Ealy – The Conservative Mission in the Twenty-First Century
The Conservative Mission in the Twenty-First Century
Lenore T. Ealy
Remarks prepared for the
35th National Meeting of the Philadelphia Society
April 25, 1999
I’ve been invited today to speak to the question of the conservative mission in the twenty-first
century. Educated as an historian and not particularly inspired as a prophet or a visionary, I find this
a daunting task. Nevertheless, I have given the question some thought over the past few weeks,
and have some idiosyncratic notions on the question that I hope will at least provoke some
discussion this morning.
I think it desirable to begin by providing a working definition of "conservatism" as I am considering
it in the remarks that follow. My definition is certainly not comprehensive or even fully descriptive,
but we need a jumping off point. It is this: Conservatism is a mode of political thought whose
proponents seek to appropriate the best traditions of the past as a guide for ordering society in
both the present and the future.
In contemporary America, conservatism in practice encompasses a wide variety of traditions that
are celebrated and, because they are sometimes in tension one with another, contested. We can
say of all strands of American conservatism, however, that they generally share a concern with the
practice and preservation within our political culture of the complementary goods of human liberty
and responsibility. We can also say, I believe, that conservatives embrace a respect for the dignity
of human life and thus are also concerned with the goals of equality and justice as realized through
widespread economic opportunity and the rule of law.
Over the past two days, we have enjoyed a great deal of discussion of the prospects for
conservatism and its cultural seedbed-Western Civilization-at the close of the Twentieth Century.
This morning, we have an opportunity to reflect on these discussions and to think about the
conservative mission in the future. To get us started, I would like to suggest that the conservative
mission in the future will need to be organized around three themes: ROOTS, RELEVANCE,
AND RE-CREATION. Let me elaborate.
As a mode of thought, and also perhaps a temper of spirit, conservatism is not something that future
generations can embrace on the basis of sensory perception of physical beauty. We cannot expect
our children to wander through the cultural and political landscape and automatically choose our
mode of thought or our most revered traditions merely on the basis of their beauty to us. The
virtues of conservatism are founded in intellectual virtues, which means that we must intentionally set
about the intellectual labor of describing the foundations of our thought and practice in ways that
explain our own commitments and choices to succeeding generations.
These foundations are the roots of conservatism, or as Russell Kirk, put it, the roots of American
order, and they are found in the history, philosophy, economics, and other great literature that
conservatives cherish, consult, and debate as their guides.
I include the term debate here intentionally, and I believe it is critical that we continue not only to
recognize and respect the sources of our own commitments but also to debate them. To avoid the
errors of what is called "Whiggish history," or "historicism," or more simply self-righteousness, we
must constantly remind ourselves that history has not led inexorably to us, but that where we stand
today is a result of human choice, human action, and, indeed, human sacrifice.
History is a realm of moral freedom and responsibility. One of the most eloquent expressions of this
truth, which I hope all conservatives affirm, was stated by the British historian Herbert Butterfield
(in a collection of broadcast address published as Christianity and History). "Our final interpretation
of history," Butterfield reminds us,
is the most sovereign decision we can take, and it is clear that every one of us, as standing alone in
the universe, has to take it for himself. It is our decision about religion, about our total attitude to
things, and about the way we will appropriate life. And it is inseparable from our decision about the
role we are going to play ourselves in that very drama of history. (p. 25)
While I believe that conservatives must respect the individual’s need to make this sovereign
decision, I think it is fair to also say that conservatives believe that this sovereign decision needs not
be made in the vacuum of our own individual minds. In our infatuation with the power of the human
mind, we moderns are tempted to believe that man’s mind can displace God "as the creative
intelligence of the world." Whitaker Chambers reminded us, however, that this was the temptation
of Communism. Chambers stood witness to the truth that true freedom is a need of the soul and in
his short "Letter to My Children" he revealed that his testimony was intended above all to remind
his children that their journeys, though sometimes dark, are deeply rooted in his own and every
honest man’s seeking for truth.
The need for roots, to borrow the Anglicized title of the compelling book by Simone Weil,
demands that we extend our hands to future generations by attending to their education. By
education, I mean here not indoctrination, and certainly not even the mere persuasion that our own
mode of thought is most expedient or most useful. Rather I mean that education which involves
introducing the next generation to the best traditions that our civilization has to offer, without
glossing the shortcomings of our culture or denying the ongoing challenges we face. I also mean that
education in which we demonstrate that the virtues we have chosen to pursue for ourselves-and
would wish for our nation-reflect our love of reality, our respect for truth, and our awareness of
beauty in a right ordering of our private and public lives.
The question of education leads to my second theme: relevance. Of late, conservatives have been
much caught up in what have been called the "culture wars." These contests have typically been
waged in our educational institutions and have consisted in part in the effort of conservatives to
resist the tendency of the schools to teach students that all truth and all values are relative. For
cultural and moral relativists, values are merely arbitrary personal convictions that can bear no
universal compulsion on the mind of man. Although this teaching of relativism is often made in the
name of liberty, it is a liberty of self-creation, couched in a new "ethic of authenticity."
One danger of relativism-especially when it is uncomplemented by the kind of sceptical fideism
explored by Montaigne-is that it tends to undermine a young person’s interest and confidence in
cultural, moral, and intellectual traditions long proven by both reason and experience to be worthy
of our submission.
Taking as a given the current influence of relativism on rising generations, I believe that
conservatives must not only know the roots of our own beliefs but that we must also be capable of
making these beliefs relevant to the rootless individuals around us. There are essentially two key
tasks involved here. One is the reconstruction of educational institutions throughout our society
capable of cultivating understanding and appreciation of our roots among the majority of American
youth. This, of course, is no small order, but I believe there are many among us who can point out
the direction we must travel as well as help us achieve the goal.
The second task may be the more formidable, and I believe that presently there are fewer guides.
This is the reconstruction of an educational philosophy that can reach out to those who have not
had the benefit of a sound education and help them overcome their detachment from the roots of
American order. We must discover a way to enable American citizens once again to commit
themselves to the civic, political, and social institutions so vital to the flourishing of our culture. This
way must rest on an epistemology that can counter the relativists’ claims.
I believe the work of the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi may offer us the most direction
here. Polanyi’s acute analysis of the origins of the modern mind echoes the witness of Whitaker
Chambers. Polanyi describes the terrain of the modern mind thus:
A new destructive scepticism is linked here to a new passionate social conscience; an utter disbelief
in the spirit of man is coupled with extravagant moral demands. We see at work here the form of
action which has already dealt so many shattering blows to the modern world: the chisel of
scepticism driven by the hammer of social passion. (The Logic of Liberty, 5)
Rather than merely repudiate modern critical philosophy or deny the passions unleashed by
twentieth-century utopian ideologies, Polanyi attempted to push past the problems they posed for
the coherence of human mind.
In his books The Logic of Liberty (recently republished by Liberty Press) and more
comprehensively in Personal Knowledge, Polanyi lays down epistemological grounds that restore
the possibility of intellectual and moral commitment-and even require it. Through his philosophy of
personal commitment, Polanyi affirms the need for the learner, or what he calls the discoverer, to
pursue questions that are relevant to his own concerns but for which he seeks solutions that that are
"satisfying and compelling both for himself and everybody else." (PK, 301) Polanyi observes a
"mutual correlation between the personal and the universal" that has not been admitted by modern
epistemology, with its tendencies to err either in favor of a radical subjectivism or a wholly
The need for relevance approaches the deepest foundations of liberty, which for Polanyi is a
measure of the extent to which we are enabled to honor "the invisible things which guide [our]
creative impulses and in which [our] consciences are naturally rooted." (Logic, 57). For Polanyi, "A
nation whose citizens are sensitive to the claims of conscience and are not afraid to follow them, is a
free nation." (Logic, 56)
The business of cultivating and honoring conscience must therefore be the end of any true liberal
education. It matters not whether education is private or public but whether the state can refrain
from hindering the transmission of social lore, which Polanyi believe can only be done by a vast
array of specialists dedicated to their personal callings. (PK, 321) Polanyi’s philosophy thus offers
us a means of living relevant lives within the seeming tensions between the universal and the
particular, between civic and private life, between political unity and the social diversity that
enriches our culture.
We need both roots and relevance, but in order to renew the relationship between the traditions of
the past and the needs of our present and future, we must attend also to the process of re-creation.
While conservatives are often busy about "conserving" and "preserving," we often fail to realize that
we must also be engaging creatively with the demands of the present. On this point the British
philosopher Michael Oakeshott has been most eloquent, assuring us that "A society requires not
only that its civilization should be guarded, but that it should be recreated." In his essay "The Claims
of Politics," Oakeshott warns us of the danger of slipping too wholly into political activism. In fact,
Oakeshott believes that "political activity involves a corruption of consciousness from a which a
society has continuously to be saved."
His point is to warn us against suborning the work of the poet and the artist and the philosopher to
the needs of the political. To ask them to provide "a programme for political or other social action,
or an incentive or inspiration for such action, is to require them to be false to their own genius and
to deprive society of a necessary service.
Conservatives discuss with concern the apparent underrepresentation of conservative values in art,
television programming, film, and many forms of popular music and literature. While there are
certainly exceptions to be found in each of these cases, most of us would agree that much of
popular culture fails to capture our commitments or to celebrate the virtues we pursue.
Nevertheless, before we begin sending conservative activists to infiltrate Hollywood or the New
York television studios, it is incumbent on us to ask whether this is an appropriate tactic.
First, I believe we should ask why more artists, poets, and producers do not seem inspired by our
vision. Have we ourselves overly revered political engagement and thereby distracted the natural
genius of musicians, novelists, and actors among us? Or have we in our political distraction failed to
sample widely enough the creative fruits of our culture to recognize those which would be sweet to
our taste and to patronize their creators?
C. S. Lewis remarks in an essay on "Christian Apologetics" that "any Christian who is qualified to
write a good popular book on any science may do much more by that than by any directly
apologetic work." "What we want," he added, "is not more little books about Christianity, but more
little books by Christians on other subjects-with their Christianity latent." (God in the Dock, 93) I
venture to suggest that we replace the adjective "Christian" here with the adjective "conservative"
and take the admonition to heart. Only by engaging ourselves creatively in the full sphere of human
activities as our talents and callings draw us on can we truly expect to exert a formative influence on
our culture. Certainly we should find times to come together as conservatives, as we do here at the
Philadelphia Society and in other venues, but we also need to find time to be poets and scientists,
historians and philosophers, athletes and businessmen, pastors and musicians. And we need to
support one another in these roles.
At the beginning of my remarks, I suggested that conservatism is a mode of political thought, so lest
you fear that I would eschew political activism altogether, I would like to take a brief look at how
the needs for roots, relevance, and re-creation apply in our political concerns as well.
Roots-Conservative politics has suffered in recent years from a failure to inspire the average
American voter. The remedy of this shortcoming is a return to a more invigorated politics at the
grassroots. While our hopeful candidates for President in 2000 are busy with expensive fundraising
dinners with party elite, and our think-tanks are busy outlining and justifying conservative policy
positions, the organization and inspiration of American citizens at the grassroots seems to be the
expertise of those who oppose us. It is further a shame that they wage successful grassroots
campaigns by paying lip service to many of the political values and policies that we ourselves have
Relevance-In addition to reinvigorating the grassroots dimensions of our political activities,
conservatives should consider more carefully the current relevance of politics in the lives of most
Americans. While the ideal of American citizenship includes a duty to participate in the political
process, for many Americans their elected representatives seem to have little to do with the face of
American government that is most relevant in their lives. I refer here to the vast bureaucracy that
though faceless in the abstract is made up of thousands of very real civil servants. For the welfare
mother in inner city Philadelphia, her welfare case worker is a more personal and more important
face than her Congressman. For the owner of an inholding of land in a Western national forest,
various employees of the Department of the Interior may be a friendly or an ominous presence in
their daily lives, while the face of a Federal judge may become all too familiar. For the small
business owner, government may also present itself in a variety of guises as a friendly and helpful
representative of the Small Business Administration, a regulatory official from the EPA, a welcome
contractor for services from any number of government agencies, or as a seemingly omnipotent IRS
auditor. In none of the guises does government present a face for which an individual may have cast
The omnipresence of the national bureaucracy as almost a fourth, administrative, branch of
government-as well as its pervasive presence in the lives of American citizens-requires us to
consider more carefully how to establish controls and policies for the civil service so that it neither
impinges upon our freedoms nor deprives us opportunities to discharge our duties. In the most
recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Francis Fukuyama argues that in an information society,
government will not rely as heavily on bureaucratic power, but I believe we have yet to see any
substantial decentralization or reduction-in-force of the national bureaucracy.
Political scientist Herbert Storing, known among us primarily as the editor of the writings of the
Anti-federalists, proposed that the national bureaucracy-despite its obvious shortcomings-functions
importantly to pressure "our political leaders to transcend passing desires and prejudices," a role
that the Founders had hoped that the Senate itself might be able to perform.
Storing urged conservatives to recognize that although "random carping or wholesale condemnation
of the bureaucracy" is a logical corollary of their desire for limited government, it does very little
good in today’s circumstances. In fact, Storing argued that it only serves "[to divert] attention from
the need to nurture and strengthen its capacity for administrative statesmanship and of weakening
what is a prime source of intelligence as well as a major stabilizing and moderating force in
American government today." (Toward a More Perfect Union, 304)
Many of you in the audience this morning may be appalled at the suggestion that bureaucracy might
be turned toward some useful end, but we must take the attitude of realists and recognize that the
administrative state is already a force: we can choose to leave it for bad or do what we can to
shape it into something better.
Actually, I sometimes sense that the conservative criticism of the bureaucratic state waxes and
wanes with our political fortunes. Today, we tend to lament less that government is big than that it is
not "ours." Many conservatives happily served their country as civil servants during the Reagan and
Bush administrations and are now frustrated most by no longer controlling the administrative
wheels. This itself is a cause for self-examination within the conservative movement, for history
reveals political patronage to be one of the most corrupting of political forces.
Re-creation-Turning briefly to the need for re-creation, I believe that we are overdue for some
creative thinking turned to our politics. In The Need for Roots, Simone Weil assures us that
because the necessities of social life inevitably fall short of justice, politics is "as much in need of
efforts of creative invention as are art and science." (218)
Because political activism is not my calling, I am not sure what this re-creation of politics might look
like, but I am certain that it will require that we utilize innovative means of communication more
effectively in the effort to convey our political values. Perhaps this more effective communication
will involve abandoning the tired spokespersons of our movement in favor of fresh voices and faces
about which the public has not yet had time to become cynical. Unfortunately, the only personality I
can think of at the moment who has the potential to be listened to by a majority of Americans is
Louie, the Budweiser lizard! But maybe we shouldn’t rule Louie out too quickly; he obviously
understands the importance of family and tradition, and I believe there are even signs that he may
be willing to cooperate with the frogs in a higher cause.
In conclusion, I would like to suggest that there is one more reason for the conservative mission in
the 21st century to pursue the complementary needs for roots, relevance, and re-creation. That
reason is that these themes themselves offer hope for a continuing fusion of the disparate elements
of the conservative movement. Traditionalists and social conservatives may often find themselves
most occupied in the discovery and transmission of our roots. Economic conservatives and
libertarians, on the other hand, inspired by Hayek, Schumpeter, Friedman, and Kirzner to embrace
the value of creative destruction, may be most willing to examine our traditions with the spirit of
entrepreneurship and to remind us to value the spontaneous creations of the marketplace.
Many conservatives have wondered whether the old fusion, at times held together only by the
unifying presence of common enemies, could survive the end of the Cold War and the victory of
global capitalism. As we watch today’s regional conflicts, these victories may look less secure, and
we may find it expedient to continue our cooperation. But I also believe that common enemies will
be a less powerful glue for us in the long run than the possibility of creating a living conservative
culture relevant in the lives of all Americans. As we look to the coming century, I am hopeful that
the Philadelphia Society will continue to be a place where we can renew our efforts at fusion,
where we can celebrate and examine our roots, where we can build strategies for creating
relevance, and where we can re-create conservatism to keep it a breathing force in our culture.