Commentary Magazine


Topic: Oliver Goldsmith

Burke vs. Beck

Glenn Beck is at it again. This time he’s making the claim that America’s two political parties are essentially indistinguishable from one another, that they want to do the same things and head in the same direction. The only difference, he insists, is the rate of the journey. He then suggests, without quite saying so, that it’s time to end the two-party system in America. And for effect, Beck had his staff build two coffins, representing both the Democratic and the Republican parties. (In the world according to Beck, America is about to step into the coffin, thanks to the failures of both parties.)

Beck’s argument strikes me as superficial; the differences between the two parties on issues — including health care, tort reform, taxes, the culture of life, America’s role in the world, and so much else – are obvious and don’t need to be elaborated on. For Beck to put forth the argument he does, in the manner he does, is evidence, I think, of a kind of animus toward political parties (Beck would probably insist that he is not against parties per se but simply against the choices before him now).

Contrast Beck’s attitude toward political parties with those of a founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke. In his outstanding biography on Burke, Carl B. Cone writes:

No man of his generation understood better than Burke how natural and how necessary it was for men of similar opinions to work together to give effect to their beliefs. …

Burke therefore lived at a time when a man who possessed a genius for expressing his ideas and who firmly believed in the rightness and necessity of parties might promote their growth. This Burke did not only by his writings but by his activities in and out of parliament as a party man. As a practical politician even more than as the political philosopher, Burke helped devise political practices and conventions without which the modern British constitution could not have come into existence. Burke was an architect of the constitution because he was a party politician. …

As he told the House of Commons on February 15, 1781, “Government is the exercise of all the great qualities of the human mind.” Oliver Goldsmith in 1774 spoke for all who knew Burke when he described him as devoting his best talents to the cause of party. But Burke disavowed Goldsmith’s assertion that he gave up to party what was meant for mankind. In Burke’s mind there was no contradiction. He did not forsake mankind in identifying himself with a particular political party. Given the nature of man and of politics, he had placed himself in a situation the better to serve mankind.

Burke understood that parties were not always right. And I happen to approach these matters as someone who considers himself to be a philosophical conservative before he is a Republican. Yet genuine conservatives understand the important role parties play in organizing people of similar beliefs to do the practical, and often the slow and imperfect, work of advancing an agenda that can eventually be translated into governing. We cannot expect perfection or utopia; what we can hope for is to make progress, a step (and sometimes two) at a time. It’s also worth pointing out that many of our greatest figures in American political history were men who proudly associated themselves with political parties — and the greatest figure in American political history, Abraham Lincoln, helped found one (the Republican party).

Glenn Beck is at it again. This time he’s making the claim that America’s two political parties are essentially indistinguishable from one another, that they want to do the same things and head in the same direction. The only difference, he insists, is the rate of the journey. He then suggests, without quite saying so, that it’s time to end the two-party system in America. And for effect, Beck had his staff build two coffins, representing both the Democratic and the Republican parties. (In the world according to Beck, America is about to step into the coffin, thanks to the failures of both parties.)

Beck’s argument strikes me as superficial; the differences between the two parties on issues — including health care, tort reform, taxes, the culture of life, America’s role in the world, and so much else – are obvious and don’t need to be elaborated on. For Beck to put forth the argument he does, in the manner he does, is evidence, I think, of a kind of animus toward political parties (Beck would probably insist that he is not against parties per se but simply against the choices before him now).

Contrast Beck’s attitude toward political parties with those of a founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke. In his outstanding biography on Burke, Carl B. Cone writes:

No man of his generation understood better than Burke how natural and how necessary it was for men of similar opinions to work together to give effect to their beliefs. …

Burke therefore lived at a time when a man who possessed a genius for expressing his ideas and who firmly believed in the rightness and necessity of parties might promote their growth. This Burke did not only by his writings but by his activities in and out of parliament as a party man. As a practical politician even more than as the political philosopher, Burke helped devise political practices and conventions without which the modern British constitution could not have come into existence. Burke was an architect of the constitution because he was a party politician. …

As he told the House of Commons on February 15, 1781, “Government is the exercise of all the great qualities of the human mind.” Oliver Goldsmith in 1774 spoke for all who knew Burke when he described him as devoting his best talents to the cause of party. But Burke disavowed Goldsmith’s assertion that he gave up to party what was meant for mankind. In Burke’s mind there was no contradiction. He did not forsake mankind in identifying himself with a particular political party. Given the nature of man and of politics, he had placed himself in a situation the better to serve mankind.

Burke understood that parties were not always right. And I happen to approach these matters as someone who considers himself to be a philosophical conservative before he is a Republican. Yet genuine conservatives understand the important role parties play in organizing people of similar beliefs to do the practical, and often the slow and imperfect, work of advancing an agenda that can eventually be translated into governing. We cannot expect perfection or utopia; what we can hope for is to make progress, a step (and sometimes two) at a time. It’s also worth pointing out that many of our greatest figures in American political history were men who proudly associated themselves with political parties — and the greatest figure in American political history, Abraham Lincoln, helped found one (the Republican party).

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