soul of conservatismFew things reveal the degraded state of “conservatism” in America more than the recent, seven-minute exchange between Bill O’Reilly and George Will. What the two fought about really matters very little. To set the context, suffice it to state the debate had to do with the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life and how well Mr. O’Reilly researched and interpreted the event in his seemingly ubiquitous book (which is featured at Costco and Wal-Mart as well as at bookstores), Killing Reagan.

Mr. Will, along with a number of other prominent conservatives, such as Steve Hayward (author of a two-volume biography of Ronald Reagan), have savaged Mr. O’Reilly’s book. In particular, those attacking Mr. O’Reilly despise his contention that Reagan’s dementia began soon after John Hinckley shot him. As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time studying the Reagan presidency, I can state without even a hint of equivocation that Reagan’s mental faculties did not decline after the attempt. If anything, Reagan’s physical, emotional, and mental abilities and faculties sharpened. He continued to read as much as he ever had (which was a lot), and he worked out so much after the attempt on his life that he added a full two inches to his chest.

Working for him, I saw he was no dullard, as his critics claimed. From his eight years as governor and his many other years of writing and speaking out, he had thought his way through most domestic issues and knew how to make a complex governmental structure work in his favor. In the first year of his presidency, I also saw him dive into the details of the federal revenue code and become an authority as he negotiated with Congress. When he wanted to focus, he had keen powers of concentration and could digest large bodies of information. He was also one of the most disciplined men I have seen in the presidency (much more so than Clinton, for example), sot that he worked straight through the day, reading papers and checking off meetings on his list. At day’s end, headed off for a workout and would plow through more papers in the evening in the upstairs residence. He made the presidency look easy in part by keeping a strict regimen. He also had a retentive mind. After years of memorizing scripts in Hollywood, he would recall verbatim a lot of what he had read. He recited Robert Service poems as well as he did jokes. [David Gergen, Eyewitness to Power, 197]

For this essay, however, I am not interested in entering the particulars of this debate, beyond this brief observation; rather, I would like to comment on the larger phenomenon that I see occurring at Fox and elsewhere.

The exchange between Messrs. O’Reilly and Will was so brutal that, of course, news media across the country picked up the story. One of the most interesting stories comes from Salon, which ran this byline: “Killing Reagan battle is really for the soul of the GOP. Too bad both sides are grifters and hacks.”

Salon is absolutely right. The battle is for the “soul.” But, not in the way Salon means it. The website understands it as a fight between the moderates (Mr. Will) and extremists (Mr. O’Reilly) for control of the party.

In reality, the fight is a fight about the old guard (moderate, conservative, or otherwise) acting with dignity and the new guard (moderate, conservative, or otherwise) hoping to bully its way into the mainstream of the conservative movement. By old guard, I do not mean age. Mr. Will is only eight years older than O’Reilly, and not enough to make them of different generations. By old guard, I do not mean educationally, either. Each is a product of the Ivy League. Regionally, there is a difference as Mr. Will grew up in Chicago, while Mr. O’Reilly grew up on the East Coast.

Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk

By old guard, I mean those who wish to approach the most important subjects of the world with reason and deliberation. These are the Russell Kirks, the Leo Strausses, the Eric Voegelins, and Robert Nisbets. The new guard are those who use the media not to promote conservatism, but to sell it, searching for an ever-broadening base of consumers. For the sake of argument, let us leave these people nameless. They tend to be very loud and very plastic, and my guess is that you, The Imaginative Conservative readers, could list them instantly. These are the “conservatives” who use their media access to denounce the liberal arts and the classics, demean women and minorities, and spew their hatred against all who disagree with them. They don’t converse, they scream. They talk in the language of bullet points and bumper stickers. And perhaps most importantly, they never listen.

As scholar John Willson so wisely cautions, in recognizing that Mr. O’Reilly is a bully, one should not canonize Mr. Will. Frankly, I am not a huge fan of either, and I find each somewhat lacking in his own personal life as well as in his thinking. Neither has lead an exceptionally virtuous life, and Mr. Will labels himself a soft atheist. All well and good: Mr. Will can believe or not, but I am not willing to designate such a person the current leader of conservatism. Still, whatever Mr. Will’s faults and gifts, he has always approached the public arena with dignity. He has always been a gentleman.

So, yes, the battle is over the soul of conservatism, as Salon explained. To me, though, if a conservative consistently behaves badly, he really is not a conservative. A true conservative behaves with dignity—for his own sake, for that of his opponent, for the movement. The brashness of certain commentators who label themselves conservative is nothing more than the revelation of snake oil salesmen. They might well be able to sell themselves and their ideas to the lowest common denominator, but they will never conserve what must be conserved and bequeath to our children what must be bequeathed. They will sell only snake oil.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. His newest book, Russell Kirk: American Conservative, recently arrived on bookshelves.

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22 replies to this post
  1. This is fine, as far as it goes, but the fight against the left wing is far too serious to make it a debate about who had better table manners.

    • I agree with you Eric, conservatives should not care about middle class respectability, even though you should have table manners. We need to be radical( that is to get to the root of things )by rejecting middle class conformity.

  2. Full agreement here.
    The battle of the dinosaurs exemplifies how badly “Conservatism” has been invaded by Right Radical Nihilists, essentially no different than their mirror images, the Left Radical Nihilists.
    As the saying goes, “My enemies, I can handle, God save me from my ‘friends’.”

  3. Outside of the romantic claims of what a “true conservative” is, we should note that becoming publicity figure can hurt one’s ability to stay true to the cause or ideology and thus represent it properly. So I agree with some of this article in that it points to others as representatives of conservatism.

    However, this romantic ideal of what a “true conservative” is seems to be in the same vein as Carson’s claims about the exceptional roles he has taken in the past. So, in other words, “true conservatives” are like the rest of us, they are neither moral nor ethical nor all wise superman. They have strengths and weaknesses. And such can be said about the heros who are portrayed as “true liberals” and “true leftists.” This painting of designated heros as being true representatives of conservatism, as done here, is nothing more than an appeal to authoritarianism. True conservatives, true liberals, and true leftists, and I favor the leftists in that list, have one thing in common: their humanity. And with that humanity comes the ability to err as well as sin.

    • The question is not of who’s more conservative, the question is who’s beliefs are more true. Conservatism in this country is based on ideas that are intellectual incoherent and in my mind un sophisticated at least theoretically. We need to look to Christendom not any constitution.

    • “However, this romantic ideal of what a “true conservative” is seems to be in the same vein as Carson’s claims about the exceptional roles he has taken in the past. ”

      It is unfortunate that you have been taken in by the left wing media’s smear jobs against Dr. Carson. Similar tactics were used against Sarah Palin. It seems whenever the conservative side runs someone decent and honorable, the left wing rodents come out to try to tear them down to their level.

  4. You have to remember that the modern media is inherently anti-intellectual. It doesn’t matter what conservatism you embrace (de Mastrean, Burkean, Libertarian etc). They won’t bring truly gifted intelctuals from all brand of Conservatism. Like say a Roger Scruton.

  5. Indeed, Mr. Birzer’s observations are well-defined. I would like to add that expanding the appeal of conservatism, and if the O’Reilly’s would trust in fate and stop trying to push every hot button, we could be making a lot of people on the far left who also distrust the national government, corporate welfare (such as Obamacare), and hate imperial war, and/or do believe in traditional family, that they too are really conservative!

    P.S. The neoliberal project has their voice of reason now in Al-Jazeera US, so why can’t some reasonable conservatives like Will, pick up a station and box out Fox?

    • Tom,
      I am confused by your neoliberal project reference. Neoliberalism is a conservative approach to economics that reduces Gov’t interfererence with business via reducing or even eliminating taxes and regulations. Why would Al-Jazeera be unique in promoting that?

      • Certainly neoliberalism accommodates and draws on classical market economics and monetarism. But in operation, with mass media at the beckon call, it has become little more than fascism e.g. the state and large corporations intertwined in hyper-rational and unwieldy schemes for maximum production and control.

        You haven’t noticed that our world is that of, might makes right?

          • That would be very hard. Europe is not one with its older and wiser civilization. It is now Socialist. Neither older or wiser. This is what American Conservatives are trying to stop.
            Let them keep their multiculturalism and political correctness. They are destroying themselves from the inside.

    • As long as the left wing remain virulently pro-abortion, there is no point in trying to win them to our side. You might as well try to ally yourself with a poisonous snake.

      • To reiterate the article, independent-minded, ethically-driven people who identify with the left, are being driven away. Few of those who have also started a family and belatedly realized that family is really the root of culture and community, still should be holding fast to a “pro-choice” view. But the O’Reilly’s on TV are driving them away from conservatism, long before such obvious re-consideration.

        • But Bill O’Reilly is NOT a conservative. Not by a long shot. He is a rather idiosyncratic, right-wing libertarian. I’m not even sure you can accurately classify him as “right-wing.” He inhabits his own, rather demented, wing. The vast majority of Americans today have NO idea what conservatism actually is, or liberalism for that matter. We’ve become infected by various strains of libertarianism, from both the left and the right.

          If people are being “driv[en] away” from something by the likes of Bill O’Reilly, it certainly isn’t conservatism. It’s rather wacky forms of individualistic, idiosyncratic libertarianism, which, while we still have some remnant of memory of our past, we sense in our gut does not truly comport with the American ideal, on either the left or the right. That’s what drives people away. Oh, we long for a true conservative, with consistent principles and impulses, and not another variant of a quirky libertarian.

  6. Mr. Birzer,

    I believe you are correct in this assessment.
    My fear is that there are simply not enough conservatives (in the traditional, historical sense) who are either adept at or even interested in using truly mass media to discuss and spread conservatism to those (like myself) who are not intellectuals.

    I count myself quite lucky that I “discovered” Burke and Kirk and Nisbet, et al at all.

    I don’t think it should be ‘dumbed down’ for the masses. but I think those of us who have been blessed enough to have been exposed to “Imaginative Conservatism” can and should do a better job of distilling and sharing the truths we have learned.

  7. A certain strain of libertarianism, often quite individually idiosyncratic, has invaded the conservative movement . . . and set one “conservative” against another “conservative.” Neither Mr. Will nor Mr. O’Reilly are conservatives. There aren’t many true conservatives left, as, having violated our founding principles with abandon, there is very little left to conserve, so now we fight over “liberty,” at least those aspects of “liberty” that we personally value. Thus, the individually idiosyncratic libertarian.

  8. I don’t consider the war of words between Will and O’Reilly as indicative of a larger battle for the conservative soul. Those of the conservative temperament have always been a remnant in a rout. Looking upon our “culture,” I don’t see many that “join in resistance to the destruction of old patterns of life, damage to the footings of the civil social order, and reduction of human striving to material production and consumption” as Kirk put it in The Conservative Mind. Thankfully TIC and its writers like you Mr. Birzer along with some others remain to keep the conservative temperament alive.

    This was a spat between Republicans over the Reagan legacy, and between two Fox pundits one of which, who actually went on the attack first in print, helped the other to sell more books. Good deal for Fox, Will, and O’Reilly. Bad deal for those of the conservative remnant since the promotion of these two as “conservative” only furthers the laughable idea that such “fight against” the “other side.” Snake oil it is. And where the anti-traditionalist media help prop up the notion, well the Laskis and Schlesingers liked their straw men as well.

  9. Mr Lanni, what I meant by that is that the fact Europe is older and has more historical ideas than we do. In France there is a respectable conservative tradition, which in their contexts means Royalist and Counter Revolutionary. That is what I want to draw from.

    People have better tastes in Europe any way despite their socialist politics. I’d rather hang out with someone like that than Donald Trump.

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