William Kristol: What Is the Future of Conservatism?


Twelve score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The historic task of American conservatism is to see to it that a nation so conceived and so dedicated long endures. Thus, the task of American conservatism today is to highly resolve that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom. For a new birth of freedom is needed for a nation so conceived and so dedicated to long endure.

This means that American conservatism today can’t be too conservative in spirit. Reforms–in some cases radical reforms–are needed to meet conservative ends. Conservatives will have to spend as much time shaping the future as they spend standing athwart history yelling “stop.” Because in the America of 2013, there is no resting place at which, no solid ground upon which, to stop. And so conservatives will, in the spirit of Lincoln, have to think anew, as our case is new.

But there’s also plenty of standing athwart history to do. American conservatism today has to embrace what’s always been impressive and inspiring about conservatism at its best: a disdain for the shallow tyranny of the present and the false temptations of the apparent future, a scorn for short-term utility and immediate expediency.

In his 1956 letter to National Review explaining why conservatives should be well disposed to the state of Israel, Leo Strauss wrote:

A conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity; but the argument which is concerned exclusively with calculations of success, and is based on blindness to the nobility of the effort is vulgar.

Finally, I wish to say that the founder of Zionism, Herzl, was fundamentally a conservative man, guided in his Zionism by conservative considerations. The moral spine of the Jews was in danger of being broken by the so-called emancipation that in many cases had alienated them from their heritage, and yet not given them anything more than merely formal equality; it had brought about a condition that has been called “external freedom and inner servitude”; political Zionism was the attempt to restore that inner freedom, that simple dignity, of which only people who remember their heritage and are loyal to their fate are capable.

Political Zionism is problematic for obvious reasons. But I can never forget what it achieved as a moral force in an era of complete dissolution. It helped to stem the tide of “progressive” leveling of venerable, ancestral differences; it fulfilled a conservative function.

The challenge for American conservatism today is to fulfill both the conservative function of acting as a moral force in an era of dissolution and the reformist function of charting a path up from liberal dissolution.

William Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard.

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