Why We Need Edmund Burke Now More Than Ever

Why We Need Edmund Burke Now More Than Ever

Edmund Burke advocated for a political version of HGTV’s 'Fixer Upper.' Take the old, and revive it. Fix what’s broken—don’t just start over.
Gracy Olmstead
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My husband is currently gutting and remodeling our kitchen. We live in an older house, so we’ve had water damage to fix, crumbling pieces of sheetrock to replace. One of our goals, however, is to maintain the integrity of this home: to make it better by strengthening and building on its foundation.

This holds true in structural terms. We aren’t going to make changes that threaten the integrity of the foundation or the walls. We won’t tax the constraints of our small space. In our design, we’ll seek to respect the age of our home: formulating a design that feels fresh, but also “vintage” in certain aspects.

This kitchen redesign project has got me thinking a lot about Edmund Burke. The eighteenth-century British statesman is seen by many as the founding thinker of conservatism. In his iconic (and must-read) book “Reflections on a Revolution in France,” Burke considered the French Revolution. He spoke sympathetically of their project—ousting a tyrannical and oppressive monarchy—but warned the French that their project was much like a house renovation. If they destroyed the foundation, their entire enterprise was likely to crumble.

Conservative Statecraft Is A Lot Like ‘Fixer Upper’

“Your constitution, it is true … suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls, and in all the foundations of a noble and venerable castle,” he writes. “You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations.”

In other words, Burke advocates for a sort of political version of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper,” or DIY’s “Rehab Addict.” Take the old, and revive it. Fix what’s broken down—don’t just raze the building and start over.

Conservatives believe in building on old foundations, and carrying forward ancient legacies. We don’t level old buildings just because they’re old. Where there are good bones, we build on them. To take the term at its most literal, being a conservative means we should “conserve.”

As Russell Kirk put it, “When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions, and broken the continuity of social institutions—why, presently they discover the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions, and continuity; but that process is painful and slow; and the new social order that eventually emerges may be much inferior to the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise.”

Don’t Despise Your Political Inheritance

Burke continues,

In your old states you possessed that variety of parts corresponding with the various descriptions of which your community was happily composed; you had all that combination, and all that opposition of interests, you had that action and counteraction which, in the natural and in the political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe. These opposed and conflicting interests, which you considered as so great a blemish in your old and in our present constitution, interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions; They render deliberation a matter not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise; which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments, preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations; and rendering all the headlong exertions of arbitrary power, in the few or in the many, for ever impracticable.

… You had all these advantages in your ancient states; but you chose to act as if you had never been moulded into civil society, and had every thing to begin anew. You began ill, because you began by despising every thing that belonged to you.

Burke here describes the balance of powers that was built into our own Constitution, hundreds of years ago. Our founders created a government in which ambition would counteract ambition, discordant powers would prompt deliberation, and compromise would beget moderation.

Sadly, we (much like France) have seen these principles weaken over time. You could say there’s some “water damage” plaguing our political process at present. The executive branch has seized more power for itself than our founders ever envisioned. The various machinations of American bureaucracy have reached new heights since the New Deal.

But perhaps no other facet of American government has undergone as much damage as the local and state governments that once served as the backbone of American civic and cultural life. Since Alexis de Tocqueville’s vibrant descriptions of American community and private association, we’ve grown into a society in which one in four Americans say they have no one “with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs”—a number that doubles to half the populace if you remove immediate family from the equation.

How Do We Respond to Societal Brokenness?

We have an all-too-powerful president, warring and dysfunctional Congress, and disintegrating local government. It’s a woeful picture, especially set against the backdrop of opioid addiction, familial breakdown, and declining religious and civic participation. Things are broken, it’s true. But how do we respond to the brokenness? We’re at a moment in which, like the French, we’re tempted to disband and destroy—to “despise everything that belongs to us.”

For some progressives, this translates into a deep contempt for the constitutional principles we’ve inherited. Bernie Sanders progressives advocate for a system of government that is deeply antithetical to America’s tradition of limited government and subsidiarity. It’s analogous to installing an IKEA kitchen in an eighteenth-century manor house.

But many so-called “conservatives” are also eschewing Burke’s vision of conservatism. In their zeal to destroy political correctness and progressivism, they’ve embraced executive power, seeking a charismatic leader who might destroy all their cultural and governmental pet peeves in one fell swoop. No matter if that requires executive orders or messianic assurances of political salvation.

Populism Is Not True to Conservatism

Additionally, a lot of right-leaning folks have embraced the tropes of populism, regardless of whether the popular will bends toward conservative values. The celebrities of today’s populist movement have little to do with the conservatism of America’s past. Instead, as Matt Lewis put it for The Daily Beast, “Once arguably too wonky and prudish, today’s conservatism, judging by CPAC’s invited speakers, is increasingly crude, vulgar, and lowbrow.” Today’s Right is drawn to dynamism, charisma, and bombast—to breaking and destroying things, especially if those “things” are political correctness and the status quo.

The problem is that we don’t want a Robespierre or Napoleon to rise to power in America, as they did in the wake of France’s Revolution. We may need to see some reformation and repair, but we don’t want to destroy everything in the name of revolution. That’s what Edmund Burke was saying in the 1780s. It’s just as true in 2017.

People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors. Besides, the people of England well know, that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission; without at all excluding a principle of improvement. It leaves acquisition free; but it secures what it acquires. … By a constitutional policy, working after the pattern of nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit, our government and our privileges, in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives. The institutions of policy, the goods of fortune, the gifts of Providence, are handed down, to us and from us, in the same course and order.

We Can’t Forget That Liberty Depends On Morality

Liberty can’t exist in a vacuum. Destroying all limits and mores will not give us more freedom. Burke believed that England’s constitution and method of government depended entirely on the “spirit of religion, and the spirit of the gentleman.” Politics is downstream from culture. Until we can fix the moral and civic foundation that’s broken, any other demolition we do will have a corrosive and compromising effect.

Today’s populism often forgets this. Much like the French Revolution once did, it takes the will of the people as gospel, and allows a tyrannical majority to usurp precedent and prudence.

Without doubt, our country needs fixing. Our system of government is, in many ways, corrupt and broken. But Burkean conservatism calls for “a jealous, ever-waking vigilance, to guard the treasure of our liberty, not only from invasion, but from decay and corruption.” This, Burke writes, is “our best wisdom and our first duty.”

We Need to Make Edmund Burke Great Again

The beauty of this traditional conservatism is that it is not wholly reactionary, but seeks to preserve the best treasures of the past, even while we innovate and reform. As Burke put it, “In what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete.”

It’s easy to forget people like Burke, in all the hyper-partisanship and bombast of today’s political world. He didn’t have the glamor of a modern politician. His writings are much harder to read nowadays.

But I think we need Edmund Burke more than ever. If we can revive his thought, America will be all the better for it.

Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.

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