Reform and Revolution

From Yuval Levin's fine piece on how McCain should be running:

"A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve" was Edmund Burke's definition of the statesman two centuries ago, and it remains the hallmark of conservatism. While American conservatives have sometimes liked to think of themselves as revolutionaries (or radical counter-revolutionaries), the most significant accomplishments of the conservative movement have actually been targeted reforms that turned existing institutions to conservative ends. The Reagan "revolution" gave us a tax code better suited to entrepreneurship and growth. The Gingrich "revolution" gave us a welfare system with incentives geared toward encouraging independence and initiative. Conservative reform of urban law enforcement, and early efforts at reform of local education (through school choice), have improved what we have, rather than rejecting it. Reform, not revolution, is the conservative path to supporting strong families and free markets.

To this analysis, I would add one further point: The likely alternative to the reformist tendency on the Right - a tendency to which Yuval and I both subscribe, obviously, and which is limned by George Packer in this week's New Yorker - is a right-wing politics that would tend to be simultaneously revolutionary and quietistic. Or, perhaps more aptly, that would cycle between radical dreams and resigned, "let's withdraw from politics" pessimism. This "revolution or bust" tendency has defined traditionalist conservatism for some time now, with an alienation from actual-existing American politics coexisting with sweeping visions for what American politicians ought to be doing with themselves instead; it's manifested itself frequently among religious conservatives over the years as well; and in an era of liberal re-ascendency, it's easy to imagine such a spirit engulfing the entire American Right. You start by telling yourself that retrenchment - whether to the age of Gingrich or Reagan or Robert Taft - is the path to victory, and you end, when victory doesn't materialize, by embracing defeat as a badge of honor, and pining for either the barricades or the monastery.

I should add that of course there are times when quietism is the better part of valor, and times when revolutions are necessary things. And given my own declinist instincts, I can easily imagine myself ending my writing career sharing the "only a revolution (or the Benedict option) can save us now" point of view that some of my favorite dissident conservatives partake of. But I'm not ready to take that path just yet.