What Is It We Wish to Conserve?

A conservative’s task in society is “to preserve a particular people, living in a particular place during a particular time.”

Jack Hunter, in a review of this writer’s new book, Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? thus summarizes Russell Kirk’s view of the duty of the conservative to his country.

Kirk, the traditionalist, though not so famous as some of his contemporaries at National Review, is now emerging as perhaps the greatest of that first generation of post-World War II conservatives — in the endurance of his thought.

Richard Nixon believed that. Forty years ago, he asked this writer to contact Dr. Kirk and invite him to the White House for an afternoon of talk. No other conservative would do, said the president.

Kirk’s rendering of the conservative responsibility invites a question. Has the right, despite its many victories, failed? For, in what we believe and how we behave, we are not the people we used to be.

Perhaps. But then, we didn’t start the fire.

Second-generation conservatives, Middle Americans who grew up in mid-century, were engulfed by a set of revolutions that turned their country upside down and from which there is no going home again.


First was a civil rights revolution, which began with the freedom riders and March on Washington of August 1963 and ended tragically and terribly with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

That revolution produced the civil rights and voting rights acts, but was attended by the long, hot summers of the ’60s — days-long riots in Harlem in 1964, Watts in 1965, Detroit and Newark in 1967, and a hundred other cities and Washington, D.C., in 1968 that tore the nation apart.

Crucially, the initial demands — an end to segregation and equality of opportunity — gave way to demands for an equality of condition and equality of results through affirmative action, race-based preferences in hiring and admissions, and a progressive income tax. Reparations for slavery are now on the table.

In response to this revolution, LBJ, after the rout of Barry Goldwater, exploited his huge congressional majorities to launch a governmental revolution, fastening on the nation a vast array of social programs that now threaten to bankrupt the republic, even as they have created a vast new class of permanent federal dependents.

The next revolution began at teach-ins to protest involvement in Vietnam, but climaxed with half a million marchers around the White House carrying Viet Cong flags, waving placards with America spelled “Amerika” and chanting, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh — the NLF is going to win.”

Well, the NLF didn’t win. It was crushed in the Tet Offensive. But the North Vietnamese invasion of 1975 did. Result: a million boat people in the South China Sea, a holocaust in Cambodia and poisoned American politics for decades after that American defeat.

By the time Vietnam ended, many in the antiwar movement had become anti-American and come to regard her role in history not as great and glorious but as an endless catalogue of crimes, from slavery to imperialism to genocide against the Native Americans.


The fourth revolution was social — a rejection by millions of young of the moral code by which their parents sought to live.

This produced demands for legalized drugs, condoms for school kids, a right to terminate pregnancies with subsidized abortions and the right of homosexuals to marry.

The first political success of the integrated revolutions came with capture of the Democratic Party in 1972, though Sen. George McGovern was crushed by Nixon in a 49-state landslide.

The conservative triumph of the half-century was surely the election of Ronald Reagan, who revived America’s spirit, restored her prosperity and presided over her peaceful Cold War victory. Yet even Reagan failed to curtail an ever-expanding federal government.

Did then the conservatives fail?

In defense of the right, it needs be said. They were no more capable of preventing these revolutionary changes in how people think and believe about God and man, right and wrong, good and evil, than were the French of the Vendee to turn back the revolution of 1789.

Converting a people to new ways of thinking about fundamental truths is beyond the realm of politics and requires a John Wesley or a St. Paul.

The social, political and moral revolutions of the 1960s have changed America irretrievably. And they have put down roots and converted a vast slice of the nation.

In order to love one’s country, said Edmund Burke, one’s country ought to be lovely. Is it still? Reid Buckley, brother of Bill, replies, “I am obliged to make a public declaration that I cannot love my country. … We are Vile.”

And so what is the conservative’s role in an America many believe has not only lost its way but seems to be losing its mind?

What is it now that conservatives must conserve?



Patrick J. Buchanan


Patrick J. Buchanan is a columnist, political analyst for MSNBC, chairman of The American Cause foundation and an editor of The American Conservative. Mr. Buchanan has written ten books, including six straight New York Times best sellers, served as a senior advisor to three Presidents, was a two-time candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and was the presidential nominee of the Reform Party in 2000.

  • Gian

    “to preserve a particular people”

    Like a pickle?
    It is ironical for a Catholic magazine to be talking about preserving American people since 19C and earlier America was
    overwhelmingly Protestant and the said preserving would have taken strong action against an alien Catholic presence.

    Talk about preserving is defeatist in tone. Shouldn’t we focus on Flourishing? Why can’t a heterogeneous society flourish?
    All continental sized countries are heterogeneous.

    • I would agree, Catholicism is about enlightenment and universality -it is essentially forward looking but accidentally it has to go backward to preserve what is worth preserving.

  • Julian

    What of substance is really left in the West?

    “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” –Jiddu Krishnamurti

  • Steve N.

    We’re all looking for a continuaton of the arguement…I have the faith to believe.

  • Cord Hamrick

    To paraphrase C.S.Lewis:

    When the clock is showing the wrong time, sometimes turning the clock back is precisely the right thing to do.

    But I would prefer to get away from the whole matter of clocks. What we want is improvement, progress. But if you have been walking forward for a long time, only to find that hours ago you took a wrong turning and are walking down the wrong road, the most sensible thing is not to keep walking forward. You must turn around, retrace your steps, get back to where you were when you made the wrong turn, and then proceed from there in the correct direction.

    Some aspects of 18th century U.S. law and culture were better than what we have today (humbler Federal government, foundation of law in Natural Law, religious life central to culture, traditions passed down to the young by parents and community rather than by Hollywood). Other parts were inferior (slavery and anti-Catholicism). But there is clearly no need, in re-adopting the good, to also re-adopt the bad.

    And, having re-adopted the good, we will have returned to the point of our “wrong turning”: That disastrous experiment in statism which infected nearly all prosperous countries in the 20th century, though it affected the United States later and less than some other countries.

    We can proceed from there in a healthier direction.

    To the extent, then, that we wish to conserve what remains good in our society, we are conservatives.

    To the extent we wish to overturn that which is bad, we are called “radicals”…but if we are overturning it to return to a good thing which existed far earlier, then we are simultaneously very conservative (resurrecting that which was lost, to make up for our failure to conserve it) and truly “radical” in the sense of returning to the radix, meaning root.

  • MRD

    There has been a much bigger and more important collapse then the socio-cultural collapse of the United States, bad as that is. The one true religion ( Catholicism) is in a state prostration. This collapse coincides in time with Vatican II. The objective data are overwhelming. Prior to 1965 every objective measure of Catholic life was thriving, If you measured the number of vocations, the number of kids in Catholic Schools, the number of Catholics who attended mass weekly, the number of converts, all of these and a variety of other measures were increasing and plateaued in about 1965. Afterwards they went into a steep dramatic decline. I will not elaborate on the current crisis in the Church, as I am certain most people who look at this blog would be well aware of the many depressing details. Suffice it to say every measure of Catholic practice is now dramatically worse. It seems clear to me that when the source of all spiritual salavation ( the Catholic Church) is in disarray, our temporal affairs would be in a state of disaster. The real question is what has happened to the Church? This usually gives rise to endless debate, but the beginning of the answer is really obvious. Most of us who have our home computer seriously malfunction after making a new change will hit the “system restore funtion”, and return to a more stable, better functioning state. it is not always necessary to know what precisely is the problem, this is often the start of a solution. We do certainly do nto wait for a magic new “springtime” to usher in a functioning computer again Its long past time to hit “system restore” in the Church. Prior to Vatican II the Church was relatively healthy, it is now quite sick. It is time to hit “system restore” and begin a return to many if not all of the practices, forms, teachings prior to the collapse.