conservativeA conservative’s task in society is “to preserve a particular people, living in a particular place during a particular time.”

Jack Hunter, in a review of this writer’s new book, “Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025?” thus summarizes Russell Kirk’s view of the duty of the conservative to his country.

Kirk, the traditionalist, though not so famous as some of his contemporaries at National Review, is now emerging as perhaps the greatest of that first generation of post-World War II conservatives–in the endurance of his thought.

Richard Nixon believed that. Forty years ago, he asked this writer to contact Dr. Kirk and invite him to the White House for an afternoon of talk. No other conservative would do, said the president.

Kirk’s rendering of the conservative responsibility invites a question. Has the right, despite its many victories, failed? For, in what we believe and how we behave, we are not the people we used to be.

Perhaps. But then, we didn’t start the fire.

Second-generation conservatives, Middle Americans who grew up in mid-century, were engulfed by a set of revolutions that turned their country upside down and from which there is no going home again.

First was a civil-rights revolution, which began with the freedom riders and March on Washington of August 1963 and ended tragically and terribly with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

That revolution produced the civil rights and voting rights acts, but was attended by the long, hot summers of the ’60s–days-long riots in Harlem in 1964, Watts in 1965, Detroit and Newark in 1967, and a hundred other cities and Washington, D.C., in 1968 that tore the nation apart.

Crucially, the initial demands–an end to segregation and equality of opportunity–gave way to demands for an equality of condition and equality of results through affirmative action, race-based preferences in hiring and admissions, and a progressive income tax. Reparations for slavery are now on the table.

In response to this revolution, LBJ, after the rout of Barry Goldwater, exploited his huge congressional majorities to launch a governmental revolution, fastening on the nation a vast array of social programs that now threaten to bankrupt the republic, even as they have created a vast new class of permanent federal dependents.

The next revolution began at teach-ins to protest involvement in Vietnam, but climaxed with half a million marchers around the White House carrying Viet Cong flags, waving placards with America spelled “Amerika” and chanting, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh–the NLF is going to win.”

Well, the NLF didn’t win. It was crushed in the Tet Offensive. But the North Vietnamese invasion of 1975 did. Result: a million boat people in the South China Sea, a holocaust in Cambodia and poisoned American politics for decades after that American defeat.

By the time Vietnam ended, many in the anti-war movement had become anti-American and come to regard her role in history not as great and glorious but as an endless catalogue of crimes, from slavery to imperialism to genocide against the Native Americans.

The fourth revolution was social–a rejection by millions of young of the moral code by which their parents sought to live.

This produced demands for legalized drugs, condoms for school kids, a right to terminate pregnancies with subsidized abortions and the right of homosexuals to marry.

The first political success of the integrated revolutions came with capture of the Democratic Party in 1972, though Sen. George McGovern was crushed by Nixon in a 49-state landslide.

The conservative triumph of the half-century was surely the election of Ronald Reagan, who revived America’s spirit, restored her prosperity and presided over her peaceful Cold War victory. Yet even Reagan failed to curtail an ever-expanding federal government.

Did then the conservatives fail?

In defense of the right, it needs be said. They were no more capable of preventing these revolutionary changes in how people think and believe about God and man, right and wrong, good and evil, than were the French of the Vendee to turn back the revolution of 1789.

Converting a people to new ways of thinking about fundamental truths is beyond the realm of politics and requires a John Wesley or a St. Paul.

The social, political and moral revolutions of the 1960s have changed America irretrievably. And they have put down roots and converted a vast slice of the nation.

In order to love one’s country, said Edmund Burke, one’s country ought to be lovely. Is it still? Reid Buckley, brother of Bill, replies, “I am obliged to make a public declaration that I cannot love my country. … We are vile.”

And so what is the conservative’s role in an America many believe has not only lost its way but seems to be losing its mind?

What is it now that conservatives must conserve?

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis essay appears here with permission of Mr. Buchanan. Copyright 2011

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
3 replies to this post
  1. Progress and change are the nature of mankind, of life itself. A philosophy characterized by mere preservation will always loose out in time to whatever notion of adaptation finds purchase in the current environment.

    The real role of the conservative is to remind us of the lessons learned, the history of progress, and the accumulated wisdom of time. It is the voice of caution and restraint, but it is also destined not to achieve its goal of stability and preservation for if we preserve ourselves at a time and place we will find ourselves ill prepared for the future which is always full of change.

    I wish the left and right could find the way forward with more harmony than struggle, but it is inevitable and necessary that they clash and that we always walk forward, but carry with us the wisdom of our past progress.

    Sigfried Trent

  2. Few would argue that "mere preservation" could be sufficient to protect and enhance a nation's culture. Endlessly reciting the "lessons learned," the timeline of progress and wisdom of ages is never enough to catch the imagination of the young and help them continue to build up a humane and just society.

    What we have most emphatically failed to do is to teach our youth how to think, how to reason, how to be humane. We have failed to engage them in the most important questions of life.

    The majority of the youth of the 20th century never learned how to think. They never learned, really, how to read a book nor what books are worth reading. They did not learn how to be men and women of principle, rather than selfish consumers of materials. They never learned how to discriminate between activities that are worthwhile and fulfilling and those that simply waste time. They never learned how to empathize with others or how to be compassionate. They were never set on to the challenge of building a world in which respect for life trumps greed for power and possessions.

    Left? Right? Business and marketing and profiting and exploitation have produced our nation's idols. And though they may be bankrupt in every sense of the word, they are still holding the reins and driving us along.

  3. I wonder if sociobiology has failed humanity? Incompetent people used to be long lost memories of a tiger’s meal in some distant jungle. Today we are protecting them with a government safety net that has many feeling uncomfortable with the idea of further schooling or hard work. Americans don’t expect as much from their doctors office or their elected officials. We all shrug and write it off to mass incompetence. When was the last time you actually heard of a person being fired because of numerous complaints? Managers don’t have the authority to even fire someone much less dock their pay. That is left to the human resource department which is neither human nor a resource. So who is really responsible for the decline in America when we don’t complain or expect any standard of competence?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: