The great American conservative philosopher Russell Kirk argued that "conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence."
Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.
Today, however, it is often members of the supposedly conservative party--the GOP--who favor sudden and slashing change. In a very important WSJ op-ed Peter Berkowitz zeroed in on this unfortunate trend:
With the opening of the fall political season and tonight's Republican candidate debate, expect influential conservative voices to clamor for fellow conservatives to set aside half-measures, eschew conciliation, and adhere to conservative principle in its pristine purity. But what does fidelity to conservatism's core convictions mean?
Superstar radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh has, with characteristic bravado, championed a take-no-prisoners approach. In late July, as the debt-ceiling debate built to its climax, he understandably exhorted House Speaker John Boehner to stand strong and rightly praised the tea party for "putting country before party." But then Mr. Limbaugh went further. "Winners do not compromise," he declared on air. "Winners do not compromise with themselves. The winners who do compromise are winners who still don't believe in themselves as winners, who still think of themselves as losers." ...
On issue after issue, fidelity to the variety of conservative principles imposes not only the obligation to blend and balance but also to give due weight to settled expectations and longstanding practices. For instance, an appreciation of these crisscrossing obligations should impel conservatives to work both to improve the public schools we have and to increase competition and parental choice among an array of options.
Do go read the whole thing; it's worth it.
Berkowitz captures a rather dramatic shift in the GOP away from conservatism and towards populism. Kirk emphasized that "conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata." Yet, today, we see a GOP increasingly bound to certain rigid ideological positions on issues like guns, immigration, and so on, in which the goal seems to be crushing one's opponents rather than pursuing what Kirk called "reasoned and temperate progress."
Perhaps the problem is that the winner take all populists have forgotten one more conservative principle; namely, that people cannot be perfected:
Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent—or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are neglected, then the anarchic impulse in humankind breaks loose: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
At bottom, this is why I don't believe in sudden social changes whether they are advanced by Democrats or, as is so often the case today, by the GOP.