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Burkean Politics Don’t Keep Win-Loss Records

In an otherwise strong review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Elizabeth Corey sets conservatism on the wrong footing in relation to liberalism.

First, let me say that Corey is quite right that “the essence of the conflict” between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine can be found in their “different orientations toward the entirety of human experience.” Furthermore, I agree with her that “most people who call themselves conservative” are actually followers of the ideologically-oriented Paine. Most conservatives “are concerned with efficiency, problem-solving, and changing the world.” Most “have qualms about technology … but we no longer resist it.” Most are willing to “give up on the rule of law as an ideal and promote policies that encourage our own favored outcomes.”

I agree with Corey’s general assessment of the current state of political conservativism. As Mark Signorelli recently commented about Corey’s piece, “We occupy a political order determined not merely by liberal ideas, but by liberal emotions.” Taking this one step further, I would say that the current political climate mirrors G.K. Chesterton’s definition of a maniac. The maniac is a “clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity.” Without the kind of hesitation that comes with concern and care for tradition and the recognition of human complexity, our public discourse plunges into the gloom of rancor, vituperation, and indifference to others’ opinions.

There is, however, a mistaken notion that Corey puts forward in addition to her review. She writes that “in most respects, and particularly in politics, it appears that Paine has won the day.” While I wholeheartedly support Corey’s conclusion that what we need is a “reorientation of the modern soul,” I fail to see how Corey’s capitulation that “Paine has won” is at all necessary or helpful.

In an effort to make her point, Corey gives the discussion over to the kind of slavish power discourse of winning that is all-too-often misappropriated today. Here, the misappropriation is blatantly apparent. What game were Burke and Paine playing? What has Paine won? Was Burke not informed about the competition? What were the rules? When did it end? Will there be a rematch?

An essential aspect of the conservative mind is the belief that society and civilization are neither competitions nor games to be won or lost. They are not contests between hostile ideas or policies or movements. In Reflections on the Revolutions in France, Burke defined society as “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.” The basic contours of this kind of partnership—things like justice, charity, fellowship, temperance, and patience—build a lasting civilization.

Furthermore, to concede to the popularity of Paine’s way of thinking and call it a victory suggests that this game of Western civilization has ended, and Paine is standing atop the podium. Not only does this smack of defeatism, but it also flies in the face of what Burke argues about society, namely that the partnership of society never ends.

Rather, as Burke puts it, the partnership “becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society.” Moreover, “the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations.” Whether it is the Tang Dynasty, the Roman Republic, the Byzantine Empire, or Enlightenment Europe, civilizations are built over centuries and are closely interconnected with the social partnerships that have gone before them. Corey, I believe, recognizes this, which is why she advocates for a greater sense of “patience, gratitude, and satisfaction,” while encouraging “reform … with careful attention to the familiar and the tried.”

However, when power and competition characterize the way we speak and think about politics and culture, we debase their true nature, transforming these expressions of human society into utilitarian levers that should be pulled in order to score points, to deny the opponent, and, ultimately, to win. What Burke considered a partnership is in Paine’s language a contest, between the rational and the irrational. In his book, Levin illustrates this point in the following passage that he quotes from Paine’s Rights of Man: “Reason and discussion, persuasion and conviction, become the weapons in the contest, and it is only when those are attempted to be suppressed that recourse is had to violence.” Ironically, by adopting the language of competition and domination, Corey eschews Burke for a discursive framework that is much more akin to Paine.

With the hue and cry of political wrangling today, coupled with its predominantly liberal views and emotions, it is easy to succumb to the mentality of competition, conflict, and dominion (of Burke conquering Paine). However, by succumbing to this inclination, we threaten whatever remains of Burkean philosophy in our society, and we surrender any hope for the future of conservative thought.

David J. Davis is assistant professor in history at Houston Baptist University and author of Seeing Faith, Printing Pictures: Religious Identity During the English Reformation.

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