Monday, August 31, 2009

Obama and Brooks: disciples of Edmund Burke?

Gabriel Sherman discusses the Obama-Brooks bromance in the New Republic today. It turns out both of them are fans of the political philosopher Edmund Burke. (Sam Tanenhaus drew a connection to Obama and Burke in his “Death of Conservatism” article also.) This is surprising because Russell Kirk had crowned Burke the father of modern conservatism. What is it about Burke that could attract these three very different figures?

Burke’s most famous book, Reflections on the Revolutions of France, disavows abstract principles in favor of ‘prescription’ or what we would call tradition. Kirk buys into all of this. Obama and Brooks, on the other hand, are probably interested in the first part-disavowal of principles. President Obama prides himself on being post-partisan and a pragmatist. David Brooks has made a name for himself for NOT being a doctrinaire conservative. Peter Lawler has said about Brooks, “He has the ambiguous title of being the most conservative columnist at the NY Times.”

Burke’s (and Kirk’s) disavowal of principles is the reason why Harry Jaffa has argued against this particular vision of conservatism. Practices presuppose principles and their divorce leaves the former without a guide. The result is the reduction of Burke’s prescription to our current President’s pragmatism. Orginal Burkeans like Kirk opposed innovation; today's Burkeans demand change.

1 comment:

  1. Yuval Levin comments on the possible Burke-Obama connection. Like Burke, Progressives like Obama want to give a full account of the complexity of human affairs. The difference, however, is that the full account for Burke is an organic view of politics while the Progressive has a scientific view of it. Here is a snippet:

    "So there are left-leaning and right-leaning strands of students of complexity. But they have in mind quite different things. For the Progressives, the world is too complex to be understood in human terms — in terms of sentiment, experience, honor, habit, and piety. For the Burkeans, the world is complex precisely in those human terms, and is too complex to be understood in abstract rational terms — in objective, theoretical, scientific, detached, specialized terms. In this sense the Burkeans have an organic idea of politics, while the progressives have more of a scientific view of politics."