April 15, 2008


Mr. Conservative
: McCain hasn’t betrayed conservatism; his party has (Jonathan Rauch, May 2008, The Atlantic)

[Edmund] Burke is the father of modern conservatism, and still its wisest oracle. Tradition-minded but (contrary to stereotype) far from reactionary, he believed in balancing individual rights with social order. The best way to do that, for Burke, was by respecting long-standing customs and institutions while advancing toward liberty and equality. Society’s traditions, after all, embody an evolved collective wisdom that even (or especially) the smartest of individuals cannot hope to understand comprehensively, much less reinvent successfully.

The Burkean outlook takes individual rights seriously, and understands that civic order serves no purpose if its result is oppression or misery. It also understands that social stability, far from being endangered by institutional change, positively depends upon it. Burkeans no more believe in a golden past than they do in a perfect future. For them, the question is not whether society should change, but how.

Burke himself was an advocate of change; he sympathized with the American revolution (while famously denouncing the much more radical French one), proposed curtailing the slave trade, and fought tirelessly to reform the corrupt and monopolistic British East India Company. But he believed change should take a measured pace and should try to follow well-worn social grooves rather than cutting across them. Above all, he abhorred utopian reformers, who, by disdaining real-world constraints and overestimating their own intelligence, invariably worsen what they seek to improve.

Burke speaks as much to the conservative temperament as to conservative ideas. He would be suspicious of a conservatism that wanted to “explosively replace the failed bureaucracies of the past.” He would caution against forcibly uprooting the authority structures of a long-tyrannized society like Iraq and expecting a mini-America to spring forth. He would be all for “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” (as per President Bush’s second inaugural address), but he would put more emphasis on ultimate.

If Burke were around today, he might paraphrase Reagan’s famous witticism about the Democratic Party: Burke didn’t leave the conservative movement; it left him. Starting with Barry Goldwater’s campaign of 1964, American conservatism repositioned itself as a revolutionary movement, intent on uprooting illegiti­mate and ineffective liberal structures. Partly this grew from a canny assessment that Eisenhower-style Republicanism had played into liberals’ hands, consolidating instead of confronting the welfare state. Partly, however, it grew from narcissism: no less than their left-wing peers, right-wing Baby Boomers liked to suppose it was their destiny to reshape the world.

And so conservatives came to associate themselves with a romantic narrative of radical change—a narrative of counterrevolution, but revolutionary all the same. They trumpeted the Reagan Revolution, then Gingrich’s Republican Revolution. In 2001, George W. Bush came to office disdainful of “small ball,” determined to be a “transformative” figure. In the 2008 presidential race, Mike Huckabee railed against corporate greed, promised to abolish the Internal Revenue Service, and pledged (fancifully) to bring about “energy independence” (whatever that is) by the end of his second term; yet his conservative credentials met with less skepticism among the rank and file than did McCain’s. Nowadays, the harder core of the movement barely gives politicians the time of day unless they renounce incremental reform in favor of the root-and- branch variety, and denounce government with a stridency that owes less to Burke than to the New Left.

Burke would have wondered at this.

...that assumes Burke should have supported the French Revolution once it was effected, rather than disrupt society again by being a counter-revolutionary.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 15, 2008 4:18 PM

the statement: 'a long-tyrannized society like Iraq'
is, quite simply, wrong based on my understanding of the historical record.

Posted by: JonofAtlanta at April 15, 2008 5:22 PM

oj's comment is exactly what I was thinking on reading this excerpt from Mr. Rauch, as well as upon hearing EJ Dionne recently claim that sensible and conservative religious Americans shouldn't be trying to dismantle the Roe paradigm. Thanks guys, but we'll let you know when we need your advice about how conservatives should proceed.

Posted by: b at April 15, 2008 5:36 PM

So happens I'm reading Burke's Letters on a Regicide Peace right now and he says that we (ie, the British government) need to make merciless war on the Jacobins, hang their leaders, crush their military, and forcibly re-establish Christianity. Not to mention that the entire French edifice of rationalist lies must be stomped, destroyed, and blotted out of all existence, with the undermining earth plowed with salt so the weeds never trouble anyone again. He is not at all moderate in his rhetoric. He was, after all, an Irishman.

Now, ahem, I'll return to the article, I think Mr. Rauch was saying something.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 15, 2008 10:17 PM