Edmund Burke has enjoyed a long and varied afterlife in America. Lately, though, his name has increasingly come to be associated with the “new nationalist” strand of conservatism. The foundation that sponsors the annual National Conservatism Conference bears Burke’s name, and you often see writers describe the nationalist movement as a Burkean renaissance in American conservatism. Insofar as this movement abjures rationalism and ideological conceptions of the American nation, its affiliation with Burke is on point and a refreshing development within conservative circles.
But as the movement’s name suggests, it has also come with increased openness to the robust use of national power. To many, skepticism of national power is no longer a conservative characteristic, and the idea that conservatives should be “comfortable” using this power is a theme we see more and more often.
This trend is exemplified by the adoption of Alexander Hamilton as the American Burkean par excellence. And while there is no doubt that certain elements of Hamilton’s thinking share characteristics with Burke’s, there are difficulties with placing Hamiltonian zeal for national power wielded by far-seeing statesmen in the American conservative tradition.
Contemporary applications of Burke are inherently risky. He lived and operated in a different political system and a very different culture. So to the extent that Burke has teachings applicable to our time, they are generally seen in terms of a certain way of understanding political order and a certain disposition toward governance.
Burke’s thought is in line with certain of the national conservatives’ points of heavy emphasis, including their rejection of rationalist accounts of political order and resistance to globalism (at least in its most extreme form—Burke was, of course, a defender of an empire and fond of free trade). But he embraced a conception of political order that extended below and beyond the nation, one that does not necessarily lead us to what we think of as “nationalism” today.
In his famous discussion of “little platoons” and of the French revolutionaries’ centralization, he presents a picture of political affections that must necessarily be bottom-up, with national attachments important, but somewhat epiphenomenal.
We begin our public affections in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen. We pass on to our neighbourhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. 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 so extensive as that of France.
The love of an extensive nation-state does not come naturally, for it is not really our “own concern” in the way our local attachments are. In a healthy order, Burke suggests, we come to love our country because we see its importance for our hearths and altars.
And Burke was more than open to a distribution of power that placed authority closer to the familiar and local. Whatever broad continuities may exist in a polity can certainly play a role in providing a salutary sense of loyalty and commitment across a country. But difference and variety must be recognized and accommodated as well, and on this point, be believed that zealous advocates for centralized power brought on disaster in the American crisis.
In his speech after the 1774 election at Bristol—the first place one goes to see Burke’s vision for the prudent, broad-minded statesman—he described the linkages of affection in the context of colonial unrest:
We are now Members for a rich commercial City; this City, however, is but a part of a rich commercial Nation, the Interests of which are various, multiform, and intricate. We are Members for that great Nation, which however is itself but part of a great Empire, extended by our Virtue and our Fortune to the farthest limits of the East and of the West. All these wide-spread Interests must be considered; must be compared; must be reconciled if possible. We are Members for a free Country; and surely we all know, that the machine of a free Constitution is no simple thing; but as intricate and as delicate, as it is valuable.
The relationship between metropole and colony had worked, Burke believed, when Parliament left the colonies free to govern themselves through their local legislatures, even as London claimed a theoretical right to govern them.
As colonial opinion changed in the heat of the Revolution, Burke was open to a different “intricate” and “delicate” balance. Once the colonies’ “unsuspecting confidence” was lost by repeated insistence that local prerogatives must give way to the needs of the common good of the empire, Burke proposed that a more formal settlement was needed, in which the rights of the colonies to local self-government were explicitly recognized and claims of Parliamentary sovereignty given up. Good governance demanded that power should be diminished and divided to accommodate differences and distance. The prudential statesman of the Bristol speech recognized that the common good often called for adjustment, accommodation, and constitutional settlement more than for a unifying central policy.
The American writings also disclose a certain disposition toward governance: The statesman should seek to govern as best as possible the society that actually exists—not the one he would prefer it to be. And that might often mean not exercising power in the name of seemingly worthy goals. Burke regularly blasted his opponents for their failure to make their peace with the limits of political power to bring about the society they wanted. The Americans were who they were, and London wouldn’t be able to change them with the right act of Parliament.
Indeed, the idea of being comfortable using the levers of power is actually a decidedly un-Burkean disposition, especially when it comes to attempts to shape economic and cultural life. He often warned that those in power ought to be “strongly and awefully impressed with the idea that they act in trust,” and he fully recognized the law of unintended consequences. All this produces a “politic caution” around the use of power and shows the need for constitutional restraints.
An American Inheritance
Today’s national conservatives have a bold agenda, ranging from cultural and family renewal, to direct government payments (among the populists, at least), to the promotion of particular national economic outcomes through the careful application of central authority. Accordingly, they are increasingly inclined to accept an expansive understanding of federal power.
In this, they reflect their American ideal, Hamilton, who sought a practically unlimited national government, but was still hopeful that the limited one established in 1789 could help create the kind of society he thought America ought to have. With the encouraging hand of the central government, agrarian America would be made into a commercial republic; by its firm administration and undertaking of great projects, the “American empire” would cut across local, parochial attachments and forge national bonds that did not yet exist.
He could so enthusiastically embrace national power because his sense of political order put the nation first, with local attachments presented almost exclusively as mere barriers to good administration. In cautionary remarks at the first National Conservatism Conference, Yuval Levin observed that Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, which “puts the national need before the sectional . . . [and] is impatient of the impotence which springs from over-division of governmental powers” is “not Burke’s kind of nationalism at all.” Hamilton’s impatience with local “jealousies” was not much different. Whether or not he was correct about the needs of a young and vulnerable republic, this was not a particularly Burkean sentiment.
As Tocqueville observed, the vertical division of powers that frustrated Hamilton was not rationally planned—there wasn’t even a proper word for the system it created—but it emerged as the outgrowth of mores and habits that attached the people to local self-government, in contrast to the “ideal nation that exists only in the mind.” Conservatives would do well to consider how best to revive these habits and attachments.
To be sure, today’s national conservatives do not have any overt hostility to civil society or local attachments—or even to local or state governments. Indeed, nearly all of them would claim that the robust use of national power they seek can and should be used to bolster local forms of community, including religion, family, and local governments. But we should express “a politic caution” toward such hopes for localism-by-way-of-nationalism.
Centralized administration is a magnet for corruption in the form of cronyism and demagoguery, which disfigure political and social life at all levels. It is the natural home of Burke’s “sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators.” Despite the laudable intentions of its enablers, it inevitably puts political power within the reach only of those who already possess wealth, influence, and connections—those who can afford both to navigate the bureaucracy’s regulations and to influence the policymakers. Crony capitalism, for instance, isn’t a conscious policy choice, but the inevitable consequence of a government empowered with sweeping, uniform regulatory power.
Concentrated power also feeds into a kind of mass democracy Burke deplored even when it was only in its infancy. The more economic and cultural power is concentrated, the greater incentive there is for nefarious actors to grasp it by any means necessary. Political battles for all the marbles, rhetorically elevated to the nth degree by motivated partisans distort politics all around. As Calvin Coolidge once remarked, “national administration is not and can not be adjusted to the needs of local government” (emphasis added). The incentives of national politics require neat, uniform narratives, and self-proclaimed champions of the American people will inevitably craft theirs to meet the needs of political rhetoric, not actual communities. These narratives, in turn, color a citizen’s understanding of the seemingly more mundane and less important aspects of social life—our local attachments. Today, thanks in large part to our centralized politics, people increasingly judge their families, schools, churches, neighborhoods, and local and state governments by the standards of national ideological contests rather than the other way around.
It may be that no American statesman has ever been truly “Burkean”; capturing the totality of his statesmanship might be impossible outside of his decidedly aristocratic and Christian cultural context. But if we are left to find pieces of wisdom in Burke’s writings and example, there is plenty to recommend that American conservatives retain their long distrust of national power. A politics rooted in a genuine love of our home (a “nationalism” more in line with Burke’s understanding) is unlikely to be revived by embracing the structure of power that helped to undermine it in the first place—a system that puts more authority in the hands of men and women hundreds of miles away, who inevitably exist (for the average citizen) on our screens rather than our streets.
Many of the traditions that Burke defended were salutary restraints on power—the division of authority between different portions of society, the protection of localized self-government when circumstances warranted, and the maintenance of the great charters of liberty. America has its own inheritance of limits, too, and any Burkean revival within the conservative ranks would do well not to overlook it in pursuit of the sovereign nation.