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Conservatism and the Political Order

Fall 2008 - Vol. 50, No. 4

As we prepare this final issue of the 2008volume of Modern Age for the press, along, arduous, and often rather bizarre presidentialcampaign is drawing to a close, and itsoutcome will be known by the time the issueis in print. No matter which slate of candidateswins, the result would have been almostunthinkable a year ago. Barack Obama wasstill a little-known long shot, and JosephBiden was a perennial also-ran. John McCain'scampaign seemed to have foundered hopelessly,and Sarah Palin was virtually unheardof outside Alaska. For the editors it is a sourceof some consolation that Modern Age is not inthe business of political prognostication.

This journal is, however, concerned aboutpolitics in much the same way as conservatismitself. Just as Modern Age is not involvedwith predicting the winners of elections orendorsing candidates or platforms, so conservatismis not a political program, but rather apolitical vision. Liberal pundits who have inrecent months gleefully proclaimed the endof an era of conservative political influenceand success begun by Ronald Reagan have,therefore, mistaken the essence of conservatism.No political party or electoral outcomehas ever been the ideal fulfillment of conservativeprinciples. This is true in part becausevarious conservative thinkers interpret theseprinciples from contrasting and sometimescontentious perspectives, and their differenceswill not be definitively resolved beforethe Parousia. Still more important, there is nosingle set of policy prescriptions that anyparticular thinker could confidently identifyas the complete realization even of his ownversion of conservatism. It is not surprisingthat the first President Bush, with his somewhatequivocal relationship to conservatism,was bemused by the "vision thing."

As a comprehensive account of the fundamentalrealities of the experience of mankindand the human situation, the rôle of conservatismis to serve as the moral and culturalinspiration practical, electoral politics and acheck on its extravagances. Men and womenof genuine conservative conviction will oftenengage in party politics and run for office, butthe very nature of campaigning and governingwill make it virtually impossible that all of theirpolitical activities will be strictly conservative.Conservative thinkers and voters will sometimeslook upon practical political developmentswith approval, but more often withvarying degrees of anxiety and dismay.

Conservatism is thus the antithesis of themodern liberal or progressive view that thereis a political solution for every problem. Forthis reason, conservatives ought to be morepatient than liberals in the face of political setbacksand less rancorous toward political rivals.Eschewing abstract ideological imperatives,conservatives will attempt to see socialarrangements, governmental programs, andelectoral campaigns in an historical perspectiveand with a temper that is generous,humane, and restrained. It is the purpose ofModern Age to provide a forum for such views.

Ronald Reagan is widely and rightly regardedas the president who has come closestto governing according to the norms of theconservative intellectual movement thatemerged in the United States after WorldWar II. Nevertheless, it is clear from thedebates within his own Republican Partyand among conservative commentators thatthere is a good deal of disagreement abouthow to restore the Reagan legacy. In "FightingBob vs. Silent Cal: The ConservativeTradition from La Follette to Taft and Beyond,"Jeff Taylor begins by suggesting thatperhaps Reagan himself was mistaken aboutthe real origin and nature of his project.Professor Taylor proceeds to suggest that wemay well need to reconsider our usual assumptionsabout which politicians have comeclosest to articulating truly conservative notionsof government.

His argument that the career of the "progressive"Robert La Follette is more in keepingwith conservatism and with the Reaganadministration's policies than the presidencyof Calvin Coolidge will, doubtless, be controversial.At the very least, however, ProfessorTaylor's essay should stimulate a salutarydebate over how best the conservative visionmight be embodied in a concrete platform ata time when the political winds seem to haveshifted radically to the left. Such a reconsiderationwill necessarily entail, moreover, carefulreflection on the historical developmentof conservatism.

Jeffrey Folks's account of the poet VachelLindsay may, likewise, seem to highlight afigure of doubtful credentials from a conservativeperspective. Dr. Folks duly notes thatLindsay was associated with the populism ofWilliam Jennings Bryant, and that he mayeasily be perceived as a radical progressive.Conservatism most assuredly can never besatisfied with a populist, much less a progressive,political program; nevertheless, we dowell to remember that Ronald Reagan'ssensitivity to the worries and aspirations ofordinary people—his populist touch, as itwere—was an essential element in his success.If his elusive legacy is to be recovered,then conservatives may well have to take intoaccount the issues articulated by La Folletteand by what Dr. Folks calls "Vachel Lindsay'sCovenant with America."

Providing a variety of perspectives onsubjects of interest to conservatives is, then, aprincipal goal of Modern Age. Our last issuefeatured an essay by Meins Coetsier deployingEric Voegelin's concept of symbolizationin order to expound the mystical experienceof Etty Hillesum, a Jewish victim of the NaziHolocaust. In this issue, Michael Henry subjectsVoegelin's own religious views to rigorousscrutiny and concludes that his relation toChristian orthodoxy, specifically on thedogma of the Incarnation, is at best ambiguous.While Professor Henry finds thatVoegelin's notion of metaxy enriches our"understanding of the depths of consciousness,"he finds "greater depths of wisdom andmystery" in the doctrine of the Incarnation.Conservative thought thus proceeds not inthe manner of an ideology, binding itself tothe pronouncements of its sages, but insteadbrings the sources of its own ideas within thescope of its critique. Among conservatives,no one occupies the place of Marx, Darwin,or Freud, whose names are attached to "isms."

As its title assumes, Modern Age is dedicatedto reflection upon the modern world,broadly conceived. Science is not merely aninescapable presence in this era; it is one ofthe forces that has shaped it. J. F. Johnston, Jr.,provides a timely reminder that, because of itspowerful and persuasive status in our time, itsstanding can be abused and its inherent limitationsignored in order to denigrate humandignity by means of false philosophy. P. E.Hodgson, on the other hand, furnishes anexample of the proper use of modern naturalscience in the third of his series of four articleson the energy crisis. Unlike many conservatives,Professor Hodgson takes the threat ofglobal warming very seriously. His sober,lucid, and thoughtful account of the scienceinvolved, as well as of the possible implicationsof the phenomenon, offers a basis forreflection on the contingencies of our situationfor men of differing views on both thescience and the politics involved.

Finally, we publish an essay that no onewill find controversial: Thomas H. Landess'stribute to Mark Royden Winchell, whopassed away earlier this year. Mark Winchellwas undoubtedly one of the most giftedwriters and careful scholars of our time. AsProfessor Landess points out, his achievementswere numerous and varied, but he willbe best remembered for his superb literarybiographies. His account of the lives of CleanthBrooks and Donald Davidson, two Southernconservatives, are models of their kind, unlikelyto be superseded in the foreseeablefuture. Nevertheless, as Professor Landessalso observes, Winchell devoted equal skill tohis biography of the Northern Jewish liberal,Leslie Fiedler, blending equal measures ofshrewdness and sympathy. The self-effacingtone in Mark Winchell's scholarship was oneimportant quality that marked him out as aspecifically conservative thinker. True conservativesare never pinioned by ideologicalabstractions, and this freedom affords themthe intellectual flexibility within the matrixof principled tradition to regard the attitudesand arguments of rivals with fair-mindeddisinterest.

The poems in this issue include an additionaltribute to the memory of Mark RoydenWinchell in the verse of David Middleton.These two poems highlight Winchell's giftsas a biographer and as a reviewer respectively,and in the latter instance Professor Middletonfinds occasion to extend his poetic meditationson Millet's paintings of rural life firstpublished in The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy.These poems, like the others in this issue byWilliam Bedford Clark and Wilmer Mills,seek to capture in language an intellectuallyand emotionally satisfying image of humanexperience—in W. K. Wimsatt's arrestingphrase, a "verbal icon." Insofar as poetry is anart of concrete experience, it is a conservativeart, because conservatism seeks to anchorpolitical activity in concrete realities ratherthan utopian idealism. A conservative politicalorder will, then, in some measure, reflectthe wisdom embodied in literature as well asin theoretical speculation.

Among the reviews in this fall issue ofModern Age is our final monument to MarkRoyden Winchell, his own work, a review ofan anthology of pieces first published in theNew Criterion, edited by Roger Kimball. Thereview is generously appreciative, althoughWinchell does take the collection to task forinsularity, for forgetting that Manhattan is justone island in a very large continent. He notesthat after the model for the New Criterion,T. S. Eliot's Criterion, ceased publication, thosejournals that took up its task in the 1940s and1950s of "correcting taste"—the Sewanee Review,the Kenyon Review, Scrutiny, the PartisanReview, and such—often published the sameauthors. Winchell remarks with sorrow thatthis kind of eclectic openness to divergentviews is almost unthinkable on the contemporaryscene.

Among the other reviews in this issue,Modern Age does offer a certain diversity ofoutlook. M. D. Aeschliman's review ofChester Finn's Trouble Maker is a largelyfavorable treatment of a polemical memoir bya man who is generally regarded as an architectof neoconservative education policy.George Carey's review of Bill Kauffman'sAin't My America is, on the other hand, anequally favorable review of a fierce attack onneoconservative foreign policy. What thetwo pieces both do is to furnish sufficientevidence and argument to cheer those inclinedto agree and challenge their critics.Most of the reviews, however, deal withbooks that provide a knowledge of variousaspects of the history of Western culture andthus remind us of what it is we are supposedto be conserving. There is a biography ofLocke, a treatise on university education, ahistory of the struggle between religion andsecular ideologies in the modern world, anda view of the Asian elements in Russia.Finally, Thomas B. Fowler's review of DarwinLoves You offers a skeptical account of anattempt by a professor of English to domesticateDarwin, and R. J. Stove reviews a bookabout the undervalued composer, JohannNepomuk Hummel, showing that there ismore to music than romantic Angst.

Politicians seeking office always promiseto make things better; that is, to changethings, even if "CHANGE" is not the centralterm of their campaign rhetoric. Conservatismis, as we learn from Russell Kirk, mainlyabout the Permanent Things. It is difficult toimagine a party platform in modern Americapromising to preserve traditional mores andfoster virtue. The electronic media with theirhigh definition sensationalism and "soundbites" are hardly an amenable venue forsolemn reflection on the hard realities of thehuman condition. Although most conservativeswill have little difficulty determiningwho among the candidates for various officesis least inimical to the Permanent Things,elections are unlikely to be occasions ofelation very often. By the same token, weshall do well to temper our frustration andresist the temptation to despair, no matterhow disheartening the judgment of KingDemos may turn out to be. Modern Age willcontinue to focus its greatest attention onculture, society, and longterm political developments:we need a purified and refinedPolis before day-to-day politics can yield asatisfactory result. Above all, we must neverforget that politics (like that other distinctivelymodern activity, science) is finallylimited in its influence on the real sources ofhuman happiness: "For we have not here alasting city."

R.V. Young