The Conservative SoulHow We Lost It, How to Get It Back
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Andrew Sullivan
All right reserved.ISBN: 0060188774
A Silver Age
"The era of big government is over."
—President Bill Clinton, January 1996
All conservatism begins with loss
If we never knew loss, we would never feel the need to conserve, which is the essence of any conservatism. Our lives, a series of unconnected moments of experience, would simply move effortlessly on, leaving the past behind with barely a look back. But being human, being self-conscious, having memory, forces us to confront what has gone and what might have been. And in those moments of confrontation with time, we are all conservatives. Sure, we all move on. In America, the future is always more imperative than the past. But the past lingers; and America, for all its restlessness, or perhaps because of its restlessness, is a deeply conservative place.
The regret you feel in your life at the kindness not done, the person unthanked, the opportunity missed, the custom unobserved, is a form of conservatism. The same goes for the lost love or the missed opportunity: these experiences teach us the fragility of the moment, and that fragility is what, in part, defines us.
When an old tree is uprooted by a storm, when a favorite room is redecorated, when an old church is razed, or an old factory turned into lofts, we all sense that something has been lost—if not the actual thing, then the attachments that people, past and present, have forged with it, the web of emotion and loyalty and fondness that makes a person's and a neighborhood's life a coherent story. Human beings live by narrative; and we get saddened when a familiar character disappears from a soap opera; or an acquaintance moves; or an institution becomes unrecognizable from what it once was. These little griefs are what build a conservative temperament. They interrupt our story; and our story is what makes sense of our lives. So we resist the interruption; and when we resist it, we are conservatives.
There is a little conservatism in everyone's soul—even those who proudly call themselves liberals. No one is untouched by loss. We all grow old. We watch ourselves age and decline; we see new generations supplant and outrun us. Every human life is a series of small and large losses—of parents, of youth, of the easy optimism of young adulthood and the uneasy hope of middle age—until you face the ultimate loss, of life itself. There is no avoiding it; and the strength and durability of the conservative temperament is that it starts with this fact, and deals with it. Life is impermanent. Loss is real. Death will come. Nothing can change that—no new dawn for humanity, no technological wonder, no theory or ideology or government. Intrinsic to human experience—what separates us from animals—is the memory of things past, and the fashioning of that memory into a self-conscious identity. So loss imprints itself on our minds and souls and forms us. It is part of what we are.
It is no big surprise, then, that the first great text of Anglo-American conservatism, Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, is all about loss. It's a desperate, eloquent, sweeping screed against the wanton destruction of an old order. When the French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, overthrew a monarchy and a church, remade the calendar, and executed dissidents by the thousands for the sake of a new, blank slate for humanity, Burke felt—first of all—grief. His primary impulse was to mourn what was lost. He mourned it even though it wasn't his. This was not the same as actually defending the old order, which was, in many ways, indefensible, as Burke conceded. It was simply to remind his fellow humans that society is complicated, that its structure develops not by accident but by evolution, that even the most flawed bonds that tie countless individuals are not to be casually severed for the sake of an inchoate idea of perfection.
Even people and societies with deeply wounded pasts, with histories that cry out for renewal and reform, are nonetheless the products of exactly that past. They can never be wiped clean, born again, remade overnight. Even radical change requires a reckoning with the past if it is to graft successfully onto a human endeavor or life. An alcoholic who becomes sober will be unlikely to succeed without a thorough and often painful accounting of how she came to be where she is; and her future will be pivoted against her past and unimaginable without it. When those in recovery insist that they are still alcoholics, they are merely saying that they are human. They have a past. And living in the present cannot mean obliviousness to one's own history. It means living through and beyond that history.
If that is a conservative insight, it presses more powerfully than ever today. If the essence of conservatism is conserving, then our current moment is an extremely unnerving one. In the twenty-first century, the pace of change can at times seem overwhelming. Quantum leaps in technology have transformed how we communicate with one another and expanded everyone's access to an endless array of life possibilities. Jobs last months rather than decades. Travel is cheaper and easier than ever before. Mass immigration has altered settled cultures across the globe. Freer trade has upended life's certainties and customs in almost every society on earth. Assumptions we once made about who we are as a people, or as a country, or even as men and women, are now open to debate. The meaning of family, of marriage, of health, of sex, of faith, are now things we cannot simply take for granted as a shared understanding. And this pace adds a more bewildering and communal sense of loss to the more familiar, quotidian losses of human existence.
Adults face this first of all as they try to bring up their children. They look around them in the twenty-first century and they increasingly see no stable cultural . . .