In ISI’s on-going series titled “Conservatism: What’s Wrong with it and How Can we Make it Right?” Gerald Russello argues that conservatives have pursued power but neglected beauty. He writes:

To love our country, we must first make it lovely, Burke said, and that is where conservatives have failed the culture. They have spent the last several decades reacting too often against harmful cultural influences or walling themselves in for protection.  Politics, for many conservatives, has become a weapon to further a conservative “program” rather than a reflection of a conservative temperament and an expression of a conservative culture.  Conservatism is not a set of political nostrums, but rather an attitude toward reality that requires more storytelling than policy papers, more movies and art than electioneering. Conservatives, at this point in our cultural collapse, can win only holding battles on that front. The technocratic bureaucracy under which we live speaks only the language of liberalism, and conservatives will not persuade a majority of people so long as we too speak that language.


The conservatism of Burke, and his greatest American interlocutor, Russell Kirk, can provide a way of recovering what we have lost.  Kirk is too often seen as a reactionary with his head in the past, but he presciently saw where the culture was going.  The conservative tradition Kirk embodied, at its best, was deeply engaged with culture at all levels; Kirk knew that without the language of “the street,” much of Eliot’s poetry would not have the power it does; conversely, popular culture needs to be connected to deeper and more substantial themes in order to last.  In his great 1983 essay on “The Age of Sentiments,” Kirk previewed what was coming.  The age of “thinkers and talkers” was diminishing, perhaps even ending.  Books and magazines will not – no matter the paeans to “little magazines” – set the cultural tone, likely ever again, as much as conservatives might like them to.   Ideas of course will still matter, but how they are delivered is what Kirk wants to draw our attention to:

“The immense majority of human beings will feel with the projected images they behold upon the television screen; and in those viewers that screen will rouse sentiments rather than reflections.  Waves of emotion will sweep back and forth, so long as the Age of Sentiments endures.  And whether those emotions are low or high must depend upon the folk who determine the tone and temper of television programming.”

Kirk is making the point that rationality, or the tradition of reasoned discourse, only takes us so far, especially in a sprawling republic.  For every natural law defense of the family that wins over a few, an episode of Modern Family subtly influences millions.  Kirk tried his hand at ghost stories, updating a venerable genre for a new time.  Other conservatives could do the same with different media, and indeed, as the artists showcased by the journal Image, some are in fact doing just that.  The tradition of the West is embarrassingly rich with narratives, and as we saw with the recent TV series on the Bible, there is a hunger for such stories.  For example, the Veggie-Tales movies have as their inspiration Biblical themes, presented in an engaging way for children.  For an adult example, the film Brother Where Art Thou? takes its themes from the Odyssey.

Expand Kirk’s equally-applicable assertions to the Internet, and we have a true program for conservatives.  We must influence – or be – those people who “determine the tone and temper of television programming.”  And much else besides.

Read the whole piece here.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm.