Robert Sisson, 4/18/2012 [Archive]

Liberty and the Conservative Mind

Liberty and the Conservative Mind

By Robert Sisson

Edmund Burke, the 18th century British statesman and philosopher, is widely considered the progenitor of conservatism.For three hundred years, his body of work defined what it meant to be conservative.

In the unbridled optimism of post World War II America, a Midwesterner named Russell Kirk demonstrated how Burke's conservative lens applied to modern life. His book, "The Conservative Mind," launched the modern conservative movement. Kirk, in later years, became a confidant of Ronald Reagan. In fact, Reagan referred to Kirk as his "conservative conscience".

Shortly after the Gipper bid adieu to Washington, though, the wheels came off the conservative bandwagon.Politics no longer served as the means to implement intellectual ideas for the betterment of our country. It devolved into its ugliest and least servile role.Politics became the means to one end: winning elections.

Suddenly, the best qualification for a political consultant was a marketing degree.Slicing and dicing the electorate into contorted demographic groups and dropping them onto white board columns labeled "Us" and "Them" drove campaign platforms and decisions.Inter-generational principles and commitments were tossed out the window.

In my imagination, sometime in the mid-1990's, a Republican campaign staff, shoe-horned into a stuffy, leased office, is bingeing on Diet Coke and Little Caesar's pizza. They're brainstorming on what patchwork quilt of demographic groups they can stitch together to put their candidate over the top.A college-aged intern from Wyoming blurts out, "My dad works for the coal mine back in Gillette. He says he'll never vote for anyone who's for the environment."

No one pays him any mind. But there is the guy who's been around the block a few times. He's standing in front of the map of the United States. Quietly, he's eyeing energy producing states and their electoral votes: Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Alaska.He turns to face the team in the room, and there is a gleam in his eyes. Making environmental protection the bogeyman makes the math work.

The fundamental problem with that strategy is that it is decidedly not conservative. Russell Kirk, the Godfather of American Conservatism, said, "Nothing is more conservative than conservation."

Strategists had to redefine conservatism to fit their means. With the advent of talk radio and cable news, political consultants found perfect and willing propagandists to back up their misappropriation.

Today, what passes for conservative philosophy is a strain of libertarianism draped in the American flag. Patriotism insures that no one dares peak behind the curtain.If we did, we would see that the people calling the shots aren't necessarily interested in the good of the nation or even great ideas, but in accumulating more power or wealth.

Edmund Burke foreshadowed the ongoing conservative intramural squabble in 1791, when he said, "Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetite."

Promoting liberty is a conservative ideal. But the means must justify the end.


©Copyright 2012 Robert Sisson, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Rob Sisson is president of Republicans for Environmental Protection, a national grassroots organization dedicated to restoring the GOP's great conservation tradition. Robert can be reached at

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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