Have you heard? Conservatives need to be less populist and more Burkean. Populism can turn ugly, and the Civil Rights movement was a recent reminder of the value of laws that prevent populist demagogues like George Wallace from turning democracies into majoritarian tyrannies. But let’s not be overeager when it comes to cleaning up democratic messiness.
I have argued previously that the opposition party is the site of a leadership challenge. The tone of the Tea Party matches the tenor of MoveOn.org. Leaders vying to control the opposition make their pitches in moral terms; the ruler has done some great injustice. The most convincing conservative moral appeals breathe an air of anxiety: Brutus against creeping dictatorship, Joseph de Maistre against the tide of revolutionism, Michael Oakeshott against Rationalism.
Of all the figures in the political theory canon, Edmund Burke is uniquely unqualified to be a model of principled conservative opposition to a hostile culture. Burke addressed problems of governance, hence the overarching consequentialism of his thought.
A tip-off that Burke speaks the language of governance is that he makes his pitch using images, myths, and symbols. (Stephen K. White calls these overlapping language-games, which can he translated with an aesthetic cipher. I agree with White that we can learn a lot from Burke about the aesthetics of power.) These vague symbols do not refer to the strong moral consensus of a unified opposition. Instead, their vagueness aims at acclamation for king and country. No systematic political thinker, Burke is a antiques-dealer of open-ended metaphors: rights are “inheritance”, property-holders are the “ballast” of the ship of state, the common law constitution is a “British oak”. Alasdair MacIntyre boils these symbols down: stability, weightiness, slow growth.
Burke’s imaginary England was a prototype in and for the modern world in the way in which it seemed to provide a much-needed mask to be worn by the modern state. The modern state and those who inhabit it and seek to uphold it confront a dilemma. It has to present itself in two prima facie incompatible ways. It is, and has to be understood as, an institutionalized set of devices whereby individuals may more or less effectively pursue their own goals, that is, it is essentially a means whose efficiency is to be evaluated by individuals in cost-benefit terms. Yet at the same time it claims, and cannot but claim, the kind of allegiance claimed by those traditional political communities — the best type of Greek polis or of medieval commune — membership in which provided their citizens with a meaningful identity, so that caring for the common good, even to the point of being willing to die for it, was no other than caring for what was good about oneself. (Alasdair MacIntyre, “Poetry as Political Philosophy”, Selected Essays Vol. 2 (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 163.
The problem is that Burke the antiques-dealer deals almost exclusively in forgeries. (Don’t be so impressed, young lady, when the ISI fellows offer to hang your Barbour coat in that wardrobe of ‘British oak’.) Burke is a forgery himself, an Irishman who, in writing, masquerades as an English aristocrat. As he extolled the ancestral rights of Englishmen, he supported the enclosure movement that turned millions of rural Englishmen into proletarians. England was undergoing its ‘great transformation’ as the Industrial Revolution picked up steam. This was not a time of continuity, slow growth, or stability. This was a time in which all that was solid was melting into air.
Those who think there is something deeply wrong with our world need convictions made of stronger stuff than Burkean wistfulness for an invented past. At the very least, we might ask that they be more reluctant to condescend to those of us who do.