Thursday, February 26, 2015

No, You're Not Like Ronald Reagan: Why most "conservative" leaders need to stop comparing themselves to the Gipper

I recently ran in to an old acquaintance and we got to talking politics. During the course of the conversation, I expressed disagreement with some policy position he had, which he said he believed in because he was a "conservative libertarian."

I winced at the historically oxymoronic expression, and thought of similar linguistic formulations, such as "square circle." I informed him that I was a traditional conservative in the mold of Russell Kirk.

"Who's that?" he said.

At this point, I made a mental note to write a blog post on old acquaintances I run into who think they are conservatives but who really aren't.

To say you are a conservative who doesn't know who Russell Kirk is is like claiming to be a baseball fan and never having heard of Babe Ruth, or a scientist who's doesn't know who Einstein was.

Let me state this plainly: If you think you are a mature conservative but you do not know who Russell Kirk is—or Edmund Burke or T. S. Eliot, then you are mistaken. You are not a conservative and you might as well face the fact. Look in the mirror. Admit it to yourself. This is the only way healing can begin.

Take off your Republican campaign buttons, put down your ghost written Sean Hannity book, stifle the delusion that Sarah Palin is the second coming of Margaret Thatcher (or for that matter whose name even belongs in the same sentence) and sit down for a minute. Use the pages from the Hannity book as cage lining for your parakeet—unless your parakeet has intellectual scruples that prevent him from deigning even to poop on them, in which case you should just throw them out.

And try to extricate from your mind the belief that culture doesn't matter and that an economic policy suffices for a political position, through surgical means if necessary.

For the benefit of the conservatively illiterate, Kirk was the author of the The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot, as well as the best modern statement of traditional conservative belief ever written: The Politics of Prudence. Michael Aeschliman called him "the most substantial American conservative man of letters of the last 75 years."

When you have finished reading these, read every other book Kirk ever wrote, especially The Roots of American Order (and if you can't handle that, then the short version of Roots, a book called The American Cause). In fact, there is a good introduction at National Review's website: "The Moral Imagination of Russell Kirk," by Michael Aeschliman.

And after that, sit down with an honest glass of bourbon (or, if you are Islamic—the only historically valid reason to be a teetotaler, a glass of water) and begin reading Edmund Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution. Spend a whole year on it. At least.

Burke, for those who don't know, almost single-handedly faced down the corrosive and malignant rationalist secularism of the French Revolution, saving England from its worst effects. Would that we had a Burke now to face down the malignant Cultural Revolution of our own time.

Libertarianism is not only not conservatism, it doesn't even amount to a political philosophy. It is, instead, an ideology, a true modern "ism." Like every other illicit modern world view, it takes one part of the truth (in this case, the free market), isolates it from all other truths, and demands that every other part subordinate itself to that one.

We should admire the free market, but we should beware the reductionist ideology that has been constructed in its name.

Which brings me to Ronald Reagan.

Despite all the libertarians and neoconservatives who claim the Reagan mantle, Reagan knew who Russell Kirk was, conferring on him the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1989. Reagan cut his teeth on the old National Review magazine, run by William F. Buckley, who, although he went through the Libertarian Temptation in his later years (something Kirk allegedly saw coming), was for the most part a Russell Kirk conservative.

Before about 1988, no functionally literate conservative would have said "Who's that?" when Russell Kirk's name was mentioned.

The old National Review made Ronald Reagan (and Reagan, as I recall, actually says that somewhere), and Russell Kirk helped make National Review.

The fashionable conservative leaders fleeing the cultural battlements on issue after social issue with their tails between their legs and invoking the name of Ronald Reagan as they do so should be pelted with rotten vegetables at every available opportunity. Reagan would never have done this.

On the great moral issue of late 20th century—abortion—Reagan never backed down. In fact, I think he brought it up in every State of the Union address. The liberal control of the media at the time (this was before conservatives took over talk radio) was universal. It didn't matter, Reagan never gave up.

I can't imagine what he would have said if he had known how so-called conservative leaders would surrender so easily in the fight for traditional marriage.

There needs to be some conservative agency that monitors false claims to Reaganism. It would be a full time job.

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