Downton Abbey, a Drama Burke Would Love

It is hardly a secret that the political philosophy implicit in most television dramas that touch on politics or society is Progressive. Hollywood is dominated by the Left to a perhaps even greater extent than academia. That is why it is a welcome change of pace that one of the most popular programs of the decade celebrates a distinctive brand of conservatism—that of Edmund Burke.

Most obviously, the series presents his ideal of the organic society, in which distinct social classes work harmoniously for their collective good. The servants in Downton Abbey do not for the most part resent their position, but feel a deep attachment to the family they serve, and the family in turn feels a loyalty to them. Other institutions also show the beneficial connections among the classes: the local hospital is a good work started by the family that serves the poor.

Second, the show stresses the importance of mediating institutions between the individual and the state—most importantly as historical matter—the nobility itself. As always, the Dowager Countess Violet states the case most crisply:

For years I’ve watched governments take control of our lives, and their argument is always the same—fewer costs, greater efficiency. But the result is the same, too. Less control by the people, more control by the state, until the individual’s own wishes count for nothing. That is what I consider my duty to resist. . . .The point of a so-called great family is to protect our freedoms. That is why the barons made King John sign Magna Carta. . . .

Her daughter replies: “Mama, we’re not living in 1215. And the strength of great families like ours is going, that’s just fact.” But the Dowager Countess of Grantham ripostes: “Your great-grandchildren won’t thank you when the state is all-powerful because we didn’t fight.”

It’s no real surprise, but kind of amusing, that the reviewer in the New York Times (a writer of frothy adventure novels who is sometimes unable to keep the show’s characters straight) mistook Violet’s views for the philosophy of Ayn Rand. All non-Progressive politics look the same to some people even though Burkeanism and objectivism are as different from one another as socialism from classical liberalism.

Finally, the show captures Burke’s emphasis on the importance of  adapting traditions to changing times. The Crawley family survives because, unlike some others, it changes its operations to reflect larger social transformations. The series contrasts the Earl as a sensible conservative who can even accept the growing independence of his wife, with his butler, Carson, as a rigid reactionary, who cannot accept any disturbance of the established order.

Of course, Downton Abbey, particularly in its over-the-top finale, is a fantasy. But so is most Progressive fare on TV. It is a delight for once to enjoy a grand conservative bauble.