By Dr. Kevin Roberts.
The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk is the most important book about conservatism ever written. Prior to Kirk’s masterwork, there was not an organized conservative movement in the United States; within months of its publication, there was.
Before The Conservative Mind, a leading liberal intellectual mocked conservatism as so many “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” After Kirk’s book inspired America’s—and then the West’s—defense of freedom against collectivism, a leading liberal intellectual grudgingly admitted that, all “of a sudden” the Right had “become a party of ideas.”
Nor were the ideas Kirk popularized cabined within the narrow field of public policy. The Conservative Mind recommends no optimal capital gains tax rate or model legislation for education reform. Rather, its conservatism was a philosophy of human nature, human flourishing, and human fulfillment. Its pages survey novels, poetry, and religion more than campaigns and platforms. Kirk understood that politics—in the sense of politicking—comprises a vanishingly small part of a healthy national life.
The Conservative Mind makes no attempt to own the Left, or laud the Right’s momentary standard bearers. Even the book’s subtitle—“From Burke to Eliot” (that is, from an eighteenth-century statesman most Americans have never heard of to a twentieth-century poet most Americans had never read)—seems intended to jerk readers out of seeing politics as a spectator sport.
If Kirk’s broad, humane, anti-ideological conception of politics was counterintuitive in the Eisenhower era, it is practically extraterrestrial today. But that only makes The Conservative Mind more relevant and urgent now than ever. For twenty-first-century America—atomized, decadent, prodigal, soul-scarred—is very much a product of the ideological certainties and abstractions Kirk’s conservatism cautioned against. Indeed, the first step toward conservative wisdom today is accepting that elite ideologues on the Right—whether globalist, libertarian, or technocratic—are just as responsible for America’s current predicament as elite ideologues on the Left.
The history of the Republican Party since the end of the Cold War is the story of hubristic winners betraying the conservative principles that delivered them their wins. Thus was America’s Cold War victory squandered on a New World Order fairy tale, and working families’ long-promised peace dividend sold for a mess of globalist pottage. Thus were marriage, family, and religion subordinated to the “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Thus were our borders erased, culture dehumanized, and our international prestige left bleeding in a desert 6,000 miles away.
But the real lesson The Conservative Mind can teach conservatives today is not simply that Republican elites lost their way after the fall of the Soviet Union, but why. Descriptions like “RINO” and “neo-con” don’t get to the root of the challenges conservatives face in Establishment politics—which may help explain why the Establishment continues to prevail in Washington despite a generation of almost uninterrupted failure. Social media and cable news are good at helping conservatives identify villains, but they don’t really help conservatives become the heroes America needs us to be. The Conservative Mind does.
Kirk’s book offers an ingenious corrective to conventional wisdom about the Right, which is so often portrayed as a negative politics of opposition. Kirk’s history seems to follow this path by framing his narrative within the battles great conservatives fought against the fashionable follies of their times. Edmund Burke vs. the French Revolution, John Adams vs. democratic romanticism, and even T. S. Eliot vs. the waste lands of modern life all reflect William F. Buckley’s definition of a conservative as one who “stands athwart history, yelling stop.” But slowly, subtly, masterfully, Kirk flips the script. He shows that conservatism’s historical episodes of opposition were in fact expressions of a single, unified, positive philosophy.
Burke, Adams, Eliot, Benjamin Disraeli, Irving Babbitt, and the other thinkers we meet in The Conservative Mind may have been separated by centuries and oceans, but they were bound together by a shared commitment to what Kirk called “the permanent things.” They all understood that the good, the beautiful, and the true were grounded in the people, traditions, and institutions that societies form, and then in turn form those societies. Kirkian conservatism recognizes that in our fallen world, flourishing—Aristotle’s ideal of eudaemonia—are hard won and easily lost. It takes for granted “that man is corrupt, that his appetites need restraint, and that the forces of custom, authority, law, and government, as well as moral discipline, are required to keep sin in check.”
Kirkian conservatism’s view of human nature does not change because human nature itself does not change. Across centuries and continents, despite revolutions and innovations, countless steps forward and back, the permanent things remain permanent. That is why, as Kirk says, “conservatives inherit from Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time.”
Or at least, we did until about 1991.
Almost immediately after America’s conservative victory over Soviet communism, Republican leaders under the banner of conservatism divorced the “permanent things” to shack up with the “measurable things.” All of a sudden, our movement was preoccupied with data: economic growth, budget projections, test scores, home-ownership rates, stock market performance. The post-Cold War Right went all-in on individualism both because it was ideologically seamless and because it seemed to justify ever-more materialistic policy analysis.
In retrospect, the blindness and hubris are jaw-dropping.
As marriage collapsed, Washington preserved marriage penalties in the tax code and welfare system. When birth rates fell, we opened our borders to shield corporations from paying higher wages to lower-skilled Americans. When global economic competition threatened America’s manufacturing base, we gave most-favored-nation trading status to our most-dangerous-adversary, China. We answered school underperformance with No Child Left Behind, the radicalization of our colleges with cheaper student loans, and a housing shortage with subsidized, subprime mortgages.
The Conservative Mind prophesied about all of this:
Individualism is social atomism; conservatism is community of spirit. Men cannot exist without proper community, as Aristotle knew; and when they have been denied community of spirit, they turn unreasoningly to community of goods.
Even after living through a generation of defeats at home and abroad, most GOP leaders still act as if this election, or that tax cut, or the other regulatory reform plan will, alone, get the country back on track. This is the same shallow—and let’s be clear, misguided—thinking that got the party into trouble in the first place. Human flourishing grows from the bottom up, not from the Internal Revenue Code down.
To Republican policy fetishists in Washington, them’s fighting words. But in fairness, Kirk did not deny the importance of policy work. He was a friend to conservative policy wonks everywhere, especially including scholars at The Heritage Foundation. Kirk simply insisted conservatives put policy in its proper place. Reforming government policy is the last step in a process that must begin by reforming our culture, our communities, and ourselves. De-emphasizing policy white papers and re-emphasizing the permanent things—family, church, community, and country—is not a retreat but a long-overdue flanking attack against our real enemy of social decay.
A change in tactics, to be sure. But is the status quo in Washington something we should cling to?
Conservatism’s tumult since 2016, too often portrayed as a tragedy or comedy, is better understood as an opportunity. Contrary to the media’s narrative, Donald Trump did not “take over” the conservative movement. He simply revealed how deeply dissatisfied conservatives were with their establishment leaders. That seven (often bumpy) years later, still no other leader has matched or surpassed Trump’s appeal is an indictment of the Republican Party’s leaders, not its base.
Younger conservatives hoping to inherit Trump’s leadership in coming years should begin with The Conservative Mind. For all its erudition—and even some classism—Kirk’s conservatism was fundamentally populist. Not the way Huey Long or William Jennings Bryan was, but in the way the U.S. Constitution was, and that the American people still are: prioritizing the long-term well-being of everyday Americans above all other considerations. C. S. Lewis offered the same nation in his Weight of Glory:
The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life.
A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.
Too much of American politics today is a waste of time: the performance art, the social media preening, the shabby partisanship, the hysterical punditry—to say nothing of woke totalitarianism. No one can blame everyday Americans for throwing up their hands in disgust at both sides of the aisle and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The good news is, one of the permanent things in the United States is… the American people. It’s still their country, despite Washington’s best efforts to seize their rights and auction off their sovereignty.
A populist, anti-ideological Kirkian conservatism of the heart remains Americans’ best hope for national renewal, and the Right’s only real path back to national leadership. But that path only ends in Washington. It can only begin with a rediscovery of the permanent things and the moral, spiritual, and aesthetic principles that sustain them.
That these principles were abandoned by the leaders now bequeathing to us our broken nation and toxic politics only affirms their value. We must read The Conservative Mind not to remember what America could have been this past generation, but to see what it still can be in the next. For twenty-first-century Kirkian conservatives, the stone the builders rejected must become the cornerstone.
Dr. Kevin Roberts is president of the Heritage Foundation.
The Russell Kirk Center will celebrate the 70th anniversary of The Conservative Mind (published in 1953) in Washington, D.C. on December 5, 2023. The event is open to the public and tickets are available here.
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