Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
“The conservative adheres to CUSTOM, CONVENTION, and CONTINUITY.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
If we played a word-association game around the word conservative, I’ve little doubt some imaginations would conjure up a crotchety, elderly, balding, Caucasian male spouting derogatory obscenities while complaining about the minorities down the street. Conservatism has an image problem. The intellectual godfathers of the conservative movement were predominantly white males; even to this day the movement is dominated by wrinkly, white men.
To the Millennial generation—the most diverse generation in American history—this creates a significant barrier in adopting conservatism as a worldview. It can be difficult for minorities to fit in with a group that looks so very different from themselves. Generations have always found things to squabble about and occasionally a defining historical advent will highlight the different mindsets between them, such as the election of Donald Trump. The majority of Millennials—conservative or not—were aghast that older generations would elect a candidate who—while not overtly racist—frequently said things that were cringingly bigoted.
Millennials have made laudable strides in ridding political discourse of anything that reeks of racist overtones. For some the mere accusation of racism or bigotry can end a political career. Not satisfied with eliminating overtly racist language from political conversations, Millennials have sought to get to the very root of the problem by banning any speech that is offensive or tinged with bias and prejudice. “Bias” has become a four-letter word. But are all biases and prejudices wrongheaded? Is it right to equate bias and prejudice with overt racism? Is it possible, or even desirable, to insist public discourse must be sanitized so that not even the chronically offended can find cause to take offense?
Against this backdrop, the conservative has an uphill battle in the war for the Millennial soul, for if conservatism is to survive it must defend the conventions, customs, and culture of the past. It must convince the Millennial that, in spite of all that went wrong in Western civilization, it is still worth defending. The challenge of getting the young to recognize the value of what the old have to offer is nothing new; yet the division between Millennials and prior generations presents a unique challenge to conservatism. Conservatism requires a deference to continuity, structure, convention, and tradition—words that grate at the very core of Millennials in their quest for authenticity over allegiance, open-mindedness over prejudice, innovation over tradition, and independence over structure.
The aspirations of the Millennial are curiously paradoxical: we yearn for community while demanding autonomy. We scoff at the rigid cultural structure of the past while desiring something meaningful beyond ourselves. We want the façade of a relationship, but we don’t want the work of a relationship. Technology has made it possible for us to have the illusion of the good life. As a result, communities, organizations, and religious affiliations that once provided a strong sense of purpose and place for the individual have been in sharp decline. In his book Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putman provides overwhelming evidence that American communities of nearly all stripes are in decline. These trends have accelerated over the past decade, as evidenced by the significant decline in religious affiliations. Radical individualism is replacing strong ties to communities, even as we yearn for the sense of belonging found only in communities.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that humans are resistant to change; for though we each have our individual understanding of what constitutes change there will be something we hold so dear that we can’t bear the thought of its alteration. Some are more naturally adverse to change than others. I grew up in the religious tradition of a small offshoot of the Pentecostal and Methodist denominations known as the Holiness Movement. Many within the church had the peculiar stance of being staunchly traditionalist about traditions that were barely older than they were. There was much ado made about whether to replace our wooden pews with padded pews; discontent over the purchase of an offering plate that had a crimson, felt padding; and a generally dim view of modern accessories as sundry as pockets in skirts, neckties, VHS players, Uno cards, carbonated beverages, mustaches, and attempts to update the vernacular of Scripture past the good King’s English.
The underlying principle—that Christians are to be in the world, not of the world—was laudable enough, but the fierce application led to all sorts of prohibitions against things that didn’t much matter. The traditions themselves became outdated not because they were old-fashioned, but because they were based on faulty premises. It was generally understood that owning a TV and going to the movies was taboo. Yet this custom didn’t anticipate the advent of the internet. And so it came to pass that many who wouldn’t think of setting foot in a movie theater watched a great deal online, because there was nothing in the tradition that specifically prohibited it.
The reason I bring all this up is to say that I recognize on a personal level that, while my conservatism carries a certain penchant for things of the past, I am not irrationally married to the past nor am I incapable of criticizing custom. Conservatism isn’t about holding on to the past; it’s about discerning what things of our past held value worth conserving and holding on to them alone.
Stalwart traditionalists can be an odd lot. The godfather of American conservatism, John Adams, was described in Ron Chernow’s definitive biography on Alexander Hamilton as “a man with an encyclopedic memory for slights.” Far from being a unifying leader, Adams became estranged from Washington, managed to make frenemies of Jefferson, became outright enemies of Franklin and Hamilton, quarreled frequently with foreign diplomats, and—perhaps most noteworthy—alienated himself as President from his own cabinet. Perhaps surveying his tendency to stand athwart popular sentiment, Adams quipped, “Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.” For all of the immense good Adams accomplished, he was rather unpopular.
It can take an eccentric, stubborn, and naïvely optimistic personality to dare to stand athwart history, yelling “Stop!” Russell Kirk admonished that the conservative “should not struggle vainly to dam the whole stream of alteration, because then he would be opposing Providence; instead, his duty is to reconcile innovation and prescriptive truth, to lead the waters of novelty into the canals of custom. This accomplished, even though he may seem to himself to have failed, the conservative has executed his destined work in the great mysterious incorporation of the human race; and if he has not preserved intact the old ways he loved, still he has modified greatly the ugly aspect of the new ways.” Though stalwart traditionalists of old may be disappointed with the innovations of today, their contributions may very well have left intact a structure to hold civilization together.
Much of life is a tug-o-war between the traditions of the past and the innovations of today. Neither are inherently correct and both may be downright silly. And yet the conservative rightly recognizes that preferential treatment should be afforded to traditions of the past and that innovations should be embraced with much consideration and trepidation. We can conjure up an innovation all by ourselves in a moment, but a tradition is a group effort that’s endured the test of time. G. K. Chesterton put it best when he said, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” That which binds together one generation to the next morally obligates us to reverence that voice.
At its heart, conservatism is the recognition that the things we value are fragile and require vigilance to conserve. Conservatism is not a fixed list of political policies, but a continual effort from one generation to the next to pass on the values, customs, traditions, and conventions that define the culture we cherish. This can’t be done if “the culture” devolves into increasingly autonomous individuals who fail to see where they “fit in.” And it can’t be accomplished if the communities that foster and defend those traditions evaporate. Therefore, conservatives regard our cultural heritage and the institutions that perpetuate them as vulnerable assets to be defended and preserved. Political and cultural commentator David Brooks observed:
“When I’m born, I’m not born into some virgin earth with no institutions; I’m born into a crowded place where people came before and they built all these institutions. And most of what I do in life is I just inhabit an institution. You could go to a certain university, you could work at a certain company, you could follow certain professions. And when you enter institutions you are shaped by the institutions, by the standards, the codes of conduct. And when you try to live up to those codes you’re shaped by it. Many say hey, this thing was here before I was born; it’s going to be here after I’m dead, and I’m just going to try to be a steward of it and pass it along in better shape than I got it. And I think that’s accurate—that’s actually how we live. We don’t totally create our own lives, we inhabit posts and we’re called to different stations. And I do think it’s a calmer, more selfless, and ultimately a more happy way to live. Just because you know what you’re here for, you know what’s expected of you, and you’re connected with other people to a common cause…and the idea that we’re all a bunch of easy riders out on the highway by ourselves is a recipe for unhappiness.”
That idea—the idea that abandoning the institutions, heritage, and culture we were born into is a recipe for unhappiness—is something we’ll explore in Part 2.
This article originally appeared in The Millennial Review.