The most important take-away from the victory of the Republican candidate in the special Congressional election in Georgia’s 6th District is that she, the first Republican woman to serve in Georgia’s Congressional delegation, won by more than twice the margin that President Trump did when he carried the district.
This, coupled with the fact that the Republicans have won every special Congressional election since Trump’s victory, must be read as an affirmation of the things Republicans stand for, and, indeed, those that Trump also represents.
And just what are these? In the four recent Congressional elections, voters were offered a choice between two very different views of the good life and the purpose of politics. That was the reality, even if it was obscured by all the miasma still seeping from the liberal swamp, in the attempt to paint Trump as a classless billionaire buffoon, in the repeated and baseless suggestions that somehow his unexpected election triumph was owing to Russian meddling rather than the weaknesses and foibles of Mrs. Clinton. That was simply noise, which the voters ignored.
Instead, here’s what’s really important. We are in an extraordinary time when the ideology that divides our two parties has never been sharper. Today, Republicans most clearly espouse traditional conservative values, and Democrats maintain those of this country’s progressives. Before now the ideological differences were blurred, with conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, both of whom have gone the way of the dodo.
The present ideological division goes all the way back to at least the French Revolution, if not to Greece and Rome, and was never more brilliantly described than in that classic of modern political theory, Russell Kirk’s "The Conservative Mind," first published in 1953. With his book, Kirk gave Americans the greatest insight into their society and politics since Alexis de Tocqueville’s "Democracy in America" in 1835.
Remarkably, just as Toqueville had laid out the workings of American legal institutions in a manner that essentially remained the same for almost a century and a half, Kirk told us about ourselves in words as valid today as they were more than six decades ago. Kirk saw our politics as a contest between two different visions, which he described as "radical and conservative," but which now are embraced respectively by progressive and liberal Democrats on the one hand, and by conservative Republicans on the other.
Here was the liberal vision, as Kirk described it. The liberal was a meliorist who believed in the perfectibility of humankind and the inevitability of progress in society. His goal was a leveling of social, political, and economic conditions, and an enforced redistribution of wealth, all this to be accomplished by a centralization of governmental power. Things that got in the way of these goals, tradition and an objective morality and timeless divinely-inspired religious values, he dismissed out of hand.
As Kirk saw it, conservatives (and especially those instrumental in our Founding generation), rejected all of this. Instead, they thought that freedom and property are closely linked, and the securing of property and civil rights is the primary function of government. It is always a mistake to try to homogenize society, said Kirk’s conservative. We should all be equal before the law, but "natural distinctions" among men and women regarding talents, abilities and personalities will inevitably lead to a variety of conditions in society. And since a functioning society will have different orders and classes, it is better to embrace "the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence." So far from deprecating traditions and customs, Kirk believed that they are often better guides to the good life than the abstract theories of what Edmund Burke mocked as "sophisters, calculators, and economists." If tradition places an obstacle to change, so be it, for not all change is for the better, and "hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress." Some changes are inevitable, indeed desirable, but a statesman’s chief virtue is prudence. Finally, and most importantly, the conservative maintains that there is "a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience."
When Donald Trump said he wanted "to make America Great again," those who voted for him, and rejected the liberalism of Mrs. Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Barack Obama were not Mrs. Clinton’s "deplorables." Rather, they were people who, when faced with a choice between two radically different visions of society and politics, embraced Russell Kirk’s principled conservatism.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law and the author of the recently-published "Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law."
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