The Devolution of Conservatism: From Edmund Burke to Donald Trump.

AuthorBerger, Ronald J.

There is much talk these days about the need to find unity and common ground in our politics so we can come together and "get things done" for the American people. But for this talk to be anything more than facile, we need to delineate the ideological viewpoints that are in need of communicative discourse. In this article I focus on conservatism, with an eye toward understanding how the type of conservatism advanced by Edmund Burke, who is regarded as its philosophical founder, has little to do with the conservatism that has come to dominate the contemporary Republican Party.

Let us begin with the influential essay titled "Conservatism is Dead," published by historian Sam Tanenhaus in The New Republic in February 2009, just a month after Barack Obama was inaugurated as president. (1) "What passes for conservatism today," wrote Tanenhaus, "would be incomprehensible to its originator, Edmund Burke."(2) The Dublin-born Burke, who served in the British House of Commons from 1766 to 1794, had a distrust of totalizing ideologies and warned against the "destabilizing perils of revolutionary politics" that "placed an idea of the perfect society over and above the need to improve society as it really existed." Yet, he believed that "governments were obligated to use their powers to meliorate intolerable conditions" and that "a state without the means of some change is without the means of conservation." As Burke said, those who aspire to be statesmen must be able to combine "a disposition to preserve and an ability to improve."(3)

In his essay, Tanenhaus identifies two main strains of conservatism in the United States. In the tradition of Burke, a consensus-driven "realist" strain that believes in compromise and understands government as playing a positive role in adjusting to changing conditions, and a "revanchist" strain that has a profound distrust of government and is dedicated to sowing social division by mobilizing grievances and resentments about a lost past. The former seeks to "conserve," while the latter seeks to "destroy."

Revanchism is a concept derived from the French term for revenge and connotes the desire to regain lost territory. It is akin to "reactionary," which Andrew Sullivan describes as an acute despair with the present historical moment and a desire to reverse course backward, a counterrevolution, to an imagined golden age before "everything went to hell. ... It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo," resentment toward those who they think maintain it, and a desire to blow everything up before the old order can be reinstated. (4)

According to Tanenhaus, conservatism at its best serves "the vital function of clarifying our shared connection to the past and of giving articulate voice to the normative beliefs Americans have striven to maintain even in the worst of times."(5) It asserts that a large majority of Americans have a deep attachment to the existing society and will be resistant to challenges to its legitimacy. E. J. Dionne adds that a healthy democratic society "needs conservatism's skepticism about the grand plans that progressives sometimes offer, its respect for traditional institutions, and skepticism of those who believe politics can remold human nature."(6) However, that temperamental wariness of dramatic change is not inflexible and is open to ideas for correcting flaws in the social order. As Dionne suggests, "a conservatism that accepted the responsibility of conserving the genuine achievements of progressive reform ... [and] government programs that have stood the test of time ... would be truer to its own tradition than a reform of reaction dedicated to rooting out all vestiges of the liberal government that now exists."

We should recall that the Republican Party originated as the party of Abraham Lincoln and includes progressives like Theodore Roosevelt and moderates like Dwight Eisenhower.

What Eisenhower called the "Middle Way," in his words, "between untrammeled freedom of the individual and the demands of the welfare of the whole Nation ... [that] is the proper function of the federal government," comes closer to describing Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama than to most Republicans today. (7) Dionne notes that Democrats have "taken over the role that was once played by moderate and liberal Republicans," with the effect of pushing the contemporary Republican Party "toward ever greater philosophical homogeneity" on the farright end of the political spectrum. (8) Indeed, research finds that the shift in the so-called "center" of American politics has been asymmetrical, that is, it is accounted for more by an actual rightward shift of the Republican Party rather than by a purported leftward shift of the Democratic Party. (9)

Obviously, Burkean conservatism is not the strain that is flourishing in the Republican Party of Donald Trump, nor has it been for a long time. This is why so many Republicans-derisively dubbed RINOS (Republicans in Name Only) by the revanchists--have abandoned their former political home. Stuart Stevens, one of the most successful Republican consultants of his generation, is one of the disaffected. He was even compelled to write a book, It Was All a Lie, published in 2020, which is a lament about the political party he once thought actually stood for a set of conservative principles that he now thinks are mere "marketing slogans."(10)

Importantly, Stevens admits, "There is nothing strange or unexpected about Donald Trump. He is the logical conclusion of what the Republican Party became over the last fifty or so years." Moreover, writes Robert Reich in The Common Ground, "Trump has brought us back to first principles ... [and] got us talking about democracy versus tyranny. ... [B]y dint of his pugnacious character and the divisiveness he has fueled, [he] raises the question of what connects us, of what we hold in common."(11)

In this article, I consider how this all came to be, with a focus on contemporary conservatism's component parts: its economic, racial, religious-cultural, national security, and politically strategic elements. Taken as a whole, this account constitutes an examination of what some call "Movement Conservatism," a coalition of diverse interest groups and ideological dispositions united in the conviction that the growth of "big government" constitutes the most serious problem of our time. (12) As President Ronald Reagan famously said in his first inaugural address in 1981: "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem. ... It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the federal government and those reserved to the states or to the people."(13)

The Resurrection of Laissez-faire Capitalism

One of the core components of contemporary conservatism are the business elites who want to dismantle the federal regulatory structure and support for worker rights that were implemented during the Progressive and New Deal eras of the early twentieth century, which had enjoyed a fair degree of bipartisan consensus until the 1970s. In its place, these elites want to resurrect the laissez-faire "free market" economy of the late nineteenth century, a time of growing corporate consolidation and economic inequality, a type of capitalism that tends to disregard the moral and human costs of unchecked avarice and permits individual self-interest to run amok. This entails opposition to any form of centralized economic planning--whether in a government-interventionist capitalist system or a communist system--because in their view the former is a slippery slope to the latter. It also rejects the insights first advanced by British economist John Maynard Keynes, that government spending can be viewed as an investment of public resources that are useful for stimulating economic activity when capitalist markets on their own do not provide sufficient employment and income for working people. (14)

A seminal document of this movement is the 1971 memo prepared by Lewis Powell for the US Chamber of Commerce titled "Attack on American Free Enterprise System." Powell was a corporate lawyer with ties to the tobacco industry who was soon to be appointed by President Richard Nixon to the US Supreme Court. His memo was a clarion call to the business community to mobilize with organized joint funding a counter-ideological "guerrilla war" to recapture public opinion away "from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences ... [and] politicians" that were undermining the capitalist system. (15)

Arguably the intellectual center of this economic conservatism has its origin among economists at the University of Chicago who were influenced by the work of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. In the midst of World War II, Hayek published The Road to Serfdom, in which he warned about the perils of too much centralization of economic activity under the auspices of a national government. (16) This line of thinking was further advanced by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. In his book Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman argued that the preservation of free market capitalism was necessary for the maintenance of political freedom and that regulated markets were a threat to individual liberty. (17) This view actually derives from the classical liberalism of the nineteenth century, although the invocation of liberalism to contemporary American ears will be confusing since it is typically understood to mean a political position that is left of center.

Other terms that complicate the conversation about conservative economics are libertarianism and neoliberalism. Libertarianism is a term that may connote advocacy of personal choice in areas such as recreational drug use...

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