If George Bush accomplishes nothing else in his lifetime, he has at least earned a secure niche in future editions of Trivial Pursuit. Not since Martin Van Buren trounced the Whigs in 1836 has an incumbent Vice President been elected to the White House. The lackluster record of Andrew Jackson’s successor perhaps does not inspire optimism about the new administration, but, as most Americans who bothered to vote probably realized, it will beat the socks off what Michael Dukakis would have offered.

Among those voters who cast their ballots for Mr. Bush were most American conservatives, who had never previously supported him but who finally signed on with enthusiasm. Having wasted their ammunition in combat for Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, Robert Dole, and Pierre DuPont, conservatives now came to imagine that Mr. Bush’s fusillades against Mr. Dukakis represented their own victory, and they gladly galloped off with him to pump their last rounds into the Democratic corpse.

But despite the Bush victory, the fact is that American conservatism is beginning to resemble downtown Beirut in its political and philosophical disintegration. Mr. Bush himself is nothing if not an incarnation of the large yacht club that has spawned Lodges and Rockefellers, and for all the bravado at “morning in America” and “we’re ready to lead,” the Taft-Goldwater-Reagan wing of the GOP, along with the Old Right, the New Right, the neoconservatives, the First, Second, and Third Generations, the libertarians, the evangelicals, the Southern, Catholic, and Neo-Medieval Rights, and the many-splintered school of Leo Strauss, all were dispatched to the showers.

No doubt most of these grouplets will survive in the recesses of their own political, philosophical, and tax-exempt caverns, and the nether portions of the federal government may provide a source of relatively honest income for many. But none has much prospect of setting the pace of the Bush administration. Mr. Bush’s main campaign advisers and Cabinet officials are not known to be the sort of men who will snooze their afternoons away while the guardians of the damp brow and the pure heart march off with the government.

The political decline of the American right is matched perhaps even caused by its philosophical decomposition, and no text better illustrates the disintegration of the conservative mind in the last few years than Professor Charles R. Kesler’s introduction to a recent anthology of conservative essays. Keeping the Tablets: Modern American Conservative Thought, edited by Mr. Kesler and William F. Buckley Jr., is a revised version of a collection originally published by Mr. Buckley in 1970. As the new title suggests, the current edition purports to pronounce an orthodoxy to which the American rights should adhere.

But the tablets Mr. Kesler offers are etched in a strange tongue. While his anthology retains selections from such major conservative minds of the present and recent past as Russell Kirk, James Burnham, and Willmoore Kendall, Mr. Kesler seems to regard most of these as rather like museum pieces, exhibited mainly for their quaintness. He makes it his business to redefine American conservatism in such a way as to exclude from it what once were considered its representative voices.

It is Mr. Kesler’s contention that the Declaration of Independence, or rather five words from it, is the “central idea,” as Abraham Lincoln called it, of our political tradition. The success of liberalism, Mr. Kesler thinks, is due to the liberals’ misappropriation of this idea, with the result that “it has become easy for modern liberals to seize the moral high ground on virtually any issue.” Conservatives may gain power if, like the left, they “know the magic words needed to unlock our highest traditions.” His counsel, then, is to resist the left not by rejecting its incantations to equality but by sealing them, and by relegating to the back shelves those formulations of conservatism that do not center on equality or which interpret the Declaration and the American tradition differently.

“The American republic,” writes Mr. Kesler,

claims to be based on self-evident truths, first among them that “all men are created equal.” Properly understood meaning an equality of rights, not of virtue, wisdom, or talents, an equality reflecting man’s humanity, i.e., his place in nature and the universe this is self-evidently true. But it has not fared well with the majority of conservative thinkers over the past few decades.

Yet Mr. Kesler nowhere explains why the Declaration should be taken as the defining document of the American tradition, let alone why the “created equal” formula should define the Declaration itself Had he found space in his 450-page collection for M.E. Bradford’s essay “The Heresy of Equality,” he would have afforded his readers an opportunity to learn how the Declaration may be read in other ways. (He and Mr. Buckley included two essays by Harry Jaffa, Mr. Kesler’s mentor, but could find no room for Mr. Bradford’s article, itself a reply to one of those by Mr. Jaffa.)

Nor does Mr. Kesler explain in what way it is “self-evident” that all men are created equal. Were it so, why does anyone deny it, and why are there not only conflicting conservative understandings of what the slogan means but also different liberal and socialist interpretations? If the phrase means “equality of rights,” what are these rights? Is that the same as “equality of opportunity,” and is it possible to have real equality of rights or of opportunity unless there is first equality of condition? Does not a serious commitment to “equality of rights” as the ideal around which political, legal, social, and economic institutions are to be built drag us ineluctably toward a leveled wasteland over which a leviathan state presides for the enforcement of equality and in which a political and economic regimen centered on and driven by envy and by what President Washington called the “spirit of innovation” prevails?

“Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, and Irving Kristol,” Mr. Kesler writes, “would agree that a healthy nation cannot really be dedicated to any proposition or abstract truth, because a nation is a kind of spontaneous social order emerging from historical experience and the unguided evolution of market and cultural forces.” In Mr. Kesler’s view this kind of traditionalism, which avoids universalist assertions, accounts for the conservative failure “to bring about a genuine political realignment.” “The difficulty is that conservatism seems to have no clear commitment to those principles or, more precisely, that it does not seem to understand why they are so important. It has not yet learned the vernacular of American politics, despite its great and numerous successes.”

For all his critique of conventional conservative traditionalism, however, Mr. Kesler nowhere offers a defense of the truth of the philosophical abstraction he espouses. His defense of equality as the center of the American order is merely that it is our tradition, “our ancient faith,” as Lincoln put it, and that this line of defense does not differ in form from the arguments of other, conventional conservative traditionalists such as Messrs. Kirk, Bradford, or Kendall except that they make a historically more literate case for their very different reading of what the American tradition is.

One suspects that Mr. Kesler offers no philosophical defense for his idea of equality because there is no such defense. John Locke (and Thomas Jefferson, insofar as he was Locke’s disciple) presumed an anthropology of the “state of nature” and a “social contract” that never existed. The natural equality of rights by which Mr. Kesler wants to define America as a political order is entirely derivative from Lockean fiction. It cannot stand in the absence of this fiction, nor can Locke’s view of government and society as artificial products of the universal consent of their members. Pace Mr. Kesler, the US Constitution was not “made” at Philadelphia in four months, but in the long and complex evolution of European, British, colonial, and post-colonial history. At no time in the 18th century were Americans in a “state of nature,” and the state and federal constitutions they drafted were in no way Lockean social contracts.

Whatever facile charms Mr. Kesler’s egalitarianism may possess, it has managed to miss the point of the teaching that traditionalists have long asserted. That point is to defend an inherited way of life that cannot be reduced to easy formulas and neat slogans, and which philosophical texts and legalistic charters by themselves cannot adequately articulate. When conservative leaders have understood, and based their campaigns and policies upon, this unique, concrete, specific, and habitual ethos, which, as Kendall perceived, Americans understand “in their hips,” they have prospered. When, like Mr. Jaffa’s other disciple. Rep. Jack Kemp, they have followed Mr. Kesler’s counsel, they have failed miserably.

Political success, of course, is of less importance to those who keep the real American tablets than the task of preserving the tablets themselves. As long as they are intact, we will be able to distinguish them from counterfeits such as Mr. Kesler offers, and there will be some firm ground from which their keepers may challenge, rather than merely mimic, those who try to erase them.