For the past two years, it’s been said that conservative ways of thinking are having a moment. We have heard that the real conservative tradition must be defended from the Trump insurgency—or that, come to think of it, maybe Trump’s victory proves that the populist right makes a few good points. A recent Washington Post profile of conservative publications and their editors puts it this way: “Trumpism has torn down the conservative house and broken it up for parts.” Conservative writers and editors “are working to bring a plausible intellectual order to this new reality—and figure out what comes next.”
But it’s not just conservative magazines. Editors at mainstream publications, like James Bennet at The New York Times or Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, have been hiring writers on the right in an effort to achieve “intellectual diversity,” though they sometimes back off when they’re reminded that what columnists write actually matters. All this calibration is an attempt to determine which parts of the wrecked conservative house are worth salvaging. Is there a difference between the bad conservatism of Trump and the good conservatism of, well, who again? It’s trite to say William F. Buckley.
A plausible (and living) alternative is the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, whose book Conservatism was released in June by St. Martin’s Press. If anyone is to rebuild the demolished conservative house—or at least give the facade a nice new coat of white—it’s Sir Roger. The author of more than 40 books on art, music, and literature, as well as two operas, Scruton was knighted in 2016 for making a “significant impact on thinking about national identity, freedom and Western values.” Since the early 1980s, he has written in defense of the right, a project that, he says, “blighted” his academic career. But no matter. Scruton has become, as The American Conservative dubs him, “perhaps the most prominent conservative philosopher in the English-speaking world.” As such, Scruton is the standard-bearer for a certain intellectual variety of Anglo-conservatism, one that’s often called “Burkean.”
Its namesake, the 18th-century Anglo-Irish parliamentarian Edmund Burke, was an opponent of the French Revolution and a defender of tradition and custom. Today, Burke’s legacy is mostly claimed by members of the commentariat rather than by politicians. Burkean conservatism is, as Adam Gopnik has put it, “the kind liberals pretend to want.” Burkeans speak loftily of received wisdom. They do not oppose progress as such, but insist on moderation. What Burke gives the right, says Edwin Feulner, founder of the Heritage Foundation, is “an abhorrence of ideology and radicalism, and a belief in the politics and policies of prudence.” The liberal columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. agrees. At least, he did in 2013, when he suggested that conservatives should “contemplate Burke to remind themselves that their intellectual heritage is about so much more than cuts in taxes.” Dionne’s admiration was not pretend, even if it was wasted. Burkean conservatism has never been a policy force on the American right. It has been more of a posture: powerless against neoconservatives on the warpath and free-market libertarians on Wall Street.