The Atlantic | May 2008
ALERT Washingtonians were treated to an odd juxtaposition not long ago. John McCain was booed at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the big annual gathering of the right-wing tribes, while trying to establish that he was a conservative. On the same day, across town at the American Enterprise Institute—another conservative stronghold—Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, was warmly received when he touted a new book called Real Change. Never one to go underboard, Gingrich called for “explosively replac[ing] the failed bureaucracies of the past.”
The irony of the contrast seemed lost on conservatives. No one in the movement doubts Gingrich is a real, no-kidding conservative. Many doubt that McCain is. Some flatly flunk him. Thus spake James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family and a leader of the Christian right: “I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative.” He’s not one of us, these conservatives have insisted.
Actually, they’re not one of them. But he is.
If the booers had paid attention to McCain’s speech, they might have noticed several mentions of Ronald Reagan. No surprise there. But McCain also went out of his way to invoke another conservative luminary, pointedly quoting him twice. That was Edmund Burke.
Burke is the father of modern conservatism, and still its wisest oracle. Tradition-minded but (contrary to stereotype) far from reactionary, he believed in balancing individual rights with social order. The best way to do that, for Burke, was by respecting long-standing customs and institutions while advancing toward liberty and equality. Society’s traditions, after all, embody an evolved collective wisdom that even (or especially) the smartest of individuals cannot hope to understand comprehensively, much less reinvent successfully.
The Burkean outlook takes individual rights seriously, and understands that civic order serves no purpose if its result is oppression or misery. It also understands that social stability, far from being endangered by institutional change, positively depends upon it. Burkeans no more believe in a golden past than they do in a perfect future. For them, the question is not whether society should change, but how.
Burke himself was an advocate of change; he sympathized with the American revolution (while famously denouncing the much more radical French one), proposed curtailing the slave trade, and fought tirelessly to reform the corrupt and monopolistic British East India Company. But he believed change should take a measured pace and should try to follow well-worn social grooves rather than cutting across them. Above all, he abhorred utopian reformers, who, by disdaining real-world constraints and overestimating their own intelligence, invariably worsen what they seek to improve.
Burke speaks as much to the conservative temperament as to conservative ideas. He would be suspicious of a conservatism that wanted to “explosively replace the failed bureaucracies of the past.” He would caution against forcibly uprooting the authority structures of a long-tyrannized society like Iraq and expecting a mini-America to spring forth. He would be all for “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” (as per President Bush’s second inaugural address), but he would put more emphasis on ultimate.
If Burke were around today, he might paraphrase Reagan’s famous witticism about the Democratic Party: Burke didn’t leave the conservative movement; it left him. Starting with Barry Goldwater’s campaign of 1964, American conservatism repositioned itself as a revolutionary movement, intent on uprooting illegitimate and ineffective liberal structures. Partly this grew from a canny assessment that Eisenhower-style Republicanism had played into liberals’ hands, consolidating instead of confronting the welfare state. Partly, however, it grew from narcissism: no less than their left-wing peers, right-wing Baby Boomers liked to suppose it was their destiny to reshape the world.
And so conservatives came to associate themselves with a romantic narrative of radical change—a narrative of counterrevolution, but revolutionary all the same. They trumpeted the Reagan Revolution, then Gingrich’s Republican Revolution. In 2001, George W. Bush came to office disdainful of “small ball,” determined to be a “transformative” figure. In the 2008 presidential race, Mike Huckabee railed against corporate greed, promised to abolish the Internal Revenue Service, and pledged (fancifully) to bring about “energy independence” (whatever that is) by the end of his second term; yet his conservative credentials met with less skepticism among the rank and file than did McCain’s. Nowadays, the harder core of the movement barely gives politicians the time of day unless they renounce incremental reform in favor of the root-and- branch variety, and denounce government with a stridency that owes less to Burke than to the New Left.
Burke would have wondered at this. And in 2008 he might have noticed that, if conservatism is as much a temperament as it is any particular set of policies, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both Democrats, have sounded more conservative than many Republicans. Both have agreed, for instance, on the need for health-care reform, but Clinton has emphasized her hard-learned lesson that change needs to be incremental, and Obama has said that a single-payer system would make sense if we were starting from scratch but that getting there from here would be “impractical”—a Burkean way to talk about change.
AND THEN there is McCain. As eclectic a reformer as he has been in the Senate, he has been consistent in his incrementalism. Though he was known to sound hot-headed on campaign-finance reform, his legislative work produced a reform that was mostly modest in its aims and that mostly attained them. He has been an old-fashioned budget balancer, not a newfangled supply-sider. He defends his global-warming efforts as gradualist and as modeled on emissions-trading systems that have already been tested. In the presidential primaries, he showed little interest in grandiose promises.
Indeed, some of what his detractors view as inconsistencies display a distinctly Burkean logic. McCain opposes gay marriage but also voted against a federal constitutional amendment to ban it. Inconsistent? Not if you think that marriage is best handled by the states, which have handled it since Colonial times, or that there is nothing conservative about preemptively amending the Constitution to end-run the Supreme Court, a stratagem future liberals could have all kinds of fun with.
McCain voted against Bush’s big tax cuts, but now says he supports extending them rather than risking damage to the economy. Flip-flop? Not if you believe, as Burkeans often do, that sudden and large policy changes deserve skepticism, but that when a policy becomes well established and woven into everyday life, as the tax cuts have, continuity should get the benefit of the doubt.
In the face of resistance from Bush and his own party, McCain fought heroically for a law restraining harsh treatment of terror-war detainees, yet more recently he voted against legislation imposing on the Central Intelligence Agency the same stringent ban on coercive interrogation that the U.S. Army observes. Hypocrisy? Not if you believe that brutal interrogation methods should be illegal, but that holding the CIA to the military’s white-glove constraints, even in emergencies, goes too far the other way.
McCain, in short, is an antirevolutionary, not a counterrevolutionary. No wonder, then, he invoked Burke twice to an audience of skeptical conservatives—or, perhaps more accurately, skeptical “conservatives.” And no wonder some of them booed. To movement conservatives, McCain represented heresy. But to the conservative movement, he represented a return to home truth.