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The Unrepentant Traditionalist
July 30, 2009

Muddling Through: The Real Conservatism
by Frank Creel

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 sockets.

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, Israel.

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 high ground.

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.

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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 News, Woodbridge, Virginia. His op-ed articles have been published in the Northern Virginia Journal, the Washington Examiner, The Washington Times, and the New York City Tribune. In 1992, his A Trilogy of Sonnets was published pseudonymously by Christendom Press.

See a complete biographical sketch.

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