Erstwhile conservative (if I’m being generous) David Brooks laments the state of the conservative mind. When, apparently in another life, he worked for National Review, there were traditionalist conservatives and free market types. Now, he says, the free marketeers have totally eclipsed the traditionalists.
In the polarized political conflict with liberalism, shrinking government has become the organizing conservative principle. Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse. These days, speakers at Republican gatherings almost always use the language of market conservatism — getting government off our backs, enhancing economic freedom. Even Mitt Romney, who subscribes to a faith that knows a lot about social capital, relies exclusively on the language of market conservatism.
Notice the move here, from conservative to Republican. In electoral politics, the business-oriented guys have always had the upper hand. The traditionalists (to whom I take a big tent approach, numbering among them not just the followers of Burke and Kirk, but all those who have grave doubts about secularist and rationalist modernity) have never been major players in partisan politics. They’ve always been more noticeable in various “ivory towers,” like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the editorial offices of First Things (if I may be so bold).
Do I wish that concerns about what Michael Novak calls “moral ecology” were more prominent in our political discourse? Of course. Do I think that their relatively low profile in places where people gather to wage electoral combat is indicative of a problem with “conservatism”? Of course not.
In day to day politics, the pressing (the unsustainable size of government) crowds out the important (the state of our souls and our civil society). We should not stint in reminding our friends, colleagues, and fellow political disputants of what’s really important. But we have to recognize that the failure adequately and responsibly to address our pressing problem puts what we really care about at risk as well.
The conservative mind remains fruitfully divided in the way that Brooks indicates (even if he conveniently forgets the one element of fusionism with which he was once prominently identified). He surely knows better than to look for it where he cannot find it.