A Cheerful Conservative

Published May 12, 2014

Commentary Magazine

Building on Tom Wilson’s fine post on the creation of the Foundation for Constitutional Government’s new website devoted to the writings of Irving Kristol (irvingkristol.org), I thought it worthwhile to recall some of the contributions made by Kristol to conservatism.

One of them was a humane political realism, including helping conservatives make their own inner peace with the New Deal. In 1976 Kristol wrote:

Neo-conservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state.  In general, it approves of those social reforms that, while providing needed security and comfort to the individual in our dynamic, urbanized society, do so with a minimum of bureaucratic intrusion in the individual’s affairs… while being for the welfare state, it is opposed to the paternalistic state.  It also believes that this welfare state will best promote the common good if it is conceived in such a way, as not to go bankrupt.

Second, Kristol was a man whose philosophical commitments were always accompanied by what he said was “a degree of detachment.” He was wise enough to know that no movement, even one he was a part of, was without flaws. He knew every political philosophy has inherent limitations and therefore he had the (rare) ability to be both a part of a movement and to see it from a distance, to believe in a cause even while being alert to its weaknesses.

Third, Kristol warned the right against “equat[ing] conservatism with a desperate, defensive commitment to the status quo.” The danger facing conservatism was risk-averseness and a “feebleness of the imagination,” with conservatism being seen as “a tedious if necessary interregnum during which the excesses of the Left are tidied up.”

“Unless conservatives can legitimate their claim to office with a persuasive assertion of the claim to be the future, theirs is a lost cause,” Kristol wrote in 1982. “As between no claim to the future and a fraudulent claim, the latter will always prevail in an ideological age.”

Fourth, Kristol offered a corrective to the conservative temptation to embrace, enthusiastically and without qualification, populism. He had faith in common people, just not that much faith in them. He understood, as the Founders did, the danger of a citizenry corrupting itself.

A fifth quality of Irving Kristol’s that conservatism today would be wise to replicate is what his friend Charles Krauthammer called ”his extraordinary equanimity.”

His temperament was marked by a total lack of rancor. Angst, bitterness and anguish were alien to him. That, of course, made him unusual among the fraternity of conservatives because we believe that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. That makes us cranky. But not Irving. Never Irving. He retained steadiness, serenity and grace that expressed themselves in a courtliness couched in a calm quiet humor.

When you think about some of the leading figures on the right today, words like “steadiness” and “serenity,” “grace” and “calm quiet humor” are not ones that immediately come to mind. Instead the tone and approach we often hear can best be described as apocalyptic, brittle, angry, and embittered. This approach to politics, by the way, was not simply stylistic; it was rooted in a deep understanding of conservatism itself. He believed conservatism was “antiromantic in substance and temperament.” It’s approach to the world, he wrote, “is more ‘rabbinic’ than ‘prophetic.’”

It also would help for conservatism to embody a kind of cheerfulness that was a hallmark of Kristol. As his writings show, he was deeply realistic. He certainly didn’t sugarcoat things. In fact, he described himself as “cheerfully pessimistic.” But one sensed that deep down, the needle leaned a bit more in the direction of cheerfulness than pessimism.

In any event, as long as I’ve been alive (and well before I was born) there have been people on the right issuing dark warnings of the decomposition and dissolution of the West; people who worn about impending tyranny and America’s march toward Gomorrah. I’m all for cursing the darkness when necessary, and have done a bit of it myself now and then. But that cast of mind, without any leavening agent, can lead to despair and radicalism. Those attitudes were unknown to Irving Kristol. He seemed very much at home in the world in the best sense and nudged it along in the right direction when he could. And my how he did.

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