Stan Evans has described bodies of thought as having “lifecycles”; they emerge, thrive for a while, and, unless continually nourished, eventually hollow out and pass away.  Having reached the end of its lifecycle, liberalism, as a coherent body of thought, is dead.  There are still liberals, of course.  But the tradition derived variously from John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Montesquieu, which was transmuted in the 1950’s by the Cold War and transmogrified beyond recognition by the social revolutions of the 60’s and 70’s and the influence of Michel Foucault and company, has not been able to sustain itself.  The ethos of revolution, which was tied, in varying degrees, to Enlightenment rationalism, utilitarianism, individualism, anti-Christianity, and socialism, has proved itself to be an insufficient basis for a full and humane social order.  Liberalism’s culture of individual rights has become increasingly unworkable and has made politics impossible.  Moreover, liberalism has metastasized into a corrosive popular culture that even many liberals oppose.  Finally, as a direct rebuke to liberal visions of a gradually secularizing world, nonliberal and traditional religious movements are now stronger than they have been in perhaps a century.

What does this mean for conservatives?  For one thing, it means that what Adrian Woolridge has called the “Coulterization” of conservatism is a dead end.  “Movement” conservatism’s shrill condemnation of the “liberal” bogeyman is falling on deaf ears, as it is becoming increasingly detached from social and political reality.  On issues ranging from foreign policy to the environment, the political landscape is shifting, but mainstream conservatives are not paying attention.  The growing opposition to the Iraq war is the most recent, and the most significant, case in point: Many mainstream conservatives seemed to favor any Republican so long as he supported the war, while long-time conservatives were blacklisted, or worse, for opposing it.  This tunnel vision justifies critics who say that conservatism has no real substance to it and is, at most, a reaction to the dominant liberalism.

Russell Kirk is often thought of as the great antagonist of liberalism.  His Conservative Mind (1953), after all, provided an explicit contrast with the liberal one, which was, at the time, so dominant that critics such as Lionel Trilling could think of no alternative to it.  Some may think Kirk would have little to offer regarding the challenges conservatism faces in this century.  After all, he died in 1994, which, in our post-September 11 world, seems like a long time ago.  Before his death, many had already written him off, for, among other things, his opposition to the Gulf War.  Even Kirk’s admirers sometimes forget that, even in the 1950’s, Kirk was looking beyond the end of liberalism.  Because of its inherent faults, liberalism soon was emptied of content and “ceased to signify anything, even among its most sincere partisans, [other] than a vague good will.”  In “The Dissolution of Liberalism” (1955), Kirk was already writing its obituary:

The liberal system attained popularity because it promised progress without the onerous duties exacted by tradition and religion.  It is now in the process of dissolution because, founded upon an imperfect and distorted myth, it has been unable to fulfill its promise, and because it no longer appeals in any degree to the higher imagination.  It has been undone by social disillusion.

What would come next?  Would there be a totalitarian takeover of some sort?  After all, the communists were, at the time, working to infiltrate American society.  No, said Kirk, it is far more likely that a “Machiavellian scheme founded upon self-interest and creature comforts” would take hold on American culture.  The excesses of the counterculture of the following two decades, and the baby boomers’ materialist narcissism masquerading as social concern that characterized the 80’s and 90’s, were, for Kirk, expected results of liberalism’s disintegration.

The challenge for conservatives is to create a substantive program within their own tradition without having to feed off the carcass of liberalism.  Part of that challenge involves re-imagining that tradition, as Kirk did in his day and as writers such as Bill Kauffman have done more recently, by calling on lesser-known figures and movements in American history that give the lie to the ossified divisions of contemporary politics.

In 1954, Russell Kirk published A Program for Conservatives, which was reissued in 1989 as Prospects for Conservatives.  It is the closest Kirk ever came in writing to discussing actual policies that suited his romantic, imaginative conservatism, though, in the book, he explicitly disclaims any sort of political program.  Rather, he sets forth a framework for conservatives for analyzing political issues.

In Prospects, Kirk devotes an entire chapter to the question of power; it is worth rereading, because conservatives seem to have forgotten its central lesson: Power must be contained.  These days, conservatives often seem to want to acquire and hold onto power without knowing why.  This is an unfortunate consequence of the successes of the Reagan years and the Gingrich Revolution of 1994.  What Kirk reminds us is that conservatives should seek power only as a means to accomplish something particular and should never mistake it as an end in itself.

Kirk also addressed two facets of the challenge of power.  On the national level, he found the constitutional scheme of ordered liberty and federalism to be the “chief attainment of American political philosophy.”  On the international level, he was a staunch opponent of exporting ideology in the name of democracy.  Kirk was no anarchist, of course.  He believed that there is a place for the proper exercise of government power, exercised primarily through states and localities and constrained by tradition and custom.  Thus, he parted ways with the libertarians, whose obsessive focus on freedom detached from tradition is the flip side of liberalism.  Invoking the example of Lincoln, for whom he maintained a decent respect throughout his career, he chose the “middle path” between absolute sovereignty and absolute liberty.

Kirk thought the decay of federalism and the institutions of self-government in America would increase the temptation to use government power for seemingly good causes.  In Prospects, he uses the example of a federal school-lunch program.  Who could be against providing lunches for schoolchildren?  Kirk’s whimsical example reminds us that we can always come up with a reason to use power.  The temptation to look to the central government for the solution to our problems—even national problems—must be resisted.  Conservatives “must stand firm against centralization, legislation that offers to substitute a passing ‘security’ for prescriptive liberty, and the conversion of republican government into plebiscitary democracy.”

On the use of American power abroad, Kirk was just as clear: “A ‘preventive’ war, whether or not it might be successful in the field . . . would be morally ruinous to us.”  Although written as part of a critical reflection on the decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kirk’s arguments ring true, perhaps even more so, today.  In the 1989 edition of his book, Kirk takes his critique of U.S. foreign policy a step further.  He criticizes the “pragmatists” who see conservatism as a means of “placating or serving certain powerful interests—and so warding off radical interests.”  Such an approach can only be self-defeating and self-destructive, as the Iraq debacle demonstrates.

In the 1989 edition of Prospects, Kirk could confidently declare that American policies had not been much improved after almost a decade of Republican rule.  Yet he refused to give up hope that the various conservative factions might join together for political purposes.  More generally, given his Christian convictions about sin and redemption, he did not despair, even though the causes for which he fought seemed no closer to victory than when he started.  This cautiously optimistic view avoids the disillusionment of liberal and conservative utopians, which inevitably sets in when reality does not line up with their plans.