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Politics, Ideas, and the West

This is the first contribution to ISI’s symposium, Conservatism: What’s Wrong with it and How Can We Make it Right?

In 2008, the writer George Packer argued in a New Yorker article entitled “The Fall of Conservatism” that the disarray then engulfing the Republican Party was actually symptomatic of deeper problems characterizing American conservative thought. Conservatism’s apparent meltdown in the United States, Packer suggested, partly flowed from fierce internal disagreements over issues ranging from foreign policy to government-spending levels. Yet the challenge facing conservatives went far beyond, Packer claimed, these explicit tensions. Conservatism’s real crisis, he said, was one of ideas per se. To this end, Packer quoted one of contemporary conservatism’s most astute products, the political analyst Yuval Levin, who maintained that “The conservative idea factory is not producing as it did. You hear it from everybody, but nobody agrees what to do about it.”

For many conservatives, ideas have never been something that people should embrace too enthusiastically. Some ideas, they note, have helped facilitate some of history’s greatest barbarisms. There is a straight line, for example, between Karl Marx’s ruminations jotted down in the sedate settings of the British Library, and the Killing Fields of far-away Cambodia one hundred years later. In this light, we shouldn’t be surprised to find some conservative thinkers such as the Tory M.P. and later Lord Chancellor Quintin Hogg insisting in his 1959 book, The Conservative Case, that conservatism wasn’t “so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society, and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself.”

The truth, however, is that for every “attitude-conservative,” there has been just as many “idea-conservatives.” Indeed few things divide conservatives more today than ideas. Among the many groups that have appropriated the term “conservative,” we find self-described fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, southern agrarians, neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, conservative liberals, business conservatives, traditionalists, libertarian conservatives, national security conservatives, conservative Democrats, Reagan conservatives, limited government conservatives, Tories, isolationists, bioconservatives, Thatcherites, progressive conservatives, federalists, fusionists, religious conservatives, and so on and so forth.

The differences between these ever-shifting clusters are often profound. The deepest, usually unspoken philosophical division is perhaps between those conservatives who ground their thinking in natural law reasoning and those committed to its polar-opposite: skepticism. But even within particular conservative alignments, there are sometimes noteworthy splits regarding specific questions. Some social conservatives, for instance, are outspoken free traders. Other, however, verge on economic nationalism.

The imprecision associated with the word conservative becomes even more evident when we consider figures that claim the moniker. Britain’s David Cameron, for example, never ceases proclaiming his conservative credentials. Yet does anyone seriously doubt that David Cameron has more in common with President Barack Obama than with, say, Senator Rand Paul or Senator Ted Cruz? What, some might ask, does Britain’s present Conservative Prime Minister have to do with conservatism at all?

That said, it’s worth noting that the various forces associated with conservatism haven’t ever and aren’t likely to achieve complete unity. Conservatism’s political expressions have often consisted of alliances of constituencies united less by common commitment to deeply-held beliefs, than by agreement on particular points during certain time-periods and some degree of “the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend” logic. The imperative of defeating the diabolical evil of Communism, for example, produced a number of less-than-obvious bedfellows. Beyond these political conveniences, a considerable degree of internal debate on the right is highly desirable, not least because it forces people to defend and refine their positions.

The political importance of building and sustaining “broad-church” conservative coalitions shouldn’t be underestimated. After all, they help realize what has to be an important part of modern conservatism’s agenda: opposing and rolling-back a left that, however absurd its goals, is truly relentless in seeking to realize its dreams. But any revival of conservatism can’t just be about focusing upon what it is against. Nor can conservatism’s energy be completely consumed by policy-battles, as important as these are. For if conservatives lose the broader conflict about the type of civilization we aspire to live in, then all their policy-victories will ultimately count for naught.

This brings me to what I think has to be conservatism’s long-term agenda as well as a central element in any lasting conservative resurgence: the defense and promotion of what we should unapologetically call Western civilization. By this, I mean that unique culture which emerged from the encounter of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, the brilliance of which—if I may be deeply politically-incorrect for a moment—is somewhat harder to discern in other societies. As anathema as this culture may be in the contemporary faculty lounge, this is the tradition that conservatives should be in the business of safeguarding and advocating: not just in opposition to those who deploy violence in the name of a divine un-reason, but also against the obsessive egalitarianism, rank sentimentalism and wild-eyed utopianism of those who live inside the West’s gates but who have long inhabited a different mental universe altogether.

The best minds from whom conservatives continue to draw inspiration, ranging from Edmund Burke and Wilhelm Röpke to Augustine and Alexis de Tocqueville, have always understood that civilizational questions are the ones which ultimately matter. The genius of the West can be expressed in a number of propositions, but among the most prominent are the following: that freedom is to be found in the self-mastery that results from freely choosing to live in the truth rather than lies; that reason includes but encompasses far more than just the empirical sciences; and that in awareness of our fallen nature and the lessons of history we find some of the best defenses against our restless impulse to attempt to construct heaven-on-earth.

Yet as the French theologian Jean Daniélou S.J. once observed, there is no true civilization that is not also religious. In the case of Western civilization, that means Judaism and Christianity. The question of religious truth is something with which we must allow every person to wrestle in the depths of their conscience. But if conservatism involves upholding the heritage of the West against those who would tear it down (whether from without and within), then conservatives should follow the lead of European intellectuals such as Rémi Brague and Joseph Ratzinger and invest far more energy in elucidating Christianity’s pivotal role in the West’s development—including the often complicated ways in which it responded to, and continues to interact, with the movements associated with the various Enlightenments.

Such an enterprise goes beyond demonstrating Christianity’s contribution to institutional frameworks such as constitutional government. Conservatives must be more attentive to how Judaism and Christianity—or at least their orthodox versions—helped foster key ideas that underlie the distinctiveness of Western culture. These include:

  • their liberation of man from the sense that the world was ultimately meaningless;
  • their underscoring of human fallibility and consequent anti-utopianism;
  • their affirmation that man is made to be creative rather than passive;
  • their insistence that there are moral absolutes that may never be violated,
  • their tremendous respect for human reason in all its fullness;
  • their crucial distinction between religious and civil authority; and
  • their conviction that human beings can make free choices.

This last point is especially important precisely because of the difficulty of finding strong affirmations of the reality of free choice outside orthodox Judaism, orthodox Christianity, and certain schools of natural law thought. Beyond these spheres, the world is basically made up of soft determinists (like John Stuart Mill) or hard determinists (like Marx).

There is, however, something more elemental of which modern conservatism stands in desperate need. In the first episode of his acclaimed 1969 BBC series Civilisation, the art historian, the late Kenneth Clark, sat in the foreground of an old viaduct and spoke about the Romans’ “confidence.” By that, he didn’t mean arrogance. What Clark had in mind was the Romans’ self-belief: their conviction that the ideas and institutions which they had inherited, developed, and extended throughout Europe and the Mediterranean amounted to a singular cultural accomplishment worthy of emulation.

Obviously the Roman world was far from perfect. As illustrated in the novel Satyricon, most likely written by the Roman courtier Gaius Petronius Arbiter during Nero’s disastrous reign, substantive decay had already set in among Rome’s elites by the first century A.D. What, however, seems difficult to dispute is the need for contemporary conservatives—however they prefix or suffix themselves—to develop and display a Roman-like confidence in the West’s achievements. For, absent such confidence, how will conservatives be able to re-infuse self-belief back into a West presently awash in soft despotism, nihilism, emotivism, and rampant self-loathing?

“Civilizations,” wrote the historian Arnold Toynbee, “die from suicide, not from murder.” Preventing the West from continuing to drift toward self-oblivion is surely a task—nay, a duty—of any principled conservative worthy of the name. In fact, as Margaret Thatcher was fond of saying, there is no alternative.

Read the entire article on the Intercollegiate Review website (new window will open).

Published: September 10, 2013

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