Deneen on modern “conservatism”

Given that conservatism originated in ways that cut against the conservative temperament, over time it’s hardly surprising that conservatism has begun to resemble non- and even anti-conservative positions not only in tactics but in content. Because conservatism defines itself relative to the current position of its more liberal opponent, it has come occupy space that has been abandoned by a leftward-moving opposition.

This is particularly true in contemporary American politics, where conservatism has not only crystallized into an “orthodoxy”—as Sam Tanenhaus argues in his recent book The Death of Conservatism—but into a political movement that employs scorched-earth political tactics in defense of ends and policies that stand to conserve very little. This is hardly a new development in response to the election of President Obama: in the 1980s, it was barely noted as peculiar that one of Ronald Reagan’s intellectual heroes was Thomas Paine—Edmund Burke’s bête noire—or that a subsequent generation of conservatives have defined themselves almost exclusively by their devotion to the revolutionary principles of the Declaration of Independence. Increasingly, political conservatism has stood less for a defense of the principles articulated by Russell Kirk—custom, variety, prudence, imperfectibility, community, and restraint of power—and has instead allied itself with national and even international objectives destructive to custom, variety, and community. Conservatives increasingly demand support for the expansion of military and economic power, resource exploitation with little discussion of impact upon future generations, a globalized market, a standardization of law that is increasingly based in Kantian (rather than common-law) reasoning, “democratization” abroad, federal rather than local allegiances, mobility, and a close affiliation with corporations and the financial industry—hardly hotbeds of conservative practice. The movement’s tactics—demanding obeisance by those who would adopt its label and destruction of those who would oppose it—strike one as more Alinsky than Kirk or Oakeshott.

— Patrick Deneen, “Counterfeiting Conservatism” in The American Conservative (April, 2010)


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