Conservatism more than its Republican embarrassments

Alex Potter

If you haven’t noticed yet, it isn’t a good time to call yourself a conservative in America.

I don’t make this statement for superficial reasons, like Republicans aren’t in power anymore, but because what was once a distinguished intellectual tradition has somehow culminated into embarrassments like Sarah Palin, depictions of Obama as Hitler and yelling matches during town hall meetings.

It is a bad time to be a conservative in America — not because of lack of power, but because the meaning of conservatism has been twisted and tortured, then masticated and regurgitated from within.

I cannot honestly blame the outside observer who concludes that conservatism has become little more than a code word for bitter populism or selfish elitism.

Would it shock you to hear that Jimmy Carter, not George W. Bush, could more properly be called “conservative” in his responses to economic and energy crises? Or perhaps it would surprise you that the Democratic Senator Fulbright and the libertarian Congressman Ron Paul share many basic premises regarding U.S. foreign policy? Maybe you would be interested to know how conservatism avidly embraces diversity and “particularities” as opposed to its homogenizing and leveling opponents?

What do we mean when we use the word “conservative” today, as opposed to what have intellectuals, politicians and great writers meant when they used the term in the past? I venture to say that most Whitties, functioning in a knowledge regime dominated by categorizations about liberal and conservative, have not asked sincere questions regarding conservatism.

By asking these questions and seeking their answers I hope to complicate Whitman’s understanding of conservatism and its accepted norms of political identification.

This column is a quest for understanding and rebuilding. Over the course of this semester and hopefully this year, I will seek to elucidate the foundations of conservative thought upon which we can construct an understanding of conservatism that can make prudent contributions to the future of our nation.

Ultimately, I hope to instill a wariness of political parties, populist demagogues of all stripes, ideology and categories. Conservatism is wary of these things because it is not based upon a party, a leader, an abstract doctrine or a list of issue positions. Rather, conservatism is a weltanschauung: a way of thinking about the world.

In discussing a way of thinking, this is a political column of a different sort. I do not intend to discuss the issue or speech of the day. I will try not to simply offer an opinion. Instead, I will discuss an issue  of politics rather than a political issue.

What should we think of economics as a whole, rather than just bailouts? How should the U.S. interact with the entire world, rather than just Afghanistan? I will offer an approach, a method to thinking about the issue, not just “evidence” and my conclusion. In these basic premises so often overlooked, perhaps we can find something more than fleeting consensus or disagreement.

This is also not a column about the demise of the Republican Party, which cannot properly call itself conservative. A party is a conglomeration of interests and constituencies. The constituencies that make up the Republican Party, namely traditionalists, corporatists, militarists and libertarians, increasingly share less in common with one another.

The Catholic autoworker’s economic interests and cultural concerns are antithetical to those of the Wall Street banker. The libertarian’s loathing for the state and love of the market does not sync with either the economic interests of the military-industrial-congressional complex or the traditionalists’ vision of publicly enforced norms.

The impetus for this column, then, is what motivated Russell Kirk to write his opus “The Conservative Mind.” I sincerely hope it opens up a new dialogue of ideas at Whitman.

Kirk wrote, “If a conservative order is indeed to return, we ought to know the tradition which is attached to it, so that we may rebuild society; if it is not to be restored, still we ought to understand conservative ideas so that we may rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilization escape the conflagration of unchecked will and appetite.”