By DAVID BROOKS
The New York Times
October 5, 2007
Modern conservatism begins with Edmund Burke. What Burke articulated was not an ideology or a creed, but a disposition, a reverence for tradition, a suspicion of radical change.
When conservatism came to America, it became creedal. Free market conservatives built a creed around freedom and capitalism. Religious conservatives built a creed around their conception of a transcendent order. Neoconservatives and others built a creed around the words of Lincoln and the founders.
Over the years, the voice of Burke has been submerged beneath the clamoring creeds. In fact, over the past few decades the conservative ideologies have been magnified, while the temperamental conservatism of Burke has been abandoned.
Over the past six years, the Republican Party has championed the spread of democracy in the Middle East. But the temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform, believing that efforts to quickly transform anything will have, as Burke wrote “pleasing commencements” but “lamentable conclusions.”
The world is too complex, the Burkean conservative believes, for rapid reform. Existing arrangements contain latent functions that can be neither seen nor replaced by the reformer. The temperamental conservative prizes epistemological modesty, the awareness of the limitations on what we do and can know, what we can and cannot plan.
Over the past six years, the Bush administration has operated on the assumption that if you change the political institutions in Iraq, the society will follow. But the Burkean conservative believes that society is an organism; that custom, tradition and habit are the prime movers of that organism; and that successful government institutions grow gradually from each nation’s unique network of moral and social restraints.
Over the past few years, the vice president and the former attorney general have sought to expand executive power as much as possible in the name of protecting Americans from terror. But the temperamental conservative believes that power must always be clothed in constitutionalism. The dispositional conservative is often more interested in means than ends (the reverse of President Bush) and asks how power is divided before asking for what purpose it is used.
Over the past decade, religious conservatives within the G.O.P. have argued that social policies should be guided by the eternal truths of natural law and that questions about stem cell research and euthanasia should reflect the immutable sacredness of human life.
But temperamental conservatives are suspicious of the idea of settling issues on the basis of abstract truth. These kinds of conservatives hold that moral laws emerge through deliberation and practice and that if legislation is going to be passed that slows medical progress, it shouldn’t be on the basis of abstract theological orthodoxy.
Over the past four decades, free market conservatives within the Republican Party have put freedom at the center of their political philosophy. But the dispositional conservative puts legitimate authority at the center. So while recent conservative ideology sees government as a threat to freedom, the temperamental conservative believes government is like fire — useful when used legitimately, but dangerous when not.
Over the past few decades, the Republican Party has championed a series of reforms designed to devolve power to the individual, through tax cuts, private pensions and medical accounts. The temperamental conservative does not see a nation composed of individuals who should be given maximum liberty to make choices. Instead, the individual is a part of a social organism and thrives only within the attachments to family, community and nation that precede choice.
Therefore, the temperamental conservative values social cohesion alongside individual freedom and worries that too much individualism, too much segmentation, too much tension between races and groups will tear the underlying unity on which all else depends. Without unity, the police are regarded as alien powers, the country will fracture under the strain of war and the economy will be undermined by lack of social trust.
To put it bluntly, over the past several years, the G.O.P. has made ideological choices that offend conservatism’s Burkean roots. This may seem like an airy-fairy thing that does nothing more than provoke a few dissenting columns from William F. Buckley, George F. Will and Andrew Sullivan. But suburban, Midwestern and many business voters are dispositional conservatives more than creedal conservatives. They care about order, prudence and balanced budgets more than transformational leadership and perpetual tax cuts. It is among these groups that G.O.P. support is collapsing.
American conservatism will never be just dispositional conservatism. America is a creedal nation. But American conservatism is only successful when it’s in tension — when the ambition of its creeds is retrained by the caution of its Burkean roots.