Russell Kirk was a great American thinker of the last century – and giant of conservative thought. He was a student of the Founding Fathers, but also of their fathers, and of their mentors’ mentors. He knew Edmund Burke’s philosophy cold, and history’s big lessons all the way back to Plato. Kirk hated
“ruinous taxation,” like Lecky, who wrote “Democracy and Liberty.” Kirk hated “corrupt Washington,” as Henry James, who wrote “Democracy.” Kirk loved individual liberty and was a scholar of our Constitution’s roots, including its “natural law” origins. Kirk was effectively the Father, or wise man, of modern conservatism.
So, what would this Father of modern conservatism – and a man who feared for America’s future already in the 1950s – say about our current presidential primary race? He would celebrate our public concern, suspicions of power, and voting participation. But he would also shake his head at our impetuous behavior. He would worry aloud for us, as a society and as individuals. And he would warn us to stop and think.
This sage would ask us, before we cast our vote: ‘Are you thinking hard about what you are doing, not just feeling the satisfaction of slashing at what is despised? Are you thinking about who can work within our complex constitutional system, to thoughtfully change what we do not like? Are you thinking about who personifies prudence – not the mad dash to a seemingly simple answer? Are you a real conservative, drawing your convictions from faith and duty, patience and history? Or are you just another French Revolutionary, willing to take the boat over the falls, destroying what we all value in the process? In short, are you thinking about who may lead wisely, not just with passion?’
If only this paragon of conservatism was alive today! Would he prefer indignant, irreverent, proudly outspoken and unapologetic Trump, or a patient, practiced, constitutionally-guided, but principled mover-and-shaker like Cruz? Would he prefer Rubio’s fast-moving, ambitious, speed-skating – that rocket rise to power by someone young in nature? If we are true to our history, true to those who fought for it, true to the Founders and those who made today possible, what should we do?
To say what Kirk would advise right now is impossible. But there are hints. Actually, the billions of former Americans – and yes, there are now billions – who lived before us, left us hints. They were sometimes outspoken, more often kept their own counsel, did not opine on things they knew little about, were generally more quiet and judicious. They knew how to speak well, but also how to listen. They might have been entertained – if briefly – by Trump’s style, but not for long. They preferred the workhorse to the show horse. They might have asked merriment of Cruz, but they would have appreciated his style, preparation and tempered personality. They were also young, like Rubio and Cruz, when they lived, when they wrote, when the fought, and often when they died.
What else do we know? The great American conservative thinkers of our past were respectful of THEIR past, and of the sacrifices made for them. They did generally NOT fling baseless insults. They were NOT generally arrogant. They did NOT pretend life’s complexities, or fixing government’s failures, was usually simple, quick or easy. They were NOT imprudent. Instead, they had the courage to speak, courage to listen, and embodied responsibility – that is, prudent thinking.
So, back to Kirk. If Kirk were our guide, what would he say today? Maybe these words – his own words – give us the best hint: “Conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence … Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues.” Why? Because national security, national survival, the economy and respect for each other all depend on good judgment, prudence.
What other hints did Kirk leave? He said: Keep your eyes on “long run consequences” and not just “temporary advantage or popularity.” Why? Because “liberals and radicals … are imprudent.” You will know their nature because “they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away.” Interesting point, cautionary.
To this, he added: “Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be effective.” So, maybe we need more strategy and depth, complexity and thinking, not so many simple promises. Maybe we should wonder about a feel-good pledge of walls built and paid for by others, indefinite bans on people from away, the odd contradiction of support and opposition to groups and causes. Perhaps we need to stop and ask what lies behind the words. What is the meaning of these words? If unclear, maybe we should dare to doubt.
The great American conservative ended a section of one relevant book this way: “The conservative … acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences…Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery… The march of providence is slow; it is the devil who always hurries.” And so, from our past, we get a guide to our future. We are warned to be prudent, unhurried, look for depth and mastery of complex, constitutional and inherently unsettled events. Beware the glad-hander with simple answers to hard questions. Walk a wide circle around those who pledge easy ways to get up a steep hill, or who slap your back and berate others, always boasting.
It’s time for American Conservative voters – indeed for all Americans – to stop laughing, slapping backs, and start thinking – hard now. We must navigate these treacherous times, around these treacherous falls, not go over them. That might be Kirk’s counsel to us, and the word of caution from all who brought us painfully, slowly, prudently here. The pumped-fist of populism is never prudence. Sometimes an American leader must have mastery of the Constitution, of the Congress and Supreme Court, of the complex – in order to succeed. I leave it to the reader to assess who that candidate this year may be – but in all events, think about it. The stakes are high. From some distant and ethereal ridge, around some far and unfathomable bend, our ancestors may yet be watching. It is all on us now.