Streetcar Line

Conservatives’ Foolish Search for a ‘New New Thing’

Successful legislating is an underappreciated virtue.

By 6.24.11

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In searching for a presidential candidate, conservatives would do well to look not just at a candidate's ability to mouth the right words in clear tones, not just at the ability to rouse the spirits, not just at the latest examplar of "star power," and certainly not for a savior ex machina. The herd-like grasping for the political version of an American Idol winner -- the newest celebrity out of nowhere -- bespeaks a horrendous desperation, a lack of confidence, and a serious lack of judgment. What is particularly discouraging is how modern conservatives seem to denigrate the nitty-gritty of actual legislative work and legislative accomplishment while seeking instead for somebody over whom they can swoon like love-sick teeny-boppers in the 1950s fainting at the very name of James Dean.

What conservatives need to do is to re-balance our political philosophy, which when at its best involves a careful melding of the sometimes disparate proclivities of Locke and Burke, of Jefferson and Washington. That philosophy rightly understood also involves the sagacious political arts of a James Madison, a true philosophe who nevertheless rarely let purist ideology get in the way of practical (and somewhat messy) application -- sometimes involving careful compromises -- of well-considered principles.

We would do well, therefore, to recall one of the modern conservative movement's primary intellectual forefathers -- who shall be named at the end of this piece. For now, his words, not his name, are most important. Taking the liberty of splicing numerous of his quotes together, in a way meant to be fully consonant with his overall message and meaning, conservatives should consider and re-learn some of the following truths:

"There exists some danger that conservatives themselves might slip into a narrow ideology or quasi-ideology -- even though, as H. Stuart Hughes wrote some forty years ago, 'Conservatism is the negation of ideology.'… What we need to impart is political prudence, not political belligerence. Ideology is the disease, not the cure…. Ideology is the politics of passionate unreason.

"To be 'prudent' means to be judicious, cautious, sagacious. Plato, and later Burke, instruct us that in the statesman, prudence is the first of the virtues. A prudent statesman is one who looks before he leaps; who takes long views; who knows that politics is the art of the possible.

"It is the conservative leader who, setting his face against all ideologies, is guided by what Patrick Henry called 'the lamp of experience.'… All ideologies work mischief. I am fortified by a letter from an influential and seasoned conservative publicist, who applauds my excoriation of young ideologues fancying themselves to be conservatives, and of young conservatives fondly hoping to convert themselves into ideologues…. Conservative views are founded upon custom, convention, the long experience of the human species….

"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…. Much effort is required to conserve the legacy of order, freedom, and justice, of learning and art and imagination, that ought to be ours…. [The most admirable of conservative politicians was a man who] knew -- understood the whole workings of the federal machinery, and how interests would be affected by legislation and executive policy… [and] became known for his talents in legislative leadership… [and] mastered the parliamentary tactics…. He has learned what he knows from long legislative experience…. [Burke said that] 'Those who expect perfect reformations either deceive or are deceived miserably.'…

"Actually, the Constitution was not recorded by angels or prophets, but was put together by highly reasonable and prudent men who were willing to compromise with each other on many points…. No matter how well conceived, the Constitution could not have functioned, once ratified, had not the statesmen of the early Republic been unusually able and vigorous…. The man who truly understands order does not hack rashly through roots; he does not imitate extremists. The real accomplishments, Marias tells us, 'belong to those who have known how to wait, those who know how long it takes for a tree to grow, those who, instead of shouting Right now!, have worked for the day when certain things would be possible.'"

The writer of these bits of wisdom[1] was Russell Kirk, whose intellectual contributions all conservatives should familiarize themselves with and whose insights should be internalized. While the "politics of prudence" he advocated was of far sterner stuff than the tinny calls for "prudence" from, for instance, the first President Bush, it still is a prudence that might reject some of the "instant gratification" demands from newly minted conservative activists.

This is decidedly not to say that conservatives should make do with "moderates" or "squishes" or "RINOs" who put fingers in the wind and move accordingly. This is not a call for temporizers or shape-shifters. To use examples of those not running for president, what we need are indeed leaders of the caliber of Rep. Mike Pence or Sen. Jim DeMint or Jeff Sessions, as solidly conservative as one can find, willing to buck the media-politico tide in the cause of conservative principle. Yet it's also important that our leaders be people who have demonstrated the dual capacity not just to buck the tide by noisy posturing outside the system but also to attract followers within the system to use the levers of the system, including prudent and constructive compromise, to achieve actual victories or ground-gaining advances for their principled causes.

A third-term member of the House of Representatives without notable successes and without great influence with his/her colleagues may be an admirable figure, but is he or she ready to be president? A second-year governor of a smallish state, without time to really craft a record or to prove lasting effectiveness and without, is likewise wise to insist he's not ready for the highest office in the land. Reality TV stardom is not ordinarily good training for international statesmanship, nor is a political resume so thin that its only entry is a crushing loss in one's own party's state primary. For that matter, even a full-term governorship isn't a great qualification if its accomplishments are few, and if the single greatest of those "accomplishments" is a liberal's dream legislation that served as a model for the worst federal law of our lifetime. (Needless to say, a disgraced and mercurial former Speaker also may well leave conservatives looking elsewhere for more creditable experience.)

Wisdom is borne of experience, and conservatives of all people should demand from their leaders that those leaders have experienced real success in a challenging policy-making environment or in significant management -- without losing an identifiable philosophical core. Someone who speaks well at rallies is an asset; somebody who chairs his party's caucus in the national legislature with effectiveness and without repeated sell-outs of principle is not just an asset but a capital-'L' Leader. A governor who succeeds at achieving conservative ends in a state not ordinarily conservative is a more proven leader than a governor who successfully caretakes an already conservative state -- and certainly a more proven conservative leader than a governor of a liberal state who succeeds only by acting like a liberal.

In lamenting that Robert Taft never earned the Republican presidential nomination, Russell Kirk noted that "Parties often have chosen not to nominate their most able men, preferring magnetism or mediocrity." Republicans who make that mistake in this presidential cycle would be responsible for four more years of the ravages of the Obama Alinskyites, which could mean an irrevocable derailment of essential liberty. We dare not make that mistake by seeking to crown a new, evanescent American Idol.

 

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[1]
From The Politics of Prudence, The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft, and The Roots of the American Order.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.