Edmund Burke outlined what many consider to be the basis of classical conservatism, as we have learned this past week in class. In his essay Reflections on the Revolution in France he denounces the radical change being brought about in the country as a result of revolution. He explained that society should be based upon past tradition, slowly and cautiously implementing new changes as they were needed. In my opinion, conservatism today fits in line with this model of traditionally based politics that Burke identifies with, but perhaps not to the same extent. In America, the political party that is largely associated with the conservative ideology in politics today is the Republican Party. Through an analysis of Republican politicians and directives today, this cautious mindset about change is somewhat echoed and favored in policy-making. However, I would argue that Republican Party has deviated from the ideology of classical conservatism.
The GOP today espouses a political ideology that points to traditional values as the best way of policy-making and governance in the United States. This general philosophy clearly fits in line with what Burke would say is the most effective way to proceed in politics, however there are clear differences in political philosophy with how Republicans feel about certain issues compared to how Burke would ostensibly feel. Of course, the concept of a country like America that was created by a revolution of the subjugated class would appall Burke, as he holds the initiators of the French Revolution as savage lower-class citizens that do not have the ability to conduct politics. The revolutionary concept of the American dream, which is widely associated with the Republican platform, is considered patriotic and essential to the founding of America. Upward social mobility is at the heart of the American dream and is championed by the Republican party. This concept would not appeal to Burke’s idea of what conservatism should be at all, as he believed that people should continue to fulfill the roles that their social standing dictates.
Ross Dauthat writes about what Burke would think of American society in an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “Burke In America”. He discusses this same concept of egalitarianism which is central to the founding of American democracy. Dauthat explains that this egalitarianism would be foreign and incorrect to Burke, who thought that society was naturally separated on the basis of social class, as English society was at the time. In this way, American conservatism differs from one of Burke’s fundamental principles of how society should operate.
Though modern-day American conservatism may differ from Burke’s ideology in some ways, its respect for tradition aligns with Burkean thought. The GOP and its members generally support the upkeep of traditional family values and customs that Americans have been practicing since founding. One of these important institutions is marriage, which is hotly debated in today’s political landscape. Though there are some exceptions in the party, the Republican platform clearly favors the traditional view of marriage, defining it as the union between a man and woman. This traditional view of marriage exemplifies one of the ways that Republics support the upkeep of traditional practices and customs.
Conservatism today has deviated from what Burke considered as true conservatism. Though the general philosophy of the GOP appeals to tradition like Burke explains, it differs in significant ways. The incremental change that Burke favors is still present in conservatism today, but as one author explains, “There is only one party in America—your choice is liberalism with deliberate speed, or liberalism in a hurry. What is needed is a new, doubtless very different, American conservatism.”