I was pondering this quote, probably just going to put it in my personal journal with a pithy remark or two:
Conservatism is what conservatives think, say, and do. As conservatives change—as much through the harsh fact of death and birth as by the fluctuations of opinion—so does what it means to be a conservative.
(David Frum) But then Rod Dreher weighed in with a more elaborate set of remarks, reflecting his wider reading:
Here are Russell Kirk’s Six Canons of Conservatism:
- A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
- An affection for the “variety and mystery” of human existence;
- A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize “natural” distinctions;
- A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
- A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
- A recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.
Which of these general principles describes popular American conservatism today? Maybe No. 4, with smidge of No. 1, most of them people who take the Jeffress Option. I subscribe to Kirk’s Canons, but I can’t pretend that they are much in evidence outside of the religious, literary, and philosophical circles I frequent.
The truth is, they probably haven’t been for a long time, because the world that produced Kirkian traditionalism has been largely obliterated by mass culture, consumerism, media, and technology. The fact that so many conservatives responded to my 2002 cover story in National Review describing “crunchy cons” (my name for 21st-century conservatives who are more or less Kirkians) by treating it as if I were trying to smuggle liberalism in through the back door revealed how little influence Kirk’s ideas have on the contemporary conservative mind. (Alas for the contemporary conservative mind!)
What do you call Kirkian conservatives in the age of Trump? Reactionaries? What? All I can tell you is that I identify less and less with what people mean today when they use the word “conservative.” Then again, it’s been like that for me for about a decade, so I’m used to it. It’s kind of vain to say that we are the true conservatives. At least orthodox Catholics who affirm the Church’s doctrinal teachings can appeal to an authoritative standard. Political parties — unless, like the Communist parties, they are run like religious cults — don’t have authoritative standards.
Although more erudite (I don’t have Kirk’s Six Canons in mind, but they’re in my heart), Rod captures my feelings exactly. But don’t miss one key sentence: “It’s kind of vain to say that we are the true conservatives.” That’s the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, which I learned from my friend Doug Masson. Kirk is venerable, but he’s no “authoritative standard” if he ever was.
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