‘The Conservative Mind’ at 60, by Jeffrey O. Nelson

President Barack Obama’s decisive electoral victory this past November caused panic in some conservative circles. Questions about the continuing relevance of conservative first principles are common fodder for the chattering classes, both right and left.

But there is not much that is really novel in this latest conservative setback. Some 60 years ago, the chief role of conservatives was to resist and oppose, even as a Republican assumed the presidency. And almost 50 years ago, conservatives suffered an even more complete catastrophe at the polls.

One landmark book published in the spring of 1953 by a young Michigan State College professor began to change all that. Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” contributed to the re-imagining of American politics by countering the prevailing liberal narrative that there was no such thing as a conservative tradition in America.

Kirk did so by sketching intellectual portraits of key writers and statesmen from the 18th century to the present, each of whom had added to the deposit of conservative thought.

The 60th anniversary of Kirk’s book is a good opportunity to reflect on the prospects for conservatism today. For the past half-century, generations of conservative thinkers, journalists, and politicians have been moved by Kirk to confidently assert a new conservative vision. That vision was enough to elect presidents and congressional majorities.

So what does “The Conservative Mind” still have to teach a new generation struggling once again to find an authentic and convincing American conservative voice?

Below are a few ways in which Kirk’s book is more than a touchstone of a bygone era and instead remains a vital resource for conservative renewal.

Kirk was fond of quoting Napoleon about the power of the imaginative faculty. In the new world of electronic images, and now social media, the sway of abstract reason and discussion has declined and “the age of sentiments,” in Kirk’s words, has replaced it.

Kirk’s book was an extended exercise in the narrative application of imagination. He did not just outline an Anglo-American conservative genealogy, he imaginatively constructed, some say even invented, one.

What lingers with conservatives after reading Kirk is the striking impression of an encompassing spiritual standpoint; the disposition Kirk communicates is just as important as the particular arguments he advances. Well before today’s cognitive behaviorialists, Kirk understood that people are moved to act principally by feelings, intuitions and affections.

He also knew that such feelings proceed directly from thoughts, and so he set out to reframe popular thinking about conservative ideas in a positive way, and to elicit intelligent conservative action from his readers.

He often did so by evoking ideas expressed in literary and artistic works that appeal to the very sentiments Kirk believed conservatives were obliged to renew.

This approach is why optimism even in the face of defeat is so integral to Kirk’s vision. Kirk’s “imaginative conservatism,” as he termed it, still provides the best guide to constructing a positive vision that appeals to both mind and heart.

Successful conservative politics in America has always resulted from a balanced approach to economic matters and social concerns. The Clinton-era “It’s the economy, stupid” battle cry proved so tempting to business-minded conservatives that they adopted it with the aim to cast contentious social issues aside for good.

But in the face of events at home and abroad, conservatives are having to learn again that issues related to community and culture are the most intractable in politics. They will not go away. And seizing on the right social issues, with tact, is often what gives the conservative his winning edge in politics.

Strong social framework

Kirk championed a conservatism that embraced the dynamic economic power of markets within a larger, more stable social framework. Kirk believed that if the core institutions that comprise civil society — family, church, school, civic associations, hospitals, volunteer organizations — are strong and vibrant and left free from government interference to pursue their natural ends, then economic freedom would also flourish.

He also believed that economic prosperity would, in this arrangement, advance more evenly and with much less of the dislocation and disruption that has frightened the middle classes away from conservative policy positions in recent years.

Great Society-style politics may be booming just now, but studies demonstrate over and over that a bust is on the horizon. Conservatives have the opportunity—and the obligation—to prepare for the coming burst of the entitlements bubble by fashioning a compelling and workable alternative, which will inevitably rely upon economically independent and morally vibrant communities.

Kirk believed that a people flourish when their communities do. When civil society is strong, the national interest is advanced almost as a matter of course.

For conservatives to reclaim the allegiance of the middle class they will need to rise above the rhetoric of mere individualism, even as they resist, or turn back, the advance of the federal government in our lives. Conservatives will need to rediscover the language and policies of a political movement that puts communities first.

Read the complete article in The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20130221/OPINION01/302210321#ixzz2MekNduVJ

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Powered by WordPress | Designed by Kerygma