I recently visited Ronald Reagan’s Rancho Del Cielo for the first time. Credit for the ranch’s preservation goes to the Young America’s Foundation. There are many beautiful things about the ranch, but the best is his bookshelf. Covering a wall in the living room, it is the first thing you see upon entering the little house. There are various books about the Southwest, horse guides and Western novels. Then there are the conservative books – the books by conservative thinkers of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. My guide pointed out Reagan’s well-thumbed copy of “Witness,” the awesome monument to anti-communism by Whitaker Chambers.
In his last letter to William F. Buckley, in 1961, Chambers wrote, “Each age finds its own language for an eternal meaning.” He did not mean that every generation of conservatives should revise their list of talking points so that we can market ourselves better in the next election. To find the language of America, as Ronald Reagan found it, requires us to read deeper.
Conservatism does not translate to politics naturally, nor can political strategists master it. It must become the subject of a great conversation among men and women with the intellectual talent to place it in context. The sources of conservatism must first be discerned.
Conservative intellectuals of the last century scored a great mediation between impulses and votes. A few brilliant characters – Buckley, Hayek, Meyer, Kirk, Friedman, Weaver, and Kendall among them – wrote and argued about the troubles of the West and the ideas necessary to save it. The most important of them spent their best efforts on a single question: What is America?
In their pursuit of the American idea, the conservative thinkers discovered their common identity as defenders of America in the face of its enemies: communism, big government, social decay. Any conservative of recent decades has known the popularized result of the intellectual movement, because a great statesman named Ronald Reagan arose to articulate it: limited government, traditional values, strong defense.
This was a winning formula because conservatives inquired not who they were as conservatives, but who they were as Americans. The conservative message did not resonate with Americans because it was conservative. It won over the American electorate because it was American.
The trouble now is not that America isn’t conservative. The trouble is that the conservative movement is out of touch with America. We’re out of touch with America because we’ve lost some intellectual focus as a movement.
This is not to dismiss the skill with which we have advanced policies and arguments. Feeling excluded from the idea markets (higher education, media, the arts, literature), we’ve found our own niches in populist forums (talk radio, blogs, Fox News, conservative publishing houses) and think tanks.
Yet conservatives have neglected the habits of thought that animated the movement to begin with. In the end, there is no substitute for serious thinking about first principles. We must invest in the centers where they are taught, promote them in our culture and avail them to the rising generation of political leaders.
The biggest problem for conservatives is not how to find politicians. It is how to find the guardians of principle – storytellers, teachers, artists and writers – who will fire the American imagination and prepare the way for statesmen. Like Reagan, our politicians must study the primary sources of the country and translate them into a common language. The first question is not, “How shall we craft better policies for America?” The question is, “What is America?”
There are two ways to ask this question.
First, what is America in 2009? Well, it is not the Age of Reagan. The Cold War and the Industrial Age are over. Two immense realities dominate our moment: One is a global information age. The other is a deep, unfilled need in the human soul to relate to others. Conservatives must center their renewed intellectual movement on these realities. That means at once asserting America’s role among the nations, and reclaiming the role of local and regional attachments within the nation. In addition to asking, “What is America?” we ought to ask “What is my region?” and “What is my city?”
But the conversation must be governed by a second question: “What is the idea of America?” As Lincoln once said, “Public opinion, on any subject, always has a ‘central idea’ from which all its minor thoughts radiate.” America’s central idea, he wrote, “has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of ‘Liberty to all’ – the principle that clears the path for all – gives hope to all – and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.” Lincoln, of course, found America’s central idea best expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
The American idea needed defending in Lincoln’s day, and Lincoln prepared himself. “That we may so act, we must study, and understand the points of danger,” he declared on the eve of his presidency. So again we need statesmen like Lincoln and Reagan who will study the language of America and beware its threats.
For us, the Age of Obama has its advantages. As Jeffrey Hart observed several decades ago, conservatism “becomes articulate under attack.”
In our quest from first principles to policies, we have the added advantage of a conservative movement more than half a century mature. More than that, the country is old.
As for the idea of the country – that will never grow old.