What is the point of contemporary conservatism? Whatever one thinks of the victory of Donald Trump to the presidency, he is not a conservative of any expected kind. But he has thrown the various strands of conservatism into disarray and has caused a remarkable level of self-reflection and self-criticism. And his administration has opened up an opportunity for a reconsideration of conservatism beyond the northeast Acela corridor.
In Vision of the Soul, James Wilson’s important book returns to a conservatism in the tradition of Burke, Eliot, and Russell Kirk. For it is obvious that in a certain, significant sense, political conservatism has lost: lost the culture war, lost in the popular imagination, and it is no longer the imaginative underpinning of what Russell Kirk called “our civil social order.” There is no serious argument, for example, that the country is more conservative now than in, say 1990 or even 1980. The Republicans, insofar as they were the embodiment of a conservative political program, are imploding under a combination of scandals and an inability—after eight years of complaining about President Obama—of getting anything done that resonates with their constituents, including the populist wave that brought Trump to power.
Amidst the ruins, various groupings are trying to claim the mantle of the Right. These various iterations include the Never Trumpers, the recrudescence of neoconservatism, reformicons of the Ross Douthat stripe, and the provocative crowd around the new journal American Affairs promoting a Trumpism without Trump. But none of these movements has displaced the conservative establishment or its Republican epigones.
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Moreover, liberalism is also facing a crisis, arguably a bigger one than conservatism. Liberalism has in recent years transformed into progressivism. Progressivism has lost the notion of a common reason to which people of differing faiths could consent, even of the possibility of an objective order that may govern individual or community moral lives. And it has also taken on some of the characteristics of an intolerant religion, such as its antipathy toward free speech and its elevation of ideas such as tolerance and diversity as god terms. Some have called this moment at the end of liberalism postmodernity. Postmodernity has had a lot of nonsense spoken about it but its core principle as formulated by the late Peter Lawler remains a workable definition for our present moment. Postmodernity is liberalism without the notion of human perfectibility. And without that (which of course was itself a utopian project), liberalism loses even the veneer of wishing for a common good. As witnessed on campuses across the nation a post-liberal left is at ease with totalitarian methods, while an increasingly post-religious right, as Douthat has noticed, threatens to descend into atavistic racial politics.
Conservatism in a postmodern moment must therefore be different than the conservatism that motivated Burke or Taft or Disraeli or Reagan. The school of conservatism that might be most fitted for this moment, is paradoxically, the one that is the one least inclined to modernity. This would be a form of conservatism known as traditionalist, espoused most prominently by Russell Kirk. James Matthew Wilson has grasped the Burkean insight that to love our country (or our culture) one must first make it lovely. And making things lovely is at the core of conservatism and must remain at the center of any true conservative revival. Wilson reminds us that “[t]he conservatism of Burke and Coleridge sought to remind modern man, in an age of revolutionary upheaval, that politics was an activity built on art, meaning, representation, and community.” Because of this, there is, thankfully, little to nothing here about policy prescriptions or election prospects. If a culture is healthy, those things sort themselves; if it is not, those things do not ultimately matter.
Wilson is a poet, and literature is at the foundation of his conviction for a cultural revival. In years past, this has been the weakness of this school: other conservatives thought it fine to invoke the literary history of conservatism but preferred not to delve too much into what that might mean. At worst, these conservatives took the insights from the literary tradition and watered them down into a political program. Wilson addresses the central problem that many in the conservative “movement” see conservatism as “a static and received, putatively sacred, order before which life must kneel and growth must stultify.” But that is not how the exemplars of modern conservatism have seen it. T.S. Eliot, for example, was quite firm that by entering into a tradition one also changes it; tradition is the dynamic relationship between what Wilson here calls mythos and logos. Wilson relies on Eliot in his marvelous opening salvo “the drama of cultural conservatism.” Burke, for Wilson, presents the truly modern attack on the ahistorical revolutionaries. For Kirk, too, his project was very much attuned to our contemporary moment: he built an alternative history of conservatism to present a narrative of unity and tradition against the mass-age of liberalism and now postmodernity’s fragmentation.
Liberalism, by contrast, was and remains primarily political. It was born in the thought of Locke and Hume, Hobbes and Rousseau. The French Revolution and all the schools afterward brought it forward. Its central characteristics have been an irrational rationality and an ahistorical utopianism. Even today, when liberalism has morphed into an extreme individualism, with “choice” at its center, politics is inescapable. For the new liberalism needs the state to protect the ever-expanding list of individual rights. Further, it always needs an enemy which it can condemn as reactionary and against which it must wage an eternal fight.
Wilson, thankfully, largely avoids another tired debate about the future of liberalism, or contemporary conservatism, though he does have harsh words to say about both. Instead, he wants us to focus on beauty and its place in Western culture. The book is a strong defense of that culture, but not an unthinking one. In a striking passage, he takes Plato’s Symposium as a metaphor for the larger Western tradition. That tradition is in some ways a riotous mess, “obtrusive and violent like Alcibiades, passionately irrational like Phaedrus, solipsistic like Aristophanes, pretentious and vapid like Agathon, self-serving like Pausanians, and reductive and therapeutic like Eryximaches.” The only thing that makes sense of this is “Beauty. If we do not hold fast to that word, we have not simply missed something important, we have missed everything.”
And Wilson notes that that tradition has garnered a populist audience: “there is a salutary populism, a potentially wide practical political appeal, to conservative thought that belies what, for the better part of two centuries, was taken as its merely literary, merely intellectual, vaguely aristocratic pretensions.” That populism rejects the nihilistic materialism of the Marxist and the rootless plastic individualism of the progressive, to search for a community whose ends transcend “either individual material comfort or the uprooting and restructuring of society” according to some bureaucratic ideal. To move conservatism forward, we need to recall the centrality of beauty, and of the power of images to work with man’s reason to fashion again stories and a culture that is beautiful. Drawing on Jacques Maritain, whose work on aesthetics attempted to do this in the middle years of the last century, Wilson notes that Maritain in works like Art and Scholasticism took “as his starting point the fashions and prejudices of his age.” We must do the same but that means expanding conservatism beyond a literary tradition. Most people do not look to texts as their primary force of culture. In a sort of reverse-medievalism, people once more use images to sort their reality, either movies, video games, or the endless internet stream. Conservatism must find and create beauty there, too, as well as in other non-textual space such as the liturgy. As Eliot did with modernist poetry, conservatism must use our current fashions to rejoin a salutary populism with its higher transcendent ends, our mythos with logos once again.