‘The Conservative Mind’ at 70

Despite out-of-control government spending, the flagging economy, and a rapidly deteriorating global security situation, conservatives cannot seem to unite around a common vision for America’s future. Besides opposition to President Joe Biden and the Democratic party, what really unites Republicans as different as Reps. Don Bacon and Matt Gaetz? 

Amid this confusion and disarray, conservatives would do well to return to their roots. In 1953 Russell Kirk gave life to a vision of constitutional and cultural renewal in The Conservative Mind that animated the early movement and could inspire us today. On its 70th anniversary, it’s well worth reconsidering Kirk’s beautiful defense of our tradition and what it can teach us still.

Kirk’s conservatism is altogether different from what various factions on the right offer today. He was an ardent opponent of libertarians, whom he denounced as “chirping sectaries.” He considered their individualism a danger to traditional society. But Kirk was also a committed patriot and defender of the American constitution—it is doubtful that he would have much sympathy for the so-called “postliberals,” such as Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen, who hold the founding in contempt. 

Instead, Kirk was an advocate of ordered liberty. He believed that the American tradition is worth preserving because it found a balance between the need for meaning—“order”—and the importance of human freedom—“liberty.” Without some shared concept of an ultimate Good, Kirk believed society would descend into chaos and injustice. But without a due regard for the limits of power, society would sink into the horrors of tyranny. Western civilization as manifested in the heritage of cities such as Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London culminated for Kirk in the miracle of Philadelphia, the U.S. Constitution. In The Conservative Mind, Kirk called it “the most sagacious conservative document in political history.”

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