How Would Burke Makeover the GOP?


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David Bromwich introduces us to the conservative hero Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British statesman who befriended the American Revolution, hated the French version, loved liberty and hated violence, and believed that empires like his and ours must answer to the whole world. Move over, Bush and Boehner. What if Edmund Burke were leading our Republicans in 2014?

Ever wondered how the political map of the United States has changed over the past 225 years. Here’s an interactive map showing the liberal-conservative spectrum of the first 112 Congresses.


Reading List 

• Adam Gopnik offers a smart survey of the many Burkes in The New Yorker (paywall);

• Robert Kagan, “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire”, from Foreign Policy, to be read against Professor Bromwich’s excellent essay, “Moral Imagination.”

• Yuval Levin, presented as a Burkean intellectual historian and the new Irving Kristol;

• Mike Lind on the coming realignment of the political tendencies in America, breaking along more traditional conservative lines.

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  • Potter

    I look forward to this. I think we are (or I am at least) confused about Conservatism- what it meant to begin with and what we now perceive as Conservatism, a word that I think has been corrupted.

    • Kunal

      Here was William F. Buckley’s answer:

      “It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens’ lives, liberty and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress. The growth of government (the dominant social feature of this century) must be fought relentlessly. In this great social conflict of the era, we are, without reservations, on the libertarian side. The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order. We believe that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience. On this point we are, without reservations, on the conservative side.”

      And Russell Kirk’s 6 “canons” of conservatism

      “A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;

      An affection for the “variety and mystery” of human existence;

      A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize “natural” distinctions;

      A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;

      A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and

      A recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.”

    • commonwealth

      Yes, I like Bromwich’s reformulation of true conservatism as being ‘conservationism.’

  • Kunal

    Only one comment??? Where is everyone this week?!

    The New York Times predicted a few weeks ago that Republicans have a 55% chance of retaking the Senate:

    What do you expect from Republicans in 2014? What accounts for their resurgence?

    • commonwealth

      I suspect that it is not so much Republican resurgence as Democratic apathy. If the Democratic party invested some of its money and manpower in getting out the vote, they would have a chance. If they don’t do that, then the Republicans are bound to win. The frustrating thing is that the Democrats must know this!

  • rkean

    Chris Hedges and Cornel West, in the absence of MLK, Jr., are here telling us all that we must think about how many Iraqis we killed and the suffering our hegemony has caused here at home as well as around the world. American policies at home are definitely not gentle as Chris’ one Burke expert suggests and abroad our policies are often brutal. Chris, you want courageous oppositionists? When last did you have on Chris Hedges and Cornel West, or any of the guests that Bill Moyers has on each week? We do not lack them except on MSM. Our country has experienced the death of the liberal class, as Chris Hedges has pointed out. Not Democrats, nor unions, nor churches are strong in addressing the abuses of power by the US government.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    The Edmund Burke strand of conservatism was knowingly destroyed by the neoconservatives who wanted to make the world a Warren Hastings Empire dominated by “Isra-America,” with no road back to Burke since rivers of bloodshed and war hysteria would make any Burkean “braking system” dysfunctional.

    If you remember or see the 1981 Warren Beatty movie, “Reds”, you may recall the scene at the Baku Islamic Conference circa 1919/20 when John Reed gives a speech proposing a war on the bourgeois nations by the proletarian ones, with Zinoviev and Kamenev knowingly converting this into a war of Islam against the West. “John Reed” (Warren Beatty character) is totally enraged by this distortionary rewording and translation and this causes a split in the Bolshevik ranks.

    The neoconservatives are the Right-wing analogues of Zinoviev and Kamenev and simply “flip over” the Bolshevik idea of that time to a war of the West against Islam for ours. The neocons are Right-revolutionary ideological entrepreneurs who want to convert America into a warfare state and establish a new Israel-led industry: Islamophobia which would be the analogue of nineteenth century anti-Semitism only applied to Muslims and Arabs.

    The book “Right Nation” by Micklethwait and Wooldridge (“Economist” writers) defines Burkeanism as follows: “Classic conservatism, as defined by Burke, was built upon six pillars: a deep suspicion of the power of the state; a preference for liberty over equality; love of country; a belief in established institutions and hierarchies; skepticism about progress; and elitism.” (pages 341, 13, 2004 Penguin paperback)

    Neoconservatism is a revolutionary counterglobalization “mayhemization-and-control” venture which sees Burke “brakes” as a roadblock which needs to be destroyed. In the masterful book, “Dominance by design” by Michael Adas (Harvard University Press, 2006/2009), the author convincingly shows you layers in American history that are very vulnerable to such a neocon “opportunistic infection”:

    1. The Thomas Cole series of paintings “Course of Empire” and how this imperial thrust jumped over to Japan and a “war with Asia” when Commodore Perry expressly carried out the first “shock and awe” operation in Edo Bay in 1853 (the vocabulary was somewhat different, of course).

    2. How a mass psychology of techno-hubris and techno-jingoism was very deep in the American psyche.

    3. How persons you might have assumed would be liberal and progressive such as the author of the “Wizard of Oz” (Frank Baum) called for the complete extermination of the American Indians.
    To be a bit coarse, Adas shows you innumerable ways how America got “crud on its tail” (German expression: “Dreck am Schwanz”) and this dark side is never really faced and thus can be “spliced into” by the neocons.

    See: (look at Richard Melson comment to this ROS show for more details on Adas and Thomas Cole and empire)

    Steven Kinzer’s excellent works on United Fruit Company in Central American politics (published by Harvard) plus newer volumes such as “Overthrow” are very eye-opening. You might remember the book “Endless Enemies” by Jonathan Kwitny and/or “The End of Victory Culture” by Tom Engelhardt and the recent Nick Turse book on the real war in Vietnam.

    America has an unacknowledged dark side historically and the neocons tap into that dark side to make Edmund Burke “brakes” nonoperational and nugatory. They also are clever into using Woodrow Wilson idealistic “packaging” and Christian Zionism as an ally. This puts Burkean limits off-limits and supplies the war of fog which comes before the fog of war.

    Richard Melson

  • sidewalker

    I feel Chris and his guests, by focusing on only politics, missed a chance to talk about the the other half of the corporate state that is America: the corporation. The talk about Warren Hastings and the British East Indian Company was the chance to open the discussion to another totalitarian institution that together with the faceless bureaucracy has many people from all spectrums worried about sovereignty and agency. Two culprits of the illegal war of aggression in Iraq, Cheney and Rumsfeld, while part of the US administration, were nothing if not corporate men. I’d like to know from professor Bromwich how Burke thought morally about the excesses of Hastings and British East Indian Company in the name of capital accumulation. What would he say about the exploitation of distant others and the use of military might to keep in place this ability to exploit to provide excessive material comfort at home?

  • Potter

    Well today the chatter is about Eric Cantor and this happening says a lot about the way our system works. The people that voted were either or/and strategizing about the coming election and apparently also thought they were not being represented well. Cantor was felt to be, as Bromwich says regarding Burke’s assessment of dysfunction, “greedy and selfish”.

    We need moral, compassionate and wise leadership. We thought this of Obama before we knew how he would govern. This was what the majority of the electorate went for.

    But the system does not allow those people to rise.

    Here are excerpts from my dear friend ( BP)’s letter on the subject…

    I agree wholeheartedly that the Democrats need a sane opposition party. But I’m not sure that the Republicans can be coached back from the edge. We may need something new. Think about it: the Republican party’s constituency is old, fearful, and irrational…….The ability of people to moderate their social behavior often deteriorates with age — they lose the “sense” to repress anti-social thoughts and feelings. I doubt that a new, sane political party can be built on that base.

    Perhaps the root cause of the whole mess, one of the main forces that pulls the quality of our “representatives” ever lower, is the stupendous expense of getting elected these days. How many first-rate people want to spend half of every day of their lives raising campaign funds? With some notable exceptions, people willing to live that kind of life are those primarily motivated by money and power.

    I also want to say that Bromwich was exceptionally good especially about our lack of accountability and I completely agree with what Mike Lind says at the very end about Obama’s reluctance to let go of our exceptional-ism, our lack of humility (or of “magnanimity” as Bromwich says).

    As always, thank you!

    • Kunal

      We were talking about this today. I wonder what Burke would make of both candidates. I suspect he wouldn’t vote for either.