Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The Conservative Soul

Anyone who is at least remotely well-informed as to the goings-on in American politics is aware of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction that was assembled in the wake of the debt ceiling crisis in August. Its mission has been to find places and define procedures that would be conducive to the alleviation of the federal government’s debt woes. However, when most think of this “super committee” and its prominent members, such as U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.,and U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, they think not of its promises made so many months ago, but of the ignominious failure that it has become.

Associates of the Tea Party viewed this attempt at deficit reduction as feckless and contemptible, and have instead established their own shadow committee, which outlined $9.7 trillion in cuts over the course of ten years to wide and disparate slew of programs, from Amtrak to the Transportation Security Administration. The populist overtones in this attempt at a budget were plain for all to see, and indeed were outlined “to a Tea,” as the expression goes. The proposed Tea Party budget was so conservative that, as Time Magazine notes in an intriguing recent article, “It’s a more conservative document than the very conservative budget proposals that have been repeatedly shot down in the Democratic-controlled Senate.”

To the untrained eye, the lackluster attempt by Tea Party affiliates at a budget is quite “conservative” indeed. It is emblematic of all that the modern American right seeks to encapsulate – from the view of government in all of its forms as a latter-day feudal lord to a conception of all public services as brazen attempts to subvert American capitalism. However, the existential question that so far only a select few have ventured to ask is this: can such a fearful disposition – one so averse to compromise and cohesion, so utterly contemptuous towards the lengthy arc of American political development, and so easily seduced by the chimera of conspiratorial superstitions – truly be considered conservative in the first place?

To gain insight into the dangerous and speculative trajectory of modern conservatism’s future, we must look to the past – first to an American, Russell Kirk, and then to his intellectual forefather, Edmund Burke. Kirk, the famous Edmund Burke scholar and the widely-acknowledged progenitor of 20th-century American conservatism, noted that, in a stark contrast to the doctrinaire predispositions of modern pseudo-conservatives, genuine conservatism as practiced in the past is bound not by ideology but tradition. By “tradition,” he refers not to the tactless repetition of pithy religious slogans or the assumption of a given stance on a moral wedge issue, but the ecumenical experience of centuries of political development interpreted in ways relevant to the modern world. For the lay reader, this means an admittance of the inherently flawed and irredeemable nature of man; an appreciation for the intricacy of society; and recognition of the necessity of law, order, and systems of governance, which all serve to prevent baser human impulses from tearing asunder our tenuous grasp over civilization. Conservatism is manifested, Kirk asserts, in a “faith in prescription,” and a patent distrust for those driven by a utopian agenda, be they on the left or the right.

If one uses this matrix, then one can easily discredit the normal foes of traditional conservatism such as most schools of socialists, communists and anarchists as utopian speculators who are not at all learned in political history and the depraved nature of human psychology. Naturally, it is easy to critique many of the adherents of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in a similar vein, though more for their desire for and belief in radical utopian change over gradual reform, than for their actual act of protest, which is oftentimes the impetus for prudent, necessary reform in the first place. However, what is most salient to the politically disconnected is how inviting both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement are to the mordant philosophical saber of traditional conservatism, for both movements are possessed of a core who are sympathetic towards revolutionary ends, be it the misplaced populist desire of the Tea Party to “throw the bums out” of Washington or the ambitions expressed by many in the erstwhile-occupied Zuccotti Park to radically restructure society with a chaotic direct democratic program.

By virtue of their pronounced revolutionary dispositions, both movements fly in the face of genuine conservatism. One cannot accurately appraise traditionalist conservatism without appreciating its counter-revolutionary credentials, for it was very much of the chaotic womb of the French Revolution so many years ago, with the writings of Edmund Burke and his compatriots serving as its intellectual midwife. Burke decried revolution as a pernicious thing, and rightfully so, for aside from upending law and order and introducing society to the vicissitudes of chaos and misery, it serves to uproot society itself by casting to the wind institutions and laws that were essential to its function, not unlike erosion caused by the extirpation of beach flora. It is for this reason that one can, and should, be wary of movements that so enthusiastically purport to be revolutionary in nature, or otherwise promise radical change.

This is not to say that all change is bad or that change shouldn’t be desired to ameliorate pressing ills, but that it must be affected within the bounds of stable, existing institutions. Even Burke, that prototypical conservative, asserted that “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,” a conservation that is better served without the machinations of ideologues or their speculative programs. Conservatism, for this reason, is unique in that it is not a rigid set of beliefs, nor a party platform – it is a perspective.

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].


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    CoryNov 28, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Conservatives have souls? Wow. Coulda fooled me!