Ethos or Movement?

by Patrick J. Deneen on November 16, 2009 · 22 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power,Short

Overheard last night at the American Spectator Gala.

“Conservatism must remain a movement. If it ceases to be a movement, it will become nothing more than an ethos.”

–R. Emmett Tyrell, Jr.

Does this mean, conversely, that if conservatism is a Movement, it ceases to be an ethos?  Recent history may suggest an answer.

Discuss.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar stephen gosling November 20, 2009 at 1:15 pm

Would it not be more pertinent to ask: Is Populism Conservatism or is Conservatism Populism?

In terms of the present: What is the relationship between Sarah Palin and Russell Kirk in viewing what the American Experience is and more importantly what the Founding fathers intended.?

In other words, does anyone believe in republican institutions any more?

avatar Will November 20, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Mystique or politique?

avatar Bob Cheeks November 20, 2009 at 2:03 pm

Roger Scruton….dude!
How come no picture of our FPR representative?
And, I do hope you tell us what was said by the Right re: the FPR.

avatar Stephen Gosling November 20, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Or to put it more plainly: Should serious, reflective conservatives believe that their is wisdom in the collective voice of the people? That what the majority says about anything in its own ill-informed way is any real guidance or contribution to the retention of a republican polity?

I think not. And neither did The Founding fathers who set up our political institutions to mirror and block this majoritarian folly.

Has Sarah Palin ever read the Constitution?

avatar Patrick J. Deneen November 20, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Bob dude,

Let’s just say that the tent is not big enough. yet.

avatar Stephen Gosling November 20, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Patrick, what do you think Sarah Palin would make of the anti-federalists?

Would Sarah Palin stand her ground with competence on ‘Firing Line’ ?

avatar Bob Cheeks November 20, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Well, it’s probably Arben and his radical friends that’s holding us back from delightful evenings of swell booze and cigars at the country club!
I hope you blog something on the inside dope you picked up! Surely there were comments made about your attendance (as in radical college professor!!!). Some discussion of rapprochement?
BTW, wasn’t R. Emmett and the American Spectator on the outside of the mainstream GOP?

avatar Chris November 20, 2009 at 3:00 pm

Patrick,

The more I think about this comment, the more I am convinced that the statement you label as the converse is true. Political movements tend to devolve quickly into ideologies, and to be a member, one need not be of a certain disposition or have a particular general outlook on the world. In other words, when an ethos becomes a movement, the defining characteristic of members ceases to be a shared disposition towards the world and instead becomes agreement on a set of ideas, or, more like, policy proposals. Eventually, the ethos or disposition that once defined your ranks becomes, at most, a sideshow.

Conservatism in particular is ill-suited for movement status since its starting point is (or should be) what Wendell Berry calls “The Way of Ignorance.” That is, it should begin with an acknowledgement that there are certain things in the world that are just beyond the realm of human comprehension. That acknowledgement should create a degree of humility and willingness to be proved wrong, in addition to a deep trust of the things handed down through the centuries by those who might have possessed a deeper understanding. That openness to being proved wrong, that humility in the face of propositions one thinks to be true makes it difficult to propose concrete policies on a national or global scale with any degree of confidence, beyond policies that make it easier for local communities to solve their problems the best that they can.

avatar Stephen Gosling November 20, 2009 at 3:14 pm

“Beyond human comprehension” Most of what we act upon is intuitive, however,we have the gift of reason, limited as it is by our more powerful emotions, to establish truths and practices that make for a
a humane and better life for ourselves, our neighbors and our society and polity.

Having said that, in the realm of political action where ‘right reason’ is so important, especially in a mass democracy, we must distinguish between the carriers of ‘right reason’ and those capable of carrying it. That is something we seem to have extinguished from our critical faculties in recent years in the realm of conservative ideas and actions.

avatar Ryan Davidson November 20, 2009 at 3:42 pm

“Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos!”

Can’t believe no one got to that already…

avatar D.W. Sabin November 20, 2009 at 4:16 pm

Inasmuch as the current age of identity politics is bound up with material consumerism, one need not encumber a “movement ” with something as confining as an ethos. Snappy Production Values and an occasional “boo” will suffice. Ethos only works when the audience one is directing one’s attentions to has at least a rudimentary ethos itself.

This is, of course, as opposed to a lot of talk about an ethos.

Movements love a parade.

avatar Stephen Gosling November 20, 2009 at 4:23 pm

An Ethos consisting of what in this instance?

If we have been reduced to a parade and a ‘boo’ whose fault is that?

Or is this just the state of affairs written into the DNA of Representative Govermint in a state of decline?

avatar D.W. Sabin November 20, 2009 at 5:13 pm

Mr. Gosling,
There is fault enough to go around such that one can un-choke the 12 gauge and hire Martha Clarke to perform a dance number entitled “Skeet Shooting For the Fault of It All”. The audience can expect incoming.

avatar Stephen Gosling November 20, 2009 at 5:19 pm

Interesting; I will have to think about this in a new context.

avatar Stephen Gosling November 20, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Final question: Does the ethos of American conservatism have to be one resting on the assumption that populism is an ally of conservatism? Or is it a natural part of its body given the history of the country and its institutions?

avatar Patrick J. Deneen November 20, 2009 at 9:08 pm

I’m not sure what Tyrell meant by “mere ethos,” but “ethos” is a word that is often translated as “character.” “Ethos” might be understood to be a “way of life,” or a way of being in the world. What I heard, as these words were spoken, was a dismissal of the idea that conservatism is a “disposition,” (as Russell Kirk argued) a certain way of being in the world that eschews a revolutionary or ideological stance. It is an ethos that is prudential, deferential to tradition and inheritance, cautious about sudden or precipitous change, and attendant to the obligations and duties to future generations. As such, it may in fact be contrary to some of the central aspects of a political “movement,” if a movement can be understood to derive some of its strength from an ideological fervor.

This is, and has always been, the paradox of conservatism in a liberal age. To respond to the advances of liberalism, its opponent has had to adopt the tactics and political machinations of liberalism. It has increasingly looked to the political sphere as the realm where the battle must be joined and waged. But this tact forces a conservative disposition into a different way of inhabiting the world altogether opposite to its “ethos,” finally undermining the preeminence of “ethos” in favor of “movement.” It can hardly be wondered that the contemporary apogee of “conservatism” was the ideological Presidency of GWB. A “movement” comes to crave power, losing sight of its “ethos.”

Last night the words “conservative” and “Republican” were used interchangeably; a moment’s reflection on the past eight – if not thirty – years would have given some pause.

A difficult task – one with which we struggle over often on FPR – is whether it’s possible to advance an “ethos” through politics and a political movement. One has to think carefully and prudently on this score. Good work has begun; much remains to be done.

avatar Stephen Gosling November 21, 2009 at 8:16 am

The disposition to conserve in the sense of retaining ways of life, institutions, social and moral values sometimes mean that we must engage in and formulate at least a reasoned understanding and clarification in the political realm of that which we wish to conserve.

Political action guided by ‘Right Reason’is essential; especially at this time.

A retention of a republican form of goverement as originally conceived and the moral and social values that under gird it should be the central and prime requirement of American conservatism. A general need that must not be surrendered to ongoing circumstance.

avatar Chris November 21, 2009 at 11:53 am

Stephen,

While right reason certainly plays a major role in determining how to govern human affairs, so does the recognition that all reason is by necessity limited. This is one of the primary distinguishers, I think, between the conservative and liberal dispositions: the liberal disposition says that all things are understandable, and that we need only strive harder in the realm of science in order to understand those things that we do not currently understand. The conservative disposition, as I understand it, suggests that there are two categories of things that we do not currently understand: (1) things that we can someday understand but do not and (2) things that we, as humans, cannot ever fully understand because they are not genuinely explicable in human terms. The existence of the latter category (which most religious people would refer to as mystery) ought to give us a certain humility in front of any larger policy proposals we make, as we are necessarily always, working out of a certain degree of ignorance.

avatar J.D. Salyer November 23, 2009 at 11:22 am

Ethos: What do we seek?

Movement: How do we get it?

Clearly the second question has utterly obscured the first. Hence the first is de facto answered in conservative circles — power.

What I find tiresome is the presumptious term “we” which gets thrown around in conversations & discussions. “We need to re-think our approach toward supporting democracy in the Middle East,” or “It’s clear we need to reach out to moderates in order to win this upcoming election.”

Who’s this “we”?

Oh, I’m sorry. That’s a daydreamy-intellectual, egg-headed loser sort of question, exactly the sort of question which could cause “us” to lose the next presidential race, if “we” think about it too hard.

avatar Sean Scallon November 23, 2009 at 4:44 pm

But Mr. Terrell, you cannot create a movement anymore than you can create gold in your hands just by saying “Shazam!” Movements are organic, they create themselves. They creat themselves from real people, not politicians and professional activists. You can’t do it from Washington D.C. which is exactly what Conservative INC. tries to do everyday on its computer screens.

What Mr. Terrell really means is that if “conservatism” as he views it stops being a movement, and he and his friends would be out of business.

And you know the sad thing, actual movements, like the Minutemen or the Ron Paul campaign, are sometimes scorned by people like Terrell and Conservative INC., because they can’t control them.

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