Recently in Lone Conservative, my good friend, Tyler Syck, published an article called “The End of Conservatism.” Tyler attempts to tackle the genuinely concerning rise of authoritarianism and illiberal politics espoused by the “New Right.”
Whether it is the New Right’s intellectual wing – National Conservatives, integralists, post-liberals et al. – or the New Right’s grassroots political wing – MAGA Trumpists and anti-establishment revolutionaries – both present issues for the future of American conservatism. They are wounds to the movement, not the death of the movement.
However, Tyler misses the mark in his attempt to address this crucial issue. He is right to discuss the conservative disposition – a tempered, prudential way of thinking about the world – as the New Right largely lacks such a disposition. However, he is wrong to suggest conservatism “has nothing to do with politics” and is merely about aesthetics.
In his many essays, Russell Kirk goes to great lengths to promote the notion that conservatism stands opposed to reactionary innovation. For example, Kirk identifies that Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservative thought, believed, like Plato, “that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues.” Not that conservatives are opposed to change, but, in the words of Lord Falkland during the English Civil War, “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”
Kirk argues that preserving a particular nation’s customs, traditions, and political institutions also constitutes a conservative’s first principles. To complement Kirk’s view, Frank S. Meyer believed conservatism was a “political, social, and intellectual movement,” not only a “cast of mind or a temperamental inclination.” Kirk also thought that the “way of looking at the civil social order” for the conservative cannot be agnostic to the political and moral “application of these ideas from age to age and country to country.” James Madison opined that “to suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”
The form of “conservatism” which Tyler promotes is one merely of a sensible disposition favoring centrist policies to maintain the societal status quo, agnostic to the content of change. His view effectively gives a blank check to the left and their radical attempts to redefine critical elements of culture and society, offering a meek opposition that says “fine, just go a little slower, please,” rather than conserving any reasonable ordered structures.
Conservatism is not only about a genteel aesthetic; it must have political substance moderated by moral guardrails and prudence.
Though specific traditions and politics may differ, most conservatives in the Anglo-American sphere possess that disposition. However, conservatism also requires political beliefs to achieve policy goals, and while policies may vary slightly in the American conservative tradition, the political principles that underpin it have a constant thread.
American conservatism exists within a liberal political tradition, not to be confused with modern progressivism. The liberalism of the Founding established the primary first principles which American conservatives seek to preserve: the belief in a transcendent moral order, the primacy of individual freedom and private property, free enterprise, a suspicion of the scope of government, the political and institutional order of the Constitution, and the preeminence of western civilization.
The New Right, in various degrees, dismisses or innovates those first principles and trades a conservative disposition in favor of a reactionary one. Although different public policies may emerge among the American right, conservatives are linked by their disposition and attachment to those basic political first principles.
There is a difference between a conservative and a man of the right, and between a liberal and a conservative. One with the disposition but without the politics is a liberal, which is different from a progressive. One with the politics but without the disposition is a populist. A populist can be “a man of the right” but not a conservative.
Additionally, conservatives are grounded by tradition and moral guardrails, not just aesthetics. While not adopting a specific theology for the state, conservatives do, as Kirk suggests, “recognize the need for enduring moral authority” and “equality in the Last Judgement and equality before a just court of law.” That is not to say that conservatism requires one to be of a particular religious sect or creed, but that one must believe in a transcendent moral order above government and affirm a “community of souls.”
Tyler is right to call out the rise of illiberalism and authoritarianism on the American right. There is a need for a conservative revival. However, we need conservative renaissance men, not coroners declaring our death or reactionaries of various fads.
We cannot abandon the substance of the American conservative tradition and placate the progressive excesses proposed by the left just to counteract the right-wing revolutionaries of our own side.
In discussing Burke’s thoughts on political first principles, Kirk says that “every nation must observe its traditions and historical experience—which should take precedence over universal notions drawn up in some quiet study.” The intellectual New Right undermines our political order by importing views of conservatism from continental Europe and slapping on an American flag. They reinvent essential elements of our constitutional order like federalism, ordered liberty, free enterprise, and the separation of church and state. The grassroots of the New Right are quick to fall into cults of personality and abandon our institutional and political norms just to simply “own the libs.”
I submit that we require a conservative movement, intellectual and political, rooted in the principles that affirm both the conservative disposition and its politics, conserving the exceptional political tradition of the American Founding.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.