The modern American conservative movement was born in the 1950’s, led by a pair of bookish intellectuals, William F. Buckley and Professor Russell Kirk. Buckley’s start was his book God and Man at Yale and the magazine he started, National Review. Kirk’s was his seminal opus of conservative principles, The Conservative Mind. It’s the book that not only laid the foundation for modern conservatism, it also connected it to an intellectual tradition that went as far back as Socrates in the fifth century before Christ, and especially to the eighteenth century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke.
As my friend Lee Edwards at the Heritage Foundation wrote, “Since its founding, America had possessed a conservative patrimony that was the equal of the liberalism said to be the “only” intellectual tradition in America. While conservatives from John Adams to Nathaniel Hawthorne to … T. S. Eliot seemed to be acting in splendid isolation from each other, they were in fact joined in their preference “for the old and tried against the new and untried.”
It took Kirk four years of research and writing to connect the dots of the seemingly disparate thinkers and writers.” The result became “The Conservative Mind,” a surprise hit among books on history and philosophy. Phyllis Schlafly, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan stood on the ground solidified by Russell Kirk. And thus the modern American conservative movement began. It would eventually grow to a functional political majority that not only elected Presidents and Governors, but even dominated the US Congress and Senate and more than half of the state legislatures. It developed its own popular and highly profitable media such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.
But the question before us in the year 2021 is whether it became increasingly corrupted by the lust for an exercise of power in its name that it both exploded and imploded on Capitol Hill on January 6th. Where were the descendants of Burke and Buckley? Did the modern conservative movement die that day?
I have been a conservative most of my active political life, and I have always considered the conservative political movement to be intellectually sound, resting as it does on more than two millennia of great thinkers who produced effective results. I am also a Christian, and for most of my life I have considered political conservatism and evangelical Christianity fundamentally compatible.
Were the rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6th conservatives? I’d say not. They were more anti-intellectual than intellectual. And even if they bore some of the symbols of Christianity, their actions that day certainly did not reflect the teachings of Jesus Christ. Yet the self-appointed, morally conceited and newly woke national media delighted in disparaging the conservative movement by identifying those thugs with us.
Maybe we need to find a new name.
We most certainly need to regroup as a movement. Just as Kirk and Buckley did in the 1950’s, we need to go back to our intellectual forebears and reorient our movement to the true north of our philosophy. Who do you admire most in our movement? Is it Donald Trump and Sean Hannity? For me, it’s leaders like Senators Tim Scott, James Lankford and Ben Sasse. And former Vice President Mike Pence. None of those is perfect, of course, but they seem to be approaching their responsibilities from a sincere effort to determine what’s right, not just what’s expedient politically.
So I’ve tried to find a simple way of trying to find that true north. The concept I’ve landed on is indeed simple, and I’ll concede that it may also be simplistic, but it’s helping me reorient myself and figure things out. It’s the simple quest for the moral high ground. Where’s the moral high ground in the abortion debate? Where’s the moral high ground in the immigration debate? Where’s the moral high ground in the drug debate? Where’s the moral high ground in preserving social order? Where’s the moral high ground in helping the poor afford the necessities of life? Where’s the moral high ground between economic dependence and independence? Where’s the moral high ground in civil rights? Where’s the moral high ground in human rights in international diplomacy? Where’s the moral high ground in international sovereignty?
Not everyone will agree on the answers to each of these questions, but let’s agree on the questions. They’re helpful, they frame the issues of public policy in ways that are more likely to be unifying than most of the questions we hear from Washington and state capitals today.
The civic values and virtues that are formed by answering these questions will be more in tune with traditional conservatism than traditional liberalism, at least I think they will, but the political label we put on them is of little consequence. It’s having the perspective to ask the moral high ground questions in the first place that can put us back on the right track as a nation.