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Conservatism: What’s Wrong with It and How Can We Make It Right?

Photo by Michael John Grist. Used by permission. Photo by Michael John Grist. Used by permission.

The American conservative movement is facing a crisis. While a strong plurality of voting Americans identify as conservative, it’s apparent to anyone who’s watching that college students are more liberal than ever, and even those who may have identified as conservatives ten years ago are now identifying as libertarians, “pro-liberty,” or, in many cases, not identifying at all.

At the same time, the content of conservatism has become more ambiguous, to the point where people with radically different philosophies can all identity as conservative. Some self-styled conservatives would like to grow the size of the federal government to promote American interests and ideals abroad, while others plant their roots in the soil of community, decentralization, anti-interventionism. Some conservatives oppose almost any restrictions on the free market, while others see meaningful regulations as part of a prudent, conservative economic order. The list of disputes goes on and on.

The stakes of these disputes are higher than simply satisfying a craving for self-definition or reaching young Americans. Conservatism is the only sane alternative to progressive liberalism, which eschews all tradition in the name of endless “progress” (though what we are progressing toward is never clear), guided by the all-too-visible hand of the omnipotent State. If conservatives cannot agree on their own premises, they will fail to mount a counteroffensive. Without a vision of the good—without the proper institutions of civil society that conservatism seeks to preserve—modern, individualistic, democratic man will succumb to the soft despotism of the omnicompetent State.

We have to take a step back and ask, What’s wrong with conservatism, and how do we make it right? Over the course of the next eight weeks, the Intercollegiate Review will try to answer these two questions. We’ve asked journalists, scholars, and public intellectuals, each representing a different strain of thinking on the Right, to identify why conservatism has failed to develop a cohesive vision of a well-ordered society, and to offer a solution to our current crisis. Our contributors will include Timothy Carney of the Washington Examiner, Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute, Kevin Gutzman of Western Connecticut University, Mark Mitchell of Front Porch Republic, George Neumayr of the American Spectator, Gerald Russello of the University Bookman, and Jonathan Tobin of Commentary magazine. Student columnists Chase Padusniak, Elisabeth Cervantes, Ian Tuttle, and Danielle Charette will be tasked, each week, with writing their own responses to each contribution—to keep the conversation going and to connect the rising generation of conservative thinkers and activists with the scholarly debate.

While acknowledging the need for a conservative vision, we must take seriously Russell Kirk’s understanding of what it means to be a conservative:

Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata. So far as it is possible to determine what conservatives believe, the first principles of the conservative persuasion are derived from what leading conservative writers and public men have professed during the past two centuries.

Perhaps it would be well, most of the time, to use this word “conservative” as an adjective chiefly. For there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.

The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. . . . The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects.

It is with this humility and understanding that we approach our questions.

Week 1: Politics, Ideas, and the West by Samuel Gregg
Week 2: Roots, Limits, and Love, by Mark T. Mitchell
Week 3: The Duties of a Free Citizen, by Kevin Gutzman
Week 4: Rescuing Freedom from Despair, by Jonathan Tobin
Week 5: Want Truth? Work for Beauty, by Gerald Russello
Week 6: Go Radical or Go Home, by George Neumayr
Week 7: Reject Jingoism and Groupthink, by Daniel Larison
Week 8: It's Time for Free Market Populism, by Timothy Carney

 

 

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