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What Is True Conservatism?

In a recent column, Michael Gerson wrote about modern conservatism’s “two distinct architectural styles.” One approach within conservatism, he said, celebrates those who seek to apply abstract principles in their purest form. The alternative approach is more disposed toward compromise, incremental progress and taking into account shifting circumstances.

What’s worth noting, I think, is that many of those in the first camp consider themselves to be more principled and authentically conservative than those in the second, who are often derided as RINOs and “squishes,” as part of the much-derided “establishment” and who go along to get along. These politicians continually back away from fights like shutting down the federal government, preventing an increase in the debt ceiling, going over the fiscal cliff and filibustering background checks. The failure to engage these battles, and many others, is a sign of infidelity to conservatism.

Now, it’s not as if this critique never applies. There are certainly Republicans who claim to be conservative but don’t have deep convictions, who are in politics not because they care about advancing ideas as much as they care about power and titles. But what is of more interest to me is the divide over what a genuine conservative temperament and cast of mind is. A new book on Edmund Burke, by the British MP Jesse Norman, helps illuminate this matter. Given the contours of the current debate, it’s worth recalling what Burke, whom Norman refers to as “the first conservative,” actually believed.

Let’s start with moderation, a word many modern-day conservatives instinctively recoil from but which Burke referred to as “a virtue not only amiable but powerful. It is a disposing, arranging, conciliating, cementing virtue.”

According to Norman, Burke believed the proper attitude of those who aspire to power is “humility, modesty and a sense of public duty.” He was “anti-ideological in spirit,” deeply distrustful of zealotry and believed self-correcting reforms, while certainly necessary, should be limited, discriminating, and proportionate. For Burke, Norman argues, universal principles were never sufficient in themselves to guide practical deliberation. 

“Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect,” according to Burke. “The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”

“The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics,” he wrote elsewhere. “They admit of exceptions, they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic but by the rules of prudence.”

A Burkean approach would never insist on absolute consistency in conducting human affairs. Politics is about carefully balancing competing principles, ever alert to the dangers posed by unintended consequences. It involves taking into account public sentiments, what Burke called the “temper of the people.” Nor is politics ever as simple as saying we believe in liberty and limited government and therefore the application of those principles is self-evident. Burke’s view, according to Norman, is that “perfection is not given to man, and so politics is an intrinsically messy business… The function of politics, then, is primarily one of reconciliation and enablement.” What deeply concerned Burke were people of “intemperate minds.” What is required of statesmen is wisdom and good judgment, sobriety, foresight and prudence.

Now Burke’s interpretation of conservatism was not written on stone tablets delivered on Mt. Sinai–and even if it were, merely to invoke Burke does not mean one is properly applying his insights to the here and now. But it does strike me that as this debate intensifies, and as various people lay claim to being the True Conservatives, it’s worth reminding ourselves what the greatest exponent of conservatism actually believed.



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