Comment May 2008

Mr. Conservative

John McCain hasn’t betrayed conservatism; his party has.

john mccain

Alert Washingtonians were treated to an odd juxtaposition not long ago. John McCain was booed at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the big annual gathering of the right-wing tribes, while trying to establish that he was a conservative. On the same day, across town at the American Enterprise Institute—another conservative stronghold—Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, was warmly received when he touted a new book called Real Change. Never one to go underboard, Ging­rich called for “explosively replac[ing] the failed bureaucracies of the past.”

The irony of the contrast seemed lost on conservatives. No one in the movement doubts Gingrich is a real, no-kidding conservative. Many doubt that McCain is. Some flatly flunk him. Thus spake James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family and a leader of the Christian right: “I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative.” He’s not one of us, these conservatives have insisted.

Actually, they’re not one of them. But he is.

If the booers had paid attention to McCain’s speech, they might have noticed several mentions of Ronald Reagan. No surprise there. But McCain also went out of his way to invoke another conservative luminary, pointedly quoting him twice. That was Edmund Burke.

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.

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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