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Burke’s Philosophy in Modern Day Politics

November 9, 2010

As the first conservative political theorist that we have studied, it is natural for us to attempt to draw comparisons between Burke and modern day conservatism. But in what respects are they comparable? During lecture, the professor mentioned that there exists a list of similarities as well as a collection of differences between Burkean conservatism and modern conservatism. Let us investigate.

Firstly, Edmund Burke stood as a firm advocate of religion. As he stated himself, “religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and all comfort.” The modern day Republican Party tends to regard religion as a core value as well. John Boehner, who is a practicing Catholic, is one of many Republicans who hold this notion. He has frequently taken a public

House Speaker-Designate John Boehner, Edmund Burke both agree that Religion is an important value in government.

stance on the importance of religion in society. Also, much like modern day conservatism, Burke argues in favor of private property. But perhaps more importantly, both parties agree on the concept of relying on tradition. Edmund Burke, as a longtime member of the British House of Commons, frequently advocated the preservation of the British Constitution. Moreover, he believed in a collective knowledge in which citizens learn from their ancestors and customs that they grew up with. This would be frequently disrupted if the state were to frequently modify itself, through revolution or otherwise. As he states himself, “by the unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways, as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with another. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.” In modern-day politics, this translates into the conservative battle against what has been labeled as “progressivism”: the interest in changing the country from what was the original interest of the founding fathers (with such issues as GLBT rights, marijuana legality, gun laws, environmental law, etc). The same argument as the one from 2 centuries ago still stands: conservatives believe that perhaps the “continuity of the commonwealth” would indeed be broken if the original constitution continues to be manipulated. In fact, this notion travels even beyond modern-day party politics. When reviewing a law in question, our judicial system routinely takes a more conservative approach. When a law directly infringes upon a traditionally-backed constitutional right, “strict scrutiny” must be applied, wherein it is almost impossible for the original policy to be overturned, unless a very compelling state interest is involved. Therefore, with respect to the American judicial system, Burke would likely look down and smile.

However, despite the above commonalities, it is difficult to get over the main difference between Burke and modern conservatism: Burke was strictly anti-democratic. After viewing the events of the gruesome French Revolution, his opinion of what a democracy stands for was soured. He began to see it as the “death of Western Civilization.” By contrast, American conservatives, no matter what their political opponents may brand them, believe Democracy to be the single most effective mode of government. For thinking this, modern-day conservatives are perhaps more liberal than their name implies, as they will always embrace a democratic form of government.
Although the philosophy between then and now does not fit like a perfect glove, it is hard to deny that a large number of Burke’s ideals are not only advocated for, but utilized in modern-day politics. The similarities are definitely evident. Given this fact, it is understandable why history has judged Burke as the founder of modern conservatism. Of the political philosophers we have studied, it is reasonable to make the case that Edmund Burke has made one of the most direct impacts on modern politics and American government- ironic though it is that he disapproved of us.

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