05 Oct 2007

Current GOP’s Conservatism “Non-Burkean?”

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David Brooks grazes meditatively beneath the New York Times’ luxuriant English oaks.

Modern conservatism begins with Edmund Burke. What Burke articulated was not an ideology or a creed, but a disposition, a reverence for tradition, a suspicion of radical change.

When conservatism came to America, it became creedal. Free market conservatives built a creed around freedom and capitalism. Religious conservatives built a creed around their conception of a transcendent order. Neoconservatives and others built a creed around the words of Lincoln and the founders.

Over the years, the voice of Burke has been submerged beneath the clamoring creeds. In fact, over the past few decades the conservative ideologies have been magnified, while the temperamental conservatism of Burke has been abandoned.

Over the past six years, the Republican Party has championed the spread of democracy in the Middle East. But the temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform, believing that efforts to quickly transform anything will have, as Burke wrote “pleasing commencements” but “lamentable conclusions.” …

To put it bluntly, over the past several years, the G.O.P. has made ideological choices that offend conservatism’s Burkean roots. This may seem like an airy-fairy thing that does nothing more than provoke a few dissenting columns from William F. Buckley, George F. Will and Andrew Sullivan. But suburban, Midwestern and many business voters are dispositional conservatives more than creedal conservatives. They care about order, prudence and balanced budgets more than transformational leadership and perpetual tax cuts. It is among these groups that G.O.P. support is collapsing.

American conservatism will never be just dispositional conservatism. America is a creedal nation. But American conservatism is only successful when it’s in tension — when the ambition of its creeds is retrained by the caution of its Burkean roots.

There is something, doubtless, about a New York Times editorial position, possibly the prestigious title or perhaps the unlimited expense account, which is liable to make any man into a Burkean defender of the status quo.

Mr. Brooks is, however, clearly confusing American with British conservatism, when he describes it in these emolient and unthreatening Burkean terms. But the American case is very different.

The roots of American conservatism lie in the American Revolution against Royal authority and established traditions of governmental supremacy. And the pedigree of modern American conservatism goes back to the movement which took over the GOP led by Barry Goldwater and his supporters.

Barry Goldwater was correctly perceived as a radical opponent of the New Deal’s established order of Welfarism, mixed economy socialism, Big Government and tolerance of International Communism, the champion of a collection of American principles and ideals, which (however originalist) were so utterly alien to the prevailing Establishment consensus as to seem revolutionary.

Mr. Brooks needs to remember that the father of the modern conservative Republican Party is the man who said “Extremism in defense of Liberty is no vice.”


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