In this column two weeks ago, I tried to write about my understanding of the relationship between conservatism and the mission of the College. At the risk of harping too much on the subject, I want to expand a bit on that column and be a bit more specific about what I mean by “conservatism.” There are a lot of misconceptions and unfair caricatures surrounding the term, no thanks to our current commander-in-chief, and I thought it would be helpful to clarify for the sake of improving dialogue between the left and right.

At the outset, I should note that conservatism is not a single political ideology. According to British political theorist Michael Oakeshott, it is a disposition which inclines people to prefer “certain kinds of conduct and certain conditions of human circumstances to others.” The vagueness of this definition leaves a lot of room for interpretation in particular cases, but there are some defining characteristics of the conservative disposition that remain more or less the same.

Conservative thinker Russell Kirk drew some of these traits from the intellectual tradition he carefully traced from Irish statesman Edmund Burke to T.S. Eliot in his seminal book “The Conservative Mind.” These include adherence to custom, belief in the principle of prudence and the preference of voluntary community over forced association. At its heart, the conservatism Kirk describes is not inherently political but is a way of seeing the world that intimately informs the way we live and act within it. This has definite political implications, but these are always secondary to conservatism’s primary concern for ordered and peaceful life.

When these general traits are applied to more specific political programs, it should not be a surprise to see some variety and disagreement. In fact, this is one of the great strengths of conservatism. There is room for those who put an emphasis on liberty and classify themselves as libertarians, as well as “crunchy cons” like “American Conservative” blogger Rod Dreher who place more value upon the communal and traditional side of conservatism. Because there are no thought police to enforce uniformity among its ranks, conservatism has always thrived on vibrant debates over its foundational principles.

Of course, if you think I am painting too rosy a picture of conservative unity, then you are correct. It would be a stretch to say that all conservatives are equally devoted to the principle of prudence in politics, for example. But my point is not to justify what every conservative believes or says as a legitimate expression of conservative principles. Rather, I wish to give a slightly more personal take on conservatism and why I think it is so important to recognize the virtues of that self-identification.

For me, the most important aspect of conservatism is its tendency to approach politics with caution and not to endow it with the characteristics of a life or death struggle. There is a temptation in modern politics to engage in a “politics of the eschaton” where every battle will lead either to salvation or Armageddon.  In contrast, the conservative recognizes that politics is a necessary but secondary realm of human activity. It is not important as an end in itself, as if political action could save souls or usher in the Kingdom of God. Rather, it is necessary as a means to living a peaceful collective life, where every individual is left with a sphere of freedom in which he or she can live out a moral and meaningful life.

This is an especially important outlook to have in today’s political climate. It allows us to focus not on the grand political schemes but to turn the light on our own souls to determine whether we are using our freedom in an appropriate manner. As the recently departed scholar Michael Novak noted, there are two kinds of liberty: “one precritical, emotive, whimsical, proper to children; the other critical, sober, deliberate, responsible, proper to adults.” If the former type of liberty dominates among a population, no amount of state control can maintain order. But if the latter does, then order can be maintained with a limited amount of state action and the individual can be truly free to pursue the good life for him or herself.

So as a conservative, I am far more interested in cultivating the virtues in my own life that are conducive to sustaining a free society and in assisting my neighbor in doing the same. I have no grand vision for society that I would like to impose on everyone else. Contrary to popular perception, being a conservative does not mean wanting to bring society back to some “golden age” where everything was supposedly better. I know that history is always far more complicated than the narratives we build to explain it, so I don’t have any illusions about the dangers of naïve nostalgia. But if reclaiming the virtues necessary to sustaining our republic means going back in time to determine how we can be better citizens, I am all for using the wisdom of past ages as our guide.  

With these brief thoughts on my own political inclinations, hopefully I have at least done a little to reclaim some intellectual respectability for conservatism. Given the current political climate, I think that’s a necessary first step to improving political dialogue on campus.