David Brooks has a provocative piece in today’s Times arguing that American conservatism has run aground because, in essence, it isn’t conservative enough. Burke is Brooke’s man, the defender of the great oak of English liberty against the marauding Frenchmen, the “projectors” intent on upending humanity to achieve their insane schemes of reinventing society. As Brooks sees it, conservatives have lost touch with Burke and indulged in promoting their own pet causes.
Brooks is on to something. But is Burke really applicable to the U.S.? This gets back to the old Louis Hartz thesis, which is that there really is no old conservative tradition in America. Lacking the great landed estates and hereditary aristocracy, America tended toward liberalism rather than conservatism. This helps explain why conservatism, in its American incarnation, has had a rather dynamic character in the past decades; it may owe more to liberalism than it wishes to acknowledge (Reagan himself was, of course, a lapsed New Deal liberal, but he retained its optimistic spirit to his last days).
Brooks notes that Main Street wants balanced budgets–a sober conservatism. But that doesn’t quite meet the Burke standard, which seems more like a recipe for stasis. My guess is that Brooks wants a dose of Burkean caution, but isn’t acknowledging that it rested on something more than a set of practical political prescriptions. But Brooks’ essay is evidence that conservatives are wrestling with their political failure, which is the first step on the road to recovery.
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