We are in the midst of a fascinating moment, when much seems up for grabs for one of the United States’ political parties. As the GOP looks to right its ship after the disastrous adventures of the Bush administration, a number of conservative writers have understandably begun to re-examine what conservatism is. Meanwhile, the success of Obama has raised the stock of the word “pragmatic,” even if for the most part the word is tossed about in a pretty vague fashion, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has noted.
So it should not be a surprise to those like me who admit to some schadenfruede at the right’s current predicament to see that one move currently gaining ground is an attempt to claim that conservatism was pragmatic all along. Thus is conservatism to be kept well clear of the rising toxicity levels of the word “ideology.” Of course, to make this move to higher ground stick, one must aim to make a pragmatist of the granddaddy of all conservative thinkers, Edmund Burke. And while Sam Tanenhaus, Andrew Sullivan, and most recently David Brooks have all jumped on board to re-chart this territory, there is only one problem: what Burke actually wrote.
Tanenhaus’ article for The New Republic is the most in-depth and direct attempt to turn the ideas of Edmund Burke (and hence conservatism) into a kind of pragmatism, so I will focus my attention there. He gives a detailed and learned account of what has happened to conservatism over the past half-century or so, but the heart of his piece is his treatment of Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli. For Tanenhaus these figures represent what conservatism has been and should be: against all dogma and ideology, willing to make expedient decisions – ones that are practically sensible as against those that would merely conform to ideology.
What Tanenhaus would like us to believe is that conservatism had always been essentially pragmatic. On this view, the tumultuous shifts in conservative thought over the latter half of the twentieth century become nothing more than the tainting effects of ideology running rampant over the few remaining voices of pragmatism, such as Whittaker Chambers. And thus is a return to pragmatism held forth not as the immediately attractive tactical move in light of Obama’s association with it (and its related centrist appeal), but rather as a return to what conservatism has always been.
I will not take on Tanenhaus’ portrayal of Disraeli in disputing his picture, as I am not as familiar with Disraeli’s actions and ideas. The work of Edmund Burke, however, is something I know well enough to be quite skeptical of this political makeover.
Was Burke appalled by the actions of the philosophes of the French Revolution, as they hubristically sought to remake the very foundations of society? Yes. This is the essence of his position. But to claim that this means he did not display ideological commitments in his own ideas about politics is simply wrong.
Burke saw the existing social institutions in place in any society as, first, something to be reckoned with when it comes to political theory and action. This is pragmatic, as far as it goes. For Burke, the primary sin of the philosophes was not ideology, but the belief that their vision of society based on that ideology could be implemented without regard for history:
“[The philosophes] have no respect for the wisdom of others, but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things because it is an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of a building run up in haste, because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time.”1
But when it comes to understanding Burke’s own position, his proper attention to history does not absolve it of ideology. And he does not even hide the fact that his own position is informed not simply by an awareness of history, but by an ideological conviction: that the longstanding and conventional – the products of history – are right by virtue of being longstanding. This is the reason that Burke is the father of conservatism, because its claim is that the primary principle by which good governance can be achieved is through a conservation of what has come before. This does not exclude any change whatsoever. Instead, in matters of policy it gives precedence to what precedes. In the case of Burke’s own time, that specifically meant a valorization of existing social rank and privilege, itself tempered only by the persistence of chivalry, in his romantic conception.
Consider the following quotes from Burke which make this attitude plain:
The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself…The possessors of family wealth, and of the distinction which attends hereditary possession (as most concerned in it), are the natural securities of this transmission…For though hereditary wealth and the rank which goes with it are too much idolized by creeping sycophants and the blind, abject admirers of power, they are too rashly slighted in shallow speculations of the petulant, assuming, short-sighted coxcombs of philosophy. Some decent, regulated preeminence, some preference (not exclusive appropriation) given to birth is neither unnatural, unjust, nor impolitic. (p. 45)
If civil society be the offspring of convention, that convention must be its law. That convention must limit and modify all the descriptions of constitution which are formed under it. Every sort of legislative, judicial, or executory power are its creatures. They can have no being in any other state of things. (p. 52)
Or consider his valorization of chivalry (p. 67):
The principle [of chivalry], though varied in its appearance by the varying state of human affairs, subsisted and influenced through a long succession of generations even to the time we live in. If it should ever be totally extinguished, the loss I fear will be great. It is this which has given its character to modern Europe….It was this which, without confounding ranks, had produced a noble equality and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It was this opinion which mitigated kings into companions and raised private men to be fellows with kings.
But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off.
Perhaps this is the most telling passage (p. 30, emphasis added):
We procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men: on account of their age and on account of those from whom they are descended. All your sophisters cannot produce anything better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued.
Burke did stand for the view that one ignores history at one’s own peril, but he also stood for the view that the conventions arrived at historically had more than literal precedence. To claim that Burke was not imbuing existing social forms with an inherent rightness is to try to turn him into something other than a conservative. One can understand the desperate rush for dry philosophical ground by those fleeing the warship of modern conservatism’s recent and extreme campaigns, but Burke (for one) cannot be pulled quite that far ashore.
1 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1987 , edited by J.G.A. Pocock (Indianapolis: Hackett), p. 77. All further quotes are from the same edition, with page numbers given.