What Should The Right Conserve?

Pat Buchanan’s latest column focuses on Russell Kirk, one of the leading figures in conservative intellectual thought. Kirk was a traditionalist who wanted the Right to conserve the best in the Western tradition. Much of that thinking has gone by the wayside in recent years, leading to Buchanan’s jeremiad. Buchanan concludes by asking what Americans wish to conserve today.

The author does not provide an answer; instead he recounts America’s tumultuous recent past. Right now, the United States is a deeply divided nation that has endured five years of economic decline, ten years of incessant war and several years of middle-class stagnation and erosion. Faith in government is at a record low. Our cultural mores have deteriorated and the family has broken down. In short, we are facing a cultural and political collapse.

Much of this breakdown occurred over the last fifty years, a period in which conservatives often triumphed at the ballot-box. Voters turned to conservatives (and their political engine, the GOP) after Lyndon Johnson’s liberal vision led to anarchy in the streets.

Johnson’s Great Society social engineering experiment-which federalized public education, senior citizens health care coverage, poverty assistance/coverage, environmental protection, the arts, transportation and consumer protection-, grew government at an unprecedented pace. Conservatives began railing against big government as a threat to individual liberty and claiming that liberal policies led to the breakdown of law-and-order.

Those messages appealed then (and resonate now) with the American electorate. Republicans have won the White House several times since 1968. Richard Nixon won two terms. Ronald Reagan did as well. George H.W. Bush won in 1988. George W. Bush won in 2000 and 2004. Despite this electoral success (and twelve years of Congressional hegemony to boot), Republican politicians have failed to slow the growth of government or help stem the tide of cultural decline.

Perhaps that’s asking too much of our politicians. But it’s undeniable that a profound change has happened in our politics, our cultural mores and our thinking over the last fifty years. The question is: Why?

Most of these changes begin in the 1960s, a time of cultural upheaval and self-realization. The social revolution of that decade liberalized sexual mores and drove up out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Drug use skyrocketed. The family disintegrated. These trends have continued ever since.

In some ways, ironically, Americans have become Randian men-i.e. the ideal in Ayn Rand’s utopia. Man does what he wants, when he wants, where he wants. Critics claimed that, if realized, this uber-individualism would lead to chaos and societal break-down. The American experience over the last fifty years would suggest the critics were right.

Americans have created their own private universe , a phenomenon that’s known as the bowling-alone syndrome. Once people spent time socializing with others (in a bowling league, for instance), but now man spends his recreation time alone without having to interact with others.

Cyber-space offers infinite diversions. Home entertainment technology allows one to watch what he wants on demand. The Ipod makes each person a DJ. Technology has allowed man to become master of his universe. This is a liberating ,revolutionary development in social history. Unfortunately it has a down-side: it leads towards a hedonistic utopia where one puts pleasure above all else.

Putting pleasure (and self) first has wrecked the American family. Over half of marriages now end in divorce. The nuclear family is no longer the norm; in fact, it’s no longer a prerequisite for bringing children into the world. Out-of-wedlock pregnancies continue to skyrocket. That assumes the woman wants to bring the child to term. It’s her choice after all, according to a majority of Americans as well as the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. Approximately fifty million fetuses have been aborted since the Roe decision in 1973.

This social policy has shifted the American psyche (and our public value system) and has hastened our cultural decline.  Relativism, nominalism and positivism now shape our thinking. These ideas have had pernicious consequences. This thinking rejects Eliseo Vivas’s axiom: “values are real and antecedent to our discovery of them.”

Buchanan’s jeremiad ends with a reflection on Edmund Burke and a quote by Reid Buckley, of the National Review family. Burke once asserted that in order to love one’s country; one’s country should be lovely. Buckley recently said America was no longer lovely. In fact, he thought it was vile.

So how do Americans change the culture and renew the spirit? Buchanan thinks they should familiarize itself with Russell Kirk, whom he calls “the greatest” of post-war conservative thinkers. Kirk arguably built the conservative movement. His 1953 book The Conservative Mind remains one of the pillars of conservative thought. His acolytes, the traditionalists, still make up a vital branch of the conservative coalition.

Traditionalists applaud the wisdom of our ancestors, the community of spirit, and the teaching of Edmund Burke. They defend private-property, but question laissez-faire capitalism. They adhere to the natural law philosophy of the ancient philosophers rather than the natural rights theory of the modern ones.

Here traditionalists articulate the work of Richard Weaver, whose 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences argued that modern philosophy went awry when it rejected transcendent values. The moderns said there was nothing greater than made-made values. Rubbish, Weaver said. He claimed that natural laws had a higher worth than man-made values.

But Weaver’s position supposes a belief in absolute truth, a notion that has been rejected by secularists for centuries. Weaver claimed rejecting absolutes was folly and doing so was “a denial of truth.” The rejection of absolutes led man to think reason alone could shape values. Reason drove the philosophy of Hobbes and Rousseau and led man to largely accept theories of relativism and positivism.

This thinking led man to champion egalitarianism over liberty. It tolerated dictatorship in 20th century Germany and Russia and accepted the slaughtering of innocents for the “greater good.” It led to economic planning, collectivization and the steady growth of the State.

Here the traditionalists found common cause with the classical liberals. This new alliance (called fusionism) warned that seeking egalitarianism led down the road to serfdom. That road concluded with a totalitarian regime and the gulag.

These early conservative thinkers, in short, believed that evil stemmed from intellectual error. If conservatives righted these wrongs, they could save society from itself and lead an American renaissance.

That was the challenge then and is the challenge today. Perhaps it is a Sisyphean struggle. How do we change the thinking? We educate the young. They will save us. As Jack Hunter writes in his review of Buchanan’s book:

As a class of voters, Baby Boomers have become accustomed to post-New Deal American-style statism; they now cling to bankrupt government promises—and not unfairly, as these were promises—with all of their political muscle. The average American under 30 has little political or emotional attachment to this system and does not expect to benefit from it later in life.

The blue-state model, as Walter Russell Mead calls it, is crumbling all over the globe. From Athens to Washington, excessive welfare-state spending has led to massive deficits and wreaked fiscal havoc on national governments. Sentient Americans know this. They know the ponzi-scheme entitlement state is crumbling.

The social safety net must be reformed. But that reform must begin with one man at a time. The individual reform will commence with an intellectual re-appraisal of the ideas that have driven history. Reading Kirk and Weaver will help. Their works show the reader where the West went wrong.

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