The Conservative Rebellion
by Richard Bishirjian.
St. Augustine’s Press, 2015.
Hardcover, 171 pages, $25.

One of the more common definitions of conservatism as stated by its critics is that it is a philosophy enthralled with preserving the status quo. This definition is as false as it is tiresome. For a better description it is useful to consult one of modern conservatism’s founders. In 1961, Russell Kirk wrote, “Integral conservatism does not consist in dull contentment. If the time is out of joint, if norms are ignored or violated, then the conservative becomes, in some sense, a rebel.” This is a far cry from a love of things as they are.

Conservatives, adds political theorist Richard Bishirjian in this slim volume, are rebels, not revolutionaries. That is, they do not seek to overthrow all established norms and values, but instead seek to constructively stand in the gap to redress wrongs “when time is out of joint.”

That time may well be now. For in the culture at large, prominent authorities in government and the major media consider anyone holding to the norms commonly embraced by Western and other cultures for most of recorded history to be a threat and a fool, deserving public shaming and loss of livelihood. In politics, the two major parties provide a stark choice between embracing either big government or big business, with both partiesequally indifferent to the struggles of the average taxpaying citizen. Meanwhile, the mainstream media have ceased to even pretend to nonpartisanship, instead hewing to a strict, ironclad narrative of that news which is acceptable to report and other news that must be ignored or artfully explained away.

In the midst of this, allegedly conservative voices and magazines put politics and economics above all as they earnestly praise the practice of “creative destruction” in the world of business. They advocate free-trade policies that threaten to continue a gross trade imbalance with other countries and ship community manufacturing jobs offshore—while (by the way) enabling the export of America’s most sophisticated and deadly weaponry to people who shouldn’t be trusted with anything more sophisticated and deadly than sharpened sticks. These kept patriots, insulated by think tanks and corporate donors, promote a swaggering foreign policy that involves sending the American military into needless wars around the world while hobbled by rules of engagement guaranteed to ensure stalemate and defeat. The “conservative” voices doggedly believe, all evidence to the contrary, that every culture worldwide yearns for a free-market economy and republican democracy—and that these cultures need to become Americanized whether they want it or not. At home, professional conservatives care little about what the forgotten middle class thinks about illegal immigration, preferring to quietly indulge a “Y’all come!” policy in order to artificially hold down wages and prices. Imagination, that central principle that conservatives such as Russell Kirk considered crucial to cultural regeneration, is in short supply. Voters, perhaps sensing this, believe that what began as a cause for liberty and order has (as Erich Hoffer famously stated) transitioned from a movement into a racket.

True American conservatism, as Bruce Frohnen has noted, is about protecting the communities in which actual Americans actually live. “Those communities,” he writes, “are being destroyed by an intrusive federal government, including the IRS with its tax code that punishes the thrifty, the hard-working, and especially those who cannot afford accountants and tax shelters. They fear an EPA that can declare their land ‘wetland’ and close their place of work. They know from the lawsuits, the vitriol being spewed on college campuses, and the indoctrination being forced upon their children in public school—that people of faith now are expected to live that faith only at home or in church and hide their deepest beliefs whenever they come in contact with those, especially in the school system, who despise them.”

Just as it is possible to trace the roots of American order (as Kirk did) so is it possible to trace the roots of American disorder, and this is what Bishirjian attempts in The Conservative Rebellion, a work that is equal parts jeremiad, memoir, and history. In a nutshell, the author argues that a principal cause of our present civil disunity is “a civil religion of natural right that morphed into a dangerous, redemptive, immanentist, political religion that committed the United States to redeem the world for democracy.” Bishirjian, a distinguished political scholar and author of several respected books, is a veteran of the conservative wars, now serving as president and professor of government at Yorktown University.

Bishirjian identifies four phases in American history that have shaped the nation’s direction, beginning with a cultural outlook that made for a young nation’s healthy start in life but in time degenerated into an ideology of statism at home coupled with world-saving adventurism abroad. The four phases are:

1. The Spirit of ’76. This was the formative thrust of a nation being born in healthy rebellion against her well-meaning but oppressive parent country an ocean away. This was the era in which the giants of 1776 proclaimed the equality of all men under the law, as well as the rights not only to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but also the security of and in one’s property.

2. The Founding of 1787: the paradigm of the U.S. Constitution, described by William Gladstone as “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” The significance of the Constitution was that it served (and serves still) as the paramount law of the nation and articulates the philosophy of limited government and separation of powers. Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with charismatic political figures who consider themselves a law unto themselves, and the Constitution long kept such strutting creatures at bay. This safeguard began to break down with the advent of:

3. The Lincolnian nationalist phase. This was the era of the War between the States, when Americans—or at least those who lived north of the Mason-Dixon line—developed a civil religion of righteous nationalism. Marching through the rebellious Southland just a generation after the Second Great Awakening, the Union Army was perceived as the Army of the Lord, visiting justice upona land riven by slavery and punishing the slaveholder and his kin unto the fifth generation. Once defeated, the white South was to be relentlessly reminded that their culture was backward, retrograde, and an offense to all godly people, for they had loosed the fateful lightning of God’s terrible swift sword. “We have not only an army to conquer. We have a state of mind to annihilate,” declared abolitionist Wendell Phillips to a New York audience at the war’s midpoint.

4. The internationalist phase was the natural successor to its predecessor. It was ushered in by Woodrow Wilson at the time of World War I and the victory of the Allies over the Central Powers. Wilson’s idealistic vision of a new world order, writes Bishirjian, “introduced an era of permanent revolution in which America sought to revolutionize world politics. Following Wilson’s leadership, Progressives engaged in a permanent revolution aimed at overcoming American traditions, traditional society, and the remnants of Christianity. Through them, an aggressive idealism was fashioned that sought not truth, but power to engage in revolutionary acts that would replace reality with another, ‘second reality,’ more to their pleasing.”

The healthy reaction against this development by conservatively inclined men and women is what Bishirjian calls the “Conservative Rebellion.” He is quick to explain that it “is not a dumb reaction to more than a century of Wilsonian ‘Idealism’ culminating in the presidency of Barack Obama. It is the equivalent of an organism’s recovery from disease; a living community striving to recover the truth of American political experience and our history; a paradigm of such vitality that it may constitute a fifth governing paradigm in the history of the American democratic republic.” That recovery took several forms, from the imaginative reconstruction of our civil social order from writers like Kirk to the political acumen of Ronald Reagan, among others.

Bishirjian believes that “the future survival of the United States lies in learning from the generation of conservatives who joined the Conservative Rebellion in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s and to those Americans living the Rebellion in the twenty-first century.” Exactly what form this “rebellion” should take is not made entirely clear, though Bishirjian implies that it involves staying true to the eternal verities, the mores, and the ways that have guided American thought and behavior in decades past. The book may have been strengthened by some fuller description of these verities and mores, in order to provide a counterpoint to the rebellion. For the conservatives of the 1950s and even the 1960s and 1970s were dealing with a nation far more unified in culture and shared norms than today. If imagination rules the world, as Kirk thought, more is needed then simply repetition of the victory of the last generation. Rather, as Bishirjian implies, that is simply a model; new forms are needed for a new era. To that end, there are signs of hope still, such as the rebirth of an imaginative conservatism as exemplified by such writers as Bradley Birzer and publications like The American Conservative.

This recovery will require imagination and patience, qualities in all-too-short supply in an age of highly paid, flag-waving neoconservative multitudes. But there are some who do not believe all is lost. This is the conservative remnant going forth often to battle but seldom to victory, never large in number, who say firmly to the Spirit of the Age, This far and no farther. And they quietly persevere, here and there. As G. K. Chesterton wrote in his essay on Lord Tennyson, “He is a very shallow critic who cannot see the eternal rebel in the heart of a conservative.”  

James E. Person Jr. is a Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Madison Books, 1999), and a longtime reviewer. A paperbound edition of this book is now available, published by Rowman & Littlefield.