ARLINGTON, VA —There is no use disputing the fact that contemporary
American conservatism is in disarray. After eight years of the faux
conservatism represented by the Bush presidency, it is not surprising
that thinkers who see themselves as conservative are having trouble
regaining their footing.
Not that there was ever a time when a consensus existed on the meaning
of conservatism. Conservatism has never been anything more than a make-do
outcropping of the chronic disarray in the human condition, like mushrooms
or lichen sprouting out of the rot in the soil.
Edmund Burke, the reputed father of modern conservatism (I say “modern” because
the classical philosophers were almost all conservatives), was a case
in point. His thinking was shaped mostly by his horrified reaction
to the French Revolution and the radical rationalism that shaped it.
As he watched the bloody regicide and anticlericalism of the Jacobin
beast begin to consume its own revolutionary children, Burke discovered
a new appreciation of the blessings of monarchy, church, family, and
other institutional deposits of history and tradition. Yet, he supported
the American Revolution against his own monarch. Burke was not the
enemy of reason per se, only of reason wrenched out of its historical
I stopped calling myself a conservative a quarter of a century ago,
about two years into the so-called “Reagan Revolution.” I
noticed that the revolution was no real threat to the continued militarization
of U.S. foreign policy, to the welfare state built up by the Democratic
coalition from Roosevelt to Johnson, to the destruction of our constitutional
order by a succession of Supreme Courts grinding their ideological
axes, to the gradual pauperization of the American work force by unwise
trade policies, or to the demographic hollowing out of America by the
Roe v. Wade culture inherited by Reagan.
I saw very little worth conserving.
This disappointing epiphany also opened up for me the essential fluidity
of conservatism. In his day, Burke was an economic liberal; that same
economic liberalism informs much of what is now thought of as conservatism
in economic affairs, specifically the central role of property rights.
How any particular thinker defines conservatism depends in large
part on his highest value, whether economic order, liberty, religion,
or law. Today’s social conservatives oppose abortion and support
the traditional family. Libertarian conservatives hope to minimize
the role of the state, even if that means, for many of them, support
for the “right” to abortion. Constitutional conservatives
may call themselves originalists, hoping for a return to constitutional
interpretation based on the vision of the Founders, or they may call
themselves realists reconciled with the “living” constitution
patched together over the past century.
In her confirmation hearings, Sonia Sotomayor more or less successfully
depicted herself as a conservative jurist on the grounds of her devotion
to “settled law,” even though any honest observer must
grant that the contemporary legal edifice is built almost entirely
out of liberalism’s Lego pieces.
The constitutional wars demonstrate the fluidity of conservatism
over time. The Constitution of the Philadelphia Convention embodied
the liberal tradition of the times in which our Founders lived; the
conservatives of the day were the anti-Federalists who opposed its
ratification. In retrospect, given what John Marshall and his heirs
have done to the work of the Founders, the anti-Federalists were right—all
that they feared has now come to pass.
During the Cold War, conservatism was largely defined by the specter
of international communism. Now, many who call themselves conservatives
are willing to share the title only with those who favor a militant
response to Islamic militancy. Neo-conservatives are those who advocate
Wilsonianism redux, the global diffusion of democracy, especially if
it redounds to the security of our democratic ally in the Middle East,
In our discernment of where true conservatism lies, there is only
one Polaris. Where does the thinker stand regarding the perfectibility
of man? By this measure the true conservative is a realist, one who
understands that perfection is beyond our reach, that even the idea
of progress is a snare, and that the only ideal societies should pursue
is to mitigate the consequences of human pride, greed, sloth, and lust
for the flesh as well as for political power.
Liberals, by contrast, are delusional. They generally believe it
is possible to create heaven on earth or a homo
novus (as in the Sovieticus
or ?bermensch genera) and that the only requirements are to enshrine
reason and science as our sole lodestars, consigning religion, prejudice,
and other silly superstitions to history’s dustbin. Moreover,
the best instrument for bringing about this perfect condition is government
under the enlightened guidance of these very liberals.
A favorite pastime of these liberals is to denounce religion because
of the bloodshed it causes. They never note that history’s worst
mass murderers — the Jacobins, Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot — were
all believers in the perfectibility of man. They were all liberals,
liquidating their political enemies in the firm conviction that they
thereby served the best interest of mankind.
A single day’s death toll from abortion in the United States
surpasses the total death toll of the Spanish Inquisition over three
and a half centuries. Yet, liberals fancy that they occupy the moral
True conservatives, by contrast, know that the highest moral ground
is more likely to be found in the prescriptions of tradition, in what
has been called the democracy of the dead, in the rationalism of a
deep eclecticism that cherry-picks the best and the brightest of the
overall human experience. Conservatism respects the past and deals
cautiously with the present, muddling through without getting unduly
optimistic about the future.
Conservatives, in short, acknowledge that they are in need of redemption.
The truest among them found their Redeemer long before the latest political
messiah burst upon the scene.
The Unrepentant Traditionalist is copyright (c) 2009 by Frank
Creel and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.
All rights reserved.
Frank Creel, Ph.D., has been a columnist for the Potomac
Virginia. His op-ed articles have been published in the Northern
Virginia Journal, the Washington Examiner,
Times, and the New York City Tribune. In 1992, his A
Trilogy of Sonnets was published pseudonymously by Christendom
See a complete biographical sketch.
To subscribe or donate to the FGF E-Package online or
send a check to:
P.O. Box 1383
Vienna, VA 22183