“The abyss of Hell itself seems to yawn before me,” Burke was to write in 1793 as the French Revolution continued its bloody march carrying the banner of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité!’ “We are just on the verge of Darkness and one push drives us in.” Many of us on the Right feel that America’s present position is precariously poised on the precipice of a similar abyss, and at a time when the Left may be trying to push her in, it seems some on the Right are willing to let go of the Republican Party which has imperfectly prevented that fall from happening. At a time when many leading lights of Burkean conservatism seem ready to jump ship from the Grand Old Party and swim over to Lew Rockwell’s tiny island of libertarianism, perhaps it is time to reconsider some of the most prescient reflections of the great Rockingham Whig, Edmund Burke, and his American heir, Russell Kirk.
Kirk was a lifelong Republican who was often critical of, and even furious at, the party he never abandoned. Perhaps it was because he saw more piercingly than most that Burke’s principal, lasting achievements “were his work for responsible party, his definition of the character and duties of a popular representative, and his “Economical Reform” of British government.” In this essay I will focus on Burke’s contribution to ‘responsible party’as I distill down chapter four, Reforming Party and Government,from Kirk’s hagiography, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. I do so in hopes of keeping some of the frustrated and alienated defenders of the permanent things and fighters in the cause of a justly ordered liberty from abandoning their posts at the flanks of the GOP.
The late great Burke Scholar, Peter Stanlis, wrote that among Burke’s most crucial political objectives was “to defend the organization and use of political parties as a legitimate and publicly accepted part of the political process.”According to Kirk, although the temptation to prefer personal gain and office to party loyalty must have been considerable, Burke adhered rigorously to his own concept political party, something he almost fully formulated himself. “Burke chose to side with the coherent opposition all his life; and to that choice the whole theory and practice of modern political parties owes much.” Kirk wrote that Burke’s letter Thoughts on the Present Discontents (1770) was:
“[A] manifesto of the Rockingham Whigs, but it was more. In essence, it was the first clear exposition of what “Western Democracies” now take for granted as the role of party, organized for the national interest. Previously, the Whig factions had acted without well defined principles, governed chiefly by personalities. . . . Burke meant the Rockinghams, at least, being the legitimate core of the Whigs, should aspire to something better. George III, he argued, was overthrowing the Constitution by “corruption” (monetary rewards to the King’s Friends from the Civil List), and by resorting to a “double cabinet”—that is, in effect ignoring his formal ministry and ruling, actually, through private advisers and servants. The Constitution should be preserved by a party founded on principle, and prepared to spend many years, if necessary, out of office. This party would seek, through frankness and courage, to win the support of popular opinion.”
Those are surely some timely words for today’s most pressing challenges. Permit me to excerpt a few more paragraphs of sagaciousness from Kirk’s fourth chapter:
“In Burke’s day or ours, parties are imperfect political instruments, necessarily less imaginative than the individual statesman of genius or remarkable talent, and less prompt to act. Yet does it follow that the civil social order has suffered—as Harvey Mansfield seems to imply—from the rise of responsible party?
“If a party is a bundle of compromises, at least a well-organized and well-led party knows how to make compromise among great interests possible. The alternative to compromise is, at best, inactivity, and at worst, civil or foreign war. . . . Responsible party was the alternative to arbitrary rule, or to the ascendancy of demagogue and fanatic. Because the French did not develop coherent parties, governed by prudence, to represent the chief interests in the realm, the French turned to Dr. Guillotin. [sic]
“Now truly Burke dreaded the charismatic leader, calling Cromwell “that great bad man”. Though himself a “new man”, Burke declared that the path to power ought not to be smoother for men of ability (or, in Burke’s phrase, men of “actual virtue”). The presumption and impetuosity of enterprising talents must be checked by “presumptive virtue”, the influences of men governed by habit, custom, and a long-instilled sense of duty . . . Burke defined Jacobinism as the revolt of a nation’s enterprising talents against its property.
“Mansfield implies that somehow Burke opened the way to the politics of rationalism and to the mass society. By his remark that we all must obey the great law of change, and that it is impious to oppose the manifest intention of Providence, Burke (like Tocqueville after him) indeed may have made a breach in the old order. But what was the alternative? Deny a fact, and that fact will be your master. Nineteenth-century liberalism, in large part the creation of Jeremy Bentham, “the great subversive”, Burke’s most powerful intellectual antagonist, burst like a flood upon the immemorial ways which Burke had defended. Burke, Mansfield writes, “was able to inspire only one part of the party system with the rules of prudence. His present influence is as a founder of one party, not of the party system. Thus his doctrine of party is now used to tolerate those rationalist ‘Jacobins’ whom he meant to extirpate.”
Kirk responded by writing, “No doubt. Yet it is vain to oppose a mere theory to an immensely powerful social movement, backed by vast interests. NO one understood better than did Burke the futility—nay, the baneful power—of theory divorced from social reality. Without practical parties to secure public assent, the English monarchy—even had George III or the Regent enlisted in defense of the Crown a statesman sagacious as Bolingbroke—wouldhave fallen to Jacobin radicalism as did the monarchies of Europe. . . Responsible party made it possible for the old and the new in society to come to terms.”
Kirk then goes on to describe four innovating forces that could not be resisted no matter how many conservatives were standing athwart history yelling “stop!”
- The proliferation of cheap firearms which empowered popular uprisings. Kirk also pointed out that this has come full circle now that the complex and costly instruments of war capable of crushing popular uprisings are exclusively in the hands of governments.
- The shift of wealth and prestige due to the industrial revolution from the statesman to the industrialist.
- The diffusion of literacy and cheap publishing which permitted the flourishing of the “vigorous vulgar rhetoric” of Thomas Paine and his successors.
- The disintegration of settled community and the abrupt increase in population.
“And one might list a half-dozen other social hammer-blows against which the old order of governors of the commonwealth could not stand without yielding ground.” Today there is an array of irresistible forces working against a landslide victory for conservative and libertarian principles; primarily the fact that forty percent of the nation seems to have swallowed The Progressive Project hook, line, and sinker. The Right is likely to find itself reeling if this current regime is awarded another four years to continue its march of fundamentally changing this country.
Next Kirk posits this prescient paragraph that seems to anticipate today’s crossroads:
“Had Burke been more rigorous in his principles, still government by statesmen of the antique pattern would have yielded to the liberal impulse. “Even Mormon counts more votaries than Bentham,” Disraeli wrote in the next century. But when the Benthamites had first the new classes and then the new masses at their back, because the material interests of those classes and masses seemed to coincide with Benthamite dogma, necessarily the man of ability and virtue was eclipsed, and new political forms appeared.”
It is probably not necessary to pause here to point out to readers of The Imaginative Conservative that in his essay Chirping Sectaries, Kirk mentioned that he considered Bentham to be the utilitarian intellectual father to John Stuart Mill, and that he considered Mill’s On Liberty to be the starting point of modern libertarianism.
Kirk writes: “Burke and Bolingbroke held in common these principles (which, in some degree, Burke may have received from Bolingbroke): the concern for futurity which the wise minister has in the forefront of his mind; the need to reconcile opposing groups—but through gradual accommodation; the testing of an alleged consensus by its steadiness over the years, as opposed to “transient fluctuations of feeling.”
“Two decades after publication of the Present Discontents, George Washington still looked upon party as baneful faction, and indulged the vain hope that the infant United States might escape such division. But American interests and opinions naturally fell into the embryo party structures of the Federalists and the Republicans; for if party does not exist in a quasi-democratic society, a people must submit to government by an autocrat or an aristocracy—which modern republics will not endure. Burke’s party dedicated to the national interest fortunately supplanted parties interested chiefly in the spoils of office—predatory parties of the sort that afflict those “emergent nations” of twentieth century Africa and Asia which [do not] tolerate party at all.
“Individuals must submit, in most instances, to the decisions of their party, Burke concluded—though such decisions must be founded upon general principles. “Men thinking freely, will, in particular instances, think different.” But still as the greater part of the measures which arise in the course of public business are related to, or dependent on, some great leading general principles in Government, a man must be peculiarly unfortunate in the choice of his political company if he does not agree with them nine times in ten. If he does not concur in these general principles upon which the party is founded, and which necessarily draw on a concurrence in their application, he ought from the beginning to have chosen some other, more conformable to his opinions . . . . How men can proceed without any connexion at all, is to me utterly incomprehensible.” I suspect that most conservatives agree with more than nine out of ten of the Republican Party’s and even Mitt Romney’s principles and ideas, but of course what gets all of the attention is the rancor over how we differ.
Next, Kirk explains Burke’s love/hate relationship with the aristocracy. Burke was concerned not only with the rights of the men of ample property, but with “the smallest rights of the poorest people in the kingdom” and if it ever came “to a contest of blood—Godforbid! God forbid!” against the aristocracy he “would take my fate with the poor, and low, and feeble. But if these people came to turn their liberty into a cloak for maliciousness, and to seek a privilege of exemption, not from power, but from the rules of morality and virtuous discipline, then I would join my hand to make them feel the force which a few, united in a good cause, have over a multitude of the profligate and ferocious.”
Kirk made it clear that Burke was first of all a conservative but one who valued the ability to preserve through prudent reform:
As Ross Hoffman’s remark Burke was a reforming conservative, rather than a conservative reformer.“He wished to reform in order to conserve.” When no pressing need for alteration was discernible, it was best to endure existing abuses rather than to invite, by imprudent tinkering, new evils less easily endured. Innovation, Burke argued, is not synonymous with reform.
It would be prudent to remember that, as Kirk so often reminded us, politics is ‘the art of the possible’ and that the results made it clear that it wasn’t possible for a better candidate to prevail in this primary. If we consider William F. Buckley’s famous rule for picking nominees—that we should select the most conservative candidate who is electable—perhaps the best candidate did prevail. Rather than dividing our party into two, we conservatives will better serve our cause by redoubling our efforts in persuading the electorate that our principles and ideas are the right prescriptions for our ailing nation. Instead of complaining that the right guy didn’t get nominated by this party and boycotting this election in protest, we should blame ourselves that we didn’t convince the party faithful to choose more wisely. In his book Politics for the Greatest Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square, Clarke Forsythe wisely advised, “Our high expectations sometimes tempt us to think that an “all or nothing” approach must govern politics. But in the face of the institutional constraints, competing interests and real obstacles that prevent anypolitical reform, I contend there is no moral compromise when we make the aim of politics not the perfect good but the greatest good possible. . . . It’s always good to decrease and lessen an evil when we cannot completely end it due to forces beyond our control.”
I am convinced that what still beats strongly in the heart and soul of the rank-and-file of the Republican Party are conservative principles, and that this is still Reagan’s GOP. Mitt might not be the perfect conservative candidate, but neither was Reagan. Newt Gingrich—the candidate for whom I reluctantly voted in the primary—incisively remarked: “This is not a choice between Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan. This is a choice between Mitt Romney and the most radical leftist president in American History.” There is a near zero chance of conservative legislation getting passed if this president is reelected. In this crisis, Franklin’s courageous pragmatism might be the best advice: “We must hang together or assuredly we’ll surely all hang separately.” With possibly four Supreme Court Justices retiring in the next term, if this president gets to choose them, countlessmore of the constitutional principles that we share and cherish will surely find their way to the gallows. Stick with your team. Together we have a better chance of moving the ball down the field. Divided we fall. Romney might be the gridiron equivalent of a punt, but when you’re backed up against your own goal line, it’s wiser to punt than to turn it over on downs. —Or worse, fumble a chance to win the biggest game of the season because you don’t like your own quarterback. Perhaps this time it’s best to punt one for the Gipper.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.