Incite -- (v) 1: give an incentive; 2: provoke or stir up; "incite a riot"; 3: urge on; cause to act
Thursday, May 12, 2005

When was the last time Conservatism wasn't dying?
Written by: Dave

Recently John Derbyshire lamented in NRO that Conservatism is a quickly dying movement. He cited a definition of Conservatism as adherence to the following six principles:

1. a deep suspicion of the power of the state
2. a preference for liberty over equality
3. patriotism
4. a belief in established institutions and hierarchies
5. a skepticism about the idea of progress
6. elitism

If these are in fact the principles by which we define Conservatism, I wonder, when was the last time conservatism wasn’t dying?

I'd argue that under this definition, American Conservatism has been around for hundreds of years. I'd also argue that it has been losing the battle to the Left for at least the last one hundred of those years, as government power has been inexorable growing, egalitarianism increasingly enforced, and patriotism stripped of more and more of its meaning.

Consequently, if we really want to determine whether Conservatism as an intellectual movement is dying any more quickly than it was 25, 50, or 75 years ago, we can’t simply ask which direction society is moving toward, because it has consistently been moving away from Conservative principles. The real question is whether the pace of retreat is quickening.

Looking back on the 20th Century, I don’t think we are caving on Conservative principles at nearly the clip we were in the early 1900’s (the so-called Progressive Era), or the 1930’s, 1960’s, or 1970’s. You might make an argument that the 1920’s and/or 1990’s were better years than the present decade for Conservatism, but that would be overlooking the tremendous success the Left experienced on social fronts during those decades. The 1910's and 1940's also included rapid increases in state power, despite the fact that many of these changes were made necessary by the threat of foreign enemies. That pretty much leaves the 1950's and 1980's, which I believe were draws rather than victories for Conservatives.

I also don't think Conservatives' acceptance of many of the changes the Left has wrought implies that they are no longer Conservatives. I believe most American Conservatives still adhere to the Conservative principles listed above, despite their resigned acceptance of some elements of the welfare state. Conservatives' hesitation to demand more radical reform has less to with support for the welfare state, and more to do with their small “c” conservatism – that is, their belief that the established order shouldn’t be overturned too quickly if it can be helped, and a flexibility of ideology that allows them to accept that some of the changes might have been for the better.

So with all that said, I don’t think Conservatism as a philosophical movement among intellectuals is dying. Perhaps what Derbyshire was really emphasizing is the fact that the mainstream population is becoming less philosophically Conservative as the post-modern nanny state becomes more institutionalized. I would agree that this is certainly a problem, as it may eventually dry up new recruits to Conservatism. More importantly, the continued retreat on principles of liberty, individual rights and responsibilities, and patriotism will at some point lead our nation to begin collapsing upon itself. The more immediate danger is that we will soon weaken to the point where we are unable to face up to challenges from external enemies.

To summarize, I don’t think Conservatism as an intellectual movement is dying; it’s simply losing, just like it has been for most of the last 100 years. The more important issue is how much longer we can afford to lose.

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