The Next Conservatism: What Is Conservatism?

In this series of columns, we are exploring The Next Conservatism, the last book Paul Weyrich and I wrote together. It offers something this election year needs, namely a conservatism that addresses the issues of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. Ronald Reagan’s agenda was great for the 1980s, but that was some time ago (Paul Ryan, take note).

The Next Conservatism begins by asking the question, “What is conservatism?” It is an important question because the word “conservatism” has been stolen. It is now applies to many things that historically have been conservatism’s opposites, including spreading democracy world-wide (that was known first as Jacobinism, then Wilsonianism, and conservatives have always opposed both), demanding an American world empire (which means the end of liberty at home, as the Founding Fathers warned us), and a reduction of life to nothing but getting and spending. Conservatives used to know the difference between value and price.

The Next Conservatism‘s definition is that of Russell Kirk. Kirk may have been the only real conservative in the old National Review crowd. Stressing that conservatism is not an ideology, Kirk saw the conservative mind as embracing ten broad principles:

  1. Human nature is unchanging and moral truths are permanent;
  2. Conservatives believe life should be guided by custom, habit, and Tradition, which reflect the accumulated wisdom of many generations;
  3. As Dr. Samuel Johnson said, the only true test of the merits of anything is time, and things ancient deserve our respect because they are old;
  4. The first conservative political rule is prudence, which includes judging political proposals by their likely long-term effects;
  5. Conservatives value variety and therefore reject equality, which seeks to lower everyone to the same level;
  6. Quests for utopia lead to disaster, and society will always be imperfect because man is imperfect;
  7. Freedom and property depend on each other, and where property is not safe there will soon be no freedom;
  8. Conservatives oppose collectivism but want community, knowing man is not made for a solitary existence;
  9. Power and the quest for power must be contained or the state will come to rule over all in everything; and
  10. Conservatism recognizes the need for change and reform but insists they proceed slowly and carefully, not discarding the lessons previous generations have learned. Order must always be maintained.

To Kirk’s list Paul and I added the statement that we are cultural conservatives, which we defined (with Kirk’s approval) in these words, in a book Free Congress Foundation published in the 1980s:

Cultural conservatism is the belief that there is a necessary, unbreakable, and causal relationship between traditional Western, Judeo-Christian values, definitions of right and wrong, ways of thinking and ways of living–the parameters of Western culture–and the secular success of Western societies: their prosperity, their liberties, and the opportunities they offer their citizens to lead fulfilling, rewarding lives. If the former are abandoned, the latter will be lost.

As has happened on a broad scale since that definition was offered thirty years ago, and to an even greater degree if we look back to our country’s last normal decade, the 1950s. Then, it was esay for a blue-collar man to get a good job, one that paid enough that he could give his family a middle-class standard of living on one income.

In this year’s election, the popular outrage over the decline of the middle class, the wasting of our children’s lives in unnecessary overseas wars and the ravages cultural Marxism, a.k.a. political correctness, has inflicted on our culture has broken into the open. I do not think it will be put back into the bottle anytime soon. If it is to bear fruit in terms of restoring America’s greatness, it must turn, not just to conservatism, but to cultural conservatism. Culture is the basis for everything else, and util we again get it right all else will continue its downward spiral. As we shall see, The Next Conservatism talks about how we might find our old culture again. favicon