I first came upon Russell Kirk thirty years ago when I was foraging among political philosophers for some help in understanding why I was rejecting the liberalism that only recently had seemed to me so obvious, sensible, and right. Kirk gave me little satisfaction. He’s an essayist, not a theorist, a man of letters by his own description, not a builder of systems. I was a graduate student at the time, and I had yet to read deeply in John Henry Newman, making me susceptible to the lure of theory and system. As a consequence, Kirk’s reliance on aphorism, image, and episode led me to dismiss him as a journalistic, occasional writer rather than consider him a philosophical heavyweight.
I have not changed my judgment of what sort of writer Kirk was. In his wonderfully quirky memoir, The Sword of Imagination, he describes himself as a literary knight errant, slaying dragons, hacking orcs, and freeing beautiful maidens as best he could for over a half-century. What has changed is my sense of what drives politics. As Richard Weaver wrote in the first sentence of the first chapter of Ideas Have Consequences, “Every man participating in a culture has three levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world.” By Weaver’s reckoning, the distempers of our time flow from the poverty of our dreams. In this Kirk agreed, which is why he devoted himself to the politics of the imagination. He was right to do so. After all, we can only vote for what we can imagine.
I am not a Kirk scholar and cannot pretend to be a reliable interpreter of his vast body of work. Instead, I propose to draw upon Kirk to essay my own reflections on the state of our political imagination.
It is my reckoning that populism, the term given to a current strain in American politics, reflects a rebellion, not so much against particular policies or principles but against the dominant dreams of the post-war consensus. George H. W. Bush emphasized one of the leading motifs of this consensus in his speech to the United Nations shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet empire was crumbling, and Bush envisioned a new future: “I see a world of open borders, open trade, and, most importantly, open minds.”
The notion of freedom as openness and a limitless horizon dominated the imagination of the West for more than seventy years. Bush, a veteran of World War II, was formed in accord with the standard convictions of his generation. Fascism, Nazism, and Japanese militarism arose from closed-minded forms of life and thought. The same was thought to be true for communism in the East. Though political resolve and military action may have been necessary to defeat enemies and deter threats, the deeper response was thought to require a cultural reconstruction of the West. We must banish narrow-mindedness and cultivate a spirit of openness. The post-war consensus held that instead of piety and loyalty, we needed critical questioning. Society should loosen up and allow for greater freedom and experimentation.
The spirit of openness played an obvious role in the 1960s, but it was widely evident from 1945 onward. The literature of the 1950s featured criticisms of middle-class conformity. In The Lonely Crowd (1950), David Riesman and his fellow researchers anguished over the ascendancy of the other-directed personality and its impulse toward conformity. The Organization Man (1956) was another bestselling title. In the years after World War II, social scientists created ersatz theories about the existence of an “authoritarian personality,” popularized in a widely cited book by that name that purported to explain fascism. These theories called for a new pedagogy to ensure that the rising generation of Americans would be open, flexible, and non-judgmental. The Freudian theory and dreadful methodology behind the pseudo-science published in The Authoritarian Personality (1950) are today indefensible, but its conclusions are largely accepted as dogma. Fascism, communism, and racism are not caused by fervent belief in falsehoods, we are told. They arise when people have fervent beliefs, full stop. Therefore, if we care for the future of humanity, we must educate the young toward unbelief and non-judgmentalism. Our job is to cultivate in rising generations a negative piety, as it were, one that prizes the open mind as the highest good.
The notion of freedom as openness and a limitless horizon dominated the imagination of the West for more than seventy years.
A similar project of promoting ever greater openness has been at work in our economic thinking. By the 1980s we became convinced that regulations needed to be relaxed and tax burdens lowered so that the animal spirits could drive economic growth. After 1989, this consensus gained momentum. Borders should be made more porous, open to commerce, most of us thought. “Innovation” and “creativity” became the business school equivalents of the cultural motifs of “diversity” and “inclusion.” They evoked actions that knock down old boundaries, old limits, and midwife an open-ended future.
We tend to think of cultural transgression as a left-wing phenomenon, while the motifs of openness in economic life are thought to be right-wing. Silicon Valley represents their explicit fusion, which has always been latent. Facebook’s early motto was “Move Fast and Break Things.” By this way of thinking, technological progress and spectacular financial success require rulebreaking that doesn’t wait for the regulators to catch up, just as transgression in art, literature, and culture is thought to promote a more diverse and inclusive society. From the 1990s through today, leading opinion has insisted that these motifs of openness are essential for the spiritual, moral, and economic well-being of our country.
It would be tedious to recount the trajectory from a defensible emphasis on critical thinking to today’s pedagogies of deconstruction. It’s enough to observe that while our universities have at times suffered from indigestion, for the most part they’ve happily swallowed every aspect of anti-Western and multicultural ideology. That’s because, though sometimes regretted as too extreme, radicalism and transgression suit the post-war imagination, which prizes openness and freedom from limits and wars against constraining permanence and dutiful obedience. This also explains why our academic and cultural establishment treats libertarians such as Tyler Cowen as clubbable, while the slightest hint of insufficient support for gay marriage gets you blackballed. In our cultural politics, it’s the metaphysical dream of life without limits and behavior without boundaries that governs, not particular party allegiances.
When it comes to the economic sphere, I’m not interested in debating the merits of economic deregulation, lower tax rates, free trade deals, or other efforts to open up our economy, all of which I have supported at various stages since the 1980s. It’s not my purpose to hammer out a party platform for 2020. Instead, I simply wish to draw attention to the shape of our public imagination in these early decades of the twenty-first century. To a striking degree, we’ve coalesced around motifs of openness: critical thinking, diversity, creativity, and innovation. Though we may have reservations here and there, for the most part we thrill to George H. W. Bush’s vision of open trade, open borders, and open minds. In the service of these motifs of openness we’ve largely adopted a deregulatory prejudice, one that consistently gives priority to loosening things up. The center-Left emphasizes cultural openness, while the center-Right emphasizes the same ideals in the economic sphere. But the metaphysical dream is the same. This imaginative consensus is extremely powerful, so much so that those of us committed to preserving the authority of tradition in higher education naturally gravitate toward arguments for academic freedom or call for “viewpoint diversity”—further variations on the theme of openness.
As Americans, the allure of this metaphysical dream is understandable. We’re shaped by the open horizon of the frontier, the open, often raucous debates in our electoral system, and the open personality encouraged by our democratic culture. Nevertheless, it’s important to see how one-sided and dysfunctional our political imagination has become. Here Russell Kirk can help us, because his outlook on life was based in a positive, affirmative piety, not a negative and critical one. He prized love, which seeks to close upon its object, not openness and the lure of the limitless.
On one occasion, Kirk wrote, “The conservative impulse is a man’s desire to walk in the paths that his father followed; it is a woman’s desire for the sureties of hearth and home.” Here’s my way of putting this insight: True conservatism is nourished by our perennial human desire for a noble inheritance, a patrimony worthy of honoring, serving, and passing down to the next generation. Conservatism expresses our desire for a place of repose, a home in which we do not need to earn or merit our right of residence.
Home and inheritance are not political principles. They are objects of the imagination, the poetic outlines of things that fire our political vision, picturing both what we fear losing and what we desire to preserve, restore, and enjoy. To them I would add a further, transcendent affirmation. As Kirk puts it in one of his canons of conservatism, “a divine intent rules society as well as conscience.” The affairs of a nation touch upon ultimate things. In a conservative’s imagination, our common home and shared inheritance are perfumed with a sacred aroma. They evoke the more-than-rational loyalty that goes by the name of piety.
As I look back over the last three years, I’m struck by the salience of Kirk’s characteristic emphases. It’s obvious that an open-borders globalism runs against the desire for a secure home and that multiculturalism seeks to convince us that our inheritance is ignoble. In more subtle ways, today’s wonkish, economics-fixated public culture reduces politics to interests, ignoring or even ruling out the reality of our sentiments, which are, as Kirk recognized, more social than Bentham and his many epigones will allow. Our sentiments are archaic, too, as Kirk also perceived. The imagination is quite capable of heroic ardor, as well as vulnerable to debased passions. It is religious, aspiring toward the highest good, even if only in the natural sense of that term, untutored by revealed truths.
One does not need a Ph.D. in political science to see that Donald Trump has exploited the growing unpopularity of the motifs of openness that George H. W. Bush took for granted. Trump’s promise to build a big, “beautiful” wall on the Mexican border poses a powerful symbolic threat to our ruling class and its loyalty to motifs of openness. The wall is a challenge to the imagination of those in positions of power; it is not a policy proposal over which to wrangle. Trump’s relentless rhetoric about the wall concretizes the question of borders, boundaries, and limits, which the dominant post-war imagination cannot help but picture as sad, even wicked constraints upon the limitless potential of the open society. This is a major reason why Trump’s ascendancy is treated as such a profound threat to “democratic norms,” which the post-war consensus equates with its metaphysical dreams.
Trump’s assaults on nafta and other trade deals are less purely symbolic. They have immediate policy implications. But, for the most part, commentators recoil in horror, for here, as well, Trump dissents from the ideals of limitless openness. His ostentatious violations of political correctness, the punitive cultural regime best understood as obligatory and enforced openness, offer another example of his heretical imagination. Even more telling has been Trump’s almost complete rejection of the images and vocabulary of the open future. In contradistinction to nearly every other twenty-first century American politician, Trump allies himself with old-line, dying industries—paradigmatically coal—rather than with the new, vibrant, creative, and globalized sectors such as media and technology. He does not celebrate diversity or innovation, two of the leading motifs of openness that fill the pages of university and corporate propaganda. (One easily imagines the boilerplate: “Stanford University promotes diversity, ensuring for its students the creative educational culture needed to form them as leaders of an innovative and inclusive future for the whole world.”) And, of course, the “Make America Great Again” slogan is a direct appeal to the desire for a noble, heroic inheritance.
A similar pattern is evident in Trump’s major speeches. At the Republican National Convention, Ted Cruz gave a classic, conservative-inflected speech in praise of openness. He must have used the word “freedom” one hundred times. Trump’s nomination acceptance speech barely mentioned the word. He emphasized reconsolidation and solidarity.
On his 2017 visit to Poland, Trump gave an extraordinary address in Warsaw. Between 1939 and 1945, that city witnessed some of the most brutal episodes of the war. The ascendant political imagination of the post-war era dictates speaking of those times as lessons about the dangers of totalitarianism, nativism, anti-Semitism, and other perversions, all of which call for the West to rally around the virtues of open societies and open minds. Trump did the opposite. He used the occasion to praise the heroism of the Polish resistance that rose up in that city in a futile effort to earn their own freedom rather than receive it from the advancing Soviet army. It was a speech meant to satisfy a Pole’s desire to “walk in the paths that his father followed,” paths all the more to be cherished because sanctified with blood. (Trump’s unselfconscious use of the image of blood as a sacred seal in a speech in Eastern Europe was itself a shocking transgression of post-war taboos.) His more recent speeches praise the self-interest of other nations, a gesture toward the desire we have for a home of our own.
I have no interest in claiming Trump as a “true conservative,” whatever that is. My point is analytical. When we step back from the kabuki dance of denunciation, the protests about his supposed unfitness for office, and the elaborate, pseudo-legal battles surrounding his administration, it’s obvious why Trump generates outrage. He presses a Kirkian agenda of home, inheritance, and patriotic loyalty, which, as Kirk knew, is entirely at odds with dominant, liberal ways of thinking. Home, inheritance, and piety—in the post-war imagination, these are always reframed as authoritarian, crypto-fascist temptations. Not surprisingly, since 2016 we’ve seen an explosion of tweets, articles, and books evoking some version of Hitler’s return. The alternative to openness is not love’s devotion, but instead tyranny and death camps, or so we are told.
Last year, Trump tossed a hand grenade into the establishment bunker by calling out professional football players who would not stand for the national anthem. His political intuition was simple: plenty of people who vote want to see our flag honored. The political imagination that dominates our ruling class sees things otherwise. It regards protest and transgression as always positive. They make society more open, more accepting, more diverse, and thus more just. “There’s nothing more American than the spirit of protest,” we’re told. And in any event, Trump’s criticisms are dog whistles for racists, we’re also told. The political imagination of elites does not see in this controversy a fitting desire for home and inheritance. Instead, it sees nativism and racism.
The alternative to openness is not love’s devotion, but instead tyranny and death camps, or so we are told.
Kirk saw himself as a defender of the imagination. That’s certainly true. But he misjudged the true nature of the political terrain in the post-war era. He thought the liberal adversary advocated politics without imagination, a tendency supported by what he called the “vulgarized pragmatism” born of a utilitarian habit of mind and “the drug of ideology,” which promises a machine-like social mechanism that brings justice automatically. These are both dangers, to be sure. But economic liberals have an imaginations, too, as George H. W. Bush’s hymn to openness makes clear. It is at root a metaphysical dream of anarchic order, a society without authority, life without obedience. The multiculturalist can be pragmatic or ideological, and even both at once. But at a deeper level, he imagines a future without a center, a multi-culture that ensures life under the sign of choice rather than loyalty and its inevitable implication of the need for obedience and sacrifice. Something similar is at work in free market thinking. Friedrich Hayek was very taken by the possibilities of spontaneous order that arise in the free play of individual interests in the marketplace. This, too, is an anarchic ideal of social harmony without authority.
All of us feel the tectonic plates shifting under our feet. The best thinkers reach for broad characterizations, groping for ways to characterize our political agonies. The nationalists are challenging the globalists. The ordinary “somewheres” are rebelling against the elite “anywheres.” These dichotomies are imperfect, but they point toward something real, which is a growing divide in the imagination of the West, one brought about by the striking return of something like Russell Kirk’s sometimes fanciful but always astute intuitions about the essential foundations of a sane society. We’ve endured a long season dominated by the metaphysical nightmare of Hitler’s return and the counter-dream of limitless openness. Today, a rising populism suggests the nightmare is changing. It now worries about an orphan’s existence with no stable home or reliable inheritance in a world of limitless, ruthless competition.
To my mind, this nightmare is not unfounded. We desire to share something sacred in common, and we want a civic identity in which to find repose, because home and inheritance are among the permanent things, basic elements of any world suitable for political animals. If unmet with intelligence, moral seriousness, and nuanced knowledge of the true achievements of the modern West, this desire will fester, making the West more and more vulnerable to ersatz inheritances and debased visions of our civic home, perversions of which identity politics gives us a foretaste. We should be grateful that Donald Trump has bestirred our ruling class from its smug complacency. The night is far gone. Those of us capable of imagining a genuinely liberal and democratic culture nourished by dispositions of piety, as did Kirk, need to encourage metaphysical dreams worthy of our distinctive cultural inheritance and national home.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 5, on page 22
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