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The Burkean Regicide

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David Bromwich

David Bromwich

Moral Imagination
Essays.
By David Bromwich.
Buy this book

The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke
From the Sublime and the Beautiful to American Independence.
By David Bromwich.
Buy this book

But even in his guise as a liberal reformer, Burke is a faulty guide. As much as Obama lacks Burke’s allergy to empire and refuses to personalize political combat, he too channels Burke—especially in his preference for modest improvement. When David Brooks encountered the then senator in 2005, the two “chewed over the finer points of Edmund Burke,” and by the end Brooks had to concede that Obama’s cautious reformism made him (like Brooks) an authentic disciple. “Obama sees himself as a Burkean,” Brooks reported effusively. “He sees his view of the world as a view that understands complexity and the organic nature of change.” (Brooks later revised his opinion, even though Obama had opted for a middling stimulus instead of a massive one and the most acceptable version of healthcare reform rather than the most ambitious—on the grounds that both were the sort of “government onslaught” that Burke would have supposedly despised.)

Brooks was not alone. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and another occasional Burkean, was well positioned to wave Obama’s membership card in the reformist club when others were prematurely enacting the rites of a revolutionary new age. Obama understood the need to be “fearful of those who are gripped by abstractions, simple ideologies, and large-scale theories,” Sunstein wrote ten days after the president took office. As a result, Obama would “respect traditions, and [would] not believe that long-standing practices should be altered lightly or without a careful analysis that includes many voices.”

Sunstein has been proved correct. There is no doubt that Obama is an authentic Burkean—someone who, in Bromwich’s description of the ideal, “stood out wherever possible as an advocate of pragmatic compromise.” And even if we insist on distinguishing Burke’s commitment to reform from a lowly and “vulgar” pragmatism, it is hard to deny that Obama’s moderation stems from a commitment to piecemeal improvement rather than strategy for its own sake. But then one must ask whether the Burkean approach is the best standpoint from which to criticize his presidency or the chief cause of its limitations. This Bromwich never does.

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“To his contemporaries Burke was known as a man of letters,” Bromwich once observed, though he is now recognized as “the greatest writer in the English language on politics.” With his own stores of humane knowledge and stylish prose, Bromwich has invigorated public debate about Obama’s presidency, but not without making dubious choices of his own. Reasonable people can disagree about how much personalization is defensible in political criticism, but Bromwich’s focus on presidential idiosyncrasy has been remarkable nevertheless. And for all the obvious applicability of Burke’s criticism of empire, there are two areas in which he ceases to be worth veneration, and they mark the limits of Bromwich’s critique of Obama.

In his single-minded focus on the state and its misdeeds—by far the most consistent target of his darts, including the now more than 100 launched from the Huffington Post alone—Bromwich is much better at making the case for not organizing power than for thinking about how to deploy it. Even while he recognizes and despises the Tea Party’s anarchism, his antiwar criticisms incorporate a similar suspicion of the state as such for its propensity to moral transgression. “Th’abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power” is the line from Julius Caesar that Bromwich chose as his epigraph for Moral Imagination. But then it is pressing to know how to defend the state for the good it brings and not simply the evil it risks. It is a long way from moral regret for power to a programmatic rationale for it.

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As for international affairs, where Bromwich has found his predecessor most useful in an age of empire, a retreat to national politics surely cannot follow from the sins of political and commercial imperialism. Indeed, as Bromwich observes, Burke denounced a merely “geographical morality” and insisted that our commitments to family, region and nation not forestall a universalistic vision based on a sense of common humanity. Surely arguing against imperialism is only a small part of such a global politics today.

Burke himself did not get very far in answering to this imperative, especially given his conservative respect for custom and “prescription” wherever it made civilization possible. (After all, at home and around the world, what bridge to the future the past allows shrinks beside its coercive legacies and the resistance it typically poses even to minimal reform.) If Bromwich hasn’t gotten much further, his insistent focus on American politics, especially presidential politics, is to blame. In a piece in his new collection, he acidly remarks that William Safire “never stinted his approval of wars.” Bromwich’s antiwar sentiments are honorable in the extreme, but hardly amount to a theory of global politics. But then, Burkeans do not offer theories.

On both fronts—the role of the domestic state and the space of the cosmopolitan globe—Bromwich has nothing much to say. He is not for anything. This is not unrelated to the retribution Burke visited on the French Revolution in particular when it had barely begun, alongside his suspicion of democracy in general. Bromwich has argued that Burke’s surpassing relevance remains in the anxieties about capitalism and democracy that he voiced in the seed times of both. But in the end, it is hard to believe that so serious a critic of popular freedom and equality offers much value now, even for the sake of slow improvement. If anything, Obama has proved Burke to be the problem rather than the solution. Reorienting American and global politics after and beyond his presidency will definitely require a commitment to reform, but in the name of the democratic equality that a horrified Burke rejected root and branch.

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