Conservatism and the Political Order

By Young, R. V. | Modern Age, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Conservatism and the Political Order


Young, R. V., Modern Age


As we prepare this final issue of the 2008 volume of Modern Age for the press, a long, arduous, and often rather bizarre presidential campaign is drawing to a close, and its outcome will be known by the time the issue is in print. No matter which slate of candidates wins, the result would have been almost unthinkable a year ago. Barack Obama was still a little-known long shot, and Joseph Biden was a perennial also-ran. John McCain's campaign seemed to have foundered hopelessly, and Sarah Palin was virtually unheard of outside Alaska. For the editors it is a source of some consolation that Modem Age is not in the business of political prognostication.

This journal is, however, concerned about politics in much the same way as conservatism itself. Just as Modem Age is not involved with predicting the winners of elections or endorsing candidates or platforms, so conservatism is not a political program, but rather a political vision. Liberal pundits who have in recent months gleefully proclaimed the end of an era of conservative political influence and success begun by Ronald Reagan have, therefore, mistaken the essence of conservatism. No political party or electoral outcome has ever been the ideal fulfillment of conservative principles. This is true in part because various conservative thinkers interpret these principles from contrasting and sometimes contentious perspectives, and their differences will not be definitively resolved before the Parousia. Still more important, there is no single set of policy prescriptions that any particular thinker could confidently identify as the complete realization even of his own version of conservatism. It is not surprising that the first President Bush, with his somewhat equivocal relationship to conservatism, was bemused by the "vision thing."

As a comprehensive account of the fundamental realities of the experience of mankind and the human situation, the role of conservatism is to serve as the moral and cultural inspiration practical, electoral politics and a check on its extravagances. Men and women of genuine conservative conviction will often engage in party politics and run for office, but the very nature of campaigning and governing will make it virtually impossible that all of their political activities will be strictly conservative. Conservative thinkers and voters will sometimes look upon practical political developments with approval, but more often with varying degrees of anxiety and dismay.

Conservatism is thus the antithesis of the modern liberal or progressive view that there is a political solution for every problem. For this reason, conservatives ought to be more patient man liberals in the face of political setbacks and less rancorous toward political rivals. Eschewing abstract ideological imperatives, conservatives will attempt to see social arrangements, governmental programs, and electoral campaigns in an historical perspective and with a temper that is generous, humane, and restrained. It is the purpose of Modern Age to provide a forum for such views.

Ronald Reagan is widely and rightly regarded as the president who has come closest to governing according to the norms of the conservative intellectual movement that emerged in the United States after World War II. Nevertheless, it is clear from the debates within his own Republican Party and among conservative commentators that there is a good deal of disagreement about how to restore the Reagan legacy. In "Fighting Bob vs. Silent Cal: The Conservative Tradition from La Follette to Taft and Beyond." Jeff Taylor begins by suggesting that perhaps Reagan himself was mistaken about the real origin and nature of his project. Professor Taylor proceeds to suggest that we may well need to reconsider our usual assumptions about which politicians have come closest to articulating truly conservative notions of government.

His argument that the career of the "progressive" Robert La Follette is more in keeping with conservatism and with the Reagan administration's policies than the presidency of Calvin Coolidge will, doubtless, be controversial. …

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