The American Conservative featured an essay by Andrew Bacevich a few months ago that offers good political advice: “Counterculture Conservatism: The right needs less Ayn Rand, more Flannery O’Connor.” Bacevich’s argues that conservatives must incrementally transform the culture back into one that understands and respects conservative principles. Leftist agitators radically changed American culture over the last few generations by taking over the media, the academy, N.G.O.s and foundations, and the goverment. We must fight them on all fronts; political power won in random elections will not suffice. I think that Bacevich is obviously right, and the short-sighted focus on this or that election misunderstands the cultural change that undergirds electoral politics. A radical change in America made the Obama presidency possible. The country as it currently is would be incapable of electing someone like Coolidge or even Reagan. Our little platoons must fight many battles to change the direction of our culture war.
I appreciate Bacevich’s general characterization of American conservatives:
As human beings, our first responsibility lies in stewardship, preserving our common inheritance and protecting that which possesses lasting value. This implies an ability to discriminate between what is permanent and what is transient, between what ought to endure and what is rightly destined for the trash heap. Please note this does not signify opposition to all change—no standing athwart history, yelling Stop—but fostering change that enhances rather than undermines that which qualifies as true.
Conservatives, therefore, are skeptical of anything that smacks of utopianism. They resist seduction by charlatans peddling the latest Big Idea That Explains Everything. This is particularly the case when that Big Idea entails launching some armed crusade abroad. Conservatives respect received wisdom. The passage of time does not automatically render irrelevant the dogmas to which our forebears paid heed. George Washington was no dope.
In private life and public policy alike, there exists a particular category of truths that grown-ups and grown-up governments will respectfully acknowledge. For conservatives this amounts to mere common sense. Actions have consequences. Privileges entail responsibility. There is no free lunch. At day’s end, accounts must balance. Sooner or later, the piper will be paid. Only the foolhardy or the willfully reckless will attempt to evade these fundamental axioms.
Conservatives take human relationships seriously and know that they require nurturing. In community lies our best hope of enjoying a meaningful earthly existence. But community does not emerge spontaneously. Conservatives understand that the most basic community, the little platoon of family, is under unrelenting assault, from both left and right. Emphasizing autonomy, the forces of modernity are intent on supplanting the family with the hyper-empowered—if also alienated—individual, who exists to gratify appetite and ambition. With its insatiable hunger for profit, the market is intent on transforming the family into a cluster of consumers who just happen to live under the same roof. One more thing: conservatives don’t confuse intimacy with sex.
All of that said, conservatives also believe in Original Sin, by whatever name. They know, therefore, that the human species is inherently ornery and perverse. Hence, the imperative to train and educate young people in the norms governing civilized behavior. Hence, too, the need to maintain appropriate mechanisms to restrain and correct the wayward who resist that training or who through their own misconduct prove themselves uneducable.
Conversely, conservatives are wary of concentrated power in whatever form. The evil effects of Original Sin are nowhere more evident than in Washington, on Wall Street, or in the executive suites of major institutions, sadly including churches and universities. So conservatives reject the argument that correlates centralization with efficiency and effectiveness. In whatever realm, they favor the local over the distant. Furthermore, although conservatives are not levelers, they believe that a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth—property held in private hands—offers the surest safeguard against Leviathan. A conservative’s America is a nation consisting of freeholders, not of plutocrats and proletarians.
Finally, conservatives love and cherish their country. But they do not confuse country with state. They know that America is not its military, nor any of the innumerable three-lettered agencies comprising the bloated national-security apparatus. America is amber waves of grain, not SEAL Team Six.