The Conservative Movement: ‘How Much Wisdom Have We Lost?’

“The Poverty of Riches,” depicting aristocrats queueing outside a pawnbroker’s shop to sell their unwanted property. (1894)

In autumnal weather, one grows wistful . . .

As a member of Generation X, I remember how difficult it was to scrounge up conservative tomes, publications and—above all prizing—broadcasts. Indeed, if memory serves, in the Left’s last-ditch attempt to prevent America’s youth from learning why they instinctively liked President Ronald Reagan, bookstores placed National Review behind the porn.

Undaunted (if delayed), we nonetheless plucked and plumbed this seminal font of conservative philosophy, which led us to William F. Buckley’s television show, “Firing Line”; and, from there, we sojourned to the conservative works of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Sowell, Allan Bloom, and Robert Nisbet to name but a few. And though Bloom was warning about The Closing of the American Mind, it seemed impossible as we stood upon the shoulders of giants and received the collective wisdom of the species amassed over the generations of human endeavor, failure, and triumph.

But Bloom was prescient, if a bit precipitate in 1987; and, today, amidst the incessant, instant swirl of the communications revolution, with every tweet, post, and pic, the American mind is shutting tighter than a hair band’s spandex.

As Bloom warned, the Left’s cancerous political correctness has metastasized throughout America’s educational, political, economic and social institutions to chill the right of free speech and its intrinsic right to the freedoms of thought and conscience.

Yet, the Left alone is not to blame. The Right, too, contributes to this frigid clime.

In an ironic, wholly unconscious aping of the Left’s identity politics, we have witnessed the novel phenomenon of hyphenated conservatives.

“Libertarian-conservative,” “economic conservative,” “cultural conservative,” etc., are now routinely spouted as shorthand “brand” self-identification among the Right’s political actors. Such patchwork conservatism stems from a superficial exposure to the philosophy. (Conservatism is not an ideology; and, if one needs this explained, one is not yet truly a conservative.) Unmoored from a deeper understanding of conservatism, individuals can but cobble together a convenient amalgamation of checklist conservative talking points that suit their immediate and long-term ambitions.

True, conservative minds will differ on specific issues, what they do not differ on is the fundamental principles from which such decisions arrive. Bluntly, true conservatives could never conjoin their philosophy with libertarianism—the former is a philosophy preeminently articulated by Burke; the latter is an ideology springing from the intellectual cesspool of Rousseau. The question, then, is how could this dismaying diffusion and confusion of conservatism occur at the very time its unity is required to thwart the Left’s deleterious aims?

A poverty of riches, Eliot long ago bemoaned: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

In our Information Age, “the Rising Generation” has never had to search for and, upon finding, learn from bedrock conservative works. Like Madison Avenue to the Baby Boomers before it, to make a quick buck the establishment merrily pumps out degraded, lowest common denominator “conservatism” for the consumption of nascent conservatives deserving of so much better.

Never was the devolution of conservative intellectualism more apparent to me than a night I strolled the corridor of a conservative publishing house. On the wall in chronological order were framed covers of the conservative books the house had printed. The first was Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind; the latest was Chuck Norris’s Black Belt Patriotism. (Noticing my glancing at it, one of the executives asked what I thought of Norris’ book. I replied, “I’ll wait for the movie.”) Sure, in a cage match Chuck Norris could’ve kicked Russell Kirk’s ass; but, God love him, Chuck couldn’t beat Russell in a match of wits.

This is not to diminish Norris’s contribution to popularizing conservatism, especially as he does so from the Leftist fever swamp named Hollywood. Yet, while his book has its role to fill in casting about for new adherents to conservative philosophy; such books cannot have the starring role in “messaging” conservatism. But celebrity conservatism, TV talking points, and talk radio tirades are precisely what the Republican establishment’s racketeers are perpetually peddling for a profit at the movement’s expense.

For, in the wake of the Republican establishment’s torrential, 24/7 political tripe crawl the glassy-eyed, hyphenated conservatives who, armed with talking points from internet hit coveting pundits on the make who are equally ignorant of the true roots of conservatism, yearn to save the world – or what passes for it through the cracked lens of quasi-ideology.

And, as the kaleidoscopic leaves in a December breeze, they waver and waft to earth, devoid of purpose – dead in the winter of our discontent.

The wistful mood of the moment lost, it’s time to rake. Get the hell off my lawn.

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14 responses to “The Conservative Movement: ‘How Much Wisdom Have We Lost?’

  • Buckley’s Conservatism had one goal – to stop Soviet Communism. After the Berlin Wall fell, they gave into the globalist elites and neocons and conserved nothing.
    One classic Conservative was Joe Sobran, as was Pat Buchanan. Both were purged.
    Even the Libertarians in many cases were on the side of the Tradition that should have been conserved.
    Hayek, Rothbard, Rand.
    Ironically, imagine if the USSR won against the US. We’d have been in a multicultural hell hole, likely dying of drugs, oppressed, poverty, pollution, crime, while the komissars lived the good life in their gated Dachas but here, and schools and colleges were turned into communist indoctrination centers and Christians had to go underground … Oh, wait.

    • Buckley was about much more than foreign policy. Taxes, economics, social issues. As for “had the Russians won” what country do you live in? Because all those things have been going on in the U.S. for decades! The commies won from the inside the democrat party! You obviously don’t know what your talking about!

      • If you watch Buckley debate Hefner, who was just a pornographer complying with US Supreme Court precedent on “devoid of redeeming social value”, by publishing the ceaseless instalments of “The Playboy Philosophy”, you will see Buckley’s limits. Video is on youtube.

      • I cannot think of any time he actively opposed (don’t vote for or support a candidate) Abortion, no fault divorce, or the LGBTQ agenda, except for the one time he called Gore Vidal an epithet after Vidal was being stupid.

  • Sold article Mr McCotter. Although your main premise has merit I beg to differ in that without Rush, Levin, Hannity, the American Spectator and others, conservatism of any stripe would not even be on the radar. Especially since the millennials haven’t been exposed to anything resembling conservative principles or ideas via the public indoctrination mills or the culture on the whole. You may not agree with some of the messengers, but we certainly do need the message delivered however imperfectly.your argument certainly explains the fragmentation of the Republican party into so many “sects” and the preponderence of RINO’S.

  • The beginning of this made me think back to my favorite conservative works, particularly from Milton Friedman. Then the author told me that wasn’t conservative. It was libertarian. That turned me off for the rest of the article. It seems like the author is guilty of precisely what he is criticizing in others. To paraphrase Jeff Flake, without libertarianism conservativism is toast.

  • which led us to William F. Buckley’s television show,>> “What you mean ‘we’, paleface?” (to quote the punchline of an old joke).

    • …by which I mean we never imagined that Bull Connor would don blackface and become head of the left’s ideological wing.

  • Sorry author, the only difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is what flavor of corruption you prefer. Every one of them is taking money from donors to help the donors feed at the tax money trough enriching the few at the expense of the American people. Congress has not only shipped jobs overseas, but they have given companies tax breaks for doing so. Many now call DC the uniparty, unified by venality, greed and corruption. The country is in economic decline, vast swaths are underemployed and underpaid, there STILL IS ZERO CONTROL OF OUR SOUTHER BORDER, Republicans sponsered and voted to create 100,000 more H1B visas against the wishes of the voters. Republican idiots are arguing about who is a real republican while the voters are dialling 911. We hired Trump to fire you.

  • Look no farther than National Review, which under the “leadership” of pretty boy Rich Lowry and his girly men, who have transformed it into an irrelevant, politically correct mouthpiece for the ruling class.

  • There are no objective definitions for any of these political labels. A better definition, perhaps, would be Americanism. It is upon this definition that Donald Trump ascended to the presidency. Trump’s victory was powered by the rise of the Republican rank and file, their putative leaders be damned. Seal the border, deport the illegals, cut taxes, restore American military might, defang the activist judges…. these are what rank and filers consider to be true conservative values. The blithering arcana spouted by the bow tie wearing, down talking group of pretenders who, one strongly suspects, are the grown up versions of ‘the little boy who always got picked last’, are like arguing about where to hang the pictures while the house is on fire. They weren’t just against Trump, they were against US. Where are they now? I will tell you. They are aboard The Midnight Express to Political Oblivion while the Deplorable Trump Train rockets into the future.

  • Conservatism hasn’t exactly served the working stiff very well. It’s also served as cover for a host of idiotic wars and its “compassionate” variant certainly grew government and wracked up debt with the best that any progressive could ever do. And now, with Roy Moore, we have the spectacle of George Will endorsing a Democrat that supports partial-birth abortions. Or any number of so-called conservatives endorsing Hillary last year. Whatever rises from what Conservative, Inc. burned to the ground in their Trump hate, it’s not going to be classical Burke.

  • Mr. McCotter – and other Republicans – needs to understand that those who have been voting for Republicans don’t give a damn about “the conservative movement.”

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