The Future of Movement Conservatism

Mark Thompson over at the League has a good synopsis of an event he attended yesterday on the future of conservatism. The panelists included Ross Douthat, David Frum, Daniel Larison, and Virginia Postrel. It’s worth the read and might give you some clues as to where the Republican Party is headed in the near future.

One thought on “The Future of Movement Conservatism

  1. Bill G.

    By the comments that I’ve read so far (see full discussion) I would assume several things:

    — most of the commentary is by individuals not born and bred, or living long in the South or Western USA, or the lower MidWest (Kansas, Missouri) or rural New Hampshire/Massachusetts or areas with homogenous populations;
    — knowledge of conservatives comes mostly from reading about them and not living with or daily discussion of ideas with them; and
    — the names of Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Bertrand Russell are probably somewhat familiar but what they believed is not. And a very key figure that ties the aforementioned together is Thomas Jefferson — him you know but have you read Jefferson?! Jefferson is worshiped.

    I say this because I was born a conservative. Most conservatives just know that they are conservative.

    I’m not saying that conservatism is the answer. My point is that conservatism is not an active thought process. So it is a misdirected question to imply that conservatives can even agree on what they believe.

    Conservatism is more like a computer operating system than it is some piece of software that gets installed and then run. Conservatism is more of a ‘background process’ than it is a ‘user interface’.

    As one political scholar once put it: “To put conservatism in a bottle with a label is like trying to liquify the atmosphere … The difficulty arises from the nature of the thing. For conservatism is less a political doctrine than a habit of mind, a mode of feeling, a way of living.”

    So when a conservative ‘boots up’ their operating system they tend to focus on a few key functions that run in the background, not in the forefront:

    — Self-reliance: You are responsibile for YOU. You will succeed because of what YOU do and learn and achieve. Do no expect help. All help comes with a price. Never owe another.

    — Economic independence: See self-reliance; charity to another is to be encouraged; charity to you is a shame. You are what you make yourself.

    — Family: You are your family. Your family is of you. There is no other entity other than God (or in Bertrand Russell’s case: some mutally satisfying blessing of greater good) and family. The family is the most meaningful organization of mankind. You have a responsibility to perpetuate and to protect your family. Family is responsible for taking care of other family members.

    — Community: Communities represent an aggregation of like-minded believers. There is a status quo which must be respected. You advance within the community and gain respect through self-reliance and economic independence.

    — Tradition: the status quo is exalted as proof that family and community are successful.

    — Recognition of a higher power, but government isn’t it: government beyond the bounds of the community is a thing to be feared. It is not of your family. It does not respect and support your status quo. It does not honor your traditions. Government which governs least governs best is oft heard.


    Now, how all of this translates to politics at state and federal levels is a messy thing.

    Until the 1950s conservatives were protected by living in a white Anglo-Saxon world framed in some essence of Anglo-Saxon Christianity — real or imagined. From Jefferson to Eisenhower there were only moments of intrusion of another world into the conservative world.

    —>> Conservatism became primarily a white American philosophy only because the status quo and community failed non-whites so badly. Nonetheless there were self-reliance movements among non-white Americans and the essence of how they functioned was hardly different that white conservatism.

    Goldwater’s greatest achievement was perhaps that when he ran for president in 1964 he attempted to define conservatism. He had no choice. He created a conservation — the likes of which George Will, the late William Buckley and William Safire spent the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and now the early 2000s attempting to define and further refine.

    Reformed Conservatism (I hate this term): Bush 41 and Bush 43 lucked out just by the good grace of having been associated with Reagan, by having stood in his shadow. Neither could lead conservatives because they talked about being conservative instead of being conservative. John Wayne didn’t explain. John Wayne just did it.

    The conservative world has now crashed upon the rocks of an ethos (America today) that is without ethos.

    There is no leader (heir apparent) of conservatism because if there were we would know his or her name already. We would respect them for their self-reliance and economic or cultural achievements. And their very life would transcend the nuances of how we conservatives see ourselves.

    So now we are left with a conservative movement that must try to define itself. But how can (and why must?) you define status quo, and tradition, and most of all family? These things do not require definition. Yet we try and that frustrates us and builds anger and divides us into combative camps that lashes out at that which is not family and is not community and which challenges our very notions of self-reliance and economic independence and organization of our lives within our families.


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