Matt Lewis

Is Burkean conservatism dead?

While the Tea Party has proven to be a formidable political force on the national stage, few have bothered to analyze the populist movement’s place in the evolutionary lineage of the American right.

Michael Lind, a Salon columnist and co-founder of the New America Foundation, has sought to do just that. In his July 5th column, “The Three Fundamentalisms of the American Right,” Lind argued that today’s conservative movement is a complete repudiation of the “Burkean conservatism” that intellectual conservatives like William F. Buckley once espoused.

I recently had a chance to chat with Lind about his column, and while I disagree with many of his conclusions, I found it to be a fascinating topic worthy of debate.

Burkeans (adherents of the philosophy espoused by British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke) “oppose radical social engineering projects on the basis of doctrines,” Lind explained, while the current social conservatism wants to “blow up the inherited structure.” Pointing to the stark Medicare reorganization in the Paul Ryan Plan, Lind concluded that social conservatism has completely discarded the spirit of “cautious experimentation” that was a staple in Burkean thought.

Lind, a former conservative, breaks modern conservatism into a synthesis of three “fundamentalisms,” each of which is grounded in the supposed “inerrancy” of its basic principles.

“Protestant fundamentalism,” grounded in the belief in an infallible Bible, discards the hierarchy and tradition found in more orthodox religions such as Catholicism. “Constitutional fundamentalism,” regarding the Constitution as almost divinely inspired, wishes to return to the “pure” Constitution upheld before FDR’s New Deal. And finally, “market fundamentalism” considers the works of Hayek and Rand to be “secular equivalents of the Bible.”

Such absolutism, Lind contends, makes political discussions and compromise very difficult, possibly explaining the numerous political impasses since Republicans took the House in November. According to Lind, members of the social conservative movement have a “resentful chip on your shoulder attitude that whatever the professors, the experts, and the eggheads say, we’re going to believe the opposite just to annoy them.”

Lind sees vast implications for conservatism beyond the current political climate, however. Social conservatism is “destroying what used to be the intellectual conservative movement,” Lind remarked, and he’s certain President Reagan would not agree with many social conservative policies.

While Lind’s arguments are certainly debatable and would light a fire in the belly of any social conservative, his final characterization of the venerable President Ronald Reagan would make any conservative’s heart stop. When you look purely at policy, Lind asserts, “Ronald Reagan was way, way, way to the left of arguably Barack Obama as well
as the contemporary Tea Party.” This is certainly not a popular or prevailing view, and it seems to violate all the laws of left and right our mothers taught us, but one could say with some certainty that Reagan probably wouldn’t be flattered by this characterization either.

Listen to my full conversation with Lind here. Or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.