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.
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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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There is a long-running debate about Burke that goes back to his own lifetime: How could a friend and advocate of the colonists of North America and the colonized of South Asia against Great Britain’s imperial and commercial power become the French Revolution’s monumental foe? The two Burkes, Hazlitt memorably contended, “are not the same person, but opposite persons—not opposite persons only, but deadly enemies.” (Burke “was at once a coward, a liar, and a slave,” he added, for good measure.) In contrast, Bromwich thinks that “Burke had a way of shifting his emphasis without fundamentally changing his ground.” Yet I doubt the same could be said of Bromwich himself. Or one might consider the parallel in reverse: what the French Revolution altered in Burke corresponds to what 9/11 brought forth from Bromwich.
Bromwich’s immediate reaction to 9/11, published less than a month after the events, anxiously intuited the disproportionate response that would follow: “If the US should seek to avenge these thousands with new thousands of innocent dead, it will be the response of a nation merely. I fear that we may do that, but hope that we will not. By what we do now, and what we refrain from doing, we ought to wish to be seen to act on behalf of the human nature from which the agents of terror have cut themselves off.” It was an obvious shout-out to Burke. In the longest-lasting political concern of his life, the parliamentary trial of Warren Hastings for misdeeds as governor-general of Bengal, Burke rose to “impeach” the accused “in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured, and oppressed.” If the US government acted from narrower purposes, Bromwich feared, it could easily slip into the imperial posture of a Hastings.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. Bromwich’s justified screeds against Bush and his henchmen offered up penetrating insights into continuities running not just forward to Obama, but backward to prior Democratic policy. “Let us say that the neoliberal,” he writes, referring to Bill Clinton’s idealism of human rights, “wants humanitarian interventions that may uneasily shade into wars, while the neoconservative wants wars that sooner or later find a justification to satisfy humanitarian goals. How great is the difference?” These two schools were “rival schools of empire.” Burke’s indictment of “homicide philanthropy” seemed less an anticipation of the mainstream of either political party than of strictures against “military humanism” among leftists and libertarians.
Even as he continued to target Bush and his ghastly retinue (Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh), after the 2008 election Bromwich’s bitterest contempt was reserved for the new president, in a wave that overflowed the London Review and New York Review and spilled onto various websites. Some of the choicer tidbits are verdicts worthy of the Burkean example. In these pieces, Bromwich always shows a tenacious engagement with the particulars, but the primary concerns have always been Obama’s wars—the unfinished one in Afghanistan, the initiated one in Libya and the threatened one in Syria. “George W. Obama,” Bromwich charges, let his predecessors off the legal hook, not least by perpetuating their policies. When it came to most of these charges, Bromwich had his antagonist dead to rights. The secret “way of the knife” that Bush honed is one that, in many respects, Obama has continued to sharpen.
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Yet these failures of policy were unerringly personalized and traced to a series of character flaws. Obama, Bromwich writes, was a social climber who relished the fact that he had made it into the elite and thereafter kowtowed to the great while talking down to those lesser than himself. Worse, he proved miscast in the role of savior that he had scripted for his presidency: “His love of fame—to occupy the central place but also to perform the shining deed—is greater than anyone had estimated. Yet his political instincts turn out to be weak.” His narcissism led him to dissociate himself from his party so as to be a singular prime mover: “In Obama’s speeches the word ‘I’ (which appears frequently) and the word ‘Democrat’ (which appears rarely) are seldom found in proximity.” Even Obama’s appearance and manner, except for his winning smile, were included on the charge sheet: “He is theoretically humble but practically haughty. His posture, faultless and fastidious, is always elegant but never warm.”
More seriously, there were the recurrent attempts at bipartisanship in the face of mortal enemies on the right, apparently because Obama believed his own false advertising about uniting the country. “Ideally, he would like to inspire everyone and to offend no one,” Bromwich sneered. As a result, the president’s essentially tactical disposition toward gaining consent avenged itself on the tactician. “Obama’s long-drawn-out attempt to settle himself in a place above politics has injured his party and found no takers on the other side.” He indulged in hollow rhetoric and “statements of purpose” rather than providing truth-telling and clear explanations: Obama deals “in the most innocuous slogans and sound bites his voice can wrap itself around. The concern is to stay ahead by staying safe…. Nothing about this best-in-the-world presentation even begins to move the country toward a sober understanding.”
Most of all, Bromwich offered an abstract critique of abstraction and an attack on dreamers for not being moderate enough, a Burkean indictment to which he added his own charge that moderates never get anything done:
The position of a moderate who aspires to shake the world into a new shape presents a continuous contradiction. For the moderate feels constrained not to say anything startling, and not to do anything very fast. But just as there is trouble with doing things on the old lines, there is trouble, too, with letting people understand things on the old lines. At least, there is if you have your sights set on changing the nature of the game. Obama is caught in this contradiction, and keeps getting deeper in it, like a man who sinks in quicksand both the more he struggles and the more he stays still.
Or more concisely: “If it is bad, all things being equal, to appear grandiose and worse to appear timid, it is the worst of all to be grandiose and then timid.” Obama couldn’t win: to the extent that he tried to hew to his revolutionary promises he betrayed Burke, but the converse was also true.
It wasn’t so much Obama’s unexceptional compromises as it was the way he fooled Americans with his promise of saving us from politics that gave Bromwich’s criticisms their power. He made himself a harsh deprogrammer who tapped into the quiet fury of many a betrayed cult member. How much anger at Obama’s triangulations masked, or fed on, embarrassment about prior credulity? Bromwich caught the mood of this ire. Yet as Obama’s ratings—real and moral—tank daily, more depends on why we conclude the president failed. The strengths and weaknesses of Bromwich’s diagnosis stem from a Burkean configuration of interests: the personal and the anti-imperial. Burke was at his most convincing when defending freedom against empire, a fact that Bromwich has long emphasized. But the Irish protector of English liberty was at his most bombastic when his political rhetoric slipped into a merely personal hatred. Bromwich understood this point in his first book—“What is weakest and most imitable in Burke’s style,” he noted then, “is a quickness of scorn that amounts at times to superciliousness”—but he sometimes forgets the lesson.
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A Whig rather than a Tory, and thus a progressive in the politics of his time, Burke was no simple conservative. Bromwich goes further: “No serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the founder of modern conservatism,” he writes in the opening volume of the biography.
It must be said that Bromwich’s achievement in tracing Burke’s life is wholly magisterial, one of the great accomplishments of the contemporary humanities, and a joy to read. It is a pitch-perfect survey of Burke’s career through the American Revolution, in which the professor’s own measured eloquence augments the politician’s oratorical genius. “Nobody ever found out Burke’s meaning by excerpts,” Bromwich has written, and in response to that imperative he has larded his account of Burke’s life with quotations, to supplement a wonderful compilation of Burke’s speeches and letters, published fifteen years ago as On Empire, Liberty, and Reform, that Bromwich put out to offer a fairer impression of his idol.
Bromwich returns us to the long era of Burke’s life when, as a grizzled veteran, he famously inveighed against democracy and equality in Reflections on the Revolution in France, and troublingly pined for the lost hierarchy that he felt Marie Antoinette symbolized so gracefully. Bromwich reminds us that Burke’s chief fame for a long time consisted in his theory of aesthetics, and of his commitment as a longtime member of Parliament for Bristol not to old-style monarchy but to the sovereignty of Parliament secured since the Glorious Revolution, itself cast as a traditionalist act in the name of the ancient rights of Englishmen.
Finally, Bromwich restores Burke’s subtle engagement with the American scene. In the pre-revolutionary phase in which he begged for reform and conciliation, Burke castigated the British Empire for treating its western holdings (like its eastern ones) as a device for the reaping of profits rather than the propagation of liberty. When the crisis accelerated, Burke approved the American bid for secession across the ocean as a grim necessity that Britain had brought on itself, and he warned about the threat of war to civil liberties at home. How could a man fear war so much as to approve revolution in America, and later inveigh against revolution in France to the point of encouraging violence to stamp it out? “The two concerns at the heart of Burke’s politics, hatred of violence and love of liberty, were twice in his lifetime confronted by a stark either-or,” Bromwich explains. “With America, he chose revolution instead of war; with France, he would choose war against revolution. It is not to be supposed that he arrived at either position free of regret.”
Bromwich is on the mark about Burke’s criticisms of imperial wrongdoing and their centrality to his career, with the very important proviso that Burke advocated the improvement rather than the end of empire. With the treatment of Irishmen typically somewhere in the back of his mind, he favored imperial reform over revolutionary sovereignty, except under specific conditions. Similarly, he argued for the humanization of the slave trade—rather courageously so, given the centrality of his Bristol constituency to its eighteenth-century rise.
Within these stark limits, however, Bromwich is right to see Burke’s condemnation of the scandal of empire—still too little known even today—as of continuing relevance. “Were we to be driven out of India today,” Burke stormed in the House of Commons in 1783, “nothing would remain, to tell that it had been possessed, during the inglorious period of our dominion, by anything better than the ouran-outang or the tiger.” And his long obsession with Hastings revolved around a series of vicious counterinsurgencies that the governor-general had ordered in Bengal. Bromwich was driven to make similar criticisms of America’s rule in the Middle East and beyond. Burke expected “the wrath of heaven would sooner or later fall on a nation, that suffers, with impunity, its rulers thus to oppress the weak and innocent,” and Bromwich hoped to summon the same providential justice.
Bromwich doesn’t discuss the Hastings trial in the first installment of his intellectual biography. But the Burke straddling it and the forthcoming volume—defending Americans and South Asians in and from Britain’s imperial system—is the one whom Bromwich channeled most of all after 9/11, selecting from the various faces of Burke’s reformist love of liberty the one most apt to gaze critically on our imperialist times.
Yet his mobilization of Burke as a critic of the “peace-prize war president” has risked obfuscating any larger vision of reform, whether its sources were in the former’s thought or anywhere else. It even led Bromwich, in perhaps the most revealing instance of his activism, to reach out to the audience of The American Conservative, a paleoconservative magazine founded in 2002 to oppose the ascendant neocons. True to form, Bromwich invoked Burke in his coalitional plea for a cross-party force to reject strong states and imperial war-making alike.
In an age when Rand Paul speaks out more forcefully than most Democratic politicians against the national surveillance state, Bromwich’s impulse is not unfounded. But his concern about the overweening state and its imperial outcomes, and his desire to seek common cause with libertarians, is a risky gambit. “It would be hard to say whether statist liberals or statist conservatives are more seduced by love of the state,” he writes. That both have been prone to imperial misadventures seemed to be what mattered most to him—and opened him to making strange bedfellows on the right.
Actually, deepest in Burke, according to Bromwich (and perhaps in Bromwich himself), is an anti-political streak that treats the government as a mere necessary evil. People “want to be left alone with their families and enterprises, affairs of person and neighborhood,” Bromwich summarizes. No wonder that, across his whole career, Burke “seldom mounts a campaign for anything.” It is a deep but troubling insight—one that Bromwich knows is inimical to democracy. On this theory, it is not for us to take control of our society, but merely to ensure that our regrettably necessary government is kept within bounds. Especially after 2001, Bromwich’s affection for Burke insensibly passed from a liberal reformer’s to that of a libertarian anti-statist’s. “Power, in whatever hands, is rarely guilty of too strict limitations on itself” has become his favorite saying from Burke, a much-cited new credo that risks displacing the old one. Indeed, Bromwich chose it as the single epigraph for his biography.
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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.
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.