Conservatism now 3

In the January 2022 issue of The New Criterion there is a debate about conservatism, its “merits and limitations”, its “proper meaning and vocation”.

The main difference of opinion is over whether conservatism needs to be focused more or less on “the common good”.  The argument – as always between thinkers on the same side of a wide political-philosophical division – is significant to those pursuing it, but likely to seem slight to the unengaged.

There is broad agreement that conservatism is struggling to survive.

The triumph of anti-conservatism  is undeniable. In Michael Anton’s essay, he gives an account of how the enemies of conservatism on the Left have ruined our institutions and every aspect of our culture. We think his horrifying description of the wreck is true. To the question whether conservatism can recover, he concludes no certain prognosis can be made. While he hasn’t entirely given up hope for it himself, he deplores the failure of his fellow conservatives to recognize the critical condition it is in.

In his introduction to the debate, the editor, Roger Kimball, quotes this by Michael Anton:

If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.

And Kimball comments:

It seems to me that Anton was quite right when he went on to observe that it was “obvious that conservatives don’t believe any such thing, that they feel no such sense of urgency, of an immediate necessity to change course and avoid the cliff”. 

Conservatives, Kimball thinks, should feel such an urgency, such an immediate necessity, and should act to save conservatism from extinction:

Our basic problem … is not so much a poverty of understanding as a paralysis of will. The real problem conservatives face is not in formulating sophisticated principles but in effectively confronting the juggernaut of progressive usurpation. For decades we have been living with the one-way ratchet of liberal imposition. The harvest is a situation in which conservatives are considered legitimate only when they embrace progressive aims. Conservatives, in other words, have conspired in their own eclipse. Meanwhile, the true sources of value—not government but the family, the churches, and our educational institutions—have been twisted out of all recognition. The answer to this tyranny lies not in the framing of better arguments but in the deployment of a more efficacious politics.

We at TAC have an enduring difference of opinion with the majority of our fellow conservatives over religious faith. We do not think that the churches are, ever have been, ever will be or could be a “true source of value”.  We agree with the rest of Anton’s (and Kimball’s) summary of what conservatism is, what is good about it.

Is Kimball right that conservatism as a political force requires urgent action to save it from extinction?

Can it be saved from extinction by any means, or is it doomed?

Posted under Conservatism by Jillian Becker on Saturday, January 1, 2022

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