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Is John McCain a Burkean Conservative?

Jonathan Rauch argues that John McCain is a "Burkean conservative," which Rauch defines as "respecting long-standing customs and institutions" and opposing "radical change." I'm a big fan of Rauch's work, but in this case I find his argument unconvincing.

Most of Rauch's evidence consists of political compromises that McCain has accepted as a senator and presidential candidate. However, as a "maverick" senator viewed with suspicion by both his own party and the Democrats, McCain had little choice but to compromise if he wanted to see any of his ideas enacted into law. Similarly, McCain had to accept some compromises and trim his sails in order to win the nomination of the Republican Party, most of whose activists were hardly enthusiastic about his candidacy.

On some issues, however, McCain has indeed endorsed "radical change" that runs counter to tradition. For example, he has repeatedly made clear that he wants far more sweeping regulation of political speech, going well beyond the compromises embodied in his McCain-Feingold law. Rauch describes the Iraq War as inconsistent with Burkean conservatism (because it was an effort at rapid transformation of a tyrannical society). Yet McCain has consistently supported the war just as enthusiastically as President Bush (albeit advocating what I think is a more effective and realistic strategy than that pursued by Bush and the Pentagon during the first several years of the conflict). If McCain becomes president, he will face fewer external constraints and will therefore be able to pursue his more radical preferences more aggressively.

Nonetheless, there is a good reason for Burkean conservatives and others opposed to rapid change to prefer a McCain victory. If McCain wins, divided government will be preserved, and divided government makes it difficult for either the President or Congress to enact radical new policy initiatives. It also plays a valuable role in constraining the growth of government. If one of the Democrats wins, he or she will have a cooperative Democratic majority in Congress (probably a bigger one than currently exists) and there will likely be several radical new policy initiatives and a major expansion of the size and scope of government. Thanks to divided government, a McCain victory might well lead to Burkean conservative results even if that isn't McCain's personal preference.

At the same time, I should note that I am not a Burkean conservative myself, and my reasons for preferring a McCain victory have more to do with the usefulness of divided government in constraining the growth of government than with any general opposition to rapid change. If time permits, I will do a follow-up post on the shortcomings of Burkean conservatism, which I think overstates the virtues of tradition and underestimates the possibility that rapid change is sometimes a good thing.

Doc W (mail):
Gridlock is the best we can hope for; the less these despicable politicians accomplish, the better off we'll be. If it is McCain in the White House versus the Dems in control of Congress, let's just hope the latter display a bit more backbone on the war than they have with Bush.

McCain similar to Burke? A gratuitous insult to Burke.
5.3.2008 4:22pm
Fearless:

Rauch describes the Iraq War as inconsistent with Burkean conservatism (because it was an effort at rapid transformation of a tyrannical society).


I am not that familiar with Burkean conservativism.

But does it really address war? I mean, any war is going to result in a rapid transformation of the conquered society. You would think that Burkean conservative philosophy would apply internally, not necessarily externally.

Otherwise, it would seem that under Burkean conservativism, one would be obligated to not take advantage of a temporary weakness of a foreign adversary to overthrow that adversary (since any overthrow of a government results in, by definition, rapid change), even if that adversary wishes to make rapid and radical change in your country. (i.e. a true Burkean conservative would oppose the overthrow of the Soviet Union government by the United States.)

That just does not sound right.
5.3.2008 5:00pm
Tom Hanna (www):
Saying that someone is a Burkean conservative is not the same thing as saying that he is Edmund Burke. McCain certainly has some Burkean tendencies. His willingness to flip the bird to his fellow Republicans puts me in mind of one of Burke's most famous utterances:

It is [the legislator's] duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to [the constituents]; and, above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But, his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you; to any man, or to any sett of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the Law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
5.3.2008 5:08pm
Michael B (mail):
To read some commentary on Burke, specifically their attempts to transport him to the present era, one is left with the impression a "Burkean" wouldn't wish to overturn the regimes in Khartoum or Harare too quickly. Saddam & Sons is a different animal from a geo-political pov, from a regional/ME pov and otherwise (though perhaps not so different from Khartoum's regime) but the notion a Burke, transported to the present era, would simply be accepting of a deeply malignant and malevolent status quo in the manner of the tranzi and multi-culti left, or even in the manner of realpolitik, needs a great deal more support than is being offered. Burke was a classical liberal - constitutional monarchy during his era, which included British empire - and whatever that might mean more specifically, transported to the present era, minimally it is up for some better grounded debate.
5.3.2008 5:34pm
jim47:
Fearless:

The Burkean impulse is to realize that the most enduring forms of order are not built, but grown over time. It acknowledges that we cannot always understand the advantages of the current social order.

I think that Burke would at the very least be skeptical of the premise of the Iraq War — that we would go in, radically reshape their society from the top down, and suffer no unexpected difficulties owing to such a dramatic change. We invaded a country on the theory that it would be worth it once we succeeded in effecting a societal transformation every bit as jacobin as the French Revolution. I have to think that Burke would have been more realistic about the difficulties of such an undertaking than were our leaders.
5.3.2008 5:39pm
Fearless:
jim47,

Would Burke have opposed the downfall of the Soviet Union?
5.3.2008 5:53pm
jim47:
Michael B:

I don't see how it follows that not wishing to overturn regimes implies acceptance of "of a deeply malignant and malevolent status quo." One can easily lament the status quo, yet think certain attempts to change it are foolhardy.

Putting Burke aside, do you really think that overthrowing the regime in Khartoum would significantly change the realities on the ground in Sudan? I tend to think that the potential for a foreign power to restructure the basic realities of another country is quite limited, and that this constrains the desirability of changing certain regimes by force.
5.3.2008 5:54pm
jim47:

Would Burke have opposed the downfall of the Soviet Union?


My understanding is that Burkeans tended to draw very significant parallels between the Jacobin's ideology and Communism. The Soviet Union was a state built on a contrived social order, with an ideology of untempered abstract reason. Burke would certainly have opposed communism and the Soviet Union was trying to export communism by force, so I think Burke would have approved of our opposition to the Soviet Union.

That said, when the Soviet Union did fall, there were those of us who expected capitalism to flow in and western-style democracy to take hold. I think Burke might have been duly reserved about such an expectation.
5.3.2008 6:05pm
SIG357:
"it would seem that under Burkean conservativism, one would be obligated to not take advantage of a temporary weakness of a foreign adversary to overthrow that adversary "




Nope. Burke advocated war with Revolutionary France. And got it, though a few years after his death.




"since any overthrow of a government results in, by definition, rapid change"




In spite of what Rauch thinks, Burke was not really opposed to rapid change. But in any case, he argued that war with France was to prevent a certain type of change. I'd say he was correct on that.


As to whether he'd have endorsed war with Iraq, I really don't think he would have. He was generally opposed to the type of change it calls for.


As for McCain, the idea that he is Burkean is just silly. Unless you can imagine Burke trying to merge Britain with Europe in some sort of forerunner of the EU.
5.3.2008 6:15pm
jim47:

As to whether he'd have endorsed war with Iraq, I really don't think he would have. He was generally opposed to the type of change it calls for.


Well said.
5.3.2008 6:24pm
SIG357:
"the notion a Burke, transported to the present era, would simply be accepting of a deeply malignant and malevolent status quo ..... Burke was a classical liberal"



There's something to the idea that Burke was a classical liberal. But not to the idea that classical liberalism had the sort of globalist aspirations and desire to transform mankind as modern liberalism. Burke after all defended what we would today call a "malignant and malevolent status quo" - the French monarchy. To say nothing of the British monarchy.


Todays "classical liberals" bear little resemblence to actual liberals of the past. In fact, I'd say they take more after Rousseau than Burke.
5.3.2008 6:24pm
SIG357:
Getting away from Iraq if possible, I think the fact that Rauch of all people is singing the praises of McCain is interesting. As is the fact that he concededs that McCain is well out of step with the ideology which the GOP esposed in the past. (I can't say today, because after all, they nominated McCain.) Rauch argues that Reagan and Goldwater were not Burkean conservatives, unlike McCain.

He's correct in seeing a difference there, if confused as to what it is.
5.3.2008 6:33pm
SIG357:
Tom Hanna

It is [the legislator's] duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to [the constituents]; and, above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.



Well Tom, I think you just showed that McCain is not Burkean in this sense. Like most of our "representatives", he prefers his intersts far more than our own. I cannot even imagine the thought "I want to do this, but the people who elected me and who I represent want to do that, so I have to do that" ever flickering across McCains mind. He wants what he wants, and he shares with Bush a mulish stubbornness and belief in own righteousness. He can't really be called a "representative" of his constitutients at all.

Of course he shares that failing with most members of the Senate.
5.3.2008 6:45pm
Laura S.:
Sig357,

I wonder: are you from Arizona? And if so, why do you think you speak for the multitude of your fellow state citizens?

McCain has been in Congress for about thirty years. One can reasonably believe that on the average all his policies have been judged to be in the interest of the people he represents.
5.3.2008 7:06pm
Laura S.:
Ilya and others:

I am interested in a specific citation to Burke which would lend credence to your analysis of McCain's war position being non-Burke.
5.3.2008 7:11pm
Ben P (mail):

Ilya and others:

I am interested in a specific citation to Burke which would lend credence to your analysis of McCain's war position being non-Burke.


I don't have the time right now to go and find my old books from Undergrad, but relying on what I recall from having read then, I don't remember anything that conflicts with Rouch's analysis here.


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.


I think at the most fundamental level, our invasion of Iraq was about the idea that democracies are inherently more peaceful and stable than non-democracies, and a democratic Iraq (created by the US) would make the middle east as a whole. (see Thomas Barnett's article on the "pentagon's new map" for this sort of idea)

Burke *probably* would have been a cautionary voice against any venture in Iraq, because he would have recognized that upsetting even a totalitarian oppressive government is more likely to cause things to go to a hell in a handbasket than make them better.
5.3.2008 7:40pm
SIG357:
"McCain has been in Congress for about thirty years. One can reasonably believe that on the average all his policies have been judged to be in the interest of the people he represents."




I suppose that's one interpetation. Given the relection rate for members of Congress they are all doing exactly what their constituients want and their constituients love them. Makes you wonder why Congressional approval ratings are so dismal. I think Bush is more popular than they are.
5.3.2008 10:27pm
SIG357:
"I am interested in a specific citation to Burke which would lend credence to your analysis of McCain's war position being non-Burke. "





You know, I'm not even sure what McCains war position is. I know he wants us to stay there as long as neccessary, but not what he thinks the actual goal of the war is. In other words, as long as neccessary for what? McCain being McCain, I doubt he has any answers.

Ghost-written articles in Foreign Policy don't count.


I do know that in remarks he has made about the Americas, he has displayed the same up-with-people, we're-all-Gods-children, self-righteous gooey internationalism as Bush.
5.3.2008 10:47pm
Michael B (mail):
Jim, in the earlier formulation I'm allowing that "accepting" can be a passive or status quo or realpolitik acceptance, not an active, much less an enthusiastic acceptance. It's an acceptance, however qualified, nonetheless.
5.4.2008 7:17pm