(This is one of a series The Imaginative Conservative is publishing in honor of the sixtieth anniversary of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Essays in the series may be found here.)
President Barack Obama’s decisive electoral victory last November caused panic in some conservative circles. Questions about the continuing relevance of conservative first principles are common fodder for the chattering classes, both right and left.
But there is not much that is really novel in this latest conservative setback. Some 60 years ago, the chief role of conservatives was to resist and oppose, even as a Republican assumed the presidency. And almost 50 years ago, conservatives suffered an even more complete catastrophe at the polls.
One landmark book published in the spring of 1953 by a young Michigan State College professor began to change all that. Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind contributed to the re-imagining of American politics by countering the prevailing liberal narrative that there was no such thing as a conservative tradition in America.
Kirk did so by sketching intellectual portraits of key writers and statesmen from the 18th century to the present, each of whom had added to the deposit of conservative thought.
The 60th anniversary of Kirk’s book is a good opportunity to reflect on the prospects for conservatism today. For the past half-century, generations of conservative thinkers, journalists, and politicians have been moved by Kirk to confidently assert a new conservative vision. That vision was enough to elect presidents and congressional majorities.
So what does The Conservative Mind still have to teach a new generation struggling once again to find an authentic and convincing American conservative voice?
Below are a few ways in which Kirk’s book is more than a touchstone of a bygone era and instead remains a vital resource for conservative renewal.
Kirk was fond of quoting Napoleon about the power of the imaginative faculty. In the new world of electronic images, and now social media, the sway of abstract reason and discussion has declined and “the age of sentiments,” in Kirk’s words, has replaced it.
Kirk’s book was an extended exercise in the narrative application of imagination. He did not just outline an Anglo-American conservative genealogy, he imaginatively constructed, some say even invented, one.
What lingers with conservatives after reading Kirk is the striking impression of an encompassing spiritual standpoint; the disposition Kirk communicates is just as important as the particular arguments he advances. Well before today’s cognitive behaviorialists, Kirk understood that people are moved to act principally by feelings, intuitions and affections.
He also knew that such feelings proceed directly from thoughts, and so he set out to reframe popular thinking about conservative ideas in a positive way, and to elicit intelligent conservative action from his readers.
He often did so by evoking ideas expressed in literary and artistic works that appeal to the very sentiments Kirk believed conservatives were obliged to renew.
This approach is why optimism even in the face of defeat is so integral to Kirk’s vision. Kirk’s “imaginative conservatism,” as he termed it, still provides the best guide to constructing a positive vision that appeals to both mind and heart.
Successful conservative politics in America has always resulted from a balanced approach to economic matters and social concerns. The Clinton-era “It’s the economy, stupid” battle cry proved so tempting to business-minded conservatives that they adopted it with the aim to cast contentious social issues aside for good.
But in the face of events at home and abroad, conservatives are having to learn again that issues related to community and culture are the most intractable in politics. They will not go away. And seizing on the right social issues, with tact, is often what gives the conservative his winning edge in politics.
Strong social framework
Kirk championed a conservatism that embraced the dynamic economic power of markets within a larger, more stable social framework. Kirk believed that if the core institutions that comprise civil society — family, church, school, civic associations, hospitals, volunteer organizations — are strong and vibrant and left free from government interference to pursue their natural ends, then economic freedom would also flourish.
He also believed that economic prosperity would, in this arrangement, advance more evenly and with much less of the dislocation and disruption that has frightened the middle classes away from conservative policy positions in recent years.
Great Society-style politics may be booming just now, but studies demonstrate over and over that a bust is on the horizon. Conservatives have the opportunity—and the obligation—to prepare for the coming burst of the entitlements bubble by fashioning a compelling and workable alternative, which will inevitably rely upon economically independent and morally vibrant communities.
Kirk believed that a people flourish when their communities do. When civil society is strong, the national interest is advanced almost as a matter of course.
For conservatives to reclaim the allegiance of the middle class they will need to rise above the rhetoric of mere individualism, even as they resist, or turn back, the advance of the federal government in our lives. Conservatives will need to rediscover the language and policies of a political movement that puts communities first.
Politics of resistance
The original title of Kirk’s book was The Conservative Rout. He believed that while routed, conservatives were not conquered.
Kirk’s story was one of principled resistance and opposition. In many ways, this is still the conservative story.
Conservatism will always have the feel of a resistance movement. It represents a natural check on the relentless energies and ambitions of the social reformer, who never encounters an institution or social practice he does not believe should be “reformed.”
It is the conservative’s job to resist the unbridled pursuit of change for change’s sake and to determine through careful deliberation which reforms may be prudently advanced and which are likely to do more harm than good.
The ultimate enemy in Kirk’s book is the radical innovator, who turns ruthless in the execution of the progressive dream. America ushered into modern history a predominately liberal current. Every generation since has seen the rise of able and articulate conservatives to resist the inevitability of that tide.
These conservatives make the necessary case for the importance of tradition, more realistic and balanced approaches to reform, and the imperative to focus attention on the health and stability of Kirk’s “little platoons,” those vital institutions of civil society.
Kirk himself lived to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Conservative Mind, which fittingly occurred during another transition from a conservative to a progressive political moment.
His words of counsel then might buoy conservatives today: “In every age the forces of permanence and the forces of innovation do battle. People dismayed at a single electoral defeat forget that folly in public office undoes itself fairly soon, and that to the radical challenge there comes the conservative response.”