Strange Bedfellows: Burke, Buckley, and the Modern Republican Party

Edmund Burke

By Matthew Hamilton.

The past few weeks – or perhaps more aptly, the past few years — in Washington have been a frenzy of partisanship, brinksmanship and chaos on the edge of crisis. I fear it is not over; rather, it is just beginning. If we want to understand these recent events and predict where things might be heading, we must place the recent debates over the shutdown and the Affordable Care Act in context with the greater, evolving narrative of American politics. This narrative in fact is quite simple, but its implications are profound and complicated: the Republican Party is no longer the party of Burke or Buckley or Brooks.

Rod Dreher of the National Review recently wrote an article asserting the modern Republican Party has “confused politics with religion.” Religion, he writes, “requires us to believe the impossible; that’s what makes it religion. Politics is the art of the possible; that’s why it is not religion.” Let us draw this assertion to its logical conclusion – a conclusion predicated upon the fact that the fundamental character of the Republican Party and American conservatism has shifted from one of pragmatists to populists and purists.

First, we must acknowledge that the recent shutdown is not an isolated incident . The GOP has led an ideological crusade since 2009- with the beginning of the Tea Party and its reactionary backlash to the Obama presidency, the stimulus package, and the Affordable Care Act in – filled with myriad attempts to hijack governance when something does not go exactly as desired. The result has been the most inept Congress in the history of the United States. The 113th Congress has earned an 8.9% approval rating by “perfecting” a strategy of running the nation that the Economist described as “a form of dysfunctional governance that relies on frantic negotiations and last-minute deals to end self-imposed crises.” The cause is not solely Republican ideological intransigence, but it has been a primary impetus and it is a clear manifestation of the major identity change that characterizes this modern and fundamentally transformed Republican Party.

Conservatism traces its ideological roots to Burke’s “extreme timidity in introducing present evils for the sake of future benefits.” Conserving stability and order struck Burke as the prudent and generally most favorable approach to governance. While drastic change and Revolution sometimes yields good, often it prompts disorder and chaos. This is – or at least was – the creed of modern conservatism. The rise of a new American right has usurped this order rooted in tradition.

William Buckley emerged in the 1950s as Burke’s ideological conservative counterpart, offering a new libertarian impulse to American conservatism. The New York Times dubbed Mr. Buckley’s greatest achievement as “making conservatism — not just electoral Republicanism, but conservatism as a system of ideas — respectable in liberal postwar America.” But even Buckley would be opposed to the current trend in American Conservatism. He remarked:

Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.

David Brooks tackled this issue just a few years ago. Brooks asserts the “Burkean” – the quintessential, traditional conservative – believes the “world is too complex…for rapid reform.” American conservatism, Brooks continued “is only successful when it’s in tension — when the ambition of its creeds is restrained by the caution of its Burkean roots.” He wrote this in 2007, before the emergence of the Tea Party, before the perilous encounters with default and shutdown, before the surge of populist paranoia of any and all government intervention in public life hijacked the creed of the Republican Party. It is time to revisit Brooks’ thesis, with the new knowledge that Republicans have not only abandoned Burke, but they have now even abandoned Buckley. Their resistance to government has been transformed from Buckley’s libertarian impulse to the “moral fanaticism” Buckley warned against. The means are irrelevant, so long as the ends are pure; government shutdown, default and economic crisis are permissible, so long as Obamacare is purged. The skepticism of change has been replaced with fervor for it. The Republican Party is now willing to tear apart the foundations of modern society to secure the ultimate – and only – goal of vastly limited government. It is a dogma often characterized by non-sensible aphorisms: “Get your government hands off my Medicare.” It is a religion of no government in spite of governments profound role in current society; a true religion of the impossible.

There are two paths moving forward for the Republican Party. The Burkean roots of conservatism are mutually exclusive with the current tenor of the GOP. Governance is about pragmatism; religion is about dogmatism. Burke understood pragmatism as the means to stability. The modern Republicans can either renew this understanding of the need for leaders to be realists who secure tempered compromise and progress for America or they can accept the role as ideological purists who refuse to compromise and secure progress. They can accept their emergent role as a minority party who leverages arcane deliberative procedures and power in the state legislature to retain the House and resign themselves to preventing governing rather than leading. Or a moderate leadership can reassert its dominance and retain the Party’s original identity as responsible leaders who are thoughtfully engaged in the careful and complex task of politics, effective leadership and governance. Given the struggles of the Democratic Party to promote and advance a coherent agenda, this Republican Party could be potent in America’s increasingly skeptical electorate. But for now the GOP is relegated to ineffectiveness by its own protracted bout of schizophrenia – nearing closer to a watershed moment in the 2016 primary season where it will decide whether to reassert its old identity or accept its new one.




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