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Where Have All the Real Conservatives Gone?

Brent Bozell and William F. Buckley in 1954. Credit: Wiki Commons/UCLA Library/LA Daily News.

Recent Republican and conservative convocations have displayed one common thing. Those who pass for thinkers and leaders of these intertwined movements think they can keep doing the same things but achieve better results. With the notable except of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, most Republicans, after sifting through the debris of November 6, think they need new spokespeople and better packaging.

The only thing standing between Republicans and the great Reagan landslides of 1980 and 1984 is them. This is a sad commentary on once noble movements. Republican and conservative “leaders” think twenty-first-century Americans are waiting to embrace tenth-century stands on social issues and science, and blustery vague pronouncements on government spending. Does any rational person think today’s Republicans and conservatives bear the slightest resemblance to those who rallied around Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan? Those two icons would not have finished in the top ten in the 2012 Iowa caucus or South Carolina primary.

What built the success of late twentieth-century Republicanism and conservatism was not just charismatic and articulate candidates. After World War II, the Foundation for Economic Education and its publication The Freeman (1946), the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (1953), and National Review (1955) formed a triad of scholarly forums where the great thinkers of twentieth-century conservatism discussed issues. Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Frank Meyer, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Heyak, Milton Friedman, James Burnham, and countless other great minds, applied the principles of the Enlightenment (1650-1789) and nineteenth-century liberalism to modern challenges. This three hundred year provenance of reason, critical thinking, scientific inquiry, and the nature of man and his relationship to the state formed a solid foundation for philosophical exploration. It is hard to go wrong using John Locke, Isaac Newton, Denis Diderot, Charles-Louis Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and America’s Founding Fathers, as touchstones for civil discourse on the role of government in society.

Unfortunately, today’s conservative touchstones are Karl Rove, Dick Morris, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity. The forums are soundbites on Fox News and talk radio. Today’s activists came of age under George W. Bush’s neocon global adventurism, theocratic government activism, and opportunistic federal spending. They view the libertarian/conservative fusionism of Goldwater/Reagan through this clouded lens. The Republican and conservative movements have become what Russell Kirk once stated he despised, a party of “millenarian ideas of pseudo-religious character.”

Where are the REAL Conservatives? Who today mentions Enlightenment ideas, or bases their policies on this noble philosophical heritage? What the Right has now is a handful of pundits, and a disdain for those who possess any scholarly credential. The demise of the conservatives is not a matter of “messaging” as many on their side has claimed. It is a demise of intellect. The great sages of conservatism, from Edmund Burke to John Adams and contemporary figures like Buckley, spent their time reading not blogs, but books. Further, they spent time writing dissertations on them; unlike today’s “leaders” who wear their ignorance as badges of honor and electability.

Has conservative philosophy been lost? In the words of Kirk, citing T.S. Eliot, has “wisdom” been lost to a vapid neoconservative philosophy of “information”?

The exchange of ideas -- the cornerstone of philosophy and democracy -- depends upon differing sides exchanging ideas. It cannot consist of one side saying, for example, diplomacy means blowing up the United Nations building in New York, and the other wanting to cede America’s sovereign authority to an unaccountable and dysfunctional international body.

This shows only how the extremes have grown so far from the roots of Western political and philosophical thought. Yet there are a handful of us who still think these matters deserve consideration aside from partisan politics, electioneering, and fundraising.

We are in a different place now. Conservatism has been drawn into the blogosphere, the talk radio universe, and the cable news echo chambers in which each satisfies their own micro-targeted audiences. Even “live” forums like CPAC and the National Review Institute Summit are more forums for media soundbites than critical discourse. Conservatives, but also all Americans, need civil forums for the purpose of good governance and debate, deeply rooted in conservative principles and tempered by liberal ones, supporting openness, and nurturing common sense and common ground.

We write in that spirit and in the hope that both sides in our democracy reclaim their roots. Conservatives, in particular, must re-examine their evolution over the several centuries, and return to key philosophical principles, if they wish to remain relevant. Our view here is that a robust democracy only flourishes when both sides match each other. Today there is no balance, and we are hopeful that will change.