the left has become Burkean

David Brooks makes a point today that is one of my hobby-horses:

[Edmund] Burke is known as the founder of conservatism, but his thought sits oddly these days with the Republican Party and those who call themselves conservative. The party has become much more populist, supporting term limits and political outsiders over those who have been educated by experience. Most call for pretty radical change to the welfare state. It’s the Democrats who fight to preserve the current structures of Social Security, Medicare and food stamps. It’s the Democrats who have been running ads through this election campaign accusing their opponents of being a bunch of wild-eyed radicals. Are Democrats now the conservators of tradition?

I would say: yes. And I would say the same of the European left and even of grassroots movements that view themselves as to the left of the Democratic Party in the US. I’ve argued that America’s most authentic conservative movement is composed of grassroots groups that emphasize community voice, localism, and sustainability. A characteristic leftist stance today is that a given institution (such as the public schools, higher ed, welfare programs, or public employees’ unions) fails to meet criteria of justice, yet we should defend the institution because it’s better than an untested alternative and because we should respect the experience and commitment of the participants (i.e., the teachers, professors, public employees, and their clients). The most ambitious leftist proposals are mostly patches to keep these existing institutions going, not whole new strategies. Therefore, I’ve posited that Edmund Burke would vote Democratic.

To the extent that other people make this argument, it’s often to score a debating point–either to denounce the left for abandoning its radicalism or to tweak conservatives for failing to recognize that their opponents are now more genuinely conservative than they are. For instance, Andrew Sullivan uses the premise that Democrats are conservative to endorse Obama and denounce both neoconservativism and what he calls “progressivism.”* But I intend this point as an analysis, not a polemic. If the left is the true home of conservatism today, that raises some important questions, but it is not necessarily good or bad.

*Sullivan: “As for our time, an attachment to a fixed ideology called conservatism (which is currently suffused with the zeal and passion Montaigne so deeply suspected) or to an ideology called progressivism (which increasingly regards most of its opponents as mere bigots) does not exhaust the possibilities. A disposition for moderation and pragmatism, for the long view over the short-term victory, for maintaining the balance in American life in a polarized time: this remains a live option. You can see how, influenced by this mindset, I have had little difficulty supporting a Democratic president as the most conservative figure, properly speaking, now on the national stage. You can see why I have become so hostile to neoconservatism whose unofficial motto is ‘Toujours l’audace!'”

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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