Jon Meacham on Conservativism and the GOP

Twenty years ago, I accompanied Andrew Lytle, the Southern writer, to a conference at Russell Kirk's compound in Mecosta, Mich. A crucial figure in the postwar American conservative movement, Kirk ran a kind of permanent salon at his home, which was known as Piety Hill. I was there mainly to make drinks in the evening and coffee in the morning for Mr. Lytle, then 86, and his old friend Cleanth Brooks, the literary critic who had come to the Michigan countryside from New Haven. At lunch one day, Dr. Kirk, as he was known, asked me what I was reading. I was in the middle of a Palliser obsession, and Kirk was engaging on Trollope. Then, looking at me with a genial intensity, he said solemnly that Victorian politics were all well and good, but one must know Burke, of course. Everyone must know Burke.

It was, for him, familiar counsel: Kirk's 1953 book The Conservative Mind was instrumental in popularizing the 18th-century Irish politician-philosopher. Allusions to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and to his evocations of tradition were commonplace in the rise of the American right. This distant conversation came to mind last week when Republican National Committee chief Michael Steele addressed state GOP chiefs. "For me the Republican Party owes its moorings to Edmund Burke, William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan," Steele said. "For each of them conservativism must always respect reality, effectively assess the times, and become relevant to them. Thus is our charge."

Steele is onto something important, for the times in politics—as so often is the case in history—are overly given to reflexive partisanship, and Burke may well be an antidote to the pervasive spirit of division. Burke, a Whig in his day, deplored the French Revolution and argued for the centrality of tradition, but he also opposed imperial excesses in Ireland and India and offered, in his writings, a guide to thinking about the inevitability of change. Like America's Founders, Burke distrusted absolutes. "We must all obey the great law of change," Burke said. "It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation." He was at once practical and hopeful. "The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and, when time is given to it, as a species it always acts right."

Beginning with a David Brooks column about then-senator Barack Obama, there was an election-season chattering-class Reinhold Niebuhr renaissance. It may be time now for a similar moment, with Edmund Burke in the starring role. He is much more than an intellectually shiny source of conservative tags; he is, rather, a complex, pragmatic figure whose complexities and pragmatism are not unlike our own.

There is a new wave of interesting thinking about Burke. Christopher Hitchens's book Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography, published in 2006, is a good place to begin on Burke. Yuval Levin, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is at work on his own book about Burke and Paine. In Yuval's view, Burke is relevant today in numerous ways, some of which are contradictory: "as a voice of resistance against radical change; as a guide to seeing society as a coherent whole, which cannot be refashioned or pushed around at will but must be dealt with on its own terms; as a voice for moderate expectations in politics and for a realistic sense of the limits of human nature; as a reforming politician who argued that policy innovation must come in response to specific problems; as a critic of radical individualism and a teacher of the importance of our obligations to the given social order as a whole; and as a believer in the importance of politics to the life of a society."

In his elusiveness Burke brings no one to mind more than the incumbent president, an irony not lost on Sam Tanenhaus, the author of The Death of Conservatism, a new book to be published in September. To Tanenhaus, the Republicans of 2009 have more in common with the revolutionaries of France than with those of America: "They routinely demonize government institutions, which they depict as the enemy of the people. But to classical conservatives, the two entities, government and society, are mutually dependent. Burke acknowledged no meaningful distinction between the state and society." We cannot make Burke into a movement conservative or an Obamacrat; he belongs to his own time. But he repays consideration, for he struggled, as we do, with the tension between tradition and reform, the individual and the state, the powerful and the subjugated. He was not always right, but then neither are we.