How did people start to believe that “conservatives” have real ideas?
Because they really don't
In my previous post, I mentioned that “conservatism” has been a con from its very inception. Today, I thought it might be helpful to sketch out the beginning of “conservative thought” in the 1950s as a preface to a series of posts that will dismantle the underpinnings of “conservative ideas.”
The one person who was probably more influential than anyone in creating the impression that there was some intellectual content to “conservatism” was Russell Kirk, whose 1953 book The Conservative Mind birthed the conservative movement almost single-handedly, like Athena from the head of Zeus. (Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind [Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953].)
By the mid-twentieth century, “conservatives” needed some rationale for their notions because of the unprecedented success of liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century. By the 1950s, liberalism had long been explaining its reasons, implementing its practical programs, and succeeding on all fronts. “Conservatism,” on the other hand, had nothing like a rational critique of existing institutions. After World War II, this lack began to be keenly felt. “Conservatives” were getting their heads bashed in because they had no defense against the superior reasoning of liberals.
The many threads that led to the failure of “conservatism” were helpfully epitomized by Lionel Trilling in the introduction to his 1950 book The Liberal Imagination.
In the United State at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is a plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. (Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination [New York: New York Review of Books Classics, 2008], xv.)
Of course, Trilling did not mean that there were no “conservative” sentiments in general circulation. There are always people who fear change and prefer the status quo. There are especially always people who benefit from the status quo and will do anything to protect their privileges.
What Trilling meant was that there were no “conservative” ideas that could stand up to the liberal ideas that had been succeeding so spectacularly. Sentiments, yes. Ideas, no. What is the difference between sentiments and ideas?
Trilling explained that in the most famous sentence from the book:
[T]he conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas. (Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, ibid.)
“Conservative” sentiments are “irritable mental gestures,” not ideas. What were some of these gestures? You will still recognize them, because they still dominate today’s “conservatism.” Here are a few:
These are emotional responses elicited by irritation with the outside world. Most of these irritations arise when the outside world touches on sore spots of white privilege, mindless “Christianity,” and entrenched selfishness. A new and potent “irritable mental gesture” emerged in the 1970s after Roe v. Wade—“Pro-life.”
But none of these responses has any intellectual content. None of them is an idea. Ideas can explain their reasoning and stand on evidence and logic. Sentiments simply arise in the irritable part of the soul when an external stimulus is felt to be threatening.
Thanks for reading The Decent America Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Russell Kirk set out to attack Trilling’s all-too-true assessment of “conservatism.” Kirk wanted to turn the mental gestures into ideas by finding arguments to support them.
Beginning with The Conservative Mind, Kirk did indeed produce arguments that looked like ideas. And “conservatives” lapped them up, thirsting for some ammunition that could stand up against the superior intellectual firepower of liberalism.
Kirk’s idea-like results, however, were fraudulent. They were rooted in unfounded “beliefs,” supported by spurious logic, and cherry-picked to appeal to those who already reveled in the irritable mental gestures.
A contemporary review sums up Kirk’s book aptly:
A book which purports to be “a criticism of conservative thought” too frequently degenerates to the level of a diatribe against the liberals, while at the same time glorifying nearly all conservative thinkers. The reader is likely to gain the impression that not a single valuable contribution was made by the liberals, while nearly all conservatives of the last century and a half have exhibited an exceptional, and quite inhuman, ability to grasp all the facets and implications of contemporary problems. (Byrum E. Carter, Review of Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind in Indiana Law Journal 29: 2 , 307-314.)
Nonetheless, the book was heralded by “conservatives” and became the go-to reference for idea-like responses to actual liberal ideas. It was the beginning of the dishonest claim that “conservatism” had an intellectual content that could stand up to liberalism.
Ever since, the real ideas of liberalism has had to contend with the fake ideas of “conservatism” in the press and in the public square. “Conservatives” set up their own institutions—universities, legal organizations, think tanks—to promote their fake ideas to an uncritical cintizenry.
Liberals too were taken in. They began to engage with the fake ideas as though they were real ideas—and found themselves embarrassed repeatedly when reason found itself nonplussed by irritable mental gestures supercharged by the appearance of reason.
That is how we arrived at today, when nearly everyone imagines that liberalism and “conservatism” are equal contenders in the arena of political thought. American decline is due, as much as it is due to anything, to the illusion that “conservatism” has any right to even be in the running for a rational political world view. We now have one party that relies on an insupportable tissue of irritable mental gestures while the other employs evidence, analysis, and practical judgement. What are the odds that society will remain stable once nearly half of the public chooses irrational irritability over rational self-governance?
In coming posts, I’m going to look at Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles,” which he distilled in a 1987 speech to the Heritage Foundation after some four decades of promoting his fake ideas. These “principles” are still regarded by “conservatives” as the pillars of their world view.
And not a single one of them is a good idea.
Get ready for a ride through the muck of the “conservative mind.” It will take us several months, I think, to get to the end. (Unless I start writing a lot faster!)
Glad to have you aboard!