Much has been made over how to revitalize the Republican brand since Barack Obama’s reelection. Divisions have formed between those who feel the GOP’s current stay in purgatory is due to issues of tone and marketing and those who feel their underlying ideas are incapable of dealing with modern problems. I am in the latter camp. Modern intellectual conservatives need to think hard about what they are actually trying to conserve.
The American Conservative featured a thought provoking essay written by Andrew J. Bacevich encouraging conservatives to do that very thing. Bacevich encourages thinking conservatives to revisit traditions stemming from the likes of John Quincy Adams or Flannery O’Conner instead of Ayn Rand. This new (or old, depending on how one looks at it) idea set can create propositions long since discarded from mainstream conservatism:
As human beings, our first responsibility lies in stewardship, preserving our common inheritance and protecting that which possesses lasting value. This implies an ability to discriminate between what is permanent and what is transient, between what ought to endure and what is rightly destined for the trash heap. Please note this does not signify opposition to all change—no standing athwart history, yelling Stop—but fostering change that enhances rather than undermines that which qualifies as true.
Conservatives, therefore, are skeptical of anything that smacks of utopianism. They resist seduction by charlatans peddling the latest Big Idea That Explains Everything. This is particularly the case when that Big Idea entails launching some armed crusade abroad. Conservatives respect received wisdom. The passage of time does not automatically render irrelevant the dogmas to which our forebears paid heed. George Washington was no dope.
In private life and public policy alike, there exists a particular category of truths that grown-ups and grown-up governments will respectfully acknowledge. For conservatives this amounts to mere common sense. Actions have consequences. Privileges entail responsibility. There is no free lunch. At day’s end, accounts must balance. Sooner or later, the piper will be paid. Only the foolhardy or the willfully reckless will attempt to evade these fundamental axioms.
Conservatives take human relationships seriously and know that they require nurturing. In community lies our best hope of enjoying a meaningful earthly existence. But community does not emerge spontaneously. Conservatives understand that the most basic community, the little platoon of family, is under unrelenting assault, from both left and right. Emphasizing autonomy, the forces of modernity are intent on supplanting the family with the hyper-empowered—if also alienated—individual, who exists to gratify appetite and ambition. With its insatiable hunger for profit, the market is intent on transforming the family into a cluster of consumers who just happen to live under the same roof. One more thing: conservatives don’t confuse intimacy with sex.
I feel that too often conservatives fail the test of intellectual honesty for two reasons. First, they too often try to recreate a version of America that never was. Second, instead of debating the left about solutions to modern day problems, they simply argue the problem doesn’t exist in the first place.
A new point of view about what traditions are actually worth conserving would do the right a world of good. Whether they are up to the task of questioning why their cherished beliefs are worthy of being cherished to begin with remains to be seen.