By rejecting ideology and embracing "retroculture," the Right can recover itself and perhaps reverse America's decline.
The only surprise about the Republican debacle in the 2006 congressional elections was that many conservatives found it surprising. For at least a decade, the conservative movement has been on intellectual cruise control. The well of conservative ideas that so richly watered conservative political successes from the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 through the Contract with America and the Republican capture of the House of Representatives in 1994 ran dry before the Clinton years ran out. Most conservatives know that liberalism suffered political eclipse as a consequence of intellectual aridity, of an agenda that had become a museum piece of New Deal-era class warfare.
Why were they surprised when a similar conservative idea deficit led to a similar electoral defeat? Just as you can't beat something with nothing, the 2006 vote showed that conservatives can't beat nothing with nothing.
Conservatism has become so weak in ideas that during the presidency of George W. Bush, the word "conservative" could be and was applied with scant objection to policies that were starkly anti-conservative. Americans witnessed "conservative" Wilsonianism, if not Jacobinism, in foreign policy and an unnecessary foreign war; record "conservative" trade and federal budget deficits; major "conservative" expansions of the power of the federal government at the expense of traditional liberties; and nonchalant "conservative" de-industrialization and dispossession of the middle class in the name of Ricardian free trade and Benthamite utilitarianism. No wonder the American people are confused and disillusioned by conservatism if these are its actions when in power. Were Russell Kirk still with us, what would he now call himself?
If conservatism is to be re-established as an intellectual force, and not merely a label for whatever the establishment does to its own benefit, it must first re-awaken intellectually. We need a new conservative agenda.
Since well before the 2006 elections, the authors of this essay have sought to begin the discussion of the next conservatism. Our motive was not solely political success. We recognized some time ago that the old conservative agenda, comprised largely of anti-communism and free-market economics, had run its course. It was born in the Cold War and much though not all of it became obsolescent once that war was won. The next conservatism, in our view, has to come to grips with a new and different external reality, one in which "the permanent things" remain permanent but must be related to new phenomena. Our starting point was Kirk's observation that conservatism is not an ideology. Rather, it is a way of life.
Ideology, a child of the French Revolution, says that according to thus-and-such set of abstract principles, reality must be thus-and-so. Inevitably, reality is too complex to fit the ideological Procrustean bed. When that happens, the ideology in question decrees that certain aspects of reality, those that conflict with its precepts, must be ignored. If the ideology, through politics, achieves control of a state, it uses the power of the state to enforce its decree. Anyone who dares doubt that all of history is a factor of the ownership of the means of production or of the superiority of Aryan blood or of the inherent evil of white men and Western civilization is penalized by the state. If the ideology gains sufficient power, the penalty becomes the concentration camp, the Gulag, or the bullet into the back of the neck in the basement of the Lubyanka.
Real conservatism rejects all ideologies, recognizing them as armed cant. In their place, it offers a way of life built upon customs, traditions, and habits-themselves the products of the experiences of many generations. Because people are capable of learning over time, when they may do so in a specific, continuous cultural setting, the conservative way of life comes to reflect the prudential virtues: modesty, the dignity of labor, conservation and saving, the importance of family and community, personal duties and obligations, and caution in innovation. …