Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind (1953) argues that Edmund Burke (circa 1790) is the father of modern conservatism. Kirk is correct. Burke was a pro-American-Independence British Whig who stemmed the intellectual tide of the French Revolution. The Conservative Mind is an elegant polemic that brings Burke’s moral-religious politics to the historical crossroads of the 1950s. Goldwater was Burke’s direct political heir, likewise Ronald Reagan. But Kirk recognizes non-religious conservative strands.
In California, circa 2012 a larger war against progressives is confused by internecine fights among conservatives which Burke speaks to. California Republicans need to negotiate these internal struggles with great care, with humility and historical sensibility.
In 2011, fights over the party platform were bitter and fractious; the outcome for the incoming party chairman was not good. The long knives came out from under the cloaks, political blood was shed. Northern California pragmatic-moderate Republicans—desperately needing a revised platform to win anything, even a dog-catcher seat— lost to Southern California moral-religious Republicans.
The donor community watched with disgust, turned off the spigots and put their money into PACs rather than the state party. The 2011 chairman lasted two years and accomplished little, the party is broke and the next platform battle will be brutal. Unless both sides face the demographics.
Demographic reality one: Without moral-religious conservatives (the Burkeans), the California Republican Party now at sub-30 percent registration is probably closer to a 10-15 percent statewide. Post-election reports tell us that many registered Republicans didn’t bother to vote in November, especially in a demoralized SoCal. Moral-religious conservatives can and do abandon politics when they lose all hope, checking out for generations. Pragmatic-moderate Republicans need to recognize this.
Demographic reality two: Without new voters (Latinos, Asians, Millenials, independents and women) the party will continue to lose numbers. In fact, it is highly likely that a vicious cycle of registration decay has already begun—and the data will start coming in soon. The castle and moat mentality of SoCal Republicans is a doomed strategy. Many sitting SoCal politicians were narrowly reelected last November. Moral-religious Republicans need to recognize this.
But there are solutions to internal divisions, solutions that begin with renunciation of internecine warfare in favor of carrying the fight to the enemy—Democrats and especially progressives. Party unity will begin when the different strains of Republican conservatism begin to understand, then to trust and finally to work together. Humility is the key. But let’s start with clarity.
According to Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke’s moral politics were embedded within a deep strain of Christianity. Burkes first of six conservative canons is, “A divine intent rules society… political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.” Moderate-pragmatic conservatives may differ— loudly— and that’s fine and dandy.
But if moderate-pragmatic conservatives—like progressives—disrespect the moral system of their Burkean brothers-in-arms, they do so at the peril of the party. For a moral-religious Republican, the humiliations and assaults of progressives are intolerable. To be treated with identical contempt by fellow Republicans is a bridge too far, a wound that can be neither suffered nor healed.
Here is what Burkean Republicans need to understand about pragmatic-moderates; they tend to be self-made men and women with huge reservoirs of common sense who just aren’t interested in religion. They don’t get what the fuss is all about; angels on the heads of pins. Think Ben Franklin. They get the fiscal picture, crystal clear and damned alarming.
Pragmatic-moderate Republicans are often libertarian. They want Big Brother equally out of their pockets and their bedrooms. But they are not libertines nor do they lack a moral code. For Burkeans to assume so is intolerable, arrogant and un-Christian. Rather (to mangle metaphors), pragmatic-moderate conservatives are Tolkien’s earthy dwarves or Hobbits, while Burkean conservatives are the ethereal Elves. Each has a moral code; the codes are different. With Mordor on the march, all need to come together.
The CA GOP needs its leaders reading Russell Kirk channeling Edmund Burke. Beyond Burke (1790) and Kirk (1953), the party must define a new “mere conservatism” fine-tuned for the ground game of 2012. Burke does begin to define “mere conservatism.” And he sees clearly two centuries forward into our era.
Following “divine intent” Burke’s other conservative canons are universal; an affection for tradition, a belief in moral equality that rejects egalitarian leveling schemes, a distrust of “sophisticators” and social engineers. And— most important— a rock solid faith in liberty and private property.
On these all Republicans can agree.