Left and Right: Our Conservative Allies


May 30, 2007
Yes! Magazine


Browse in Conservatism

Would someone please explain what is “conservative” about the Bush Administration? They claim that banner, yes; and critics obediently oblige.

But look at what they do. Run up the deficit, erode local control of the schools, launch a grandiose nation-building fiasco in Iraq, regard truth-telling as optional behavior, give the federal government authority to pry into our lives. It sounds like the litany of things conservatives scold liberals for, or used to.

Or what about Ann Coulter? What exactly is “conservative” about age-inappropriate attire and incontinence of the mouth?

Calling such people “conservatives” just helps keep their act going. Worse, it obscures a confluence of ideas between many readers of this magazine—whatever they call themselves—and authentic conservatives, a confluence that is rich with political potential. My text here is The Portable Conservative Reader, which was edited by Russell Kirk, the intellectual patriarch of the modern conservative movement. In his introduction to the 1982 edition, Kirk lays out the guiding principles of the conservative mind. The implications might surprise you.

For example, Kirk says that conservatives believe there exists a “transcendent moral order.” If you believe that, then you cannot accept the infallibility of “the market,” which is a belief system based on moral relativism — that is, whatever makes money is good. The market is a religion of utility and convenience, not transcendence.

Similarly, Kirk says, conservatives believe in “social continuity.” How then can a true conservative support Wal-Mart and the way it whacks the social continuity of traditional main streets and communities?

It gets even more interesting. Conservatives believe in the principle of “variety,” for example. “They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long established social institutions and modes of life.” Does that mean crop diversity or monocultures, a global economy or locally diverse ones? Conservatives are “chastened by the principle of imperfectability.” We humans are flawed. We must be skeptical always of utopian schemes. Then what about the utopian scheme of solving all manner of problems through genetic engineering?

The test of any policy, Kirk says, is prudence, which is a concern for “long-run consequences.” By that standard, we had better address global warming fast.

There must be a catch, you say; and in a way there is. Kirk generally had different applications of these principles in mind. The utopian schemes he worried about most were those of Soviet planners, for example, not corporate biochemists. But that was largely a function of his times. The principles stand; and Kirk made clear his wariness of the Mammon worship of the market.

True conservatives today are working in this spirit. A case in point is Rod Dreher’s book Crunchy Cons. When I went to Dreher’s discussion page on the National Review website, I found approving references to such writers as Jane Jacobs, E.F. Schumacher, and James Howard Kunstler (Geography of Nowhere). Where else on the political spectrum are such writers discussed seriously today?

Did someone say “Here”?

The Left typically has assumed that its Rightward allies would be libertarians on such issues as abortion, drugs, and privacy. But libertarian me-first-ism has a heavy price when the subject turns toeconomy and environment. Here the Kirkeans, with their emphasis on social cohesion and prudence, have a lot more to offer.

I say it’s time to stop chastising—and thereby complimenting—Bush, and the rest for being “conservative.” Instead we need to call them on the fact that they aren’t, and start talking with the people who really are.

Jonathan Rowe, a YES! contributing editor, is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, which recently published The Commons Rising, a report on the revival of commons-based economics throughout the United States. Rowe is a founder of the West Marin Commons Association and is host of America Offline, a weekly program on KWMR-FM in West Marin County, California.