Re-Intellectualizing Conservatism

Since the 1950s, the conservative movement has prided itself for its emphasis on ideas. Conservatives see themselves—unlike liberals, who work as a coalition of special interests, with leaders promising various handouts—but as a movement founded on intellectualism and ideas, as informed by a series of first principles. Indeed, the modern conservative movement, spurred by thinkers such as Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, Jr., reignited this emphasis, and eventually built the foundation of a coherent political movement. By adding thinkers such as Milton Friedman to the mix, the conservative movement turned into a tidal wave, culminating in the Reagan presidency and the Republican Revolution of 1994.

Yet, somewhere in the last several years, the Republican Party lost the battle of ideas—or more accurately, abandoned the battle of ideas. During President Bush’s first term, he conducted, along with Republican Congressional support, a relatively active domestic policy, which included income tax cuts, progressive elimination of the death tax, dividend tax cuts, the Medicare prescription drug plan, and so on.

But was there any signature domestic issue in his second term? Granted, much of the 2nd term took place under the haze of the nation’s two wars, and the Bush Administration has superbly protected us against further attacks. And we have two unbelievable additions to the Supreme Court in Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. However, successes—and even offerings—have been few. I point to the failure of many Congressional Republicans to back President Bush’s plan for Social Security reform as the beginning of the party’s entry into the current valley bereft of meaningful ideas. Since then, Republicans (at least the leadership) have floated along rudderless, failing to suggest much in the way of, well, anything.

As previously proffered in this forum, the conservative movement has some outstanding potential leaders out there—but they need to drop the “potential” label and start to lead conservatives again.

Where will we start? As Yuval Levin said in the December 1st issue of National Review, “Winning the next election requires…us to ask what we believe about government, about man, and about our country; to ask what problems concern the public today that might be addressed by changing something about government; and to ask how our beliefs might be applied to those problems in practice. This is the threefold task that now (as always) confronts conservatives.”

In essence, we must visibly identify our first principles and then cogently and persuasively articulate policy proposals that reflect those principles. It’s not enough just to determine what we believe; we have to take the bold step of translating those beliefs into a meaningful policy agenda.

But this isn’t a new strategy. Fifty years ago, WFB said,

When one declares oneself to be a conservative, one is not, unfortunately, thereupon visited by tongues of fire that leave one omniscient. The acceptance of a series of premises is just the beginning. After that, we need constantly to inform ourselves, to analyze and to think through our premises and their ramifications. We need to ponder, in the light of the evidence, the strengths and the weaknesses, the consistencies and the inconsistencies, the glory and the frailty of our position, week in and week out. Otherwise we will not hold our own in a world where informed dedication, not just dedication, is necessary for survival and growth.

-William F. Buckley Jr., Feb 8, 1956, National Review

Conservatism isn’t a particular set of policies, but a set of first principles (or premises, per WFB) that inform specific policies. Policies that can change and conform overtime according to circumstances, but are nonetheless founded upon those first principles.

Herein lies the challenge: how do we apply decades-old principles to contemporary issues? In a way, conservatism needs to return to its intellectual roots, while at the same time innovatively anticipating tomorrow’s battles.

Already, in the few weeks since the election, conservative thinkers have been doing just that: re-articulating first principles in anticipation of fashioning specific policies in the future. And, here at Ex Deserto, we hope to do our small part in driving the message—that conservatism is a lasting intellectual movement, a lasting political movement, and a lasting solution in reaffirming America’s special place in history.

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One thought on “Re-Intellectualizing Conservatism

  1. Elliot, Excellent post! I think you’ve encapsulated the mission of this blog and our challenge. I believe that the GOP put intellectual rigor on the “back burner” or, more accurately, it was overwhelmed by the “black and white” problem facing us in our confrontation with terrorism. Because we saw that there was a clear path to follow in that struggle, we applied a similar binary template to many other policy issues.While correct paths are discernible, we, as conservatives, should never shy away from nuance in the divination of that path. Dealing with nuance takes mental effort, constant study, and lively debate. And acknowledging nuance does not mean we’ve abandoned our “first principles.”I am excited by the opportunities in front of us, and look forward to working with you to realize them.Ted

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