The Politics of a Short Memory


With my headache reduced to manageable levels, my fever broken, and some signs of flu-free health returning, I decided to write on a topic I don’t discuss much on this blog: politics.

Cerulean Sanctum is not a political blog and never has been. Here, we discuss issues facing the church. I don’t particularly like politics, though I married someone who does. So my wife and I talk about it quite a bit in our household. Those conversations just don’t show up here, mostly because I don’t believe that politics is the complete answer.

But in light of Super Tuesday and the drama of the 2008 presidential race, I felt compelled to write.

I’m a conservative. I wish that term meant more than it does right now in 2008. But just as the word Christian has been demoted by some in favor of the terms Christ-follower or Follower of Jesus, I wish someone would come up with a better word than conservative because I certainly don’t recognize conservatism anymore.

The word conservative tells you all you need to know. It’s a belief that valuable (God-given) things are worth conserving. What bothers me is that conservatives today have no understanding that this is the heart of traditional conservatism.

If we conservatives were all that interested in the purity of conservative beliefs, we would have to admit that not a single self-branded conservative running in this presidential race is a traditional conservative. Conservatives today have short memories and can no longer recall what traditional conservatism is. The conservatism of today looks nothing like the conservatism of fifty years ago when Eisenhower was president.

This election cycle, conservatives have whipped themselves into frenzies over a bunch of Republicans who call themselves conservatives but in no way resemble the true conservatism of old. Todays conservatives are yesterdays liberals when you get down to it. (With today’s liberals being yesterday’s socialists.) The closest thing to a genuine conservative in this presidential race is Ron Paul. Look at Paul and you see the shadow of yesterday’s conservatism. However, Paul’s libertarianism does not equal true conservatism. Russell KirkBut again, today’s conservatives can’t spot the difference.

What does traditional conservatism stand for? I’ll defer to Russell Kirk:

1. Men and nations are governed by moral laws; and those laws have their origin in a wisdom that is more than human—in divine justice. At heart, political problems are moral and religious problems. The wise statesman tries to apprehend the moral law and govern his conduct accordingly. We have a moral debt to our ancestors, who bestowed upon us our civilization, and a moral obligation to the generations who will come after us. This debt is ordained of God. We have no right, therefore, to tamper impudently with human nature or with the delicate fabric of our civil social order.

2. Variety and diversity are the characteristics of a high civilization. Uniformity and absolute equality are the death of all real vigor and freedom in existence. Conservatives resist with impartial strength the uniformity of a tyrant or an oligarchy, and the uniformity of what Tocqueville called “democratic despotism.

3. Justice means that every man and every woman have the right to what is their own—to the things best suited to their own nature, to the rewards of their ability and integrity, to their property and their personality. Civilized society requires that all men and women have equal rights before the law, but that equality should not extend to equality of condition: that is, society is a great partnership, in which all have equal rights—but not to equal things. The just society requires sound leadership, different rewards for different abilities, and a sense of respect and duty.

4. Property and freedom are inseparably connected; economic leveling is not economic progress. Conservatives value property for its own sake, of course; but they value it even more because without it all men and women are at the mercy of an omnipotent government.

5. Power is full of danger; therefore the good state is one in which power is checked and balanced, restricted by sound constitutions and customs. So far as possible, political power ought to be kept in the hands of private persons and local institutions. Centralization is ordinarily a sign of social decadence.

6. The past is a great storehouse of wisdom; as [Edmund] Burke said, “the individual is foolish, but the species is wise. The conservative believes that we need to guide ourselves by the moral traditions, the social experience, and the whole complex body of knowledge bequeathed to us by our ancestors. The conservative appeals beyond the rash opinion of the hour to what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead—that is, the considered opinions of the wise men and women who died before our time, the experience of the race. The conservative, in short, knows he was not born yesterday.

7. Modern society urgently needs true community: and true community is a world away from collectivism. Real community is governed by love and charity, not by compulsion. Through churches, voluntary associations, local governments, and a variety of institutions, conservatives strive to keep community healthy. Conservatives are not selfish, but public-spirited. They know that collectivism means the end of real community, substituting uniformity for variety and force for willing cooperation.

8. In the affairs of nations, the American conservative feels that his country ought to set an example to the world, but ought not to try to remake the world in its image. It is a law of politics, as well as of biology, that every living thing loves above all else—even above its own life—its distinct identity, which sets it off from all other things. The conservative does not aspire to domination of the world, nor does he relish the prospect of a world reduced to a single pattern of government and civilization.

9. Men and women are not perfectible, conservatives know; and neither are political institutions. We cannot make a heaven on earth, though we may make a hell. We all are creatures of mingled good and evil; and, good institutions neglected and ancient moral principles ignored, the evil in us tends to predominate. Therefore the conservative is suspicious of all utopian schemes. He does not believe that, by power of positive law, we can solve all the problems of humanity. We can hope to make our world tolerable, but we cannot make it perfect. When progress is achieved, it is through prudent recognition of the limitations of human nature.

10. Change and reform, conservatives are convinced, are not identical: moral and political innovation can be destructive as well as beneficial; and if innovation is undertaken in a spirit of presumption and enthusiasm, probably it will be disastrous. All human institutions alter to some extent from age to age, for slow change is the means of conserving society, just as it is the means for renewing the human body. But American conservatives endeavor to reconcile the growth and alteration essential to our life with the strength of our social and moral traditions. With Lord Falkland, they say, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. They understand that men and women are best content when they can feel that they live in a stable world of enduring values.

—From “The Essence of Conservatism,” 1957

Not a so-called conservative running for office today ascribes to those wise words. That’s sad for us.

Notice that Kirk said little about money. Yet isn’t that what most so-called conservatives are concerned with today? This is why the Republican Party has gone off the rails. All the true conservative ideals were jettisoned in favor of cold, hard cash and sordid allegiances to business partners. When worthy principles could be bought and sold, the GOP became nothing more than the Democrats, except with nicer vacation villas. The GOP of Eisenhower’s era would in no way recognize the GOP of 2008 as its progeny.

So where are the true conservative politicians today? Many have given up on politics or have been swept aside by those masquerading as conservatives. As for their supporters, too many have bought the fake conservatism bandied about today. That so many so-called conservative pundits have fallen for the decidedly non-conservative crew foisted on us by the GOP this year is proof enough that all definitions have been lost. The neo-con branch of the GOP successfully muddied the waters to the point that scant few can see clearly.

I firmly encourage conservatives to vote truly conservative and stop supporting those candidates who are not traditional conservatives. If this means writing in a candidate, then do it. I’ve done so myself. At some point we need to send the message that we won’t stand for pretenders, nor will we let this continued slide left persist.

Conservatism is worth conserving.

19 thoughts on “The Politics of a Short Memory

  1. Diane Roberts

    Long live Barry Goldwater, Pat Buchanan and John Dean. Fie on the neo-cons. Today, even the so-called “conservatives” think the above three names are crazy. Sad isn’t it. John Dean has spoken at our library twice now and he really udnerstands conservatism. But he was groomed by Goldwater. Some of these people aren’t necessarily Christians, but they understand and believe everything you wrote about in your post.

    • Diane,

      The first draft of this post mentioned Goldwater.

      My parents were staunch Goldwater supporters. They even worked on his campaign. But after the shafting Goldwater received, my father was forever after disillusioned with politics. Reagan was the only candidate afterwards that my father had any enthusiasm for, and even then, it wasn’t as firm as his love for Goldwater.

      I have a lot of mixed feelings about Pat Buchanan. He doesn’t really toe the firm conservative line. Even though he’s an anti-globalist, he doesn’t really support local economies. Buchanan also makes a bunch of hare-brained comments from time to time that don’t engender positive responses in people, even conservatives. He sounds like a John Bircher too often for my taste.

      Can’t say much about John Dean except that he showed no sense getting entangled in Nixon’s folly.

      Alan Keyes is about the only real conservative left in the race, though I didn’t even know that he was running again until yesterday. Fat lot of good his PR is doing him! I’ve voted for him in primaries in the past. He’s a good conservative on most fronts and wickedly smart. But he ruined some of his reputation for yelling at Hillary for being a carpetbagger, while he pulled the same stunt in the Senate race in IL. That let me down hugely.

    • Ron,

      I wrote in a candidate in 2000, Steve Largent. I really thought Steve would go places politically. He and J.C. Watts, both reps from OK, had a great future ahead of them. Amazingly, Largent is gone from the scene after his infamous scourging by the cock-fighting lobby that destroyed his run for governor in OK. I’m still in shock after that. And Watts has since also bailed from politics. Despite both being from OK, I thought that would have been a killer Pres/VP combo some day.

      Oh well.

      I’ll continue to write-in candidates because I’m not voting for the crummy choices they give me nowadays. Even if I were a Democrat, I wouldn’t be so naive as to elect Clinton: The Sequel or a totally unproven, political infant like Obama. What kind of choices are those? But then you see what Republicans have to offer and it’s just as pathetic. I mean, Mitt Romney? He’s a rich, Mormon version of Bill Clinton. He never met a position he didn’t like (because the polls tell him what to like). he wants to run the US like a business, but he raided so many companies and left them shells by the time his blood-suckers were done, how could anyone possibly trust him on the economy?

  2. ron

    Writing in is probably a good way to go – although to be honest I’m not even sure who I’d write in at this point. I agree that Largent and Watts were both excellent, true conservative. I too was shocked at what happened to Largent.

    Watts apparently left politics by his own choice in order to spend more time with his family – a very conservative decision if we believe that the family is truly the foundation of the country.

    So who else is out there? The state of the Republican party is pathetic and far from conservative in any meaningful sense. Newt – nah… There just aren’t any real standard bearers for the conservatism of Russel Kirk (or Edmund Burke for that matter)

    • Ron,

      I replied to this comment yesterday, but I have no idea why it’s not showing.

      To reiterate:

      I don’t have a good answer for you. Alan Keyes is fairly conservative and is Duncan Hunter. Both ran for president this year and got zero press. Nor have they received any support from those who call themselves conservatives.

      You’re right in pointing out the dearth of real conservatives left on the national political scene. I know of scant few.

      Some people are talking, though. Rod Dreher pointed out that a lot of genuine conservatives are what is being called “Crunchy Cons,” the title of his book on the subject. I actually read that book and got misty-eyed because here, finally, was someone who was pointing out that others believe as I do, and that I’m not the conservative who’s gone off the rails—the others have. (Through some bizarre oversight, I forgot to add that book to my list of godly reads, but I corrected the error last week.) Dreher is a disciple of guys like Russell Kirk and Wendell Berry. And if you’ve read Cerulean Sanctum long enough, you’ll see that I’ve touched on many similar themes in the last five years.

      Maybe I should write Dreher and ask him who he sees as the real conservatives out there.

    • To get a good idea of Dreher (and revisit subjects I’ve mentioned here long before Dreher hit the national spotlight), read this from The American Conservative magazine:

      “What is Left? What is Right?”

      • ron


        I’ve read and appreciated Dreher’s stuff for a few years now. I often thought he was the voice I most lined up with back when he was writing for National Review. And I agree, the Crunchy Con book was excellent!

  3. George

    If there’s anything this political season has suffered, it’s the reciprocal charges that others are not true conservatives. But this is nothing new. As Dan mentioned, conservatives were different back in the Eisehower era. Eisenhower, of course, was not a conservative — more of what we called back then a Main Street Republican and slightly progressive. Back then, conservatives were publicly identified with Robert Taft (R-Ohio) and isolationism. Behind the scenes were not doers but thinkers, and one of those was, as Dan says, Russell Kirk. He represented the traditionalists. Individualists, or libertarians as they’re called today, presented a different perspective. But both claims on conservatism. The intellectual who brought those perspectives together was a man named Frank Meyer (you can read about this/him at
    And the man who brought Meyer to public notice was Bill Buckley’s National Review.

    In 1960, Barry Goldwater had also been discovered. He was a conservative for sure, but different from Taft’s conservatism. Tho pushed for the nomination by supporters in ’60, he didn’t win the party nomination until 1964, when he was steamrolled by unscrupulous opponents. But he captured the hearts and minds of many (I still have a 16 x 20 FOOT picture of Barry folded up in a suitcase under my bed — or maybe it’s in the attic). And he enabled another conservative to get into the spotlight — Ronald Reagan. And just as Goldwater had a different brand of conservatism than Taft’s, Reagan differed from Barry. And Barry wasn’t always that thrilled about it, either.

    Frank Meyer and his fusionism — the blend of conservative traditionalism and conservative libertarianism — reached its zenith in the Reagan years. But Christian evangelicalism was seizing political strength and subsequently strained the fusion with libertarians — which is not to say that traditionalism returned, because Russell Kirk would have had no truck with evangelicals. Nor do we have much use for him, except as some wise old man we occasionally excerpt.

    Success seemed to go not just to the heads of conservatives, but to their hearts as well. They began to lose their distaste for big government, since they were in charge. Consequently, people who were accustomed to calling themselves conservatives lost the mindset. At the same time, people who were not especially conservative philosophically saw that a good way to connect with a big chunk of voters was to call oneself conservative — and to deny that opponents could possibly be real conservatives.

    That’s pretty much where we find ourselves today. In one sense, back where we started, with competing brands of conservatism. There’s no Main Street Republican, tho there is a Wall Street Republican. And there are three conservative Republicans: a strong-national-defense conservative (Goldwater was strong on defense), a social conservative (Goldwater, tho he disliked aggressively evangelicalism, favored individual freedom and justice), and a libertarian (Goldwater also had a strong libertarian streak).

    Back in the ’60’s there were buttons inscribed with Don’t Let Them Immanentize the Eschaton, a statement by Eric Voegelin meaning don’t let the liberals attempt to create heaven now thru government (yes! I still have the button!). Many of us now realize that just as liberals couldn’t succeed at that because they aren’t perfect, conservatives will never be perfect, either. And therefore, there will never be a perfect conservative. So let’s not grouse about it.

    • George,

      I was just a toddler in 1964, but I still remember my parents talking about Goldwater!

      Your comment about Goldwater not being a big fan of Evangelicals is interesting. One of the things I find odd about many of the most ardent conservatives is that they are/were Catholic. Yet when you look at real Evanglicalism, it’s not as aligned with traditionalist conservatism as it claims, at least less so than the most conservative (pre-Vatican II) Catholics.

      Why do you think that is?

  4. David Riggins

    Conservative, Liberal, Progressive, Regressive, Libertarian, Chaotist…All labels that are used instead of any real attempt at definition. I personally would like to see smaller government that isn’t called on to “fix” things. The other day I was reading an article about biofuels that bemoaned the fact that the “feds” had no clear direction on alternative fuels. My immediate thought was “why should they?”

    Or about daycare
    Or healthcare
    Or Education
    Or Social Security
    Or employment
    Or housing

    Well, you get the picture…

    Over the last 200+ years our Federal Government has become more and more involved in our personal lives, to the detriment of our ability to take care of ourselves at the local level. It’s gotten to the point that people can’t sneeze without Beltway interests taking notice. It leads to the very kind of thing we bemoan: Special Interests.

    But let’s be real, if Government is going to stick it’s gloved finger into our nether regions, wouldn’t you want a lobbyist with a congressmans ear that can grease things a little? “Big Business” wouldn’t be paying for candidates if there wasn’t a compelling reason, and that reason is that the Federal Government has a big say in how business runs in this and many other countries. Our knee jerk reaction is that business needs to be reigned in by government, but at some point we need to determine who is reigning in whom.

    But we would rather be taken care of. And therein lies the crux.

    It takes a big government to do those things deemed proper to take care of all the people within and without its borders. But a government need not be large that does only what is necessary to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty, for ourselves and our posterity.

    • David,

      I recently heard of a Christian couple in our area who had the government take their kids away. The mom accidentally banged the front of the toddler’s head retrieving the child from the babyseat in the back of their car. When the bruise got large, the mother took the child in to see the doctor. The doctor, claiming that all such injuries needed to be reported, did so. Social Services then showed up at the family’s house and the rest is history.

      We’ve done this to ourselves with this nanny state mentality we’ve got today. We don’t even investigate other options. Instead we going running to the government.

      Our Founders realized that the government can become a foe if left unchecked. We’re continuing to find ways to remove the checks.

      yet when was the last time you heard a so-called conservative screaming about the bloat in our government and its ever-increasing power over our lives. Ironically, I hear more of that talk coming out of some conservative Democrats than I do out of supposedly conservative Republicans. In the case of Real ID, which I mentioned before, the biggest opponents were some of the most liberal members of Congress.

      Black is white. Red is blue. The labels just don’t work anymore.

  5. ron

    @ George – But…”grousing about it” is a time honored tradition! 🙂
    Seriously though, while you are correct that there have been competing brands of conservatism for years, the Republican party currently seems to have the loosest grasp on the small government brand of conservatism. So perhaps if we are going to grouse, it is necessary to define what it is that we are looking for when we speak of a “conservative”. Personally, I think the list from Kirk in Dan’s post is a fantastic starting point. If a candidate came along that could demonstrably affirm that list – he or she would have my vote.

  6. George

    Dan writes: Your comment about Goldwater not being a big fan of Evangelicals is interesting. One of the things I find odd about many of the most ardent conservatives is that they are/were Catholic. Yet when you look at real Evanglicalism, it’s not as aligned with traditionalist conservatism as it claims, at least less so than the most conservative (pre-Vatican II) Catholics.

    I’d say there is more than one reason, and one reason goes to your subsequent column on the condom and the tampon. Many of us evangelicals don’t make the connection between loving God and loving people. The most we’ll do is “share the Gospel.” We’ll tell others to get right with God, but we don’t love them enough to keep our condoms and tampons in our cars rather than ditching them where others can walk past them. [I’ll bet those are the same people who drive no more than the speed limit in the left lane! ;0) But I digress.] So, as I was saying, many of us see no disconnect between depending on Christ for salvation and depending on government for everything economic.

    Another reason is that pre-Vat II Catholics are nurtured in traditionalism and evangelicals are not so much. Our traditionalism is very much fragmented, and extends only as far back as whatever our first few pastors happened to have learned and taught us. Evangelicals would be more fusionist conservatives, blending some tradition with individualism/libertarianism, since we do have a fiercely individualistic (in a herd-like sort of way!) streak. It’s why so many of us flock around Joel Osteen.

    Another reason, I believe, is simply this: Christianity is not conservatism. Or, I should say, it’s not Conservatism, as described by either politicians or intellectuals. While Kirk does make good points, I as a new Christian was turned off when he wrote that Christianity is a tradition rather than a living relationship — I’m not quoting, obviously; I’m writing my impression. But the libertarian conservatives are even further away, typically, or so it seems to me, as they often have no use at all for Christianity — Ayn Rand, their patron saint, was an atheist. While there are lots of compatibilities between Conservatism and Christianity, there is a reason they have different names.

    David R makes astute points, as is his habit. I agree: Why should the feds be expected to fix everything? I have a friend who calls himself conservative and believes that if the oil companies can’t come up with alternative fuels, then the government should. (Maybe the first thing we should demand is that the feds create a bureau like the FDA, but instead of qualifying drugs, this one, the FCA, would qualify who could call themselves conservative! Or not.) David and I agree: The feds should be limited in what they can control.

    Now, a libertarian is inclined to say the feds should control almost nothing. Highways can be built by private companies that charge a toll to users rather than by a fed govt that taxes everyone. One prominent libertarian economist said light houses could be privately built/owned, and operators would go out in speed boats to collect a toll from passing vessels — calmer minds suggested they could be built by consortiums of insurance companies, who would benefit from the lighthouses.

    But traditional conservatives tend to say — and this is where it gets messy — the feds should be involved in some areas and to some extent. One conservative principle, borrowed from the Catholics, is subsidiarity — handling matters at the lowest effective level. So do we need a quality control on drugs by government? Could you test drugs yourself and be confident that your family could sue successfully if/when you were wrong? OK, then maybe you should want your state government to do it — use the pharmacist professors at the state U (what Kirk referred to as Behemoth University). (Of course, that might work in states like Ohio where they have THE Ohio State University, but what about states like Michigan, that can’t even recruit an honest football coach?) 50 state SDAs could work, but I have no problem with one federal FDA. I’ll bet most conservatives did when it was first established; I’ll bet few do today — and would think you were a nutty libertarian if you suggested eliminating it. I’m not suggesting that David did want to abolish the FDA. And I agree on principle that feds should stay out of healthcare. But where would conservatives draw their line? The FDA is a part of healthcare. Would we draw the line after the FDA but before Medicare? Or would we also include Medicare but exclude Medicaid? Reasonable conservatives can disagree on this, just as reasonable Christians can disagree [well, maybe that’s not true — if you’re reasonable, you’ll agree with me. ;)].

    Two challenges for conservatives in deciding how large a fed govt needs to be to do the limited matters David describes are the impact of technology and the impact of large corporate organizations. To have justice, we need something large enough to counter a large oppressor. You yourself have a tough time going up against your insurance company or an airline. You need something large enough, with enough clout, to work out justice for you. Or more correctly, to work out justice for your neighbor — after all, the bible teaches we are to accept suffering when we are wrongly mistreated and thereby glorify Christ.

    Dan — one more and I’ll shut up — you mention the family whose child was taken because of a bruised forehead. This may not be common, but it ain’t rare, either. Laws in at least many states do require doctors and day cares to report such injuries — you could be punished if caught not doing so. And the govt workers who investigate fear media repercussions if they leave a child in an abusive situation (plus I suspect many just like the power), so they tend to take the kid. But remember: This is not the feds at work. This is your local government, probably at the county level, maybe even the city level. This is supposed to be where you’re safest, away from the grasp of the feds. But it’s just not that way any more. Community isn’t community any more; it’s us against them. Even, sometimes, within our churches, it seems.

    OK, one more — Ron, you’ll note that I never grouse. I describe the problems inherent in situations and express my disappointment. That would only be grousing if someone else did it!

    • ron

      George said –
      “I describe the problems inherent in situations and express my disappointment. That would only be grousing if someone else did it!”

      Excellent point! 😉

  7. Leta

    I know I’m in the minority here as far as my political leanings, but I really liked this post. I agreed with about 80% of Russel Kirk’s list, and yet I vote Democratic about 90% of the time.

    ( I don’t fit neatly into “conservative” or “liberal” idealogies, especially the traditonal ones: I think government is good, but I’m very wary of free trade and would like to dismantle both CAFTA and NAFTA, for example.)

    It’s so true the Republicans have become the party of greedy neo-cons- that’s all they care about, it seems, is money. I always say that I’m not rich enough to vote Republican, and I hope I never will be. (What with the camel through the needle’s eye and all.)

    I respect values voters, but I am disgusted by the way the Republicans have so crassly exploited religious values for their own political gain. I think that’s why Huckabee has done as well as he has in this race- he doesn’t seem like he’s faking it to impress Ralph Reed. Even though I disagree with Huckabee on many points, both political and theological, I find his sincerity appealing, and am far, far more likely to vote for him than I am any other Republican candidate.

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