Is there a crony capitalist cancer raging inside the American body politic? Yes. Is there a bleeding inequality in this nation between the protected and the unprotected classes (as Peggy Noonan puts it), the former shielded by money, social power, and lifestyle bubbles from the shocks that rive the latter? Oh, yes.
But can resentment build anything?
Of course not. Hegel and Marx notwithstanding, the fascination with negation is not life-giving. It simply breeds chaos, tyranny, and death.
Now we have large numbers of people, presumably on the right, embracing the magical power of negation, wishing that the charismatic force of a celebrity will break the chokehold by which the privileged are in fact, most balefully, asphyxiating this nation. (Though, surely, Donald Trump is a most paradoxical choice to lead the war against the decadence of our elites?)
This lacks prudence.
There is no vital political life, that is, there is no democracy, without prudence, because negotiating the complexities of history and circumstance requires an ever-renewed contemplation of what is so. By prudence I do not mean a small-minded calculation of utility or social acceptability. That has nothing to do with the classical virtue of prudence, which is the fountainhead of all virtue, of all human nobility. Prudence is the cultivated habit by which a probing and restless intellect asks questions, seeks out facts, and pays attention to the true, the good, and the beautiful as they luminously well up all round, and then applies the fruits of contemplation to the concrete situation at hand, to construct the good that can actually be constructed in this slice of time and space.
And then we have to do it again and again, because circumstances change, and the new facts on the ground have to be met with by our, hopefully, increasing store of wisdom, as we mature, as truth, goodness, and beauty assimilate us progressively.
Reality has hard contours. You can’t build the good without attending to the truth of reality. We may have a good intention: ridding ourselves of the parasitism of the powerful, saving the unborn from being slaughtered, rectifying the fatal problems with our education system (which fall most heavily on minority and poor populations), confronting the inhumanities of our penal colonies, which ravage our black communities. But a good intention by itself can build nothing. It must connect with reality. And that involves the mediations that only patient attention to facts and principles can render.
No prudence, no democracy. The only other option is some flavor of tyranny.
Political conservatism embraces what Russell Kirk called a “politics of prudence.” I have written before: “To be a conservative should mean recognizing that any true progress depends on receiving a tradition, being open to what Chesterton calls the democracy of the dead. To be a conservative means to recognize that we belong to the great organic continuum of humanity, where past, present, and future are under our stewardship. It means being realistic enough to see the hubris of utopian schemes which, in the name of the powerless, slaughter the powerless on the altar of ‘progress’ and revolution. To be conservative means recognizing that there are no silver bullets in politics, but only the unceasing labor of prudence and mutual deliberation. Conservatism should mean recognizing that we are not God, and that the indispensable communal act is that of thanksgiving and praise of the all-provident Creator and Sustainer of all things. Conservatism should mean humility, piety, and gratitude.”
Trump is no conservative. But how does Ted Cruz measure up to the conservative standard, the standard of graciousness and prudence?
He has rejected the core attitudinal posture of the conservative, while holding conservative policy positions. This is dangerous for the future of conservatism. Why do so many non-conservatives think of us as cold-hearted? Ignorance of relevant principles and facts? That is involved. But is it not the case that too many conservatives are in fact…cold-hearted? I am a man of the right. Always have been. But to see conservatives take hold of true things and then use them as a club with which to beat those who haven’t yet seen the same facts: it makes me ill. It is a betrayal of truth to treat truth that way. If we aren’t listening patiently to, and conversing gently with, our political opponents, we are not being pious before the sacrament of our neighbor, that is, we are not being conservative. If we are not openhearted, not principled and prudent advocates for the marginalized, standing up for the little guy in truth and love, then, I submit, we have ourselves made a caricature of conservatism. It fills me with moral revulsion to hear some conservatives rail against immigrants, to hear some conservatives talk about what are undoubtedly the truths of marriage, while making clear their disgust for our brothers and sisters who have same-sex attraction, etc.
It’s as if these mean-spirited conservatives got hold of the answer sheet, but have no idea what the questions are. It is the perversion of conservatism into pharisaism. That is just another ideology, and frankly farther from the divine fire of the prophets than Marxist ideology.
The commitment to prudence and piety places conservatism on the side of political liberalism (democratic government under law, in which the deliberations of citizens have effect in the political ordering of the nation) and of human enterprise and freedom of conscience, because top-down management of persons and their gifts is sacrilege.
Conservatives should be known for mercy. What I care about most deeply in conservatism is its compatibility with Christian charity. But even on the level of merely human love, the first principle is the preferential option for the poor. The weaker a person is, the more we are responsible for that person. That I take to be the fundamental ethical principle of political conservatism. If it isn’t that, then conservatism isn’t worth anything. Conservatism isn’t libertarianism. Conservatism celebrates and cultivates the organic bonds of love without which the body politic becomes a mere collective.
Above all, conservative piety must mean the defense of the most powerless, especially in this age of biopower and the bureaucratically organized assault on the bare life of the unborn and the elderly and medically dependent and the eugenic assault on the fertility of the women of the developing world.
As I posted yesterday, “if we're not fighting for some other group than our own, the ones less powerful, and that always at least means defending the bare life of the most powerless humans, the unborn and those threatened by euthanasia--if we're not fighting for the others, then we are only another special interest group, part of the Mexican standoff of group bias. Thus we have Donald Trump, and the pro-abortion demagogues of the left, and yes, thus we have the angry No to seeking some prudent way to be hospitable to the huddled masses of refugees, fleeing war or hunger. That indeed is not Christianity. It doesn't even make it to the level of the basically humane.”
The fire-eaters of the “right” have identified prudence with all that keeps us from restoration. They have fallen in love with negation. We have a word for that impulse: it’s called revolution. And conservatives, the ones like me who imbibed Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, used to point out that revolutionary ideologies have piled up more dead bodies than any other belief system in the history of the world.
Do we need a breakthrough in our declining Republic? Absolutely. I do not make light of the passion behind revolution: the fire burns in me to rescue the poor, the suffering, the marginalized, the victims of history. A most urgent fire, to rescue the most powerless human life from abortion and euthanasia. We all know what was inside Lincoln, disgusted by a slave auction in New Orleans, when he said, “By God, boys, let’s get away from this. If I ever get a chance to hit that thing, I’ll hit it hard.”
That fire burns. It burns hot. But if the righteous pro-life passion forsakes prudence, it would become yet another inhuman ideology devouring human lives, including the ones it originally sought to rescue.
That is, we must burn with the revolutionary fire to restore the right to life of the innocent in law, to restore the Constitutional principles of our founding, to restore liberal arts education, but we must act out of intelligence, deliberation, questioning, listening, contemplating the true, the good, the beautiful, and studying the example given by heroic statesman.
With all this in mind, let us turn back to Cruz, who was responsible for shutting down the government in 2013, yes, in the service of a good goal, the abomination of ObamaCare crying out for redress, but it was a goal that COULD NOT have prospered taking this route, precisely given the constitutional structure of our government. That is the very definition of imprudence.
And Cruz excoriated his own Republican colleagues, slandering them as not being sincere in their conservatism, just because they recognized the imprudence, because they have brains in their heads and principles in their hearts: that would seem to indicate a character deficit, a lack of graciousness and fraternal piety, to go along with a privation of prudence large enough to swallow the common good.
Marco Rubio is a true conservative, prudent and merciful and pious. He is the way forward for conservatism and for the American Republic.
As Lincoln knew during the Civil War, the fate of democracy, of political liberalism, hinges on the fate of this nation. It is so again, as the oldest democracies are all succumbing to bureaucratic statism and crony capitalism.
A breakthrough that serves the human good cannot be achieved by the accession of another demagogue. We’ve already endured one demagogue for two terms, a man who has shamelessly, in defiance of our constitutional architecture, wielded bureaucratic power to impose his vision.
And the breakthrough cannot be achieved by voting for the pro-abortion extremists of the Democratic Party. There are things that Sanders says that pluck upon my heart. Grotesque inequality is an urgent matter. Free enterprise promises that it’s not a zero-sum game: we may all rise; it need not be at the expense of our neighbor. Nothing threatens to give the lie to free enterprise more than the extreme inequality between the protected and the unprotected classes.
But I would ask Bernie: what’s your definition of inequality? Do you only see inequality when it comes to money, not the far more profound inequality between those who have the power to kill and those who can’t resist their killers? This paladin of the powerless doesn’t see the most vulnerable human lives!
No, only where prudence, piety, mercy, and graciousness hold sway can there be a rejuvenescence of America. Conservatism is committed to these things in principle. We need to be committed to them in lived existence. Let’s be joyful, open to the wonders of nature and culture and the beauty of our neighbor, relishing that beauty, and relishing conversation, eager for dialectic (an intentional and shared pursuit of the truth), voracious to know and love, zealous for the common good, for the life of republican citizenship, for the cause of the poor, the immigrant, the unborn, all the powerless.
Conservatism need not be simply identified with Christian republicanism, but the spirit of the latter needs to blow through the former.
I see that in Marco Rubio.
I do not give my endorsement in my capacity as Chairman of the Board of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. It is simply the position of a private citizen, most assuredly right now a member of the unprotected class. I submit my opinion, in humility, to my fellow-citizens.
Because I take in dead earnest the preferential option for the poor as the first principle of social ethics, the preeminent issue will always be the welfare of the most powerless human life: the babies threatened by abortion and the medically dependent and aged threatened by euthanasia. So if it comes down to Trump (God help us), I will do what I have to do. But we have options right now. We have a very good option in tomorrow’s primary here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Please vote for Marco Rubio.