Sunday, November 9, 2008

Tony Blankley on the conservatism of tomorrow

In his post-election post-mortem, Tony Blankley perhaps had the most pointed and convincing comments we have yet seen from a conservative.

Of course, Blankley hit a soft spot for Montana Headlines from the start by quoting from William Blake's haunting poem "Jerusalem," so that wasn't really fair of him. (Yes, we realize that one could make a deconstructive case that it was Hubert Parry's later musical setting that made this into an anthem redolent of English conservative sentiment, while Blake's lyrics hint at a "heaven on earth" idea that has more in common with the left. But leave us with our love for the final product.)

Still, it isn't enough to throw off some verse -- one has to follow with thoughts worthy of it, and Blankley does:

Conservatism always has been and always will be a force to reckon with because it most closely approximates the reality of the human condition, based, as it is, on the cumulative judgment and experience of a people. It is the heir, not the apostate, to the accumulated wisdom, morality and faith of the people.

Ah -- Russell Kirk's own heart would warm to those words. Blankley continues on by pointing out that "conservatism, like all ideas and causes, is hostage to the effectiveness of the party that carries its banner." Here, too, Kirk would agree, having experienced the ups and downs of being an intellectual conservative whose party, at various points, was either worthy or unworthy of the ideas he championed.

After listing the many ways in which the deck was stacked against Republicans this election, Blankley gives an cliff-top overview of the political battlefield in the plains below, making reference to the Goldwater defeat of 1964:

...the first explanation of losing causes and losing parties (liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans) almost invariably is to blame incompetent candidates, ineffective messages, and overwhelming events.

At a technical level, that is often true. But at a deeper, historical level, the failure was that the cause was not yet ready to lead. We conservatives were not ready to lead in 1964. By 1980 and 1994, under Reagan and Gingrich, we had figured out how to talk to a majority of the country with both principles and programs that gained a majority endorsement. We no longer were just standing on our high horse declaiming to a nation. We were on the ground, with the people, leading them into the citadel of power.

Most interesting is that Blankley turns, in this hour of darkness, to a brief discussion of Benjamin Disraeli, someone who has been kicking around in the back of the Montana Headlines brain for more than a year. Disraeli is a major figure in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, and with good reason, as Blankley explains:

Disraeli envisioned the Conservative Party as the true national party, while the Whigs were merely the party of intellectual ideas. In that time, English intellectuals and progressives were fascinated with German ideas, just as today Democrats are enchanted with European ideas.

Disraeli judged: "In a progressive country, change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change, which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of the people or in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines."

By championing the vote for the people in a century in which that was inevitable, Disraeli formed a conservative party that dominated British politics for 150 years.

John O'Sullivan, writing in the New Criterion almost a year ago made the following observation:

Making due allowance for national differences, conservatives win elections when they have the support of three groups—nationalists, moral traditionalists, and supporters of free enterprise.

This is pretty obvious, and has been true in a variety of Western European countries during the democratic era. Blankley points out that two of the three are for the most part non-negotiable for conservatives:

Today there are certain profound values -- free markets and respect for life -- that are renounced at the price of our soul.

What Blankley implies needs rethinking is what O'Sullivan calls the "nationalist" leg of the stool:

...a conservative agenda must, for example, learn to speak persuasively to a near majority of Hispanic-Americans, or we will be merely a debating society.

Looking back at the legacy of the recent conservative movement, one of the great failures of the Bush administration (and of John McCain,) was that while there are Republicans who understand that the Latino vote is essential to electoral victory, there was a failure to articulate a political message and an approach to illegal immigration that would help Hispanic and non-Hispanic alike find a common home for cultural nationalism in the Republican party.

We've heard much on the right about the unwillingness of Latinos to assimilate into American society. Perhaps. But when one looks at the secular and atomized society that is being rejected by those resisting assimilation, one can fairly ask the question of "exactly which side better reflects Western Christian civilization?" More often than not, one suspects that it isn't us gringos. And on a more mundane point, whose language more resembles the Latin of the great republican heroes of Roman Western civilization -- Cato and Cicero?

There is more to the conservative rethinking that lies ahead than the question of how to join forces with the Hispanic population of the U.S. But it is a telling example for Blankley to pick as an illustration.

After all, Disraeli's brilliance was that he recognized that the universal franchise was inevitable -- the question was which party would embrace it most convincingly, and how exactly the Conservative Party could embrace it while remaining conservative. What Disraeli did, of course, was to create a concept of England (was it any accident that it was a novelist who accomplished this for the Tories?) wherein the full cultural, political, historical, and economic heritage of England was the rightful possession of all British subjects -- not just those of a privileged class.

Likewise, a bi-lingual and bi-cultural (let's not pretend that it will be multicultural -- there are really only two at play) America is at this point inevitable. Conservatism will have to be reimagined within that context, and it will need to be conceived in an authentic and organic way, not in a spirit of tokenism and identity politics -- a game at which we will lose every time.

Will America's conservative leadership be up to this and other challenges? The answers to this question will in large part determine the length of our stay in the political wilderness.

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