Russell Kirk and Community-Based Conservatism
It is continually troublesome that so many of my conservative brethren are intellectually deficient when it comes to all things conservative. This may explain why we failed to successfully deliver our message in the last election – and we have no one to blame but ourselves (along with, perhaps, some left-wing media bias). Our knowledge only seems to stretch as far as the hot-button issues of the age – gun rights, abortion, the budget – with our primary source for conservatism being Fox News. These issues are all primary to our country, but perhaps we must take a look in the rear-view mirror and extract the lost parts of conservatism that transcend what media outlets cover today, and in the process more effectively solve these issues.
Equally as troubling to me is that conservatives have in many ways forgotten the past and the “traditions” we are known for being so attached to. I am astounded at the “household” conservative’s lack of knowledge about the early intellectual giants of the movement they proclaim as their own, in particular, the late Russell Kirk. This obligates me to find what wiser men have written in the past and use this more intellectual conservatism to counter the Liberal ideologues of our generation.
If what conservatives drew from the last election was that conservatism is in trouble, this may be so but I believe the saving grace of conservatism has already been articulated by a conservative. Dr. Russell Kirk is one of these academics who built the base of conservatism decades ago; I suggest every conservative get to know him better. My purpose is not to give a biographical analysis of the life or works of Kirk, but rather to point out what might be most essential to learn from him in order to strengthen conservatism at large.
Although much can be learned for Kirk, I find his bias towards community to be most appealing and essential today. The eighth of his Ten Conservative Principles states that “conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism” and goes on to describe Americans as “a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community”. But we as conservatives have failed to articulate this belief, specifically to on-the-fence voters and minority voters who only view conservatives as individualistic or bigoted. As they are not going to desert these beliefs themselves, we have to denounce these assumptions and set before them a more Kirkian conservatism which may be more appealing.
When Kirk refers to community he is meaning the social institutions of which community is composed – starting with the family, church, local government, and other institutions. When working together, these institutions breed a healthy community and as Kirk said, “it is the performance of our duties in community that teaches us prudence and efficiency and charity”.
I anticipate this “sect” of conservatism to appeal to a broader voting base, particularly the younger generation and “hipster” types, but more notably to minorities, who form their own communities in every major city across the country, take Chicago for example. So it would make sense that a more genuine approach to community by conservatives would attract this crucial voting demographic. However, the Kirkian conservatism is not so much concerned with winning votes as it is restoring moral order and adhering to custom, convention, and continuity, as his first and second principles explain. Both of these ideas make sense in appealing to minorities.
Our generation needs to shed the stereotypes of conservatives as the bigoted, Fox News watching, individualistic, crony-capitalists and control our own destiny by rediscovering intellectual conservatism. By examining our past, we can both inform the future and better understand the present. Kirk’s conservatism values most the moral regeneration of our country, a process which begins from the bottom up with local communities and their structures. We should seek what Kirk referred to to as “public-spirited” conservatism.
Derek Draplin | University of Michigan | @DDraps24