Egypt and the call to remake the world: A conservative debate over ‘revolution’

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
Font Size:

While Matt is on holiday, he has selected a few of his “greatest hits” to re-run until he returns next week. This originally ran at AOL’s Politics Daily on January 31, 2011.

We frequently talk about the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s and the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, but this belies the tension that exists among conservatives regarding the word — a tension that can be found now in the debates about unrest in Egypt.

Regarding this tension, the universally applauded American Revolution is the exception because it was, well, exceptional. For a variety of reasons, many view it as a “conservative” revolution.

It was also unique in that Edmund Burke, the great British Parliamentarian, supported the American cause (he hoped for conciliation between the British government and the colonies) despite being most eloquent in opposing the blood-stained French Revolution.

Conversely, Thomas Paine, the great revolutionary pamphleteer whose “Common Sense” helped inspire the American uprising, supported the French Revolution. His book “The Rights of Man” was a response to Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” This intellectual schism may speak to the current debate taking place regarding Egypt.

Many conservatives consider both Burke and Paine to be heroes (though Burke is considered the father of modern-day traditional conservatism, and Paine is probably more highly regarded by libertarian-leaning conservatives). It’s fair to say that the most popular modern conservative,Ronald Reagan, admired Paine.

Reagan ruffled conservative feathers when he began quoting Paine’s famous line, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” For Reagan, this vision included destroying an Evil Empire, but some traditional conservatives were repulsed at Reagan’s romantic rhetoric (and for citing the radical Paine), which they viewed as Utopian and “un-Burkian.”

As if to reinforce conservative suspicions about the line, President Obama (who appears to be Reagan’s latest protege) alluded to it in Cairo, when he said, “You more than anyone have the ability to reimagine this world, to remake this world.” (It did not go unnoticed among Paine enthusiasts that Obama did not cite their hero). In many ways, Obama was channeling the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose “freedom agenda” was criticized by many liberals as having been quixotic and inspired by neocons.

Read the entire article at Politics Daily.


Matt K. Lewis