What is Statesmanship?: How We Can Recover Political Virtues for a New Generation

“A disposition, to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.”-Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790

As has often been noted, in this publication and elsewhere, conservatism is at a crossroads. The Republican Party has become dominated by a confluence of faction. One group is dedicated to the preservation of the status quo in Washington. Claiming to reject the left’s crass and divisive identity politics, another group has embraced its own form of identity politics, appealing to the white working class and other alienated groups once-powerful in this country.

The rising generation of conservatives has a choice. They can either throw their lot in with unscrupulous political operatives masquerading as patriots, or they can strike out in a new, bold direction.

Resisting the siren call of faction surely will not be easy. Indeed, many have been seduced by the promise of restored American greatness or have fallen victim to a pernicious desire to be in “the room where it happens.”

But the challenges Americans face today are no more difficult than the challenges faced by those who came before. The good news is that we have models, in men like Lincoln and Reagan, to which we can look for inspiration and guidance.

One of the most important functions of a statesman is that he reminds a people who they really are. America is, fundamentally, a creedal nation. The Declaration of Independence, flaming with Jefferson’s eloquence, asserted a set of principles upon which to build a just society.

In the words of Calvin Coolidge, an oft-overlooked but nonetheless great statesman, “About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful…If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.”

The statesman returns to these doctrines, and leads the people with him. The statesman’s goal is not expansion of power or achievement of greatness, but constitutional revival. The statesman’s goal is to remind us who we are.

Besides this deep memory, one of the most important virtues of the statesman is prudence. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote, “our choice of actions will not be right without Prudence any more than without Moral Virtue, since, while Moral Virtue enables us to achieve the end, Prudence makes us adopt the right means to the end.”

For the statesman, prudence rightly understood is not the rejection of principles in favor of convenience. Rather, it is the fitting application of principle to the circumstances.

Here, too, Reagan and Lincoln may serve as models. Though both hearkened back to the Founding, neither tried bringing back powdered wigs or frock coats. Rather, they spoke timeless truths in the dialect of their time.

Too many young conservatives, particularly those infected with a nostalgia for the Reagan years, think that to win in politics today, all we must do is parrot Reagan. They emphasize trickle-down economics and Cold War-era “peace through strength” and speak of America as a “city upon a hill.” This, though it worked well for Reagan’s day, does not work in contemporary politics.

Larry Arnn, the great conservative intellectual and student of statesmanship, once said that Lincoln’s greatest virtue was that “he put classical political philosophy into English poetry.” This is the task of all statesmen. The principles of justice and natural law do not change, but the way a statesman speaks to the people necessarily must. The leaders of the rising generation must communicate these truths anew.

Lastly, statesmanship is animated by an entrepreneurial spirit. In times of bleakness, a statesman is always on the lookout for opportunity. A statesman is always realistic about the dangers facing the regime, but optimistic about the possibility of success.

Lincoln, for instance, was able to use the terrible strife of the Civil War and secession to see the country through “a new birth of freedom” and a fuller recognition of the rights of man. Reagan was able to appeal to the better angels of the American people’s nature, despite stagnation at home and aggression abroad.

Many in the rising generation despair at the direction of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. But, a statesman among them sees an opportunity in the crisis — to harness the populist turn in American politics and redirect it towards reining in the centralizers and ideologues in Washington, D.C.

Far more difficult battles have been won against far worse odds. Why shouldn’t this generation return to statesmanship?

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