Back to Burke, The Revival of Classical Conservatism

"If a conservative order is indeed to return, we ought to know the tradition which is attached to it, so that we may rebuild society; if it is not to be restored, still we ought to understand conservative ideas so that we may rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilization escape the conflagration of unchecked will and appetite."

—Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind

It was in post World War II America where conservatism, as we understand it today, was given life as an intellectual movement. It was a mind set which provided an outlet against the "doctrinaire liberalism" of the day. Many people escaped the bondage of collectivist egalitarianism imposed by liberal activism by returning to the things that made them truly whole; individualism, family, community, and God.

In a recent article written by Sam Tanenhaus, of the New Republic, observes that the ideology of conservatism is dead, in the Burkean sense. While this is true for the Right, it resonates within both parties that occupy the American political system. Republicans, as well as the Democrats, have been engaging in Manichean politics for years. In simplest terms, the framing of a movement of "good against evil." From the Right we see it used to promulgate foreign policy issues (i.e. War on Terror), on the Left it is used to push social agendas (i.e. War on Wall Street). This has led to the creation of "movement ideology" which in some ways debased and fractured conservatives, while actually unified liberals.

The conservative movement of post World War II was changed inexorably on 9-11. Its aftermath, led to an implementation of neoconservative policies which were bitter sweet. This, in-turn, fueled a successful populist movement on the Left, which eroded conservative political power and even regionalized its ideals. Now dazed and confused most on the Right are searching, often in vane, for the hope and change they can believe in. Whether, it be espousing Libertarian-Conservative values, which is an oxymoron, or a return to being more "conservative," not many of the alternatives being offered are digestible or even palatable.

To Burke, Father of Modern Day conservatives, conservatism seeks to conserve the valuable traditions of the past and look to these lessons for future progress. Burke vehemently argued against governing solely by reason. If one man's reason is less than another this will inevitably lead to poor leadership if that governing body is based solely up this precept. Burke felt that time honored traditions and the wisdom of the past were the proper foundations for a successful state.

However, Burke wrote, "A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation." He recognized that a society, at some point, would need to progress. To him that change would be organic in its nature rather than forced. If based solely on revolutionary ideals and actions, you run the risk of giving rise to "iron law" or tyranny.

In a recent, and actually well written article, Andrew Sullivan retorts Tanenhaus's piece called Conservatism Lives. He makes fair assumptions about the Right's fall into a sea of identity politics and ambiguity, the classical conservative ability to adapt to changing situations, and the realization that the fundamentals of our government are Burkean in their framework. Nevertheless, his last observation as to seeing semblances of Burke within our President is the most disturbing part.

Donald Davidson, in his book I'll Take My Stand, wrote, "They are learning how to meet the subtlest and most dangerous foe of humanity—the tyranny that wears the mask of humanitarianism and benevolence. They are attacking Leviathan." This is what Burke recognized in the French Revolution, the creation of a Leviathan. It represented a growing impertinent and self-indulgent political body, which seeks to control rather than govern. Unfortunately, the supposed pragmatism being offered by Obama, which Sullivan observes, is taking us by the hand and leading us down this very path.

Make no mistake, I do not assume to know what coalesces in the mind of the President, this is only known to himself and God. But, by observing his outward thrust to move our country to a wholly egalitarian society it is easily seen that he possesses none of
, nor adheres to, any of Burke's ideals.

Finally, Sullivan and Tanenhaus both make the case, correctly so, that Burke is a state of mind, but imply he is not a counter-revolutionary. For those who truly understand Burke, and are not cherry picking his broad philosophy for the mere case of fitting today's political spectrum, they would know that counter-revolution, as noted, was the very basis of his philosophy spawned by the French Revolution. He railed against intellectual imperialism and sought to provide justice and order for people through acumen, not reaction.

Sadly, in the near future, this reactionary state is all we can look forward to from our political leaders. Not prudent pragmatism that Burke felt these leaders should possess.


Jason said...

Mike, very good article. It is good these things are thought about and discussed. I'm not sure how politics will change if this current situation bottoms out like too many are saying.

I believe a return to these principles will be the only thing that can save us.

Phaedrus said...

Excellent article. Gives alot to think about.

I am beginning to believe that we need the "bottom" to fall out so these things can solve themselves.
That being said, do not underestimate the power of the people. Americans have proven throughout history that they will defend themselves against tyranny. Many are just starting to wipe the sleep from their eyes. Can you ever remember a time in history where SO MANY people were paying attention?

Critical Thinker said...

Thank to both of you,


even for all of Andrew Sullivan's screwball ways, he made some great points in his article. One which I forgot to mention was when said,

"But conservatism's genius is to be cheerful and imaginative in managing defeat; and conservatives can always hope that the increasing complexity of modern society will make libertarian and federalist approaches more appealing, because they are the only ones capable of keeping such a multi-cultural polity in one piece."

I thought this was rather insightful on Sullivan's part.

Daniel S said...

"It represented a growing impertinent and self-indulgent political body, which seeks to control rather than govern."

This is the problem with both political parties right now. Neither want to govern for the good of the people, but want to control more with the rhetorical rants of less is more or more is less mantra. Ignorant either way it is spelled out. If one was to look with a critical mindset, they would realize that this is the foundation for a "revolution."

Just a thought, take it how you may. But, I think you understand - as most of the time you do Mike.

Critical Thinker said...

Yup Dan, as drastic as it might seem, some sort of revolution is looming on the horizon. Whether it be in the physical or mental sense is where the real question remains. I am hoping for the mental, personally.


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