The Atlantic

The Forgotten Father of American Conservatism

Russell Kirk wasn’t interested in defending a party agenda. He wanted to promote a cast of mind.
Source: Jay McNally / AP

The conventional story of the rise of the conservative intellectual movement in America goes something like this: The Great Depression and Pearl Harbor discredited the so-called superfluous men who had criticized Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and U.S. involvement in the Second World War. In the early years of the Cold War, however, a coalition of classical liberals, traditionalists, and anti-Communists took shape. William F. Buckley Jr. consolidated this alliance, bound together by opposition to the Soviet Union abroad and the welfare state at home, when he founded National Review in 1955. Its greatest victory came with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. But the collapse of the Soviet Union fractured intellectual conservatism, diminishing its influence and opening it up to challenges from the populist right.

But that story doesn’t fully account for Russell Kirk—and you can’t tell the story of modern American conservatism without him. A writer, teacher, columnist, novelist, and storyteller, Kirk defined and gave substance to American conservatism more than anyone else besides Buckley. Yet he often found himself at odds with prominent spokesmen for the very tendency he helped to develop—arguments that reveal the history of American conservatism to be much more variegated and contested than normally understood.

Kirk’s conservatism was scholastic,at arm’s length, broke with the neoconservatives over the Gulf War in 1990, and supported Patrick J. Buchanan in the 1992 Republican primary. Throughout his remarkable literary output of more than 20 books of nonfiction, three novels, hundreds of articles and book reviews, and some 3,000 syndicated columns—all while founding (1957) and (1960)—Kirk championed the “permanent things” against ideological thinking on both the left and the right. His life’s work points to a path not taken by the conservative movement—one worth reexamining in this moment of uncertainty and flux.

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