Reihan Salam: Brett Kavanaugh and the future of elite conservatism
It was a question Kirk never quite answered. As he reminded readers for decades, conservatism resists precise definition. There is no conservative platform applicable to all people, in all places, at all times. “Strictly speaking, conservatism is not a political system, and certainly not an ideology,” Kirk wrote in 1982. Rather, “it is a way of looking at the civil social order.” Kirk spent his life circling back to general principles of conservatism, apprehended through the study of notable conservative writers and statesmen. These include belief in a “transcendent moral order”; support for “social continuity”; and adherence to the principles of prescription, prudence, variety, and imperfectability.
The Conservative Mind has provided generations of conservatives a sense of history and point of view. Where before conservatives had felt isolated, on the margins of political and cultural debate, they now could take their place in a great chain of thinkers, beginning in the modern era with Edmund Burke and continuing to the present. Kirk’s gallery of heroes was as idiosyncratic as his personality, grouping Brits with Americans, reactionaries with reformers, Confederates with Yankees. His chapters on John Randolph and John Calhoun, defenders of the slave power, discomfit contemporary readers, yet he also greatly admired Abraham Lincoln. Kirk was as critical of capitalism—he reminded audiences that it was a Marxist term—as he was of socialism. As he put it later: “The intellectual heirs of Burke, and the conservative interest generally, did battle on two fronts: against the successors of the Jacobins, with their ‘armed doctrine’; and against the economists of Manchester, with their reliance upon the nexus of cash payment.”
Kirk’s criticisms of economic utilitarianism, industrialism, and commercialism distinguished him from many other opponents of government planning. “I never call myself an individualist; and I wish that you people hadn’t clutched that dreary ideology to your bosom,” Kirk wrote to Victor Milione, the president of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (later renamed the Intercollegiate Studies Institute) in May 1954. “Politically, it ends in anarchy; spiritually, it is a hideous solitude. I do not even call myself an ‘individual’; I hope I am a person.” Libertarianism, Kirk said, was a dead end because it failed to excite the moral imagination. A public exchange in 1957 with Friedrich Hayek exposed the divide. “I recall remarking that Hayek referred to religion as ‘mysticism,’” Kirk told a young correspondent many years later. “I retorted that such a notion merely reveals ignorance of religion.”
This suspicion of classical liberalism is one reason Kirk was reluctant to join Buckley’s National Review. Conservatism and libertarianism might fuse perfectly within the confines of Buckley’s personality, but he was just one charismatic figure. Kirk agreed to write a monthly column for the periodical that appeared from its founding until 1980. But the tension persisted. He never appeared on the masthead, chided Buckley when National Review failed to review his books, and was vilified by its senior editor Frank Meyer. It is noteworthy that Kirk looked upon the flagship publication of the conservative movement with detachment. “James Burnham was a utilitarian, really,” he wrote of another senior editor in a 1990 letter, “and I suppose I may be classified as a romantic—that is, on the side of Coleridge, Scott, and Southey, in the disputes of the first half of the nineteenth century.” When Kirk assembled his anthology of conservative thought for Penguin, he omitted Buckley while including the godfather of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol.