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McCain and Burkeanism:

Burkeanism isn't so much a philosophy as it is an attitude or disposition. As I see it, Burkeanism is not primarily about a commitment to any particular set of policy outcomes, though respecting tradition and continuity will tend to confine one's choices about policy in the short- and medium-term. Instead, Burkeanism suggests great humility about our capacity to effectuate significant change, distrusts a priori reasoning and abstraction, doubts our ability to fully appreciate the wisdom of longstanding practices and institutions, and worries a great deal about the unintended consequences of change. It isn't opposed to reform, of course, but is very cautious about it. Thus, the Burkean tends to favor incremental over convulsive change. For my brief description of Burkeanism (in the context of the debate over gay marriage), with relevant quotes from Burke, see this post.

Here is an example of what I mean by a Burkean attitude or disposition. I do not think there is a determinate answer to the question whether a Burkean, in 2003, should have supported the war in Iraq. But the reasons why one might have supported that war could be either Burkean or very un-Burkean. Supporting the war for reasons of national interest or security would have been defensible on Burkean grounds. Opposing the war for those same reasons would also have been defensible from a Burkean perspective, since ultimately the necessary judgments about the facts and the consequences of inaction were debatable. But supporting the war because one believed it would be possible by foreign invasion to "remake" Iraqi society, and "transform" the Middle East, would have been un-Burkean. Burkeanism is deeply hostile to the utopian concept of "nation building."

Further, the Burkean in one society will tend to have different policy preferences than the Burkean in another because his views will be shaped by his own society's customs, practices, traditions, and history. In this country, for example, the Burkean will be more committed to liberal and democratic values than to authoritarian and theocratic ones. When Burke expressed sympathy for the American rebellion, he did so on the grounds that the Crown had usurped the traditional rights of Americans as Englishmen.

Jon Rauch, always a thoughtful analyst, makes an interesting case in the Atlantic for John McCain's Burkeanism, at least as contrasted with many movement conservatives today. As Rauch argues, many people who call themselves conservatives are not very Burkean. Whether it's in the realm of foreign policy or judicial philosophy, they are too confident about their ends and too eager to use any means to have their way. They are too willing to ignore tradition and precedent, to be Burkean. They are too hard and pure. Right-wing ideology is not Burkeanism. McCain's legislative record demonstrates pretty clearly that he is no conservative ideologue, which is one reason so many of them have no patience for him.

Ilya correctly notes that some of McCain's political compromises have been necessary to get legislation passed, rather than an expression of what he really wanted. But compromise for a general conciliation is a Burkean move, and bowing to this kind of necessity is not a universally shared trait among today's conservatives. McCain was strongly criticized by movement conservatives, for example, for joining the Gang of 14 Senators who preempted a "nuclear" showdown in the Senate on judicial nominees that would have ended the longstanding practice of allowing filibusters. That was a Burkean moment for him, sharply criticized by those who wanted more radical and swift change.

Nevertheless, I am not sure whether McCain is really Burkean. The simple fact that he has taken particular policy positions doesn't answer the question. There is no Burkean tax plan.

The question of temperament, which Rauch does not discuss in his excellent Atlantic essay, is more important than any single policy position. What matters most to the question of whether McCain is Burkean, I think, is how he tends to approach public policy questions. Is it with caution and humility, with a preference for evolution rather than revolution? Or is it with a reformer's zeal, one who has an unshakeable goal in mind and will let nothing stand in the way?

On some issues and at some times, McCain has seemed the former. If memory serves, he supported the Iraq war on national-security grounds, not Wilsonian ones. On other matters, notably his enthusiasm for campaign finance regulations, he has seemed more the latter. If reports from some of his colleagues in the Senate are correct, McCain can be pretty arrogant and hotheaded. Those are not very Burkean traits. But if, at the end of the day, he's better described as patient and deliberate, there's reason to believe that he's closer to Burke than to Burke's critics.

Hoosier:
Thanks for this thoughtful post. I have been using the terms "dispositional" conservatism, in constrast to ideological conservatism, for several years now. Burke can be a bit hard to fit into the current political world. That's part of the point, of course. But one who wants to understand this view of conservatism can't do better than reading Oakeshott's "On Being Conservative." I've always liked the fact that the essay has this title, rather than "On Being A Conservative," because there is a difference.
5.4.2008 4:07pm
EricH (mail):
Not to sidetrack the discussion to far, but was Teddy Roosevelt a Burkean? The analogy that's made is McCain is in the tradition of Roosevelt.

Burke, to me, represents humility and circumspection, an understanding of the limits of man's understanding of the world he inherited. A man of the Scottish Enlightenment over against that of the Continental Enlightenment.

We must, he once said, "Preserve in order to reform; and reform in order to preserve".
5.4.2008 4:10pm
E:
Interestingly, Obama could be said to have more Burkeian characteristics than McCain (or Clinton, for that matter).
5.4.2008 4:13pm
obi juan (mail):
A better question would be, is John McCain a neoconservative?
5.4.2008 4:13pm
tired of blogs:
So far as my reading of Burke goes, this seems like an excellent entry to the recent discussion of McCain's purported Burkeanism.

I would add that it's rather hard to find Burke in any of our modern politicians, forced as they are by the necessities of the permanent campaign to adopt half-considered positions with little prospect of empirical fulfillment. A truly Burkean politician wouldn't make it through the primaries, on EITHER side.
5.4.2008 4:15pm
tired of blogs:
Addendum in response to E's post that appeared as I was typing: Obama's rejection of the gas tax suspension in recent days is certainly a more Burkean move than McCain and Hillary's endorsement of it, but I don't think that, on the average, any of the three has been any more Burkean than the others.
5.4.2008 4:16pm
Hoosier:
Burke and Obama?

Would anyone seriously argue that Burke could support an inexeperienced candidate whose claims to office were his own ambition and public rapture?
5.4.2008 4:28pm
AndrewK (mail):
I don't think anyone would paint McCain as a rightist, and that's probably where he grabs his independent appeal.

But I have always had the feeling that, yes, he is an incrementalist, a methodological conservative. That "Man in the Arena" campaign add really does capture that spirit of humility and subordination to mission and the transcendental order that typify this sort.
5.4.2008 5:06pm
AndrewK (mail):
On the other hand, the "yes we can" adds of Obama scream out cult of personality and "me me me" over and above the office. I have been incredibly turned off by the "this election isn't about me, or Hillary, or McCain, or anybody else: this election is about YOU." This sort of political solipsism really lends itself to ideological and cult-ish politics.
5.4.2008 5:09pm
Ben P (mail):

Would anyone seriously argue that Burke could support an inexeperienced candidate whose claims to office were his own ambition and public rapture?


Burke entered the House of Commons having only written a supposedly satirical treatise on Anarchy, a book on Aesthetics and having moved in London Intellectual Circles at the time.

He then gained prominence in the House of commons primarily through his oratorical ability.


draw your own conclusions.
5.4.2008 5:13pm
Patrick S. O'Donnell (mail):
In Sour Grapes: studies in the subversion of rationality (1983) Jon Elster notes a few conspicuous problems with Burkean "incrementalism" and its philosophical ally, (Popperian) "piecemeal social engineering" by way of methodological lessons gleaned from Tocqueville's Democracy in America:

i) One must look at the consequences that emerge when the institution in question is widely used rather than marginal. [Note: Here and throughout I have omitted Elster's examples.]
ii) Any given institution will have many consequences, some of them opposed in their tendency. It is imperative, therefore, to look at their net effect.
iii) One should not evaluate a given institution or constitution according to its efficiency at each moment of time, but rather look at the long-term consequences.
iv) One should not confuse the transitional effect of introducing an institution with the steady-state effect of having it.

As he explains in a note, "Moreover, it will not do to argue with Edmund Burke or Popper that trial-and-error or piecemean social engineering can be a substitute for well-founded predictions, since these methods fail to respect the [above] principles. By requiring initial and local viability of institutional reform, the incremental method neglects the fact that institutions which are viable in the large and in the long term may not be so in the small and short term. This is, in fact, the main objection that Tocqueville makes to Burke's evaluation of the French Revolution."

I agree with Robert E. Goodin who argues, in Political Theory and Public Policy (1982), that "the lack of a proper theoretical basis for policy studies is probably due less to methodological error than to the perverse and pervasive doctrine of incrementalism," an ideological benefactor of Burkean blessings. "That doctrine is an undeniable success, in purely descriptive terms. Most policymaking surely does proceed incrementally, if only because the power relations and organizational routines underlying it themselves vary slightly from one period to the next." For the full argument, see Ch. 2, "Anticipating Outcomes: Overcoming the Errors of Incrementalism," pp. 19-38.
5.4.2008 5:14pm
Hoosier:
Ben P--Entering Commons versus becoming President of the US? Really? I didn't say he was unqualified to be a new back bencher. In fact, his qualifications would be perfect for that role.

Burke gained prominence through his oratory, yes. That's what one did in Commons. But they didn't make one PM for giving a good speech. One usually worked one's way up from, say, deputy secretary of state for anchovy importation before being allowed to tackle real work.

Obama supporters can make whatever claims they want. But a vote for him is a Burkean act? That's getting into cult-of-personality territory: "All the Great Minds of the past must unanimously support Obama."
5.4.2008 5:20pm
Hoosier:
Thought experiement:

A political poster. A picture of Burke. A word: "Change".

Can you come up with anything that makes less sense? "Revolution," I suppose.
But the invocation of change for the sake of change, and without significant specification of what is to be changed and how . . .

I could see it with Reagan. But it is impossible with Burke.
5.4.2008 5:25pm
donaldk:
A very clear popular book on the subject is Thomas Sowell,
A Conflict of Visions.

The Burkean view: Beware the unconstrained vision; or as William Buckley put it: Don't try to immanentize the eschaton.
5.4.2008 5:31pm
Gaius Marius:
A better question would be, is John McCain a neoconservative?

God, I hope not. The neocon idiots have wrecked the Republican Party beyond recognition.
5.4.2008 5:38pm
MarkField (mail):

as William Buckley put it: Don't try to immanentize the eschaton.


What Buckley actually said (or at least proposed for a button) was "Don't let them immanantize the eschaton." His emphasis.
5.4.2008 5:47pm
SIG357:
I notice Rauch sidesteps the matter of whether George W Bush is a Burkean conservative. He takes some whacks at Reagan and the whole "Reagan revolution", but lets face it - there is not a whole lot of daylight between Bush and McCain, policy wise.

McCain's public persona is almost the opposite of Bush's of course.


"immanentize the eschaton:




Without looking it up, I'm pretty sure that was Voeglin.
5.4.2008 5:56pm
SIG357:
"I have always had the feeling that, yes, he is an incrementalist, a methodological conservative."




I think the answer to that depends on which direction he wants to move incrementally in. "Burkean" implies not only a mechanism, but a particular end goal. The America which McCain wants to move towards looks an awful lot like that desired by Ted Kennedy and the NYT.
5.4.2008 6:02pm
Perseus (mail):
Burke entered the House of Commons having only written a supposedly satirical treatise on Anarchy, a book on Aesthetics and having moved in London Intellectual Circles at the time. He then gained prominence in the House of commons primarily through his oratorical ability. [D]raw your own conclusions.

Edmund Burke never sought and was not seriously considered for a leadership post. Hence Senator Obama belongs as a backbencher in the legislature (or perhaps Paymaster General like Burke), not as the equivalent of prime minister.


There is no Burkean tax plan.

Well, there was his Bill of Oeconomical Reform (1780), which Burke described as a plan for "public oeconomy and reduction of influence" that bears some resemblance to Senator McCain's drive for limiting government spending and campaign finance reform.
5.4.2008 6:04pm
AndrewK (mail):
SIG357: "The America which McCain wants to move towards looks an awful lot like that desired by Ted Kennedy and the NYT."

Aren't you reading an end into all of this? I don't get anything from McCain other than: "this is how America IS, and this is how we ought to go about governing ourselves."

I certainly don't get a utopia from him—- I don't see that he has an idea of an "ideal America" where everyone is some intermediate shade of brown and likes doing his or her share, pays taxes (but not TOO much), goes to Church on Sunday, etc. etc. I see a realism in McCain.
5.4.2008 6:31pm
Michael B (mail):
"McCain was strongly criticized by movement conservatives, for example, for joining the Gang of 14 Senators who preempted a "nuclear" showdown in the Senate on judicial nominees that would have ended the longstanding practice of allowing filibusters. That was a Burkean moment for him, sharply criticized by those who wanted more radical and swift change." DC

It is highly doubtful that example can be considered patently Burkean. The putatively "radical" and "swift" change concerned appointments to the judiciary, not a re-envisioning of the judiciary. It was a maverick moment, yes, but to coopt Burke in this vein is dubious in the extreme. (The positives and negatives can still be honestly debated, but it was not obviously a Burkean moment.)

"'We must,' [Burke] once said, 'Preserve in order to reform; and reform in order to preserve'." EricH

That may capture a Burkean essence as much as anything has in these threads. Burke was an empirical thinker but still a dialectical thinker, in the simple and practical sense of the term.

As to DC's "authoritarian" comment, we live in the wake of the 20th century and all that implies, ideologically, politically and otherwise. The authoritarian ideologies of that century were the polar opposite of anything that could be conceived as theocratic. To live in the wake of the 20th century, likewise, is to live in the wake of the Left's long march through the institutions; politically conceived in the U.S., '68/'72 is the pivot-point.

That serves as general backdrop and with that in mind a Burkean would be committed to 1) the establishment and 2) the maintenance of classical liberal values and institutions. That is to recall, in terms of bedrock and primary progenitors, Locke and Montesquieu - e.g., balance of powers; separation of powers; constitutionally vested governance; a self-conscious, small "r" republicanism that recognizes both a positive and limited role for the state in serving to secure individual liberty; a positive appreciation of the Westphalian nation/state to help secure individual and communal identity/responsibility and liberty; etc.

(And as to the "theocratic" rhetoric, it's telling, in contrast to some of the more ideologically and idealistically invested political thinking of the Enlightenment, that Locke and Montesquieu and Burke, while obviously contrary to any authoritarian conceptions, were favorable toward religion - and decidedly so. E.g., Locke developed a somewhat rigorous theology of his own, one that is more orthodox than many would allow, which served to inform both his more positive appraisals of man as well as his more realist, cautious and negative appraisals of man.)
5.4.2008 6:44pm
MarkField (mail):

Without looking it up, I'm pretty sure that was Voeglin.


Some quick googling indicates that the phrase "immanentize the eschaton" was Voeglin's. The full slogan I quoted above seems to have been Buckley's (though it could have come from NR generally). Nothing I saw seemed definitive, though, so others with more patience might want to give it a try.
5.4.2008 7:26pm
SIG357:
AndrewK

I don't see that he has an idea of an "ideal America" where everyone is some intermediate shade of brown and likes doing his or her share, pays taxes (but not TOO much), goes to Church on Sunday, etc. etc

I suggest you take a closer look at McCain if that's what you think. Not these specific issues, (except for the "intermediate shade of brown", where he has said some eye-opening things) but McCain can be said to have a vision for America, and it's one the NYT approves of. After all, they endorsed him.
5.4.2008 7:35pm
The Cabbage (mail):
Is Putin the Burkean reaction to Yeltsin?
5.4.2008 9:14pm