"a loathsome Plague Called Reaction": Fear in Prescriptive Conservative Thought


A.Fear of Intangibility? Radicalism and Ideology



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A.Fear of Intangibility? Radicalism and Ideology


In keeping with the structure of Burke’s section, our examination will start with Kirk’s fear of intangibility. A key characteristics of Kirk's writing is to define conservatism by what it is not. In The Conservative Mind, that opposing force is radicalism. He defines radicals as those who attack the principles of conservatism on the basis of one of four principles- “meliorism” or the perfectibility of society, disdain for traditions, the belief in political and economic equality, and a distrust of society as being a connection between “the dead, the living, and those yet to be born.”93 Five schools of thought throughout history have challenged Conservatism: Rationalism, exemplified by David Hume and philosophes like Voltaire, the “romantic emancipation” of Rousseau, utilitarianism, positivism, and Marxism, which he refers to as “collective materialism.”94 These five all oppose conservatism on the key tenet of embracing change, inspired by abstract ideas, instead of relying and the tried and true system at play. Radicalism here does not just mean any idea- ideas have merit to conservatives- but simply when those concepts are taken to the extreme, and embraced wholeheartedly. While it is likely Kirk thinks all five of these schools of thought are misguided, it is not that they are wrong that is the issue- it is that they took things too far.

In Politics of Prudence, Kirk broadens his focus from simply radicalism to ideology as a whole. He opens the book with a simple premise- “a defense of prudential politics, as opposed to ideological politics.”95 While the younger Kirk may have been more open-minded, the elder attacks the notion of big ideas wholesale. Kirk sums up the problem as such: “Ideology, in short, is a political formula that promises mankind an earthly paradise; but in cruel fact what ideology has created is a series of terrestrial hells.”96 The specific phrasing of the word ideology was “coined during Napoleonic times” by an “abstract intellectual of the sort since grown familiar on the Left Bank of the Seine.”97 This man, Destutt de Tracy, working in “the alleged science of ideas” was inspired by John Locke, but his ideas have since been connected to “the famous liberator of Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot.”98 The willingness to connect John Locke, the political philosopher whose natural rights theory kick-started the idea of limited government, and Pol Pot, the Cambodian totalitarian dictator whose Khmer Rouge government oversaw one of the bloodiest genocides of the 20th century, demonstrates Kirk’s conviction that ideology is not good for society. In particular, ideology has three specific vices- 1) it is “inverted religion”, rejecting Christianity and instead “substituting collective salvation here on earth through violent revolution," 2) it makes political compromise “impossible,” as no one will deviate from their ideology, and 3) since ideologists believe so strongly in their “Absolute Truth,” any disagreement will result in factions that will inevitably come to war with one another, “as did Trotskyites and Stalinists.”99 One of ideology’s strengths is that it attracts people from across society- those who feel marginalized certainly, but also young students fresh out of college, and the “Knowledge Class” who might think they know better than the answers offered by tradition. According to Kirk, one needs look no farther than the “early composition of the Nazi party” to illustrate the power of ideology to attract people.100 While this may seem to be a slippery slope argument, Kirk argues that it is not just the extremes of ideology that should not be tolerated. Responding to a woman who wondered if there was such as a thing as a good idea, he states, “Nay, madam, all ideologies work mischief.”101

At the root of his despair over ideology is the new wave of self-identified conservatives that have taken over American government. Chapter 10 in Politics of Prudence is entitled Popular Conservatism, and its thesis is that Americans on the whole maintain support for the idea of conservatism.102 This does not equate to populism- Kirk thinks that populism is tantamount to a “revolt against the Smart Guys,” which he agrees should be undertaken but not to supplant them with ignorance.103 He believes voters love tradition- “The Constitution of the United States is revered, even if, given a knowledge test about the Constitution, voters might score poorly”- and that Americans view the word “conservative” more favorably than the word “radical.”104 Furthermore, Kirk thinks that both the Democratic and Republican Party are fundamentally conservative organizations, employing rhetoric around preservation and are attached to “the Permanent Things.”105 However, despite this silent conservative majority, conservatism has not overtaken the country. Kirk cites two reasons for this. The first is that the country is overrun by a tyranny of the minority:

America labors under the tyranny of minorities- but minorities aggressive, intolerant, well financed, and cleverly directed. I mean the feminist minority, the black-militant minority, the welfare-rights minority, the pistol-packing minority, the industrial-merger minority, the blight-South-Africa minority, the Zionist-minority, the homosexual majority, the animal rights minority. Coherent and vindictive, such groups claim to have power to make and unmake members of Congress- who often are timid, if blustering creatures.106

Here Kirk builds upon his fear of these intangible ideas by connecting ideology to action. These factions take hold of these ideologies, and motivated by some conception of absolute truth they hold up democratic process in pushing their agenda. This applies to both sides of the political spectrum- with the contemporary right represented by the critique of the “industrial-merger” and “pistol-packing” minorities- although certainly biased more towards leftist radicals. Kirk implies that what is so terrible about these groups is their proclivity to pass legislation that favors them, which could result in more frivolous laws being passed. Although perhaps he overestimates which minorities are truly in power, there is significant support for his argument- political scientists Virginia Gray and David Lowery published a statistical analysis in 1995 that provides a strong correlation between the number of interest groups and the productivity of a legislature.107 This points to interest groups slowing down the legislative progress for the sake of adding earmarks and the like to bills, and it is doubtful that Kirk thinks more legislation is should be the goal of government, he certainly seems opposed to the excessive presence of interest groups.

Similarly, Kirk displays a distrust of the American party system. He believes “most Americans, although conservative enough in their general views, are unable to distinguish between conservative candidates and liberal or radical candidates.”108 This applies doubly for new legislation, which he feels “most American citizens do not perceive the character or probable consequences of.”109 Since repeal is difficult, and “conservatives are not given to intimidation by street demonstration,” the current political system seems to stack the deck to pervert the national conservatism.110 It seems his disdain for the American people’s ability to participate goes so far as actively discouraging less educated citizens from voting, as he thinks they’re more likely to be swayed by these forces.111

However, as Kirk moves from talking about government and “the people” as a whole to just talking about Ronald Reagan, moving from the intangible to the tangible, his remarks become much more glowing.

For Ronald Reagan, Mr. President of these United States, was regarded as the apotheosis of conservatism. Had the Republicans nominated him for the presidency in 1968, say, the recent history of this country might be very different. I am not saying that Reagan was successful in everything he had undertaken; he found himself baffled in much; but in difficulty he was sustained by the conservative understanding that politics is the art of the possible.112



Kirk’s glowing review of Reagan continues on for many pages- he describes a meeting with Reagan where the president was “erect and smiling, ineffably charming,” and referred to him as the “Western hero of romance.”113 Reagan did the most possible with the office, managing to achieve “virtual full employment,” lower tax rates, and restrain the bureaucracy, all while maintaining the love of the public.114 While Kirk admits Reagan experienced “blunders” in Lebanon and Iran, his “dramatic success” in Libya and Grenada more than made up for it.115 Ronald Reagan is a complicated figure to invoke when attempting to defend a model of conservatism- as Reagan scholar Hugh Heclo writes, “It is more realistic to speak of the legacies rather than the legacy of Ronald Reagan.”116 While Kirk appreciated that Reagan lowered taxes, it is hard to imagine him wholeheartedly endorsing the ballooning the federal deficit that occurred during his administration.117 Additionally, Reagan spoke about the Cold War with a kind of “moral clarity,” with a clear sense of good and evil.118 As Heclo writes, “Reagan’s vision of a global mission in defeating communism was now transposed onto a new global mission that strained to the breaking point the caution, modesty, and anti-utopianism that Russel Kirk has commended.”119 Reagan’s foreign policy “blunders” are not so off-handedly dismissed either- the involvement in Libya Kirk admired led to the rise of Muammar Qaddafi, and interventions into South America resulted in significant bloodshed. Furthermore, Heclo also points out “Reagan was largely blind to the threat of militant Islam,” and oversimplified all foreign policy into an anti-communist context.120 This is all to say that Reagan is complicated, and Kirk is all too eager to accept his leadership. One reason for this could be that Kirk knows Reagan- he’s tangible and human instead of a faceless senator or Congressman. Kirk himself admits the essence of conservatism is preferring “the devil they know to the devil they don’t know,” and in supporting Reagan the same principle applies.121 He simply feels more affection for the tangible presidency behind him than the potential regimes ahead.



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