This essay appears in the Fall 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


As our political leaders rail at one another and rational discourse is routinely abandoned, Washington politics seems ready to explode: Are things falling apart? Is the center collapsing, unable to hold? Has anarchy been loosed on our world?

The apocalyptic language is taken from “The Second Coming,” a famous poem written by a despairing William Butler Yeats following World War I, in which nearly 700,000 British soldiers died and another 1.6 million were wounded, many of them grievously. In an unholy twist, Yeats conjures up not Jesus Christ but a monstrous Sphinx-like shape with a lion’s body and the head of a man and asks, “What rough beast, its hour come around at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”

The progressives have a predictable answer—President Trump. Conservatives respond that the beast’s head resembles Karl Marx, who has eclipsed John Maynard Keynes as the Democrats’ favorite philosopher.

No one would deny that our country is sorely troubled and almost as divided as it was in the ’60s, when tens of thousands of antiwar protesters filled the Washington streets and surrounded our institutions. Then the conduct of the Vietnam War split us; today we come to blows about the conduct of a president whose election has never been accepted by the opposition. So bland a slogan as “Make America Great Again” enrages the left. But we on the right can also lose our cool and resort to the ad hominem argument as we resist the progressives’ campaign to build a socialist America.

In the heat of the debate, we can forget the first law of conservatism—“conservatism is not an ideology but a philosophy.” American conservatism is a body of beliefs—centered on the principle of ordered liberty—that has successfully weathered the 243 years since the founding of the Republic. But if we look closely, we can see that we are in danger of becoming the very thing we accuse our opponents of being—rigid, dogmatic, in a word, ideological. We have divided ourselves into ideological cliques, insisting that only traditionalist conservatives or libertarians or neoconservatives or paleoconservatives or Benedictine conservatives or constitutional conservatives have the right answers to the problems of the day. We have become arrogant and self-righteous, all too eager to cast the first stone. Is there some way for conservatives to come together without compromising our beliefs?

Rod Dreher and Senator Ben Sasse have proposed a policy of semi-detachment from national politics, arguing that man (and woman) does not live by politics alone. Echoing Edmund Burke’s affection for the “little platoons” of society, National Affairs editor Yuval Levin has sung the virtues of subsidiarity—the practice of seeking solutions locally not nationally. Traditionalist Daniel McCarthy has urged the adoption of an “economic nationalism” that stresses fair not free trade and favors meritorious immigrants. Call it “A Variation on a Theme by Trump.” In his latest book, Love Your Enemies, AEI president Arthur Brooks warns against treating other people as abstractions rather than human beings. Brooks, wrote Barton Swaim in the Wall Street Journal, “embodies the charity and reasonableness he preaches—and leading by example is far from nothing.” I have suggested a New Fusionism that would unite our divided movement in the face of a common enemy—Leviathan government. The first fusionism of traditionalists, libertarians, and anticommunists in the 1960s laid the foundation for a conservative political movement that nominated Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 and helped elect Ronald Reagan president just sixteen years later. A new fusionism can meld the disparate elements of twenty-first-century conservatism.

As a first step toward conservative unity, we need a dissection of ideology, with its political fanaticism and utopian schemes. Happily, we have Russell Kirk, an apostle of prudence, to serve as our Virgil to guide us through the Inferno of today’s politics.

Ideology, Kirk said, is a political formula that promises “an earthly paradise” but has created in cruel fact a “series of terrestrial hells.” Here are its dominant vices:

  • It is “inverted religion,” denying the Christian doctrine of salvation in the afterlife and promising “collective salvation here on earth.”
  • It makes political compromise impossible because the ideologue will accept no deviation from the “absolute truth” of his revelation.
  • Its proponents vie with one another in fidelity to the Truth and are quick to denounce deviationists, as did the Stalinists and Trotskyites in the past and as progressives and socialists do now. See the differing rhetoric of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren about “Healthcare for All.”

In contrast to the inherent flaws of ideology, Kirk outlined the politics of prudence:

  • Religion is for the soul, not the state. The prudential politician knows that human nature and human institutions are not perfectible: “We cannot march to an earthly Zion.”
  • The prudential politician is well aware that “the primary purpose of the state is to keep the peace,” which can only be achieved through a balance among the many interests in society. Prudential politics strives for conciliation, not extermination.
  • Unlike the ideological politician, the prudential politician rejects the illusion of an absolute Truth, understanding that political, economic, and social structures are developed over the years, even centuries, through trial and compromise.
  • The conservative mind and the ideological mind stand at opposite poles, and the contest between them, Kirk suggested, may be no less strenuous in the twenty-first century than in the twentieth century, when the Cold War was hot.

Pragmatic Conservatism

With the failure of ideology evident everywhere—from present-day Venezuela and Iraq to the former Soviet Union—how can it retain great power, especially among the intelligentsia? The French philosopher Raymond Aron provided an answer: “When the intellectual feels no longer attached either to the community or the religion of his forebears, he looks to progressive ideology to fill the vacuum.” The Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote that we must set our faces against ideology because it denies “the possibility of truth” in politics or anything else, turning instead to economic motive and class interest. As for the millennials’ infatuation with socialism, Kirk conceded that “ideology may enchant young people” who are badly educated and looking for an “exciting and violent cause.” That is all the more reason to impart the truth about ideology, which promises utopia but produces serfdom.

A quarter of a century ago, Russell Kirk delivered a series of lectures at the Heritage Foundation about the four forms of conservatism that then existed: popular conservatives, libertarians, neoconservatives, and cultural conservatives. His insights warrant study today as the rising generation is tempted by the heady wine of a new ideology and conservatives offer a time-tested alternative—the politics of prudence.

By popular conservatism, Kirk did not mean “populist” conservatism because, he said, the populist is convinced that “the cure for democracy is more democracy,” which will, more often than not, conserve nothing. Tocqueville dreaded populism when he wrote that the triumph of democracy might lead to stagnation, all change being resisted by mediocrity and complacency.

And yet a deep populist vein runs through both major political parties, its expression varying with time and circumstances. Among today’s Democrats we have a rising tide of Bernie Sanders– and Ocasio-Cortez–style socialism, while Republicans acknowledge the power of Trumpism, which borrows heavily from the Silent Majority and the Tea Party, both of which stressed limited government and individual freedom.

Although you might not know it from the mainstream media, conservative as a political term is preferred by the American public over the words liberal and radical, although some polls have recently found a large percentage of Americans expressing a willingness to live under socialism rather than capitalism. The reasons for this apparent shift are (1) Americans cannot properly define socialism; (2) Americans do not realize that socialism has been tried and failed in some forty nations; (3) Americans do not understand that socialism strikes at the heart of free enterprise, calling for the abolition of private property, which means no more iPhones, hunting rifles, and SUVs; and (4) Americans’ faith in capitalism or the free market was badly shaken by the Great Recession of 2008. For all that, a majority of Americans prefer less rather than more government.

According to Kirk, the reason for the acceptability of the label conservative is that most Americans are pragmatic rather than philosophical and do not think that society is perfectible—a prime goal of progressives and socialists. “So far as any political theory influences popular opinion,” he said, “it is political empiricism: the test of the nation’s political experience.” Most Americans rank Ronald Reagan higher than Barack Obama; they remember the ’80s as a decade of prosperity and opportunity, not of greed and inequality.

Progressives rejoin that if Americans are so conservative, why does Congress enact so many liberal measures? Kirk had a twofold answer. The United States does not suffer from what Tocqueville dreaded, “the tyranny of the majority,” but from the tyranny of minorities—the feminist minority, the welfare-rights minority, the homosexual minority, the animal-rights minority. “Such groups,” Kirk said, “claim to have power to make and unmake members of Congress.” Thus, the conservative impulses of the American public frequently are ignored by the legislative majorities in the Congress and in the state legislatures. The politicians explain that they are merely following the wishes of the public about the feminist, gay, and welfare agendas, as documented by the polls.

The second reason Kirk gave is that most Americans, though conservative enough in general, are unable to distinguish between conservative and liberal or radical candidates, especially when all candidates claim to be more or less conservative. Furthermore, most Americans do not perceive the probable consequences of new legislation until well after it has been enacted. A case in point would be the national debt—now more than $22 trillion—which continues to rise every year with no discernible impact on the economy or the cost of a loaf of bread.

To buttress his argument about the reality of a conservative America, Kirk offered specific conservative attitudes that he said prevailed in the American Republic:

  • American conservatives take a religious view of the human condition. “They believe in a moral order of more than human contrivance” and grow alarmed at the increasing secularization of American society.
  • They resent the “increasing concentration of power in the agencies of government and in the economy.”
  • They “retain confidence in the Constitution of the United States” and America’s political institutions and principles.
  • They believe in “the protection of private property [and] a competitive economy.”
  • They emphasize “private rights, voluntary community, and personal opportunity.”

Knowing the importance of imagination, Kirk offered an image of the sort of people who subscribe to this popular American conservatism and “did so before Reagan took to practical politics”:

The person attached to America’s popular conservatism is practical, not very imaginative, patriotic, “satisfied for the most part with American society,” traditional in his morals, defensive of his family and his property, hopeful, ready for technological and material improvements but “suspicious of political tinkering.” Like conservatives of other lands, he is “the salt of the earth.”

Here is a portrait of the commonsensical American who forms the backbone of the conservative movement that provided Ronald Reagan with his two landslide presidential victories and Donald Trump’s Electoral College triumph in 2016.

Popular conservatism without the capital C, Kirk concluded, has transcended the Reaganesque mood of the ’80s to become a permanent part of the political landscape. Notwithstanding the cyclical theories of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “the Age of Roosevelt is not going to come round a second time.” The question is not whether conservatism will be supplanted by a new liberalism but whether “a high degree of intelligence and imagination . . . may be infused into the popular conservative yearning.”

And yet, given the present-day surveys that show young Americans prefer socialism to capitalism, could Kirk be wrong? Could conservatism be supplanted by a new and more radical left-liberalism? Only if conservatives fail to come together and form a bulwark against the progressives and the socialists.

The Libertarian Difference

Although describing libertarianism as “a simplistic ideology,” Kirk had favorable things to say about libertarians. First, he argued, some of those who accept the label “libertarian” are simply conservatives under another name. Alarmed by the rapid growth of the monolithic state, these individuals emphasize the idea of personal and civic freedom by using the word libertarian which is derived from liberty. These libertarians are descended from nineteenth-century “classical liberals” and make common cause with conservatives against the menaces of “democratic despotism” and “economic collectivism.”

Second, libertarians generally exert some check on interventionist foreign policy, including the stationing of U.S. “garrisons throughout the world.” But Kirk parted with those libertarians who believe, for example, that “communist ideology can be dissipated by trade agreements, a notion really fatuous.” We must not forget, he said, that America was combating “an armed doctrine,” not merely a national adversary. This evaluation was written shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the future of those nations that had suffered under communism for decades was uncertain.

Third, most libertarians believe in “the humane scale”—the self-reliant individual, the voluntary association, the rewards of personal achievement. In an age when many are ready to exchange their independence for entitlements, Kirk said, “libertarians exhort us to stand manfully on our own feet.”

As a result, Kirk conceded, young men and women, including even some of his assistants, were attracted to the arguments of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. But as they read more deeply, they became aware of the inadequacies of libertarianism and found their way to conservative realism and the politics of the possible.

Having given the libertarians their due, Kirk turned to their failings. Of society’s old institutions, he said, “they would retain only private property.” They “would sweep away political government,” thereby subscribing to Marx’s notion of the withering away of the state. America’s structure of free enterprise, he said, owed much to the conservative understanding of property and production expounded by Alexander Hamilton, “the adversary of the libertarians of his day.”

Kirk next moved on to what he called “the more conspicuous insufficiencies of libertarianism as a credible moral and political mode of belief.” So pointed were these characteristics, he said flatly, that they make “inconceivable any coalition of conservatives and libertarians.”

Here, as a Buckley-Reagan conservative and fusionist, I must say that Kirk went too far. Bill Buckley’s adoption of fusionism as a guiding principle for National Review magazine, along with Ronald Reagan’s application of fusionism as president—employing traditionalists, libertarians, and neoconservatives in his administration—demonstrate that conservatives and libertarians can work together effectively.

Nevertheless, Kirk’s analysis of the flaws of libertarianism as a political philosophy demands close attention. For the conservative, a transcendent moral order is the first principle of all. Because libertarians admit no such need, they are in effect converts to “Marx’s dialectical materialism.” In any society, Kirk said, order comes first: “Liberty and justice may be established only after order is reasonably secure.” But libertarians give primacy to “an abstract Liberty.” In exalting such “an absolute and indefinable ‘liberty’ at the expense of order,” Kirk said, “the libertarians imperil the very freedom that they praise.”

Conservatives disagree with libertarians on what holds civil society together. The libertarians contend, Kirk said, that “the nexus of society is self-interest,” joined to capital. But conservatives declare that “society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn,” and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbor.

Libertarians believe, Kirk said, that “human nature is good and beneficent,” though damaged by some social institutions. In contrast, conservatives hold that human nature, though possessing both good and evil, “cannot be perfected.” Thus, the perfection of society is impossible. Meanwhile, the libertarian pursues his way toward “a Utopia of individualism.”

While the libertarian asserts that “the state is the great oppressor,” the conservative finds that the state is “natural and necessary for the fulfillment of human nature and the growth of civilization.” The problem, Kirk said, is that the libertarians confound the “state” with “government,” which is, to quote Edmund Burke, “a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.” Among the more important wants is “a sufficient restraint upon their passions,” and this can only be supplied “by a power out of themselves.”

The libertarian fancies that “the world is a stage for the ego,” Kirk said, “with its appetites and self-assertive passions.” But the conservative “finds himself in a realm of mystery and wonder, where duty, discipline, and sacrifice are required” and faults the libertarian for not respecting “ancient beliefs and customs, or the natural world, or love of country.”

Kirk concluded with a blunt assessment that libertarianism, properly understood, “is as alien to real American conservatism as is communism.” The typical American conservative believes that there is an enduring moral order, that the great virtue in politics is prudence, that human nature and society cannot be perfected, that private property and free economic enterprise go hand-in-hand, and that decent government is necessary for the survival of a healthy economy.

What doctrinaire libertarians offer is an ideology of universal selfishness at a time when the country and the world need more than ever before “men and women who stand ready to subordinate their private interests, if need be, to the defense of the Permanent Things” of freedom, justice, and order.

The Neocons

It is an amusing irony that Russell Kirk, the ultimate traditionalist, was called a “new conservative” as well as a “neoconservative” by liberal commentators and critics in the 1950s. Along with Robert Nisbet, Peter Viereck, Daniel Boorstin, and Clinton Rossiter, Kirk was described as “new”—that is, among those relatively youthful reactionaries who might be misguided but meant well and sometimes displayed “glimmerings of sense.” Less friendly critics pinned “the dread label ‘Neo-Conservative’ ” on Kirk and company, implying they were “enemies of progress, oppressors of the poor . . . tools of the bloated capitalist . . . simpletons enamored of the superstitions of the childhood of the race.” Kirk was delighted when the worst liberal fears came to be realized as conservative doctrines were disseminated throughout the land “by our malicious typewriters” and the march toward “an earthly Zion” was arrested.

Kirk firmly rejected the labels of both “new conservative” and “neoconservative” because conservatives like himself were well aware that “conservatism is nothing new” and were content to style themselves merely conservative. When a new kind of neoconservative, once comfortable in the liberal ranks and mostly Jewish, appeared in the mid-’60s, Kirk welcomed them, perceiving they were “people of talent and energy” who gave promise of the rise of conservative opinions among New York City intellectuals. While some conservatives criticized the newcomers as “insufficiently capitalistic” or socially conservative, Kirk saw them as prodigal sons come home to a conservative patrimony.

With the passage of time, and especially during the Reagan Decade of the ’80s, Kirk’s approbation for such neoconservatives as Michael Novak, Peter Berger, Diana Ravitch, and Nathan Glazer was undiminished. But their number, never large, continued to decline until Russell Kirk predicted that in a few years “we will hear little more of the Neoconservatives,” who for all their cleverness and communication skills lack that appreciation for history and the human condition “which form a footing for successful statecraft.”

And yet Kirk admired certain achievements of the neoconservatives. When the foreign and domestic blunders of the Johnson administration—the Vietnam War and the Great Society paramount among them—“enfeebled” the nation, neoconservatives drubbed liberals’ sentimentalism and scorned radical fanaticism. The nation and the conservative movement are indebted to the neoconservatives for the founding of several intelligent serious journals. In the realm of domestic politics, the neoconservatives began discussion of “practical alternatives to mere social drifting.” In foreign policy, the neoconservatives firmly opposed “the designs and menaces of the Soviet Union,” but too often followed an interventionist line, especially in the Middle East.

As a result, Kirk uttered the following provocative sentence: “Not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” The assertion that some Americans put the national interests of Israel before that of the United States generated an immediate and intense response. A charge of anti-Semitism dogged Russell Kirk for years despite his listing Jerusalem and the Jewish belief in a transcendent Being as one of the five pillars of American order in his highly regarded work The Roots of American Order. Also unacknowledged by neoconservative critics were the words that followed Kirk’s sardonic remark about Tel Aviv: “Yet by and large, I think, [neoconservatives] have helped to redeem America’s foreign policy from the confusion into which it fell during and after the wars in southeastern Asia.” Nothing could be further from anti-Semitism.

A more fundamental difference between Russell Kirk and the neoconservatives was to be found in their “infatuation with ideology.” Kirk and Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, once participated in a Heritage Foundation discussion of the future of conservatism during which Kristol attempted to persuade Kirk to adopt an ideology “of our own to set against Marxist and other [totalitarian] ideologies.” Kirk declined to sign any adoption papers. He later took on the neoconservatives’ reigning ideology—“Democratic Capitalism.”

First of all, said Kirk, the phrase is a “contradiction in terms . . . for capitalism is not democratic, nor should it be, nor can it be.” The test of the market is not a matter of “counting noses and soliciting votes” but of decisions by “shrewd entrepreneurs and managers.” There is no egalitarianism, he said, in the distribution of the rewards of a market economy. Second, the word capitalism was popularized by Karl Marx, who denounced it as an ideology devised by capitalists to serve as a false front for their plot to enslave the workers of the world.

In truth, Kirk stated, American society is not a capitalist system at all, but “a complex, cultural and social arrangement that comprehends religion, morals, prescriptive political institutions, literary culture, a competitive economy, private property and much more.” Do neoconservatives truly think, he asked, that they will gain the affections of the peoples of the world by declaring Americans to be the very capitalists that the Marxists have been denouncing all these years?

As for offering “democracy” as a model for the world, Kirk argued that most of the world never was and is not democratic today and has little prospect of achieving “decent democracy in the future.” Were the United States to insist upon the practice or existence of democracy plus capitalism in every nation-state with which it has relations, “our principal trading partner might be Switzerland.”

As with the ideology of libertarianism, Kirk rejected the quasi-religion of democratic capitalism as a guide in either domestic politics or foreign relations. Nevertheless, it would be “a great pity for the American nation to lose [their] talents.” Whatever blunders the neoconservatives have made, he said, they have stirred up intellectual activity among conservatives, “no easy thing to do.” And even neoconservatives, he concluded, “may do battle for the Permanent Things.”

Cultural Conservatism and the Moral Order

The conservative movement is in reality a coalition of factions united in their opposition to the Leviathan of government. Among these factions, Kirk said, the most imaginative and most consequential is the body of persons called “cultural conservatives” or “traditionalists.” Such a conservative, he explained, endeavors to preserve the customs, institutions, learning, and mores of a society, as distinguished from those whose immediate interest is in practical political activity. One is reminded of Andrew Breitbart’s axiom, “Politics is downstream from culture.”

The culture these conservatives hope to conserve is rooted in earlier Hebraic, classical, and Christian cultures, and for the most part came across the Atlantic from Europe. They seek to renew the American mores praised by Alexis de Tocqueville—“the framework of laws, the private rights, the old customs, the patterns of family affection, the diffusion of private property, the protections against arbitrary power, the vigor of local community, the confidence that life is worth living.” Cultural conservatives believe that there is a moral order to which humankind should conform. This is a description of the good society the Founders envisioned.

To put it another way, Kirk said, cultural conservatives try to uphold the better features of American civilization, conceding that not everything in today’s culture deserves praise and that “prudent gradual change” may be the best means for preserving what is at its root a Christian civilization. Some people say that we already live in a post-Christian era. Cultural conservatives labor to “arrest the decay or even to renew what has faded.” What they are determined to conserve is not nineteenth-century utilitarianism nor the twentieth-century ideology of democracy but “Christian civilization as it has been realized in American beliefs, customs, habits, and institutions.”

Russell Kirk asked a pertinent question, perhaps the question of our time: Is the civilization of our time suffering from ills very like those of fifth-century Roman civilization? He quoted from C. Northcote Parkinson’s history of social decadence, listing the six stages that civilizations pass through on their way to dissolution:

  • Political overcentralization, as in Babylon, Rome, Delhi, Paris, and London.
  • Inordinate growth in taxation, which becomes the means of government interference in commercial, industrial, and social life.
  • The growth of a top-heavy system of administration, including a great political machine.
  • Promotion of the wrong people, creating a labyrinth of political bureaucracy.
  • The urge to overspend, producing a vast debt that is loaded on the shoulders of future generations.
  • A feeble sentimentality that weakens the minds and the wills of a greater part of the national community: “Their interest is solely in the present.”

The principal cause of the decay of great cultures, Kirk said, was identified by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his 1983 address on receiving the Templeton Prize: “Men have forgotten God.”

How is it then, Kirk asked, that we are able to dwell in a civil social order with most of us abstaining from violence and fraud? Because we have moral habits. What authority lies behind those habits? God. Without religious convictions, he said, “we would be so many Cains, every man’s hand against every other man’s, and society could not cohere.”

And so in the closing years of the twentieth century, Russell Kirk quoted Yeats that with the weakening of the moral order, “Things fall apart . . . mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” A culture, a civilization, he said, “cannot long survive the extinction of belief in a transcendent order that brought the culture into being.”

In this manifest crisis, cultural conservatives have addressed themselves urgently to how “a restoration of our inherited culture may be achieved.” More so than any other conservative faction, cultural conservatives [respect] the moral imagination” as they set about the restoration of learning, the reform of public policies, “brightening the corners” of our lives.

Such a restoration of reason and imagination, Kirk ended, cannot be accomplished by the ideologue or the revolutionary. Those who are concerned for the moral order and the survival of our culture must repair to the source of our culture—“to the religious perception of what we are and ought to be.” He turned to the nineteenth-century writer Orestes Brownson, a Kirk favorite, for one last exhortation intended for the rising generation: “Ask not what your age wants, but what it needs.” For Russell Kirk, the answer was easy—ordered liberty refined and protected by the politics of prudence. ♦

Lee Edwards is Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics and author of Just Right (ISI Books).

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