The Burkean Regicide
Shortly after the rosy glow of Barack Obama’s coronation had receded, a literature professor at Yale became the most regicidal of his critics. Taking as his megaphones The New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, and a series of websites and other venues across the political spectrum, David Bromwich—known mainly for his sensitive readings of early-nineteenth-century British poetry and prose—wrote some of the era’s most personalized and inquisitorial broadsides against the president. In piece after piece by Bromwich, Barack Obama could do no right.
The former junior senator from Illinois takes himself to be more king than president, Bromwich has observed on more than one occasion. “It is a piece of mystification to suppose that we have been denied a rescue that this man, under happier circumstances, would have been well equipped to perform.” For “the truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong”—except for the singular one that his presidency would soar, and for which image management mattered more than actual success. “As he judges his own case,” Bromwich caustically concludes, “saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing.”
This episode of American intellectual history in the age of Obama is, to be sure, a minor one. But it is still worth a look. One reason is that Bromwich, having cooled ever so slightly from the latter years of the 2000s, when his pen spewed coruscating fire, has returned to the public eye with two new books. One is Moral Imagination, a collection of essays that includes some of his political pieces; the other is the first installment of his superb intellectual biography of Edmund Burke, whom Bromwich studies not simply for his own sake but also as a spiritual predecessor in politics and prose.
Burke has been the central figure of Bromwich’s criticism from the start. “Read an author like Burke and you place yourself under his spell,” Bromwich writes in his first book, a study of the essayist (and mighty opposite of Burke) William Hazlitt, published in 1983. But Bromwich has been equally on a mission to defend Burke against his more recent devotees, especially the Cold War fan club founded by the political thinker Russell Kirk, which anointed him its patron saint. As Bromwich puts it, “I want to detach modern American conservatives from their claim to a precursor as morally impressive as [Burke] is.”
Bromwich admires Burke’s commitment to “reform,” which he feels should put the Irish parliamentarian in the liberal pantheon as much as or more than the conservative one. “A man full of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it,” Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France. “But a good patriot, and a true politician, always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials…. There is something else than the mere alternative of absolute destruction, or unreformed existence.” It is something like Bromwich’s credo.
For this reason, the phrase “Burkean conservative,” Bromwich noted some years ago, was “never a description so much as an intellectual labor-saving device.” It would be “a great mistake if the most imaginative thinker about modern politics were written off forever to Conservatism,” he argued more boldly. “Call Michael Oakeshott a ‘conservative,’” he writes of a different British figure in the traditionalist canon, “and right away things start getting complicated.” The same is true of Bromwich, who despite his perennial enthusiasm for Burke has never identified with the right. Indeed, this industrious critic, who reviewed films for the now-defunct liberal magazine The New Leader and elsewhere for a spell and was a stalwart at Dissent for many years, has sought to define a kind of Burkean left, even if the contempt for Obama to which it leads is a tad less respectful of anointed authority than the eighteenth-century sage might have allowed. But leaving aside the strange image of a Burkean rising to slay the king, there are serious obstacles to claiming for the left a figure who, for all his complications, rightly stands at the font of modern conservatism. And not least of these is that the president counts himself a follower of Burke, too.
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Born in 1951, Bromwich seems to have mostly missed—or avoided—the New Left and any youthful political enthusiasms. One of his earliest articles is a not fully convinced reflection from 1973 about the communes sprouting up around the United States. More generally, his literary criticism has resisted ideological sniping and the shaming of dead white males, while keeping the Burkean angle always in view.
In his study of William Wordsworth, for example, Bromwich wrote sympathetically of the poet’s retreat from the collective radicalism of the French Revolution (“And all its aching joys are now no more, / And all its dizzy raptures”), while preserving its reformism for the sake of creative individuals—with politics saved by its transmutation into poetry. Because Wordsworth warmed toward Burkean moderation in the 1790s, Bromwich casts his evolution away from more recognizable political possibilities—most classically, in a poem like “Tintern Abbey”—as an enlightened form of conservatism committed to moderate reform. “I represent the idealism of the revolution most truly,” Bromwich wrote, ventriloquizing Wordsworth, whose earlier revolutionary hopes “still may be beneficent so long as they do not lead to rapid reform, or too fast a transition from time-honored practices to the vain projections of social theory.”
Whatever his own commitment to such reform, Bromwich did not write about politics before 9/11—except for academic politics. His major incursion into that thicket was a book-length attempt to promote the conservative liberality of Burke as a bulwark against extreme positions in debates about political correctness. In Politics by Other Means (1992) and related pieces, Bromwich skewered various conservative potentates, from the paladin of virtue William Bennett to the prophet of decline Allan Bloom to the nostalgist for Victorian morality Gertrude Himmelfarb. But he also excoriated acolytes of identity politics and rampaging postmodernists, charging them with a group narcissism that risked stifling the necessary Burkean dialogue between the past and the present for the future’s sake. Bromwich was writing under Burke’s sign as someone committed to a reformist account of tradition, which needed to be preserved precisely for the sake of political improvement.
Something shifted in Bromwich, as for many others, after 9/11. Bush changed the country around him, and Obama chose to continue too many of his predecessor’s policies, from Guantánamo on down to drones and surveillance. Yet the George W. Bush presidency elicited something quite unexpected from Bromwich in his newfound political voice and fulminatory excess. Ceasing to write for The New Republic, with its habitual militarism, Bromwich began to pen lengthy pieces of political criticism in the middle of Bush’s second term. These became torrential, however, only after Obama’s election, when Bromwich looked back to survey the country’s “disastrous slide” since 2001 that the new president proved unwilling to halt.
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