation.

$5.00

TBT: Ideas Have Consequences – Introduction

Yesterday was the last session of the Summer 2020 History of Conservative Thought course.  This summer marks the second run of the course, and it was a fantastic class.  I had three young men enrolled, all quite eager to dive into the material.

I try to avoid lengthy lectures in HoCT, giving the basic background information and scaffolding necessary to put the readings into context.  I want the works to speak for themselves, and for the students to the do the heavy lifting of sussing out meaning and the author’s ideas.  Each week students wrote a short essay or answered a few different guided questions, then we would come in and discuss the material.

With this summer’s group, that model worked very well, as two of the young men in particular loved to plunge into discussions and ask questions.  One of the students was concurrently taking a colleague’s popular Terror and Terrorism course, which leads off each summer with the French Revolution.  That always dovetails nicely with our discussion of Edmund Burke, as we read several excerpts from his Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Burke comes on the heels of our discussion of Russell Kirk’s conservative principles, and helps frame the early portion of the course in the Burkean tradition.

In July, we left the nineteenth century and began looking at the modern conservative movement, with a heavy emphasis on William F. Buckley, Jr., and the notion of fusionism.  Buckley’s National Review catches a good bit of flack on the Right these days, including from this blog, but it truly shaped conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century.  Before National Review, conservatism was a disorganized, disunited hodgepodge of various ideologies, movements, and issues—it was, as Lionel Trilling put it, a “reactionary impulse,” a grumpy attitude about the way things were, but without a cohesive understanding of how to combat the dominance of New Deal liberalism.

For all its noodle-wristed hand-wringing and desperate virtue-signalling today, National Review created the modern conservative movement by giving conservatives their voice, their publication.  It also gave conservatism a politically viable platform of issues that could win in national politics.  That focus on nationalism certainly cuts against the Kirkean/Burkean mold of organic, ordered liberty, but it was the reality of post-war American political life.

We ended with another mid-century conservative, but one fitting far more into the spiritual and moral mold of Burke and Kirk, and far less in the neoliberal and materialist mold of Buckley-style fusionism:  Richard Weaver’s seminal Ideas Have Consequences, which I consider one of the greatest books ever written.  Indeed, I’m a bit of a Weaver fanboy, as he’s been featured twice on my Summer Reading Lists, first in 2016 for Ideas Have Consequences, and again in 2020 for his collection of Southern Essays.

For the course, we just read the “Introduction” to the book, which I try to read every August before school resumes.  It reminds me why I teach, and what is at stake.  Reading Ideas Have Consequences—first published in 1948—today reads like prophecy fulfilled.  Weaver’s core focus on William of Occam as the source of modernity and its related ills might seem a bit far-fetched, but that’s merely the germ from which the analysis of modernity’s fallen view of the world grows.

The real heart of Ideas Have Consequences is the abandonment of the transcendental—of God—in favor for navel-gazing particularism, a constant focus on lower, material concerns.  Unbound from any obligation to or belief in a transcendental moral order, men are left adrift in a world full of isolation, alienation, confusion, and meaninglessness.

I’ll let the rest speak for itself.  Here is 29 July 2019’s “Ideas Have Consequences – Introduction“:

Read More »

TBT: Southern Conservatism: John Randolph of Roanoke

A lodestar of modern conservatism is that the federal government is too powerful and overreaching, and that power should be devolved back to the States and local governments.  That such devolution rarely occurs, even under Republican presidents, is just further evidence of how entrenched the bureaucratic class is within the Beltway swamp.  It’s easy to see the extension of federal power since the New Deal programs of the 1930s and the government’s control of the economy during the Second World War, followed by Johnson’s Great Society and various big government schemes to solve our problems.

But these concerns about the growth of federal power are not new, and there were already grumblings about them in the earliest years of the Republic.  In yesterday’s History of Conservative Thought session, we analyzed John Randolph of Roanoke‘s “King Numbers” speech, in which the aging but feisty Virginia decried the overreach of federal power—in 1830!

The occasion for Randolph’s speech was the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-1830, in which the State sought to revise its constitution with a number of—as Randolph called them—“innovations,” including age requirements to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates (25) and the State Senate (30).  Another proposed change was the elimination of property qualifications to vote.

Randolph vehemently opposed these reforms on the grounds that the Virginia Constitution in its then-current form was the greatest charter of government ever conceived, and that it had been wholly sufficient in serving as the sole block on the expansion of federal power.  Randolph also argued that the US Constitution, rather than dealing with the external issues of national defense and regulating foreign affairs and commerce, had instead turned its focus inwards, seeking to regulate the States.

It’s fascinating to read now, nearly two hundred years later, Randolph’s antebellum arguments against the aggrandizement of federal power, at a point when the federal government under the Constitution was barely forty-years old.  One of Randolph’s most interesting points was that, regardless of what the Constitution said it was designed to do, the reality was much different.

One of the students asked what Randolph would think if he saw things today, and I said, “He’d probably have a stroke.”  Far from being the last stand against and check on federal authority, Virginia now is the compliant handmaiden to federal expansion, as Northern Virginia is the home of the Swamp People that operate the federal bureaucracy.

It’s unfortunate that we’ve forgotten Randolph today.  Even in his own time, he was considered somewhat of an eccentric.  But eccentrics make life interesting, and this one certainly issued some strong warnings, even at that early date, about the danger of excessive federal power and the erosion of States’ rights.

With that, here is 24 June 2019’s “Southern Conservatism: John Randolph of Roanoke“:

As my History of Conservative Thought course rolls on, I’m learning more about the forgotten byways and overgrown, stately ruins of the various branches of conservatism.  Students this week are reading a couple of documents from John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, the two founders of the Federalist Party, and key to the passage of the Constitution.  Hamilton, the author of the bulk of the pro-ratification Federalist Papers, also created the financial system upon which the United States functions today.

Hamilton and Adams have both enjoyed renewed interest in recent years, Hamilton due to the smash Broadway musical about his life, and Adams from a critically-acclaimed HBO series (one that, sadly, takes some unnecessary artistic license with the past).  In the case of Hamilton, American history students are often enthusiastic to get to him in my AP US History course, and Hamilton mega-fans often know more about the first Secretary of Treasury than I do.

But we’re reading a speech from another important figure from American history, albeit one largely forgotten:  John Randolph of Roanoke.

Randolph of Roanoke, sometimes considered the “American Burke,” was part of the Virginia planter aristocracy and a staunch republican, in the sense that he opposed centralization of power while supporting a strict interpretation of the Constitution and a limited government at every level.  He was one of the so-called “Old Republicans,” a group within the dominant Democratic-Republican Party of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian era that adhered strictly to the Constitution, and which believed the States possessed a check on the federal government’s power.

He was also a traditionalist, and his powerful “King Numbers” speech at the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1829-1830 represents a hearty endorsement of conservative principles, prudently applied.

Randolph of Roanoke makes several important points in the speech, but two stick out to me immediately:  his detestation for the tyranny of majority (the “King Numbers” referenced throughout the speech), and his love of Old Virginia.  On the latter point, he was quite eloquent:  not only did he argue that Virginia was a bulwark against an overreaching federal government (remember, he’s making this point in 1830), he also notes that its constitution was entirely sufficient to the task.

He argues early in the speech that there is no need to change Virginia’s constitution, because no one had brought any provable objections against it!  It’s the essence of a conservative argument.  Further, Randolph of Roanoke decried the mania for what he called “innovation,” a kind of reform-for-reform’s-sake, at the expense of the tried-and-true.

As to the tyranny of the majority, Randolph of Roanoke points in “King Numbers” to the absurdity of giving some men or factions greater power simply because they can win by one or two votes.  He uses examples—unfamiliar to many modern readers—of the Tariff of 1816 (one of my tariffs the Southern planters and yeoman farmers alike found odious and burdensome) and the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the latter passing by a mere two votes.

We praise “democracy” now, but the Founders of our nation feared unbridled democracy as a form of mob rule, which would inevitably yield tyranny at the hands of a charismatic demagogue.  Randolph of Roanoke makes the rather compelling point that even in representative government, mere majoritarianism can be quite destructive, as the side with the majority actually benefits if it can seize that majority by a narrow margin:  that’s just more of their opponents who lose!

Randolph of Roanoke, like many men of his time and station, was an unapologetic defender of slavery, which likely accounts for part of his fall from our curricula (although he emancipated all of his slaves upon his death).  His anti-nationalism (in the sense that he was opposed to a powerful federal government) is also at odds with the prevailing trend in American history textbooks to applaud whenever the national government aggrandized itself at the expense of the States.

Regardless, we would do well to read him again.  He was, even for his time, a bit of an oddball, but his quick wit and vast depth of knowledge, as well as his love his State (he believed Virginia was the great inheritor of Greco-Roman and British Common Law) were inspiring to his fellow Virginians.  They could be inspiring for us, too, and all lovers of liberty.

TPP Summertime Update

Even with cities burning and an election mere months away, the summertime doldrums have hit.  “Doldrums” isn’t exactly the right word, as things are going pretty well, but the long (for me) Father’s Day weekend distracted me from the woes of the world.

There’s also the issue of unlimited free time that is summer vacation.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m not complaining—but when I have one slender hour in the day to get my blog post done, I tend to be much more productive and focused.  It takes pressure to make diamonds—or 600-word blog posts full of sweeping generalizations.

I’ve fallen a bit behind on SubscribeStar content.  I still owe $5 subs a couple of editions of Sunday Doodles, which I will have up soon.  All subscribers missed out on a SubscribeStar Saturday post, which I will also attempt to make up soon.

History of Conservative Thought is going well, and we have two more meetings before the Fourth of July break.  This Wednesday we’ll be reading documents from John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, the Federalists/Northern Conservatives.  Next week we’ll dive into Southern Conservatism with John Randolph of Roanoke and (possibly) some excerpts from Richard Weaver‘s Southern Essays.

So that’s it for a quick Monday update.  Be on the lookout for more substance tomorrow.

—TPP

TBT: History of Conservative Thought Update: Edmund Burke

The Summer 2020 session of History of Conservative Thought is really going well.  Yesterday, the three young man each gave brief presentations on three excerpts from Edmund Burke’s writing, summarizing Burke’s main points and ideas.

It was made for a lively, far-ranging discussion.  One of the students is taking another summer course, Terror and Terrorism, a popular summertime offering from one of my colleagues.  I had the pleasure to fill-in last summer for the French Revolution portion of that class while my colleague was away at an AP Summer Institute.  Apparently, that course just covered the French Revolution again, so it dovetailed nicely with our discussion of Burke’s Reflections on that bloody affair.  We had a good time contrasting Burkean “ordered liberty” and Rousseau’s “general will.”

As such, I thought this edition of TBT could look back to Summer 2019’s HoCT update, “History of Conservative Thought Update: Edmund Burke“:

A bit of a delayed post today, due to a busier-than-usual Monday, and the attendant exhaustion that came with it. The third meeting of my new History of Conservative Thought class just wrapped up, and while I should be painting right now, I wanted to give a quite update.

Last week, we began diving into the grandfather of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke. Burke prophetically saw the outcome of the French Revolution before it turned sour, writing his legendary Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1789 as the upheaval began. Burke argued that the French Revolution ended the greatness of European civilization, a Europe that governed, in various ways, its respective realms with a light hand, and a sense of “moral imagination.”

To quote Burke reflecting on the Queen of France:

“I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroick enterprise is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.”

What a powerful excerpt! The “sophisters, economists, and calculators,” indeed, reign in the West. What Burke was driving at here was that the rationalistic, abstract bureaucrats who would abandon tradition in their quest for a perfect society would sacrifice everything that made their country great, and life worth living.

Burke was also arguing that there is more to obedience to a government or king than the mere threat of power. People are invested in their country and society—and willing to submit to authority—because of organic culture from which it grows. Uprooting the great tree of tradition in favor of abstract foundations merely destroys the tree, and plants its seedlings in shallow ruts of stone. What grows will be anemic and pitiful by comparison.

Volumes could and have been written about Burke, but I’ll leave it here for now. Next week we’re getting into the development of Northern and Southern conservatism, which should make for some pre-Independence Day fun.

TBT: Conservative Inheritance

With the Summer 2020 session of History of Conservative Thought in full swing, I’ve been reviewing the Summer 2019 archives pertaining to the course.  Among the various class summaries and overviews of great conservative thinkers, I came across this short essay, “Conservative Inheritance.”

I’d largely forgotten about it, which is a shame—I think it might be one of my better analytical pieces (although you, dear reader, will be the ultimate judge).  I go back to the dominance of “Rooseveltian liberalism” following the Second World War, and how conservatism morphed into a political program that largely accepted the premises of that liberalism, but acted as something like the more cautious junior partner—“a tapping of the brakes, not a full stop or reversal” of liberalism.

The debate over what exactly is conservatism has grown thornier and more immediate over the last year.  There is a sense among the intellectual Right that the prevailing orthodoxy of Buckleyism is inadequate and outmoded, that it can’t really address the problems of our age and culture.  Indeed, this essay explores the idea that conservatives essentially abandoned the culture in favor of political victories.  The sad commentary on that decision, which made sense in the 1950s and 1960s, is that our political victories are hollow.  Without the culture, political victory merely forestalls progressive dominance for a season—the brakes are tapped, but the machine doesn’t stop.

These are sobering but necessary ideas to consider.  I spoke with a friend on the phone earlier in the week; he claimed that traditional conservatives and Christians have lost the culture wars.  I prefer to think that we’re losing the culture wars, but that there is still hope of a rear-guard action or some kind of renewal.  Either way, it’s an uphill battle, a Pickett’s Charge.

With that, here is June 2019’s “”Conservative Inheritance“:

Read More »

History of Conservative Thought Summer 2020, Week 2

The second week of History of Conservative Thought 2020 is in the books.  We did another Google Meet session, as I’m still supposed to be quarantining, but we should be able to meet in person next week.  My fever is virtually gone, and I’m finally feeling normal again.

The bulk of today’s discussion centered on Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles,” which expanded a bit upon the six conservative principles Kirk wrote about in the “Introduction” to The Portable Conservative Reader.  It was a great discussion, and it was interesting to read the students’ papers before class to see how their answer to the question “What is Conservatism?” changed after reading Kirk.

Read More »

TBT: What is Conservatism?

I’m still struggling with fever and migraines, although both seem to be improving and growing milder.  Fortunately, I received word today that I do not have The Virus.  So now I have to get to the bottom of whatever malady plagues me.

Yesterday I launched the Summer 2020 session of History of Conservative Thought online; you can read about our discussion here.  As such, it seemed a good time to look back 2019’s What is Conservatism?,” the first post from the Summer 2019 run.

The post here details Russell Kirk’s “Introduction” to The Portable Conservative Reader, which has also been repackaged as “Ten Conservative Principles.”  It’s an important essay that details the general principles and attitudes of the conservative as he attempts to make sense of the world.

It’s influential, too, though Kirk’s influence has suffered somewhat versus Buckley-style fusionism.  The Z Man dedicated an entire podcast to the essay a few weeks ago.

It’s well worth a read.  But for now, here’s my summary of it in “What is Conservatism?“:

Today I’m launching a summer class at my little private school here in South Carolina.  The course is called History of Conservative Thought, and it’s a course idea I’ve been kicking around for awhile.  Since the enrollment is very small, this first run is going to be more of an “independent study,” with a focus on analyzing and writing about some key essays and books in the conservative tradition.  I’ll also be posting some updates about the course to this blog, and I’ll write some explanatory posts about the material for the students and regular readers to consult.  This post will be one of those.

Course Readings:

Most of the readings will be digitized or available online at various conservative websites, but if you’re interested in following along with the course, I recommend picking up two books:

1.) Richard Weaver‘s Ideas Have Consequences ($6.29):  this will be our “capstone” reading for the summer.
2.) The Portable Conservative Reader (edited by Russell Kirk):  we’ll do some readings from this collection, including Kirk’s “Introduction” for the first week.

Course Scope:

I’ll be building out the course week-to-week, but the ultimate goal is to end with 2016 election, when we’ll talk about the break down of the postwar neoliberal consensus, the rise of populism and nationalism in the West, and the emergence of the Dissident Right.

After the introductory week, we’ll dive into Edmund Burke, then consider the antebellum debates about States’ rights.  I haven’t quite worked out the murky bit during the Gilded Age, but we’ll look at the rise of Progressivism in the early twentieth century, then through the conservative decline during the Great Depression and the Second World War.

After that, it’s on to Buckley conservatism and fusionism, as well as the challenges of the Cold War and international communism.  Paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan and (if I’m feeling edgy) Sam Francis will get shout-outs as well.

Week 1:  What is Conservatism?

That’s the basic outline.  For the first day, we’re going to look at the question in the title:  what is conservatism?  What makes one a conservative?  Feel free to comment below on your thoughts.

After we see what students think conservatism is, we’ll begin reading through Russell Kirk’s “Introduction” in The Portable Conservative Reader.  It’s an excellent overview of the question posed.  The first section of the lengthy “Introduction” is entitled “Succinct Description,” and it starts with the question, “What is conservatism?”

Not being one to reinvent what others have done better—surely that is part of being a conservative (see Principle #3 below)—I wanted to unpack his six major points.  Kirk argues that though conservatism “is no ideology,” and that it varies depending on time and country, it

“may be apprehended reasonably well by attention to what leading writers and politicians, generally called conservative, have said and done…. to put the matter another way, [conservatism] amounts to the consensus of the leading conservative thinkers and actors over the past two centuries.”

Kirk condenses that grand tradition into six “first principles,” derived largely from British and American conservatives.  To wit:

1.) Belief in a Transcendent Moral Order – conservatives believe there is higher authority or metaphysical order that human societies should build upon.  As Kirk puts it, a “divine tactic, however dimly descried, is at work in human society.”  There is a need for “enduring moral authority.”  The Declaration of Independence, for example, draws on the concept of “natural law” to complain about abuses of God-given rights.  The implication is that a good and just society will respect God’s natural law.

2.) The Principle of Social Continuity – Kirk puts this best:  “Order and justice and freedom,” conservatives believe, “are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice.”

As such, the way things are is the product of long, hard-won experience, and changes to that social order should be gradual, lest those changes unleash even greater evils than the ones currently present.  Conservatives abhor sudden upheaval; to quote Kirk again:  “Revolution slices through the arteries of a culture, a cure that kills.”

3.) The Principle of Prescription, or the “wisdom of our ancestors” – building on the previous principle, “prescription” is the belief that there is established wisdom from our ancestors, and that the antiquity of an idea is a merit, not a detraction.  Old, tried-and-trued methods are, generally, preferable to newfangled conceptions of how humans should organize themselves.

As Kirk writes, “Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste.  It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality.”  In other words, there is great wisdom in traditions, and as individuals it is difficult, in our limited, personal experience, to comprehend the whole.

It’s like G. K. Chesterton’s fence:  you don’t pull down the fence until you know why it is built.  What might seem to be an inconvenience, a structure no longer useful, may very well serve some vital purpose that you only dimly understand, if at all.

4.) The Principle of Prudence – in line with Principles #2 and #3, the conservative believes that politicians or leaders should pursue any reforms only after great consideration and debate, and not out of “temporary advantage or popularity.”  Long-term consequences should be carefully considered, and rash, dramatic changes are likely to be more disruptive than the present ill facing a society.  As Kirk writes, “The march of providence is slow; it is the devil who always hurries.”

5.) The Principle of Variety – the “variety” that Kirk discusses here is not the uncritical mantra of “Diversity is Our Strength.”  Instead, it is the conservative’s love for intricate variety within his own social institutions and order.

Rather than accepting the “narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems,” conservatives recognize that some stratification in a society is inevitable.  Material and social inequality will always exist—indeed, they must exist—but in a healthy, ordered society, each of these divisions serves its purpose and has meaning.  The simple craftsman in his workshop, while materially less well-off than the local merchant, enjoys a fulfilling place in an ordered society, one that is honorable and satisfying.  Both the merchant and the craftsmen enjoy the fruits of their labor, as private property is essential to maintaining this order:  “without private property, liberty is reduced and culture is impoverished,” per Kirk.

This principle is one of the more difficult to wrap our minds around, as the “variety” here is quite different than what elites in our present age desire.  Essentially, it is a rejection of total social and material equality, and a celebration of the nuances—the nooks and crannies—of a healthy social order.  “Society,” Kirk argues, “longs for honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences among people are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.”

Put another way:  make everyone equal, and you’ll soon end up with another, likely worse, form of inequality.

6.) The Principle of the Imperfectibility of Human Nature – unlike progressives, who believe that “human nature” is mutable—if we just get the formula right, everyone will be perfect!—conservatives (wisely) reject this notion.  Hard experience demonstrates that human nature “suffers irremediably from certain faults…. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created.”  An Utopian society, assuming such a thing were possible, would quickly devolve into rebellion, or “expire of boredom,” because human nature is inherently restless and rebellious.

Instead, conservatives believe that the best one can hope for is “a tolerably ordered, just and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering continue to lurk.”  Prudent trimming of the organic oak tree of society can make gradual improvements, but the tree will never achieve Platonic perfection (to quote Guns ‘n’ Roses:  “Nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain”).

Conclusion

Kirk stresses in the rest of the introduction that not all conservatives accept or conform to all of the six principles again; indeed, most conservatives aren’t even aware of these principles, or may only dimly perceive them.

That’s instructive:  a large part of what makes one conservative is lived experience.  “Conservatism” also varies depending on time and place:  the social order that, say, Hungary seeks to preserve is, of necessity, different than that of the United States.

Conservatism, too, is often a reaction to encroaching radicalism.  Thus, Kirk writes of the “shop-and-till” conservatism of Britain and France in the nineteenth century:  small farmers and shopkeepers who feared the loss of their property to abstract rationalist philosophers and coffeeshop radicals, dreaming up airy political systems in their heads, and utterly detached from reality.

If that sounds like the “Silent Majority” of President Richard Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 elections—or of President Trump’s 2016 victory—it’s no coincidence.  The great mass of the voting public is, debatably, quietly, unconsciously conservative, at least when it comes to their own family, land, and local institutions.  Those slumbering hordes only awaken, though, when they perceive their little platoon is under siege from greater forces.  When they speak, they roar.

But that’s a topic for another time.  What do you think conservatism is? Leave your comments below.

–TPP

First Day of History of Conservative Thought 2020

Today marked the first day of the Summer 2020 session of my History of Conservative Thought course.  Because I’m sick and awaiting COVID-19 test results, we held the inaugural session on Google Meet, discussing the big picture question “What is Conservatism?

The session went quite well (and I was pleased to see that even with a fever I could last around 75 minutes).  The students hit upon these concepts as being key to conservatism:

  • Fiscal responsibility
  • Constitutionalism (in the American context)
  • Limited/small government and States’ Rights
  • Traditionalism in a cultural and religious sense
  • Opposition to Progressivism itself (certainly a feature of Buckleyite fusionism
  • Peace through Strength
  • Strict immigration enforcement

To that list I added the classically liberal concept of natural rights and the Burkean idea of “ordered liberty.”  We also talked about how the earliest conservatives of the Enlightenment Period were largely monarchists, and explicitly rejected the concept of natural rights (at least, rejected the concept as Americans understand it; that is, that all men are created equal and God gives them their rights).

They’re reading Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles” for next week, and we’ll check Kirk’s principles against their list.

Read More »