Russell Kirk’s seminal work The Conservative Mind is still relevant 60 years after it first was published and offers a useful critique of parts of today’s Republican party, according to panelists at a Heritage Foundation event on Wednesday afternoon
Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs, Matthew Spalding, director of Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center, and Peter Wehner, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, reflected on Kirk’s argument and the application of his ideas to today’s policy challenges in a discussion moderated by Lee Edwards, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
“Kirk was a great proponent of prudence,” Wehner said. “Hasty innovations may be a devouring conflagration rather than a torch of progress,” he said, quoting Kirk.
Kirk’s book actually named the nascent conservative movement of the early 1950s, Edwards said. His ideas, which emphasized looking back to the western political tradition as it runs through England and into America, ultimately gave rise to the modern conservative movement, from Reagan in the 1980s to the Tea Party today, said Spalding.
Kirk did not offer an alternative to liberal society so much as “an alternative understanding of the origins, and therefore of the character, of our liberal society,” Levin said.
The panel discussion took place right after Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R., Texas) 21-hour speech on the Senate floor protesting Obamacare.
“Conservatives need to reacquaint themselves with the true spirit of conservatism, which is reform-minded, empirical, anti-utopian, and somewhat modest in its expectations,” Wehner said. “It doesn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. It doesn’t treat political opponents as enemies, and it isn’t in a state of constant agitation.”
“The perfect must not be allowed to become the enemy of the good … but the perfect should be the guide of the good, the lodestar,” Levin argued
The panelists also offered some critiques of Kirk and the traditionalism that is often associated with him.
Kirk potentially went too far in dismissing philosophical considerations from politics, Levin said. Prudence requires distinguishing between different traditions, which requires reason to sit above tradition, Spalding noted.
Despite their differences with Kirk, the panelists all had high praise for his contributions to American political thought.
“His contributions to conservatism are undeniably quite impressive,” Wehner said.