Gracy Olmstead explains in a Federalist column why she believes American conservatives could use a good dose of Edmund Burke.
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.” …
… 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.
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.