The roots of Western liberalism both precede, and go far deeper, than Martin Luther and his influence.
Editor’s Note: The following are remarks delivered by Yuval Levin at the National Conservatism Conference on July 15, 2019—as prepared for delivery.
I want to start with a word of thanks to the organizers for taking up this important subject in the form in which they have: in a conference that lets different people express different views, hear each other, consider one another’s ideas.
The last few years in our politics have been lacking in opportunities for real exchange and conversation. There have been plenty of chances for people to stand separately and yell but not enough opportunities to sit together and talk. So I’m grateful to the organizers for trying to change that, and I’m grateful to them for inviting me to take part—even if we don’t always agree on every point.
I’ve been asked to speak on the question of Edmund Burke and the nation, and to approach the matter of conservatism and nationalism through that path. And I’m very pleased to do that.
It’s worth starting with a brief word about why this subject might matter.
Edmund Burke’s appeal for contemporary American conservatives is not genealogical—it’s not that our political persuasion began with Burke, or began with someone reading him, and so we should begin there too. It’s not self-evident that we should look to him for guidance, as we might to the American founders.
Burke’s appeal, rather, is that he articulates especially clearly a disposition—a set of views and attitudes, rooted in a set of philosophical premises—that have been important to conservative politics in liberal societies since the late 18th century. We didn’t get them from him, but he expresses them unusually well.
That disposition begins with low expectations of the human individual but high expectations of our social institutions—a sense that man is fallen or corrupt, and so has to be lifted or formed by moral instruction and habituation in virtue. This leaves us more impressed by what is working in our social life than outraged by what is failing, and it means we hold in high regard those institutions and arrangements that have stood the test of time and helped men and women become better over many generations.
It therefore points to skepticism of arrogant claims to knowledge and power, and makes us protective of those ways of living that have led prior generations not only closer to social peace and economic prosperity but closer to justice and to God. It also leads us to a reverence for community, for history, for culture, and to emphasize the importance of the preconditions for raising children.
People who hold this set of views have usually gone under the name of conservatives in our time, but well before that term existed this way of thinking has had a place in the politics of every liberal democracy since at least the age of revolutions. And Edmund Burke may be the person who has articulated most powerfully both the foundations and the implications of it.
And there is no question that as Burke articulates his version of this view of the world, the nation turns out to occupy a primary place in that vision. The idea of the nation, of national character and national institutions, lurks in the background of almost everything Burke has to say. We might say his political thought often culminates in national thought.
But it does so in a way that’s far from simple—a way that will tend to affirm some of what now marches under the banner of nationalism, but that also stands as a rebuke to some of it, and maybe especially as a rebuke to the tendency to dismiss liberalism and the liberal tradition as a source of wisdom and order and freedom and virtue.
That dismissal or rejection of liberalism is I think a serious mistake that some people on the right are leaning toward at this point—letting progressives own the term, and so allowing our tradition to be identified only with its worst self, and rejecting an essential core of our heritage supposedly in the name of traditionalism.
Thinking about Burke and the nation might help us see this more clearly. We have to do this very briefly, and so let me suggest that Burke’s thinking points toward the nation in four distinct ways, which can all help us think about what nationalism actually means in our own time.
The first has to do with love of country and its place in politics; the second is about national character; the third is about the nation as the unit of analysis in world affairs; and the fourth is about the nation as the unit of analysis in domestic affairs.
I want to quickly speak about each of these four and then suggest how the combination of them can help us address our confusion around the idea of the national in contemporary American political life.
The Love of Country
So first, and most simply, Burke is very concerned with the love of country—we might say with nationalism as a kind of patriotism, which he takes to be essential to a healthy political life. He thinks this sentiment runs very deep in most people. As he put it at the Warren Hastings trial in 1794: “Next to the love of parents for their children, the strongest instinct both natural and moral that exists in man is the love of his country.” This is real love, a passion more than a reflection, and it’s connected to the fact of having grown up amid the sights and sounds and smells of the place. “The native soil has a sweetness in it beyond a harmony of verse,” Burke says.
This kind of patriotism is very visceral. It literally is about soil sometimes. Though not about blood. Burke thinks there is a metaphorical connection between blood ties and national ties, but only as a metaphor. Key to the strength of British national feeling, he writes in 1790, is that “we have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood; binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties; adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections.”
But notice the distinction: The image of a relation in blood, not the reality of a relation in blood. The image, and with it a crucial part of the love of country, is achieved by treating our country as an extension of our family, and by seeing it as a source of what we have in common with those with whom we have the most in common. It’s precisely a way of extending our sense of who we are as a people beyond blood ties.
This deep love of country has great political significance in Burke’s view. It is crucial to what holds a people together, and to why people respect the law, and the authority of their government. When the French tried to tear up the sources of this national sentiment and replace them with abstractions about the rights of man, as Burke puts it, they left the law with no support except the power of the state.
That ended any prospect for a free society in France. Love of country is therefore absolutely necessary for the freedom of a free society.
And yet, the key to this love of our country is not just that the country is ours. “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely,” Burke famously wrote in the Reflections on the Revolution in France. And what makes it lovely is what he called its “distinct system of manners”—that is its ways and habits, its most cherished commitments. Or we might say its national character.
This is the second of Burke’s ideas about nationalism that might help us think more clearly: that there is such a thing as a national character, and that it is somehow at the heart of the life of the nation.
That character is a product of common experience, formed over history, and holding us together in time. It is the sum of the things we do and believe, and something like the nation’s personality. A society’s political life is an expression of its national character, and can only really function as long as it is somehow aligned with that character.
This character of the British people constantly arises in Burke’s approach to the French Revolution, for instance. The British will not ultimately be tempted by the example of France, he writes, because “Thanks to the cold sluggishness of our national character, we still bear the stamp of our forefathers. We have not (as I conceive) lost the generosity and dignity of thinking of the fourteenth century.”
National character is particularly important to how Burke thinks about political revolutions and transformations—and not only in France. It’s how he understands the events of the Glorious Revolution, and how he thinks about the Polish uprising against the Russians and about indigenous uprisings in India. These revolts, all of which Burke defends, arose in defense of the character of each of those nations.
And this is crucial to his thinking about America, too. Burke comes to believe that the Americans should be allowed their independence because he thinks the British have tried to govern them in a way that ignores and insults their national character. As he put it to parliament, “In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole.”
A failure to govern a people in accordance with its national character is not only imprudent but also a kind of injustice. This is key to what he saw happening in France. He suggests that the French Revolution was not a popular uprising in defense of the national character but a kind of elite coup against it. It was an effort to extinguish the nation through a politics of abstraction imposed on the people by a small minority of radicals.
“These pretended citizens,” Burke says of the revolutionaries, treat France like a conquered country, not like their own country. They “condemn a subdued people, and insult their feelings,” he says, and “destroy all vestiges of the ancient country, in religion, in polity, in laws, and in manners.”
Notice that these invaders who would destroy all vestiges of the national character are French, not foreigners. Burke several times over his decades of political writing suggests that the character of a nation needs to be defended by the people not just from foreign conquest but from domestic corruption or decadence.
And this concern leads Burke to distinguish sometimes between the people and their leaders on this question of national character. The whole of his beloved British constitution, Burke says, “has emanated from the simplicity of our national character, and from a sort of native plainness and directness of understanding.” And, he goes on, “This disposition still remains; at least in the great body of the people.”
That last clause might seem strange for Burke. We think of him as a defender of the virtues of the aristocracy, and he was. We think of him as skeptical of public passions, and he was.
But he was also wary of the passions of elites, and in defense against those Burke suggests at times that the public at large was the great depository of the national character, that the public could be counted on to react when the national character was offended or betrayed, and that on rare occasions such offenses could be so grave as to justify a revolution.
In general, though, apart from times of revolution, the significance of a people’s national character was to distinguish them from other peoples of the world. Distinct national characters mean that ours is a world of distinct nations.
The Nation and the World
And this is the third piece of Burke’s approach to the nation that might be of use to us. It is in some respects the most obvious, of course. And it might strike us as the simplest part of nationalism. But we should see how it is distinct from the other two facets that I’ve sketched out here.
The idea of the nation is rooted in sentimental attachment, and in a distinct character in need of defense. But it then roots a certain way of thinking—the nation functions as the unit of analysis in world affairs.
This idea is implicit for Burke in a lot of his thinking about global politics. But we see it expressed in an unusually distinct way when he takes up the question of just why the British might want to concern themselves with France.
“Formerly your affairs were your own concern only,” Burke writes to his French correspondent in the Reflections. “We felt for them as men; but we kept aloof from them, because we were not citizens of France. But when we see the model held up to ourselves, we must feel as Englishmen, and feeling, we must provide as Englishmen. Your affairs, in spite of us, are made a part of our interest; so far at least as to keep at a distance your panacea, or your plague.”
In this respect, involvement in the internal affairs of foreign nations is a kind of last resort. That’s not to say that there is not a higher order to which politics answers even among nations. While each society is an intergenerational compact, Burke argues, “Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society.”
But the nation has a distinct place in this great primeval contract. And one result of this is that nations are seen as the units of analysis of world affairs. A world of nations, each with its distinct national character and its political forms built up around that character, is the world as Burke sees it.
And yet, to say that the nation is the organizing principle of world affairs is not to say that the nation is the organizing principle of domestic affairs. Here Burke offers a distinct and different idea of nationalism that we should especially be sure to notice.
The Nation and Local Attachments
This is the fourth and final facet of Burke’s nationalism that I want to draw to your attention: His idea that national attachment is the culmination, or the sum, of local attachments.
This is not the only way to think about nationalism, of course. It’s not even the most common way. Modern theorists of nationalism actually consider the French Revolution a great example of nationalist fervor because it sought to erase local connections in favor of a single, strong, national identity.
Progressive nationalists in early 20th century America thought this way too. In laying out his “new nationalism” in 1910, Teddy Roosevelt argued that “The New Nationalism puts the national need before the sectional…It is impatient of the impotence which springs from over-division of governmental powers.”
This is not Burke’s kind of nationalism at all. He reserves maybe his hottest anger against the French for their eradication of local distinction and regional power. The decision of the National Assembly to eliminate the old counties that for so long had composed the French nation and replace them with perfectly square districts strikes Burke as an abomination.
He writes: “It is boasted, that the geometrical policy has been adopted, that all local ideas should be sunk, and that the people should no longer be Gascons, Picards, Bretons, or Normans, but Frenchmen, with one country, one heart, and one assembly.”
“But instead of being all Frenchmen,” he continues, “the greater likelihood is, that the inhabitants of that region will shortly have no country at all.” By breaking local attachment we only weaken national feeling.
The nation is not best understood as one whole to be divided into parts but as the sum of various uneven, ancient, loveable elements. This has everything to do with Burke’s concern for national sentiment and love of country, and with his emphasis on national character. We are prepared for love of country by a love of home.
“We begin our public affections in our families,” Burke writes. “No cold relation is a zealous citizen. We pass on to our neighbourhoods, and our habitual provincial connexions. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill. The love to the whole is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality. Perhaps it is a sort of elemental training to those higher and more large regards, by which alone men come to be affected, as with their own concern, in the prosperity of a kingdom.”
This is not to take away from the significance of the nation—which for Burke runs both deep and high. National attachment is almost mystical. “Nation is a moral essence,” Burke writes, “not a geographical arrangement, or a denomination of the nomenclature.”
But that moral essence is within our reach. It appeals to us as human beings by finding us where we are. We reach our love of country as an extension of our love of our own, and it is what allows us to reach beyond that love of our own, and toward the highest good.
This is a rushed and much truncated overview of Burke’s thought on the question of national life, of course. But I think these four parts are the basic elements of how he approached the question. And it seems to me that they also offer us a lot of help in thinking through the question of nationalism in our own time.
They suggest, first of all, that nationalism, this term that has been thrown around in ways that have divided conservatives lately, has at least four distinct meanings that we ought to keep separate.
Nationalism is, for one thing, a sentiment: a love of country that is a form of patriotism, if maybe with harder edges sometimes. Nationalism is also a temperament—another way of speaking of the national character, and which is aroused in particular when that character is offended or threatened or despised, whether by foreigners or by our own elites. It is in this sense not so much a form of patriotism as almost a form of populism—protective of an unarticulated identity, inclined to resentment, but intensely loyal.
And then, in two respects, nationalism might be understood more as an analytical method, a way of parsing politics. So that nationalism can be understood as the view that the nation ought to be the basic unit of analysis in foreign affairs, or as the view that the nation ought to be the basic unit of analysis in domestic affairs. The former understands nationalism in opposition to globalism, the latter in opposition to localism.
These four facets of nationalism are related, but they are far from identical, and today’s intra-conservative debates about nationalism tend to confuse and confound them. I take my friend Rich Lowry, for instance, to be articulating a case for nationalism that is ultimately an elevated case for patriotism. My friend Michael Brendan Dougherty, in a fantastic recent book, articulates a kind of nationalism that is more like a temperament defensive of national character. My friend Yoram Hazony, who brought us all together here, argues in his own excellent book for a nationalism that is basically a case for understanding global affairs as describing a world of distinct nations. While my friend Jonah Goldberg finds himself horrified by calls for nationalism that he takes to be arguments for organizing our domestic politics around the national imperative.
I think I more or less agree with all of them, though they don’t think they agree with each other—because they mean different things when they talk about nationalism.
Edmund Burke, by drawing some distinctions, helps us to see key differences. And he also traces what I think is a plausible and healthy conservative nationalism, or national conservatism—which is unabashedly patriotic, protective of national character, inclined to think of world affairs in terms of nations, but insistent that the internal life of our society is better thought of from the bottom up.
And Burke can help us in another way—by pointing to the distinctly liberal nature of the American national character in particular. It is essential to realize, as Burke helps us see, that our country is not an idea but a society, with a character, a culture, and a history, full of people who are our real-life fellow citizens and to whom we owe our loyalty. And yet there is something ironically universalist in the claim that every nation’s character must be equally particularist.
Our particular national character, as Burke could see even before American independence, is uniquely oriented by certain principled commitments.
For Americans in particular, the appeal of the national can be both philosophical and visceral—because we share a common home in which we have lived a common life together that has always been committed to a set of ideals—religious and philosophical, communal and liberal, including a belief in natural rights, rooted in natural equality, and pointing to a politics of justice. Our national commitments add up to a people born and bred to seek freedom and virtue together.
Oversimplifying these commitments so that we leave ourselves a choice between an America of pure liberal abstraction or one wholly divorced from all universal ideals is no way to understand America, or to conserve anything about it. It even threatens to devolve into a nationalism rooted in race, which no legitimate American nationalism should ever allow itself to become.
And it threatens, also, to vastly oversimplify the liberal tradition itself. The idea that liberalism is just radical individualism backed with state power is the shallowest of caricatures—concocted first by those who viewed such a combination as a dream and then, strangely, adopted by some of those who see it as a nightmare.
Liberalism has always been much more than that, and some liberals have always been aware of the danger of emptying the public square of moral substance and of the importance of sustaining the liberal society’s pre-liberal roots, so that it doesn’t lose sight of the highest goods.
Liberalism has always been engaged in an argument about itself. Is the liberal society a break from the pre-liberal traditions of the West—made possible by altogether new principles discovered in the Enlightenment and devoted to an ideal of radical equality to be pursued by continuous social revolution? Or is the liberal society the culmination of those pre-liberal traditions, achieved by the gradual development of political arrangements rooted in timeless ideals, that have allowed for an extraordinary balance of freedom and order, and that ought to be sustained by the conservation of that balance?
These two views, a progressive liberalism and a conservative liberalism, have been arguing for centuries, and our politics is the result. That argument persists. It has fallen out of balance some in our time, as our culture has leaned too far in the direction of radical individualism, but that means that it needs to be balanced by a more conservative idea of the liberal society, not by a rejection of the liberal society.
In looking for ways to recover that balance, we who are members of the conservative wing of our liberal society should try to learn from those who came before us—decidedly including Edmund Burke. Finally, Burke’s distinct teaching on the nation can offer us one further lesson: Our politics is a national politics, which means it is an argument among people who share a national character, and who owe each other something.
Those with whom we disagree in our society are not our enemies; they are our neighbors. They are not out to do harm to our country; they differ with us about what would be good for it. To love our country is to love them too—even when they do not show us the same regard, even when they are illiberal and we have to quarrel with them in the public square.
We should not allow ourselves to fall into hysterical fear of the supposed advances and victories of these ideological adversaries. They are a minority as we are. They are mostly failing too. And their task, no less than ours, is to persuade a larger society that is not so sure that either side of our politics has got its head on straight.
That larger society is the depository of our national character, and our national good sense. And we should all try to be cheered by that thought—to be grateful for the extraordinary good fortune that we have, and for the glorious, wonderful fact that we all get to be Americans together.