Edmund Burke and American Conservatism

It has become a truism that modern American conservatism is revolutionary in the sense that it seeks to overturn the established order rather than to preserve it. “Reagan Revolution,” “Tea Party”—the very names for the movement announce that is about more than defending the status quo. In the conservative worldview, America (or “Washington,” or the “mainstream media,” or some other powerful stratum) is dominated by a liberal-intellectual-academic-bureaucratic-socialist-internationalist (pick two or more) elite that must be overthrown. So in at least a mythical sense, conservatism is about restoration, which is something very different from “conserving” what exists today.

When did this happen? According to one view of the world, to which I have been partial in the past, there was once an ideology called conservatism that really was conservative in the narrow sense: that is, it counseled maintaining existing institutions on the grounds that radical change was dangerous. The Rights of Man and the Citizen may be great, but soon enough you have the Committee of Public Safety and the guillotine. On this reading of history, conservatism became radical sometime after World War Two, when it gave up accommodation with the New Deal in favor of rolling the whole thing back, ideally all the way through the Sixteenth Amendment.

In The Reactionary Mind,* however, Corey Robin has a different take: conservatism, all the way back to Edmund Burke, has always been about counterrevolution, motivated by the success of left-wing radicals and consciously copying their tactics in an attempt to seize power back from them. Conservative thinkers were always conscious of the nature of modern politics, which required mobilization of the masses long before Nixon’s silent majority or contemporary Tea Party populism. The challenge is “to make privilege popular, to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses” (p. 43). And the way to do that is to strengthen and defend privilege and hierarchy within all the sub-units of society (master over slave, husband over wife, employer over worker).

Now, the conservative movement in America is what it is; whether Edmund Burke would have blessed it or not is not going to change the number of signatories to the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. But Robin’s book should make people skeptical of the occasional claim that there is some “good conservatism” represented by, say, George Will, and some “bad conservatism” represented by, say, Sarah Palin. (I would have said Rick Perry, but these days it seems poor Palin can use all the media mentions she can get, since even Chris Christie is out-trending her.)

Robin also highlights the importance of victimhood in conservatism, going back to Edmund Burke’s tears for Marie Antoinette. To restore something, you have to have lost something in the first place. In the 1970s, it was the idea that business was being beaten up by labor that finally got the business community to organize behind the Republican Party (see Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics; Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands); without that money, conservatism would still be about as powerful as it was in 1964. The idea that ordinary Americans are being trampled on by the liberal-bureaucratic elite, which is so central to the fundraising strategies of the NRA and other lobbying groups, is part and parcel of the whole ideology, not a clever idea thought up by Wayne LaPierre.

Of course, you can always get into an argument about which specific positions can lay claim to the word “conservative” and which can’t. To the extent that you feel bound by intellectual history, then I think Robin has a strong argument. To the extent that words are what you make them, I guess everyone has equal claim to the word.

For more, see Robin’s guest post at Rortybomb.

* I got a pre-publication copy free from the publisher. I also went to high school with Corey, but haven’t seen him in a couple of decades.