My instincts, political and otherwise, have been conservative for as long as I can remember (Goldwater ’64, etc.), although, at least until lately, my definition has not always been as clear as I would have liked. For me, conservatism consists in dispositions and habits of mind and heart encompassing the accumulation of experience and wisdom over many generations, enlightened and guided by God. What is it that this conservatism wishes to conserve? Many tried and true virtues and traditions, but mainly self-governance, both individually and institutionally. Why has this been so difficult? Because the competition with self-governance in its several facets is so fierce. There are many competing options that are attractive to human nature in its fallen state. In spite of the competition, and an almost complete lapse into statism and relativism over most of the past century, I believe that self-governance, conservatively understood, is in ascendancy. In preparing this essay, however, I was struck by two pieces in the Wall Street Journal written about ten months apart by Shelby Steele. In August 2000 he announced that, for the first time, American conservatism is going on the offensive in the culture war through “compassionate conservatism”(a term I have always thought redundant; conservatism is compassionate by definition). In June 2001 he writes that the greatest limitation on conservative political power in America is a gap in moral authority, primarily on the issues of poverty and race. The left, he says, has failed miserably in addressing these issues, but retains the moral high ground because it took responsibility for them in the 1960’s and it will retain it until conservatism takes the same moral risks in addressing them soon. We conservatives know that our principles, properly understood and applied, are clearly superior and have stood the tests of generations, but it’s difficult to argue Steele’s point that more principled boldness and political risk will be necessary to capture the moral high ground from the left.
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