I have been reading and musing on essays at The American Conservative asking the question: What is American Conservatism? I could list my favorites and the various insights from the wide perspectives but I haven’t collected my thoughts in that way yet.
What struck me almost viscerally is how much tone and style, what you might call aesthetics, impact my take on a give essay.
Not surprisingly, I really enjoyed Bradley J. Birzer’s contribution as it focuses on Russell Kirk (BTW, highly recommend you read Birzer’s bio Russell Kirk: American Conservative). It also mirrors my take on conservatism and populism:
Kirk wisely chose to define conservatism by not defining it. He was, however, fundamentally clear that conservatism did not belong exclusively to the sphere of politics. It was a movement in education, in literature, in the arts, in living, in religion, in economics, and in politics. But never in politics alone.
When the critics of conservatism emerge—whether in 1964 or 2020—they all too readily view conservatism as primarily a political movement, and, more often than not, as a populist movement. Yet, the difference between conservatism and populism is not only vast, but it is also insurmountable. At its root, populism seeks homogeneity throughout culture, while conservatism embraces variety and distinction.
By its very nature as well as by its own history, conservatism can never be a coherent ideology, centered around a like-minded group of (un)thinkers, dedicated to remaking the future of government or of political society. Backward looking, conservatism was born as a rebellion against conformity in society, in bureaucracy, in education, and in government, and, by its very essence, it promotes what is eternally (not temporarily) true, good, and beautiful. It seeks that which is everlasting even as it finds such everlasting things in mortal envelopes, slowly crushed by time.
In stark contrast in style, tone and substance is Birzer’s Hillsdale colleague David Azerrad:
Conservatism is the seven cheers for capitalism and the deafening silence on demographic change, feminism, and corporate malfeasance. It’s the same tired cast of speakers blathering about limited government almost a century after the New Deal. It’s the platitudinous Reagan quotes and the worn-out Buckley anecdotes. It’s the mindless optimism and the childish exhortations—if something can’t go on forever, it won’t!
If it were only that, conservatism would simply be a harmless persuasion for nostalgic Baby Boomers. Or to be more generous, one big Benedict Option to offer a semblance of an alternative to the pervasive progressivism of our age.
But conservatism is also the endless wars, the nation-building, and the outdated alliances. It’s the free trade fetish. It’s the foolish libertarianism that hates the government more than it loves America. It’s the unconscionable refusal to clamp down on immigration.
Worst of all, conservatism is the cowardice and accommodation in the face of leftist hegemony. It’s the long list of enemies to the Right. It’s the court eunuchs and other members of the controlled opposition who offer an echo, but never a choice. It’s the faux grandstanding while living in fear of being called a racist.
Put aside whether you think this jerimand is accurate as it applies to conservatism or what many have taken to calling Conservatism, Inc. Note also the tone and style. It is angry, vindictive, accusatory, bitter and full of vast generalizations (IMO). It is a lashing out at the world not an attempt to wrestle with complex and multifaceted issues and ideas.
Interestingly, at least to me, is that these two approaches might be categorized as two sides of a paleoconservative perspective. Paleos, very roughly speaking, are those conservatives who did not fit neatly into libertarianism or neoconservativism or were hostile to those approaches and who wanted to reassert a more traditionalist perspective.
But Birzer calls us back to Kirk and his canons in answer to the question of what exactly conservatism was called to conserve. In this perspective conservatism cannot be defined simply or labeled with a basic political program.
In contrast, Azerrad declares that “the entirety of the ruling class’s ideology must be discredited” and “The right must be comfortable wielding the levers of state power. And it should emulate the Left in using them to reward friends and punish enemies (within the confines of the rule of law).”
This is populism tooth and claw. It is power politics. In the name of traditionalism, sure, but power politics nonetheless.
I know that underneath this vitriol and populism there are elements where I am sure I agree with Azerrad on policy and even first principles. But I can’t get past the populist anger, bitterness and strawman slogans. I have principled reasons to disagree with much of what he says but I lack the energy to discuss the essay with nuance because it itself offers none.
This is a big part of my unwillingness to join with so many on the right these days. This is populist reaction and counter-revolutionary rhetoric not conservatism in my mind.
I’ll take Bradley J. Birzer and Russell Kirk, thanks.