Several things define the conservatives of America, whether they be those of 1898 or 1924 or 1953 or 1964 or 1989 or 2021.

First, conservatism by its very nature is reactionary and reactive. Rather than being a positive force for change, it is a restraining force. As such, conservatives almost everywhere make the best critics. They have honed criticism to perfection, but, because of this, they also seem rather dour, a fault that most conservatives tend to share. None of this should suggest, though, that conservatives are always backward looking, but generally they are. There are things conservatives believe about progress, such as real progress comes from groups voluntarily associating with one another. Unlike the left, though—which always has proposals to change society through the specific mechanism of governmental or governmental-like agencies—the conservatives have always been content to suggest that solutions will develop spontaneously. Whether they are right or wrong, because of this lack of specifics, conservatives often appear devoid of ideas, simply because they are willing to allow societal evolution and adaptation take its own course, let come what may.

Second, the vast majority of conservatives—no matter how strident their opposition to individualism as a form of modern radicalism—are some of the most eccentric personalities and individualists of the last hundred plus years. Some of these quirks are fetching, others not at all. Harvard’s Irving Babbitt hunted rattlesnakes and held office hours with students while on daily jobs; T.S. Eliot found nothing but sorrow with his first wife and her lover, Bertrand Russell, but he became an Expatriot anyway; Rose Wilder Lane christened her car Zenobia and drove with a friend across war-torn Europe during the first World War; Friedrich Hayek married his cousin; Christopher Dawson suffered from severe panic attacks and insomnia; Willa Cather might or might not have been in love with a woman; Albert Jay Nock abandoned his wife and children; Ray Bradbury never drove a car but piloted the Mars rover; Walter Miller helped bomb Monte Cassino in World War II and later committed suicide; Whittaker Chambers could barely keep his composure during public appearances, sweating like a mad man; Eric Voegelin typed his books while sitting in ice-cold water; Russell Kirk carried a sword cane and always wore his three-piece tweed suit, even across North Africa in the summer of 1963; Jacques Maritain believed the Thomist to be higher than the Roman Catholic; Zora Neale Hurston led “Negros for Taft” in 1952 and preferred segregation to desegregation; Barry Goldwater privately funded anti-racist law suits throughout the 1950s as well as explored Antarctica and flew fighter jets; Clare Booth Luce loved her LSD; William F. Buckley lived as an unrepentant and eternal frat boy; Beat poet Jack Kerouac drank himself to death. These are but a few such stories, but they are legion, and we could explore them all—not as marginal experiences, but rather as central to the very nature and essence of conservatism. Being radical individualists though, whether admitting to it or not, these figures created not a movement, but often—and often unintentionally—cults of personality: Babbittians; Nockians; Buckleyites; Straussians; Kirkians; Nisbetians; Voegelinians.

Third, when conservatism began in the late nineteenth century, it did so, first and foremost, as a cultural movement. No one in their right senses could dismiss, for example, the influence of Irving Babbitt and Princeton’s Paul Elmer More during the 1910s through the 1930s. They and their ideas were everywhere, whether one liked them or not. One could not pick up the most prominent newspapers and periodicals without encountering their ideas. One radical minister, Charles Francis Potter, even went so far as to create a religion, Humanism, based on their teachings. In a more restrained fashion, T.S. Eliot based many of his own poems on the ideas of his favorite Harvard professor, Babbitt.

None of this should suggest that conservatism was not political. It most certainly could be, as witnessed by the “National Democratic” platform of 1896, the anti-Imperialist League manifesto, and the labeling of Woodrow Wilson as the Nietzschean “nemesis” of humanity. Yet, in its beginning, the cultural aspects of conservatism controlled politics, and conservatives considered politics a vital but limited sphere of human activity. For the most part, conservatives resisted the urge to become political until Barry Goldwater arose. At that point, all restraints came loose the political aspect of conservative grew dramatically. Today, of course, little of conservatism remains outside of the political sphere, which has swamped nearly all of human existence.

Fourth, and closely related to the third point, most conservatives of the twentieth century thought the highest human faculty was reason or, as defined properly, the imagination. They distrusted both the faculty of rationality as that of the automaton and the faculty of the passions as that of the animal. Only reason or imagination—the chests—properly ordered the human soul and human society. “It is only in the poetic imagination which is akin to that of the child and the mystic that we can still feel the pure sense of mystery and transcendence which is man’s natural element,” Dawson wrote.[1] Babbitt and Eliot argued that one might employ three types of imagination: the diabolic, the idyllic, and the moral. Paul Elmer More claimed there could be no conservatism that was not an imaginative conservatism; and Russell Kirk always waxed eloquent—in high Platonic tones—that the imagination ruled everything.

Fifth, not surprisingly, especially given the above points, conservatives profoundly distrusted equality and its most necessary byproduct, mediocrity. Though a Northern Irishman more than anything else, C.S. Lewis spoke for many in America when he stated: “When equality is treated not as a medicine or a safety-gadget but as an ideal we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind which hates all superiority.” This could only lead to degradation in a power grab. “That mind is the special disease of democracy, as cruelty and servility are the special diseases of privileged societies. It will kill us all if it grows unchecked. The man who cannot conceive a joyful and loyal obedience on the one hand, nor an unembarrassed and noble acceptance of that obedience on the other, the man who has never even wanted to kneel or to bow, is a prosaic barbarian.”[2] Most conservatives of the last one-hundred-plus years have accepted Tocqueville’s caution that all equality will lead to a soft despotism, a conformity that is neither natural nor healthy, making us little better than the totalitarian societies we claim to hate.

Finally, sixth, conservatives have, traditionally, feared bigness at any level. They fear big government, at home and abroad, big corporations, big labor, big education, etc. In particular, though, they have saved their greatest condemnation for big government, Leviathan. As evidence they have repeatedly turned to the empirical fact that the Nazis killed twenty-one million civilians, that the Soviets murdered sixty-two million civilians, and that the Chinese butchered sixty-five million of their own. The twentieth century, for most conservatives, was not the century of political equality and moral gains, but a century of Holocausts, killing fields, and gulags.

As conservatives have become more political, they have become increasingly tolerant of what critics call “crony capitalism,” preferring big and intrusive corporations to big and intrusive government. They willingly allow Google, Facebook, and Amazon to listen in on their most private conversations, and they readily sell their personal data for a few dollars off laundry detergent. What they forget—lessons that the Babbitts and Hayeks knew well—is that Leviathan is insatiable and prefers neither money nor power, demanding both, at home and abroad. Even the very term that describes this, Plutocracy, has gone out of fashion. But now more than ever, it’s time to call a thing what it is.

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[1] Dawson, Religion and Culture (London, ENG: Sheed and Ward, 1949), 29.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns, chapter entitled “Equality.”

The featured image is “The Writing Master” (1882) by Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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