The current American political debate rages unmoored from any useful vantage point from which we might judge whether the Tea Party and the GOP are acting in a way that is unprecedented in history or are instead playing the part that conservatives have played many times before. What does it mean to be "conservative", anyway?
Two names come up again and again: Ronald Reagan and Edmund Burke, both secular saints of the American Right. But can these two "thinkers" really be part of the same movement?
Reading through Reagan's First Inaugural, I was struck by a statement that is directly contrary to the position taken by Burke in the conservative scripture, Reflections On the Revolution in France. Edmund Burke is harshly critical of the French Revolution, arguing that it failed in all the ways that Britain's Glorious Revolution succeeded. Here he writes about the principles underlying the revolution he favors:
If the principles of the Revolution of 1688 are any where to be found, it is in the statute called the Declaration of Right. In that most wise, sober, and considerate declaration, drawn up by great lawyers and great statesmen, and not by warm and inexperienced enthusiasts, not one word is said, nor one suggestion made, of a general right 'to choose our own governors; to cashier them for misconduct; and to form a government for ourselves.'
Burke is making the explicit claim that government is best left to "great lawyers and great statesmen" rather than "warm and inexperience enthusiasts". The enthusiasts not only do not choose their government, they have no right to hold it accountable. What does Ronnie say in the first inaugural?
From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?
Reagan sides squarely with the warm and inexperienced enthusiasts! Is this a mere quibble with the great god of conservatism, the esteemed Mr. Burke? No, it is at the center of Reagan's entire philosophy. The statement above, endorsing the wisdom of the masses, is the sentence directly after Reagan's famous claim that:
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.
In other words, the founding principle of Reaganism is an explicit disavowal of Burkean conservatism. Perhaps discussions of American politics would be more straight forward if we referred to the GOP and the Tea Party as believers in "Reaganism" rather than "conservatism".