Inside American Conservatism

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece on The Conservative Mind and the American conservative movement. Every American conservative should read Russell Kirk’s seminal work at some point, as it outlines some of the rhetorical and philosophical foundations of the modern conservative movement.

Kirk, who borrows heavily from the genius of Edmund Burke, is not an easy author to read, but he does an excellent job of bringing together the various threads of conservative thought from Burke’s time to the modern day. Before 1955, American conservativism was a fringe movement – it was Kirk and William F. Buckley who rediscovered the values of conservatism and helped shape them into a relevant political force. It would be 1980 before conservatism made the jump from an ideological movement to a political one (prior Republican Presidents were hardly conservative – witness Nixon’s Keynesianism), and today conservatives outnumber liberals in this country by a wide margin.

None of that would have happened without the intellectual rigor of Russell Kirk and the other founders of the American conservative movement, which is why their works remain vital today while the typical Ann Coulter/Sean Hannity/Rush Limbaugh screeds are very much the products of our times. One of the strengths of conservatism is its willingness to go back and reexamine the wisdom of the past – and Kirk provides a treasure trove of insight for the future of the conservative movement in America.

UPDATE: Jonah Goldberg has some comments on the article. One of the mistakes I think Hart does make is broadly arguing that certain current positions are not conservative or utopian. For instance, I don’t think that prohibitions against abortion are a utopian ideology any more so that laws against murder are designed to stop all murders – the pro-life position merely argues that the state recognizing what they see as an act of murder is morally untenable. Furthermore, I don’t think Iraq is an expressly “Wilsonian” or utopian in nature – it’s more of a mixture of Jacksonianism (the war on terrorism) and Jeffersonianism (the reconstruction of Iraq and the focus on democratization). A truly “Wilsonian” approach would have been to leverage the UN to try to change Iraq – exactly the course of action the anti-war crowd would have had the world take. The current Administration simply does not have the faith in international institutions that the Wilsonians did, nor is Wilsonianism alone in its belief in the transformational power of democracy. (For background on the four main traditions in American foreign policy see this critically important piece by Walter Russell Mead.)

2 thoughts on “Inside American Conservatism

  1. Hello Jay,

    I believe that Locke’s thinking which has a focus on private property and Smith’s The Wealth of Nation’s more accurately portrays the economics of so-called American conservatives.

    I would also suggest the Burke, to me at least stresses the line of loyalty to those in power, ‘he inheited it from his father, who inherited it from his father’.

    The current philosophy of most conservatives is simply tribal on the level of bashing so-called liberals.

    I am conservative but I do not believe the presidency of this country conatins an legitimacy to define morality and ethics. Both Democrats
    and Republicans have transormed democracy into a Perfect Dictatorship.


    David Nollmeyer

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