BY: Keith Plunkett
In his speech to the 2016 Fall Meeting of the Philadelphia Society, Gleaves Whitney, a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, reminded the audience that “even a good political realignment must be accompanied by a better cultural realignment if favorable political change is to stick, if our pursuit of happiness is to have real meaning.”
It is not enough for conservatives to revolt in anger at the “political establishment” for bending ethical norms, and yes, at times not only bending but breaking the law, as seen here in Mississippi. It is not enough for conservatives to finally recognize how market tested political messaging is purposefully manipulated with conservative terminology during campaigns, but quickly filed away and forgotten when it comes to implementation of policy.
It’s good that the anger reached a point that consultant attempts to dissuade voters by demonizing conservative candidates are no longer working. But for those who have invested a sizable portion of their lives into seeing a “political realignment,” and the hope of one day looking back on the sacrifices without regret, then there must now occur a shift into a ‘higher’ gear. Recognizing the problem exists, and getting angry enough to want to do something about it is but the first step.
Aristotle wrote, “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
The cultural realignment must catch up to this ongoing political realignment and provide context and deeper meaning.
Conservatives simply cannot allow anymore for elected officials nor Republican Party leaders to tiptoe around certain issues, or half-heartedly fight for conservative policy, only to cave again to special interests. That’s why these issues must be faced by grassroots conservatives head-on, with an available base of knowledge to provide the support for intelligent and meaningful conversations.
I can think of no better place to start basic understanding of what traditionalist conservatism is than with Russell Kirk’s book, The Politics of Prudence. If there has ever been a perfect example of a useful guide to useful guides, this book would be it.
Kirk starts by defining the very essence of what traditionalist conservatism is and what it stands in opposition to.
The core message of traditionalist conservatism is that it stands against ideology in all of its forms, regardless of whether it is a creation of the left or right. Ideology purports to provide a “hidden and saving truth” through ideologues ability to analyze society and create solutions to what is lacking, thereby substituting for natural law a new contrived “political formula that promises mankind an earthly paradise.”
Conservatism recognizes the truth that no methodological development by government can ever account for the complexity of society. Conservatism, therefore is a negation of this “inverted religion.” Conservatism in it’s most basic stripped down form can be defined as a reliance on truth, and the combined knowledge of all of mankind’s best and worst actions throughout history. It is not that conservatism presents itself as a better ideology than any other; it is rather that conservatism recognizes the lessons learned point toward an inherit need for a voluntary community that shapes and is shaped through choices made by individuals and reliance on individual and family relationships for the creation of a common good. This forms a unique and specialized order that cannot be used as a template. One size does not, and cannot, fit all. To make claims otherwise is to reject reality.
Kirk quotes Swiss scholar Hans Barth to drive the point: “The disastrous effect of ideological thinking in its radical form is not only to cast doubt on the quality and structure of the mind that constitute man’s distinguishing characteristic but also to undermine the foundation of his social life.”
It is the vision of United Conservatives to remove the suffocating grip of government regulation, no matter the originating source or reasoning, that has caused the slow withering of once vibrant communities and the destruction of individual character by reducing the incentive of our people to develop their unique talents and strive for something better and more meaningful. In short, to help where possible reclaim the foundation of social life that has been undermined by repetitive waves of government overreach into nearly every aspect of life.
Unlike the ideologue, UC doesn’t propose to construct a carefree and perfect society. We don’t propose to engineer circumstances nor create centralized programs of predetermined acceptable opportunities. We propose working with and through our members and affiliate groups towards communities that recognize and foster local leaders who are prepared to step forward with emotional intelligence and clarity of purpose to speak, and defend, against this damaging uniformity.
In the final chapter of The Politics of Prudence, Kirk exhorts the “rising generation” to prepare themselves for leadership wherever they may find themselves in life:
“There flourish many little arts by which one may gain ascendancy over the minds of one’s political colleagues. But the great necessity is to have acquired previously a fund of knowledge and some mastery of rhetoric—and honest principles. That is why I sometimes advise undergraduates not to expend their time in street demonstrations, but instead to study.”
If one wishes to study, Kirk provides a wealth of material to that end. He was a prolific writer.
Many would call it near blasphemy to bring up Kirk without mentioning his more well-known work, The Conservative Mind. I am partial to The Roots of American Order. Both books are equally worth the time. But neither, in my estimation, fit so perfectly what is needed to reinvigorate a conservative understanding within current society as does The Politics of Prudence.
Where The Conservative Mind focuses on a broad view of history and philosophy, and The Roots of American Order focuses on the unique historical circumstances that gave rise to the American Tradition, The Politics of Prudence centers attention on the importance of individual character to the vibrancy of communities.
Kirk equips us with easily digestible themes and lists, making The Politics of Prudence one of his most approachable works.
The Politics of Prudence nurtures readers in Kirk’s signature prose, which makes all of his writings comfortable and restorative, emoting the permanence of which he writes. His way and his words calmly convince of the need for a discerning demeanor to our political discussions, and the need for our optimism even in a troubling time. Yet he never strides into the territory of giving up on conservative core principles for the sake of political compromise, and he consistently maintains a strong rejection of government schemes that displace the Truth.
Kirk’s call for prudence is no “feel-good” compromise of which our contemporary political figures speak. It is a higher call to be the adult in the discussion. Good leadership can show empathy and understanding of the plight of others, and still remain firmly dedicated towards the principles that equip communities to better manage their own affairs.
Leadership shows it’s wisdom in striking the balance that maintains a high moral tone, yet never shies away from speaking truth no matter how uncomfortable. It is seen and felt when someone rejects the tendency towards the intemperance of quick judgment that leads to acting or speaking out, yet not allowing oneself to be so ill prepared as to be frozen in fear of reprisals that have become a calling card of today’s political manipulators.
While the latter chapters of The Politics of Prudence appeal, in part, to mastering our own behavior, it is chapters two through five that provide a wealth of guidance on where to find Kirk’s suggested “fund of knowledge,” “mastery of rhetoric” and “honest principles”.
Written well before the term “listicles” existed, these four chapters provide conservatives with the guide of guides. As a starting point for conservative references, none is more influential than these.
Chapter two provides ‘Ten Conservative Principles’. Chapter three gives us a list under the heading of ‘The Conservative Cause: Ten Events’. Chapter four shows us ‘Ten Conservative Books’. And finally, chapter five sets before us the examples of ‘Ten Exemplary Conservatives’.
Certainly these lists are not exhaustive. As conservatives we would never presume anyone could provide such a thing, and Kirk would be the first to denounce such claims. But coming from the man who defined modern day conservatism for generations, what Russell Kirk accomplishes with this entire book and the references he includes for further study is to provide future generations, as well as anyone with an interest in supporting a Constitution focused conservatism, with the best starting point anyone could hope to have.