Following Barack Obama’s victory, political conservatives are suffering a crisis that could be called psychological but is better described as spiritual. The mood is one of depression, despair, panic.
Responding to calls for rebuilding the conservative movement, Rush Limbaugh demands purging it instead: “We had some people abandon the conservative movement, and they need to be abandoned,” he said on the radio, referring to a handful of conservatives who went over to the Obama side, abandoning John McCain (who, in Limbaugh’s view, wasn’t a conservative anyway). The present moment is, Limbaugh explains, “an opportunity for cleansing.”
Others say it’s the end of conservatism as we’ve known it. “The modern conservative movement began with the crushing defeat of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race,” writes Beliefnet blogger Rod Dreher. “The modern conservative movement ends with the crushing defeat of Arizona Sen. John McCain — who took Goldwater’s Senate seat upon his retirement — in the 2008 presidential race.”
Still others look back longingly to the golden 1980s. The Web site Politico reports on a planned secret meeting of unidentified top conservative politicians, activists and intellectuals at an undisclosed location in Virginia, where the question to be considered is how to revive the magic of Reaganism.
Clearly, conservatives need a reformation of some kind. Otherwise it’s hard to see how the glaring enthusiasm differential between the Republican and Democratic candidates can be fixed next time. McCain won only 78% of conservative voters, while Obama won 89% of liberals.
Reformations come in two varieties. One seeks to recover an original, timeless purity, real or imagined, with the hope of energizing a present constituency. The other brokers a compromise between past and present for the sake of holding on to the same constituency. In religion, an example of the former, a truly conservative reformation, would be the Protestant Reformation, which revolted from the Catholic Church and claimed to recapture the simple, pure essence of the early Christian community. Another would be Hasidic Judaism, which sparked a revival in Jewish life by making available to the masses the deep-rooted, mystical tradition of Kabbalah, which had previously been the domain of isolated, expert scholars alone.
The other kind of reformation isn’t necessarily liberal in nature, but for convenience we’ll call it that. An example would be Reform or Conservative Judaism, neither of which at its founding claimed to recover a lost or hidden past but merely attempted to hold on to a constituency, Jews, by fashioning a compromise with modern values. They have a hard time inspiring much passion.
The cardinals of political conservatism are faced with a choice between these two alternatives. Some advocate remaking the ideology with a view to securing a particular audience. Appeals to the working class were fashionable a few months ago and had something to do with the choice of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate. It didn’t work. Obama excited voters by not appearing to calculate in such a transparent way.
A really conservative reformation is the more promising path. Consider the parallel cases in religious history. Evangelical Protestantism remains vital and enthusiastically expansionist. So too, in the Jewish context, does the Hasidic reformation, still growing aggressively around the world with the encouragement and guidance of the emissaries of Chabad, Judaism’s most successful branch.
But what is the original pure conservatism that’s waiting, hidden like a pearl, to be rediscovered? The pearl is not about wonky “reforms” cynically and hopelessly crafted to win the favor of Joe Six-Pack. It won’t be found via a desperate attempt to recapture 1980s Reaganism either. Conservatism’s pearl is timeless. It’s metaphysical.
The philosopher Russell Kirk extracted the essence of conservatism in his book “The Conservative Mind,” tracing the conservative idea back not just to Edmund Burke in the 18th century, but still further, millennia in the past, to Mount Sinai.
The contrast with Barack Obama may help make this clear. He appealed to the future, offering the exhilarating prospect of rejecting our narrow, bigoted past. It’s indeed a beautiful thing to have elected our first black president. We can and should celebrate, but without adopting the prejudice that in all things we are better than our forebears.
Conservatism embraces past, present and future, a covenant linking the dead with the living and the still unborn. Faith in the wisdom we receive from our ancestors, necessarily a religious faith, is essential.
Burke wrote, “The reason first why we do admire those things which are greatest, and second those things which are ancientest, is because the one are the least distant from the infinite substance, the other from the infinite continuance, of God.” Kirk remarked: “Precisely [a] blindness to the effulgence of the burning bush, [a] deafness to the thunder above Sinai, is what Burke proclaims to be the principal error of the French ‘enlightenment.’” One may say that being “enlightened,” then as now, means being blind to the light that pulses like a distant star across the galaxy, from long ago.
The spirit that Kirk ably captured was the spirit of National Review founder William F. Buckley and other icons of the past. This doesn’t tell us immediately what conservative policies should be, but it does indicate that a secular conservatism can’t thrive. That truth got lost amid the practical distractions of Republican governance, in much the same way that Judaism’s true spirit often gets lost today amid the distractions of governing a secular Jewish state or maintaining an alphabet soup of Jewish organizational bureaucracies.
For such complacency, Judaism teaches that God finds exile to be an excellent tonic. If concerns on the right about Obama are correct, then his election is a reason to worry, in the short run. But in the long run, a dose of exile will be good for the conservative movement, spiritually and politically, a chance to recover its hidden pearl.
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author, most recently, of “How Would God Vote?: Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative” (Doubleday).