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Is John McCain a Burkean Conservative?:
Jonathan Rauch makes the case over at TheAtlantic.com. I hope he's right. Thanks to Instapundit for the pointer.
MarkField (mail):
Hmm. I wonder if McCain believes that "A great empire and little minds go ill together."
5.2.2008 8:20pm
Observer:
I stopped reading when the author claimed that James Dobson is not really a conservative, but McCain is.
5.2.2008 8:37pm
Perseus (mail):
[Burke] would caution against forcibly uprooting the authority structures of a long-tyrannized society like Iraq and expecting a mini-America to spring forth.

Did I miss something or did Mr. Rauch neglect to attempt to reconcile Senator McCain's support for initiating the Iraq War with Burkean skepticism about such an undertaking?
5.2.2008 8:47pm
Gaius Marius:
I predict that John McCain's legacy as President will be about as noteworthy as William Harrison's legacy.
5.2.2008 8:55pm
astrangerwithcandy (mail):
there is a lot Mr. Rauch neglected to do in that article
5.2.2008 8:57pm
Hoosier:
Even more pressing: Is McCain a Rockingham Whig?

(I don't suppose so.)

Burke has much to offer; he's read too little by Americans; and his critique of theoretical politics is a gift to us from the Gods.

(McCain supporters and fence-sitters may want to read Peter Stalins's collected writings of Burke this summer to see what they think of the comparison. Obama supporters may not want to do so . . . yet. I don't think they'll find that Burke could endorse the claim that Obama seeming smart and supporting the right policies is legitimate reason for giving him political power.)

This is interesting stuff. But a bit of a minefield. Burke could not have been "a conservative," since that was a term applied to politics only in the wake of the French Revolution. Burke could never have called himself "a conservative," so it may be best to refrain from doing so.

The question of whether McCain is "Burkean" in his approach to politics--whatever label we want to use for that approach--is, however, a very interesting question. Herbert Parmet makes the case in his biography of GHW Bush that Bush I was a Burkean "conservative." I'm curious to see what the VC thinks on the McCain question..
5.2.2008 9:00pm
Hoosier:
Perseus--I cannot imagine how a Burkean could support the idea of replacing a political culture by use of government force. His writings struck me as the best reason not to go into Iraq.
5.2.2008 9:03pm
ithaqua (mail):

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, [Goldwater conservatism] 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.

And so conservatives came to associate themselves with a romantic narrative of radical change—a narrative of counterrevolution, but revolutionary all the same.

According to Rauch, then, James Dobson and Barry Goldwater - the two men who, along with Reagan, define the modern conservative movement - aren't 'real conservatives', but Burke and John McCain are. Seriously. The only way he can claim that John McCain is 'conservative' is by redefining the term to exclude basically every single Republican in existence.

Fortunately, McCain doesn't have to be a 'real conservative' to get my vote - he just has to not be a Democrat and not be a traitor (oh, but I repeat myself). Still, this is a pathetic puff-piece by Rauch, one that tears down McCain's party in order to celebrate McCain, and so plays into the worst of liberal propaganda about the Republican Party's supposed lack of conservative principles.
5.2.2008 9:10pm
Mike& (mail):
So supporting a trillion-dollar, deficit-creating war requiring occupation of a nation that posed no threat to our interests; playing both sides on social issues; and having lukewarm views on most other issues makes one a Burkean conservative these days?

That's pretty hilarious. Is it any surprise that the author did not actually quote Burke for any of his claims?
5.2.2008 9:11pm
EricH (mail):
I'm reminded of the response (paraphrasing) by Daniel Patrick Moynhihan, who likely attended more Cabinet meetings than anyone in history (having served in various capacities in the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan Administrations), when asked about the type of discussions that took place at those meetings.

"There was never a discussion about political philosophy or great thinkers" he said, "We were just trying to make it through the day."
5.2.2008 9:46pm
Gaius Marius:
So supporting a trillion-dollar, deficit-creating war requiring occupation of a nation that posed no threat to our interests; playing both sides on social issues; and having lukewarm views on most other issues makes one a Burkean conservative these days?

Well now that just about describes every single member of Congress regardless of their partisan stripes.
5.2.2008 10:02pm
wm13:
Well, it's pretty clear that whatever Reagan was, he wasn't a Burkean conservative. On the other hand, Mark Tushnet used to claim to be a Burkean conservative. (I don't know if he still claims that.) And I believe Andrew Sullivan claims that gay marriage is a Burkean conservative idea. All in all, I'm not sure the term has much meaning in contemporary discourse.
5.2.2008 11:00pm
Winghunter (www):
Johnnie Rauch's conclusions of every single individual and subject were reached with only half the story, if that much.

Using his logic is like driving a car in a circle so you can twist a bolt in.

Hit the books Johnnie!!
5.2.2008 11:29pm
Dave N (mail):
EricH,

While Moynihan did serve in a variety of administrations, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976 (defeating the incumbent James Buckley, brother to Bill). Thus while he may have attended White House meetings during the Carter and Reagan Administration, it was in his capacity as a United States Senator.

I would also note that with the possible exception of UN Ambassador, none of Moynihan's positions had Cabinet rank. On the other hand, James Schlesinger served in the cabinets of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter; Donald Rumsfeld served in the cabinets of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Bush43, and Edwin Stanton served in the cabinets of Presidents Buchanan, Lincoln, and Johnson. And of course, Vice President Cheney had Cabinet rank as White House Chief of Staff under President Ford, as SecDef under President Bush41, and in his current job (and who likely has attended more cabinet meetings in those three jobs than Moynihan ever did).
5.2.2008 11:35pm
liberty (mail) (www):
The category is a bit broad, but I do like the "moderate" idea that Burke is described as having, against all kinds of tyranny, regardless if it is "democratic" or authoritarian. A believer in freedom, for real. I hope McCain is of that stripe, though he seems a bit too populist for my tastes (too much in favor of "democratic" tyranny.
5.2.2008 11:40pm
Cornellian (mail):
I stopped reading when the author claimed that James Dobson is not really a conservative, but McCain is.

Sounds about right to me re Dobson, unless your definition of "conservative" consists of 2 or 3 "correct" positions on hot button social issues.
5.2.2008 11:42pm
ithaqua (mail):
"Sounds about right to me re Dobson, unless your definition of "conservative" consists of 2 or 3 "correct" positions on hot button social issues."

My definition of 'conservative' includes the understanding that reverence for God is the foundation of any free and stable society, that concepts like 'law' and 'justice' cannot be understood without reference to the great Definer of such concepts, and, with regard to American conservatism specifically, that God (and not the American government) is the source of all 'human rights' and 'natural rights' Americans possess, and so that what those rights are can only be understood by referring to the Bible, not to judically invented 'Constitutional penumbras'. Dobson understands this. McCain probably doesn't, but he's willing to throw us some bones in the form of judicial appointments, which is as good as we're likely to get.

An 'atheist conservative' is a contradiction in terms - respect for tradition and individual rights demands respect for the God of the former that guarantees the latter. What precisely would an atheist conservative be? Christopher Hitchens? The very idea of sharing a philosophy with that drunken blasphemer makes my skin crawl.
5.3.2008 12:06am
ithaqua (mail):
And Burke, by the way, was a Christian who understood the role of God in government in very much the same way as Dobson does. From this link:


In the most general terms, Burke’s political theory followed the Christian principle that all authority is from God and is given for the good of the community.


The revolution in France, as he saw it, was the spawn of an anti-Christian Enlightenment and therefore an attack on a civilization whose basis was Christianity. If the Christian religion “is destroyed, nothing can be saved, or is worth saving,” because “on that religion, according to our mode, all our laws and institutions stand as upon their base. That scheme is supposed in every transaction of life; and if that were done away, every thing else, as in France, must be changed along with it.”

[Burke] said: “Religion is so far from being out of the province or the duty of a Christian magistrate [ie, a politician], that it is, and it ought to be, not only his care, but the principal thing in his care; because it is one of the great bonds of human society; and its object the supreme good, the ultimate end and object of man himself.”


Burke, that is to say, rather than being opposed to James Dobson (as Rauch would like to claim) would have been his staunch and reliable ally in the fight against government secularism.

So, Rauch gets his facts wrong about (1) conservatism (it's not Burkean anymore); (2) Burke (Burkean conservatism isn't even Burkean conservatism as Rauch describes it); and (3) McCain (who, judging from his record, isn't really a conservative in either the genuine or Burkean senses). Why does this guy get to write for the Atlantic again?

... oh, yeah, that's the rag that hires Andrew Sullivan. Never mind.
5.3.2008 12:14am
Alec:
Hehehehehehehehehehehe....a wet dream for liberals, this election year is.

Mr. "I'm slightly happy to be gay, as long as it doesn't cost me" Rauch declares his love for Senator McCain.

Dance, dance, dance...the conservative moment in time is ending faster than I thought.

Burkian conservative...please. I've read Burke, Mr. McCain, and you are no Burke. Thank the gods. Burke was ten times the thinker this pretender could hope to be.

I lick my lips for November. I've waited for this moment for a long time. Even if the closet liberal wins, this moment will stand forevermore as the death rattle of the conservative movement.

I recall what my more conservative and malicious friends told me in 2004: all that you dreamed of is at an end. Indeed. It appears the liberal moment has yet to begin. I bet more than a few posters wish they had voted for Senator McCain back in 2000, eh?
5.3.2008 12:20am
wuzzagrunt (mail):
[Burke] would be suspicious of a conservatism that wanted to “explosively replace the failed bureaucracies of the past.”

Perpetuating failed bureaucracies is neither conservative or liberal--just stupid. The modern (American) conservative movement is clearly misnamed, but it will have to suffice until a better name comes along. Most modern political labels are little more than flags to identify one team vs. the other.

It's like the weirdness of applying the "reactionary" label to anyone who rejects the particulars of a failed, 19th century, political-economic dogma. What up w'dat?
5.3.2008 12:28am
jim47:
I'll second Perseus is wondering how the author can claim McCain is a Burkean without confronting his support of Iraq. That war has been carried out as if it were the French Revolution of our age. Perhaps McCain can be disentangled from that, but the article doesn't even attempt to do that.

Re Hoosier's claim that it is inappropriate to think of Burke as conservative, Hayek, of course, made a similar critique, but I think "conservative" is a fair label for describing Burke's worldview, and that is now its traditional designation. I basically think that we would be served well by acknowledging that applying political frameworks from continental europe is of limited value in the Anglo-American tradition.

Re Ithaqua, I agree with all of the quotations of Burke that you included in your post, and I am pretty sure I could get some of my atheist conservative friends to agree to those statements too. Methinks that you are over-employing pure reason at the expense of observable reality if you think atheist conservatism is a category error.

In my experience, a lot of people who talk about the Christian origins of our legal system have too simplistic an understanding of what exactly that means, and that prevents them from accepting certain nuanced positions on religion-and-politics.
5.3.2008 1:58am
Ben S2 (mail):
Rauch's idea of a Burkean conservative is a timid incrementalist. Yes, Gingrich and Goldwater wanted to make big changes. But only because they were trying to undo the excesses of the Great Society and the New Deal, unfortunately 50 years too late.


Perpetuating failed bureaucracies is neither conservative or liberal--just stupid.


But for American liberals, the state is a deity. The UN is the ultimate failed bureaucracy, but I've several lefties have told me in all seriousness that it's infallible. And, yes, I checked to make sure they knew the definition of infallible.

Prediction: all the True Conservatives on the net who think McCain is a closet liberal will conveniently forget this as soon as the Dem primaries are done with the last rererererererecount and the big guns swing his way. Kinda like Regan, amnesty bill and all, sounds a lot more conservative when you recall how much he p***ed off the left.
5.3.2008 3:49am
Arkady:

An 'atheist conservative' is a contradiction in terms - respect for tradition and individual rights demands respect for the God of the former that guarantees the latter. What precisely would an atheist conservative be?


Heather Mac Donald.
5.3.2008 7:42am
devoman:
Re:
I recall what my more conservative and malicious friends told me in 2004: all that you dreamed of is at an end. Indeed. It appears the liberal moment has yet to begin. I bet more than a few posters wish they had voted for Senator McCain back in 2000, eh?


Well said, Alec. I think you (and others) will enjoy this (Sept. 2004) post by Grover Norquist. I can't help smiling every time I read it.

Just to give you a taste, it starts off like this:

The modern Democratic Party cannot survive the reelection of President George W. Bush and another four years of Republican control of both Congress and the White House.

No brag. Just fact.


Any my apologies to all for taking this thread slightly off topic.
5.3.2008 9:59am
devoman:
Sorry, the link didn't work ...


The Grover Norquist article is here
5.3.2008 10:03am
SIG357:
I fail to see what credentials Rauch has to speak on the matter of what conservatism "really" is. That aside, I think his descrption of conservatism as simply opposition to change is specious at best. He says this to make the case that conservatives should support all the changes which liberals have made. It's stare decisis applied to all of life. Or at least those portions of life liberals don't want changed.

He's is also factually wrong in criticising conservatives for being "revolutionary". Burke was a revolutionary in many respects, not simply a blind defender of the status quo. For instance, he was an early advocate for the abolition of slavery.

McCain is no conservative, and still less a libertarian. He's just another big government liberal, even if from the FDR/Scoop Jackson wing of that movement.
5.3.2008 2:00pm
SIG357:
I believe Andrew Sullivan claims that gay marriage is a Burkean conservative idea

I think we need a sort of Godwins Law to deal with Andrew Sullivan. The average anonymous comenter at VC is a much more credible soure than this unfortunate individual.
5.3.2008 2:07pm
SIG357:
An 'atheist conservative' is a contradiction in terms - respect for tradition and individual rights demands respect for the God of the former that guarantees the latter.

Not neccesarily. Conservatism regards man as more than merely a dying animal. That has usually implied Christianity in the West, but there is no reason this outlook cannot be grounded in philosophy or in a different religion.
5.3.2008 2:17pm
Michael B (mail):
Rauch. Pooh.

McCain is a seasoned, instinctual "conservative" - quotes denoting a soft irony - and too much the self-affected maverick on occasion, so it's good to know he reads some Burke, who can provide a certain gravity. What McCain decidedly is not is one who is willing to employ a pseudo-liberal, soft messianism, a la BHO or Gore; absolute bare minimum, there's a sufficiency in that and one which does substantiate some conservative bona fides, certainly so in the present era.
5.3.2008 4:08pm
steve burton (mail) (www):
Another atheist conservative: John Derbyshire.

Jonathan Rauch is a great guy, and a smart guy, but this is a very weak piece. Perseus already noted the disconnect between what Burke might have thought about the war in Iraq and McCain's position. Another oddity is that Rauch doesn't even mention the single issue that gets McCain into the most trouble with conservatives: immigration.
5.3.2008 4:28pm
TGGP (mail) (www):
Other historical godless conservatives include Robert Nisbet, Robert Ingersoll, Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, William Graham Sumner, Albert Jay Nock, George Santayana and H. L. Mencken. James Burnham and Sam Francis are alleged to have converted at their death-beds, but they spent most of their time in the conservative movement as non-believers. W.V.O Quine was apparently a conservative (in addition to being a filthy heathen), but only left a small amount of evidence for that in books like Quiddities.
5.3.2008 4:52pm
steve burton (mail) (www):
TGGP, I am astonished to learn that I'm not the only living conservative/libertarian/whatever who has heard of William Graham Sumner.

A great thinker. But not a great writer, alas.
5.3.2008 8:04pm
SIG357:
"it's good to know he reads some Burke"



It's good to know that he has people on his staff who can feed him Burke lines, at any rate. By all accounts McCain is one of the dimmer bulbs in a Senate not noted for being intellectual.
5.4.2008 12:07am