The newest issue of The American Conservative has brought together thirty short articles from a number of prominent, primarily traditional conservative and libertarian writers and scholars on whether the terms conservative and liberal and the modern Right/Left opposition have any meaning and, if they do have any meaning today, what that meaning might be.  Rod Dreher has excerpted from a number of his favourites, and I expect that all of them will be worth looking at in greater depth (I only received my copy this morning), but the one that caught my immediate attention was that of Dr. Clyde Wilson, professor of history at the University of South Carolina and a contributing editor at Chronicles.  Here are a couple excerpts:

In a dynamic and free republican society, citizens of similar ideas, values, and interests, and even inherited allegiances and inclinations, come together to seek representation, forming political parties as their vehicle in the contest with citizens of opposing tendencies.  (In addition, in the United States, political representation has been geographically based rather than strictly a matter of parties.)  Citizenship–participation in politics–assumes mental and material independence and a social identity pre-existing the state apparatus.  None of these preconditions for politics any longer characterize the American regime.


After the elections, it was seen that the parties, except at the fringes, do not disagree on anything of importance nor do they represent the people on any important issue–for instance, war, foreign aid, immigration or quotas.

On behalf of the imperial bureaucratic regime, the Democrats absorb and defang whatever liberal inclinations remain in their constituency, and the Republicans do likewise for the conservatives.  The only difference is that the Democrats institutionally are wired to keep up the momentum of an already liberal state, while the Republicans’ conservatism has always been a pure fraud.

If, as may be the case, a real politics is struggling to be born, one that involves representation of the interests and values of the remnant genuine elements of American society that have a reality apart from the state, then the terms “liberal” and “conservative” will not much apply.  Politics against the imperial regime will have to be both defensive and radical, that is to say, it will have to be reactionary. 

His concluding words reminded me of M.E. Bradford’s important idea that the time may come (indeed it is already here) when there is nothing worthwhile to conserve and conservatives are faced with “the reactionary imperative” (the title of his 1990 collection of essays) to restore or recreate a humane, decent order.  As Bradford said:

“Reaction” is a necessary term in the intellectual context we inhabit late in the twentieth century because merely to conserve is sometimes to perpetuate what is outrageous.