No man enters the presidency prepared for the office, yet few chief magistrates have managed a stage entry as startlingly rife with incompetence and impropriety as Donald Trump. The reason is that the inherent, inertial conservatism of the office disciplines most of its occupants.
“[W]e expect he would work with Congress, as the Founders intended.” Scholars and Writers for America, Statement for Candidate Trump “We don’t have a lot of closers in politics and I understand why. It’s a very rough system. It’s an archaic system. You look at the rules of the Senate, even the rules of the House—but the rules of the Senate and some of the things you have to go through, it’s—it’s really a bad thing for the country, in my opinion. They’re archaic rules and maybe at some point we’re going to have to take those rules on because for the…
Last week, in an 8-3 vote, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Government of Prime Minister Theresa May must seek new legislation before starting negotiations to leave the EU—the so-called Brexit. The Prime Minister had argued that, in light of last June’s referendum in favor of Brexit, and pursuant to the Crown’s sole authority to make and withdraw from international treaties, she could commence negotiations without further legislative action. But the court held that withdrawing from the EU would effect a change in domestic law and that, under the British Constitution, the government may not take such action without parliamentary authorization. The June referendum in favor of Brexit was not legally binding; a new statute would be necessary.
The ruling was not unexpected. May’s Government already had prepared draft legislation, which it presented to Parliament a couple days after the decision came down. The legislation seems very likely to pass in some form. Although the Government resisted having to go to Parliament, undoubtedly because of the possibility of delaying tactics and other obstacles, on balance it seems a good thing. In the long run, Brexit will be seen as more legitimate if Parliament formally votes on it, with members of the Government and the opposition going on record.
In my last post, I discussed how the Enlightenment gave a boost to liberty by making progress central to the aims of society and the scientific method central to its processes. But these new developments, in turn, raised serious questions about the value of tradition. If past is to be surpassed, tradition becomes less revered. If the scientific method is prized, less formal ways of knowing, like tradition, become devalued. Finally, progress continuously changes society, making traditional practices a less good guide for a future that is ever accelerating away from the past.
Thus, ever since the Enlightenment, tradition has to struggle for its place as a contending category for social organization. Nevertheless, it still has relevance. Here are three important remaining functions for tradition, ideas that have been distilled for me in my discussions at the Tradition Project.
Tradition as a Buffer. Even assuming that other methods are better at bringing out progress, progress itself has costs. It destabilizes society, and sometimes alienates citizens who do not feel they have a place in the world progress has created. Thus, even as society progresses, it must respect traditions to avoid social upheaval. Edmund Burke, the greatest defender of tradition in Modernity saw this value, among others, for tradition.
The forgotten etymology of “conservatism” lies in its hardly hidden first two syllables—to “conserve”—so when the Republican Party underwent its lurching metamorphosis from its commitments to constitutionalism, free trade, and chivalry to royalism, protectionism, and vulgarity, the news was not that George F. Will, conservative, stood still. It was that, in the terms of conservatism’s father Edmund Burke, the Republican Party may no longer constitute, properly speaking, a party at all. It is at risk of reverting to the primordial state of “faction” from which Burke rescued what he called the practice of political “connection.”
You may have noticed that not much is said in this space about what goes on in other countries. It’s not that I don’t have opinions; it’s just I don’t imagine mine are worth much. I conspicuously didn’t take a stand on Brexit. It seemed to me there was a good case to be made for Britain’s leaving the European Union and a good case to be made for its staying in. I thought I’d leave it up to them. If I were British, I would have been more psyched up about the whole thing.
The outcome surprised me, because the past history of secessionist movements—such as Quebec and Scotland—has been of a petering out at the end. Just enough people get all prudent and make a safe choice. Not only that, all the factions of the respectably British cognitive elite—top politicians, public intellectuals, the business leaders, celebrities, the unions, and so forth—advocated making the Progressive choice. “Progressive” here means stay the course when it comes to evolving beyond the nation-state in the direction of larger and more cosmopolitan unions. We aspire to be citizens of the world, politics being that pathology that we shed as we move, as Tyler Cowen puts it, from being brutish to being nice.
No other major figure in 20th century American social and political life has deserved study more than Russell Amos Kirk (1918-1994). The existing studies of Kirk are excellent, but the latest effort, by Professor Brad Birzer, surpasses all previous attempts to appreciate the magnitude of Kirk’s personal mission and scholarly opus. Birzer has a command of the primary sources that is truly amazing, and his archival labors evince the work of a superior scholar and world-class historian. In other words, a significant advance in scholarly knowledge is upon us, as well as an advance in evaluating Kirk as a political thinker.
Richard Bourke's new book, Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke is the subject of this new conversation at Liberty Law Talk.
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.
Donald Trump does not say things that are unpopular. Every time we see him speaking in front of an audience, that audience is clapping. He says things that anger elites and about which, often, events seem to confirm the seeds of his base’s opinions. It should therefore be unsurprising that the elite’s rejection and disdain inflame rather than calm the Trump phenomenon. The contemptuous response is not useful. The Madisonian one is.