GK Chesterton On Conservatism’s Necessary Changes

In Orthodoxy (Image Books, 1959) G. K. Chesterton writes:

Conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of changes. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must always be painting it again….Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. [pp. 15]

Wikipedia makes note in its entry on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, in the section on his most famous work, The Leopard that:

Perhaps the most memorable line in the book is spoken by Don Fabrizio’s nephew, Tancredi, urging unsuccessfully that Don Fabrizio abandon his allegiance to the disintegrating Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and ally himself with Giuseppe Garibaldi and the House of Savoy: “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

Indeed. And that conservative adage, as expressed above by Chesterton and Tancredi, has been quite vividly on display this election season. The ‘conservative’ party’s leading candidate for president is a decidedly unorthodox one who threatens to upend the hierarchy of the party’s leadership and is leading a revolt against the ‘establishment;’ riots are threatened if his march to the candidacy is interfered with by the party leadership; he is most definitely not reading from some prepared party script. That same conservative party has no interest in abiding by its constitutional responsibility to vote on the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice by the sitting president–a responsibility adequately established by historical, legal, political precedent. Should this be confusing to those thinking the Republican Party is a conservative party? Not really.

As I noted in my review of Lee Fang‘s The MachineA Field Guide to the Resurgent Right

The modern Republican Party supposedly suffers from ideological confusion. It is for the regulation of gay marriage and reproductive rights; it is against the regulation of industrial pollution, healthcare insurance, and workplace safety. It is for the reduced power of the executive branch, except when it comes to spying on Americans and declaring war. It is for the religious freedom of Christian evangelicals but not Muslim Americans. These seemingly disparate platforms actually display a coherent unity: the American Right is committed to preserving all hierarchy and imposed order: men over women, white over black, rich over poor, bosses over workers, Christian majorities over Muslim minorities. This love of hierarchy, of entrenched power, is manifest in the most visible face of opposition to the Obama Presidency: the Tea Party and the new crop of Republican representatives it has sent to Congress.

The Trump candidacy is a classic conservative candidacy: it seeks massive, sweeping changes precisely so that crucial hierarchies–like the ones made note of above–will be preserved. Populism to prop up hierarchy: that’s conservatism at its finest. (These thoughts have been expressed far more eloquently by Corey Robin in his The Reactionary Mind.)

Note: The GK Chesterton quote above is cited in Garry Wills‘ Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders pp. 143.

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