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Tag Archives: Russell Kirk

I began this as a response to a new member of Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society who wrote a very thoughtful Facebook comment about his (and Russell Kirk’s) views on conservatism. Since this grew too long for a post on the RCDS Facebook page, I’m publishing it here and linking to it.

I would like to respond to Robert’s three main points: 1) “a moral focus is the defining feature of conservatism,” 2) it is coupled with “a reverence for our nation’s founding and the philosophy behind it,” and 3) that these result in conservatives’ “adherence to meaningful tradition, their preference for small government with clearly defined powers, and their strong patriotism.”

While I accept these to be (mostly) true, I also think they are all (unintentionally) misleading. To call a feature “defining” (especially in the context of an implied contrast to anything not conservatism, and so in this case, progressivism) is to imply that the feature is distinguishing. It is to say that the feature makes the thing in question different from other things. I think this is untrue for all three claims. (For a silly example, if the general topic were pets, and someone wanted to distinguish cats from dogs, it would be odd to begin by saying “breathing oxygen is a defining feature of cats,” since it is equally true that dogs breath oxygen.)

Like conservatism, progressivism is rooted by a moral focus, revers the philosophy of our nation’s founding, and is strongly patriotic.

Robert included a pdf of a textbook chapter by Mark C. Henrie titled “Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism.” Since “conservative” and “liberal” have had multiple, evolving, and sometimes even overlapping meanings, I like the clarity of “traditionalist conservative” (which also helps to distinguishes it from libertarianism, which, while arguably conservative is not traditionalist). But I’ll use the shorter “conservative” to mean traditionalist, and between the synonyms “liberal” and “progressive” I prefer “progressive” because it also seems clearer. Progress and tradition are the defining poles. I quote Henrie:

“The traditionalist conservative’s first feeling, the intuition that constitutes his or her moral source, is the sense of loss, and hence, of nostalgia. Those who are secure in the enjoyment of their own are often progressives of a sort, so confident in the solidity of their estate that they do not shrink from experimenting with new modes and orders.”

I mostly agree. Progressives default to change and so imply that the status quo is an obstacle in the arc of moral progress. Conservatives default to tradition and so imply that the status quo is the most moral achievement possible (or at least the safest to preserve). This produces two mirrored extremes: for the progressive, resistance to change is resistance to morality, and for the conservative, resistance to tradition is resistance to morality. Both extremes are (in my opinion) hopelessly wrong, but I do think they accurately describe two main types of moral reflexes.

Progressives and conservatives can disagree about which viewpoint is correct, but—and this is my objection to Robert’s first claim—neither can define themselves as more morally focused than the other. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was quoting a Unitarian minister and abolitionist): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s the hard and profoundly necessary work of that bending that motivates progressives.

Robert’s second claim is that conservatives are defined by their reverence for American founding philosophy. Again, while this is true, it is not distinguishing because the same is equally true of progressives. Progressives believe that the moral arc extends from the words “we the people” and “all men are created equal” and that progress is the bending toward the fulfillment of those extraordinary founding principles.

Again, conservatives and progressives can disagree about which aspects of our founding documents are most profound, but neither can claim to have a greater reverence for them overall. And this extends to the last part of Robert’s third claim, that conservatives have “strong patriotism.” Progressives, through their dedication to the American principles of equality, are equally and overwhelmingly patriotic.

Robert’s third claim also referenced conservative’s “preference for small government.” While this would probably be both a defining and distinguishing feature, I’m not certain it’s true. I do not see an inherent link between preserving tradition and limiting government. Or if there is a link it is a merely historical one, not a principled one. If conservatives wish to preserve a status quo against a change that progressives are promoting through government institutions, rejecting government institutions is an effective strategy. But it is only a strategy, not a principle. If conservatives instead see government as an effective strategy to preserve a tradition, they are as likely as progressives to adopt it. This varies for both conservatives and progressives case by case. For example, many conservatives supported a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. That is the opposite of limited government. The marriage between limited government and traditionalist conservatism (as opposed to libertarianism which really is distinguishable by limited government) is a marriage of convenience. As with morality and patriotism, neither conservatives nor progressives have a greater or lesser link to government, whether “big” or “limited.”

One last point. According to Henrie:

“Kirk’s ‘canons’ of conservatism began with an orientation to ‘transcendent order’ or ‘natural law’ … Kirk stated emphatically that the overarching evil of the age was ‘ideology,’ and he claimed that conservatism, properly understood, is ‘the negation of ideology.’”

In my own field of literary studies, I distrust anyone who claims to have no theoretical framework but to instead take a “neutral” or “natural” approach. There’s no such thing. But who doesn’t think their own approach is “normal” and so the norm from which all other approaches err? Probably most conservatives and progressives do too. And, according to Henrie, conservatism founder Russell Kirk definitely did. But the notion of an ideology that transcends ideology is a fallacy.

All we have then are two opposite reflexes: tradition and change. Both are morally motivated, defined by founding American values, and equally patriotic, and neither has any greater relationship to government or God. By focusing unilaterally on such things as morality, founding values, patriotism, government, and God, we obscure how definingly similar conservatives and progressives are–and how hopelessly lost our nation would be if we accepted only one of those reflexes.

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