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Politics & Policy

Edmund Burke on Principled Partisanship

Statue of Edmund Burke at Trinity College in Dublin. (MEImages/Getty Images)

My column on Saturday explored the loss of the British monarchy’s power between 1770 and 1809 and Edmund Burke’s role in that process. Burke argued for the “honourable connection” of principled partisan politics as a substitute for governance by personal dispensation of patronage and favoritism by the crown. I can’t leave behind Burke’s 1770 pamphlet “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents,” which laid out this argument, without sharing some of Burke’s further observations on what principled partisanship is, and is not — observations that remain very much relevant today, as conservatives debate what it means to be loyal to a political team.

To Burke, the pursuit of partisan power was an extension of having principles, rather than a contradiction of them:

Party is a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed. For my part, I find it impossible to conceive that any one believes in his own politics, or thinks them to be of any weight, who refuses to adopt the means of having them reduced into practice. It is the business of the speculative philosopher to mark the proper ends of Government. It is the business of the politician, who is the philosopher in action, to find out proper means towards those ends, and to employ them with effect. Therefore, every honourable connection will avow it as their first purpose to pursue every just method to put the men who hold their opinions into such a condition as may enable them to carry their common plans into execution, with all the power and authority of the State.

Burke understood why parties had their critics:

I do not wonder that the behaviour of many parties should have made persons of tender and scrupulous virtue somewhat out of humour with all sorts of connection in politics. I admit that people frequently acquire in such confederacies a narrow, bigoted, and proscriptive spirit; that they are apt to sink the idea of the general good in this circumscribed and partial interest.

Yet, Burke defended partisanship from the charge of its critics that a party man should follow his party blindly in all things, even when it violated his own conscience:

In order to throw an odium on political connection, these politicians suppose it a necessary incident to it that you are blindly to follow the opinions of your party when in direct opposition to your own clear ideas, a degree of servitude that no worthy man could bear the thought of submitting to . . . Men thinking freely will, in particular instances, think differently. But still, as the greater Part of the measures which arise in the course of public business are related to, or dependent on, some great leading general principles . . . a man must be peculiarly unfortunate in the choice of his political company if he does not agree with them at least nine times in ten. If he does not concur in these general principles upon which the party is founded, and which necessarily draw on a concurrence in their application, he ought from the beginning to have chosen some other, more conformable to his opinions . . . Thus the disagreement will naturally be rare . . .

There is room, in Burke’s view, for principled dissent without leaving a party; but there is also room for compromising on smaller differences to get along:

When the question is in its nature doubtful, or not very material, the modesty which becomes an individual, and . . . that partiality which becomes a well-chosen friendship, will frequently bring on an acquiescence in the general sentiment.

There is, by the same token, a time for leaving one’s party, when there is a true disagreement on principle across the board:

[W]hen a gentleman with great visible emoluments abandons the party in which he has long acted, and tells you it is because he proceeds upon his own judgment that he acts on the merits of the several measures as they arise, and that he is obliged to follow his own conscience, and not that of others, he gives reasons which it is impossible to controvert, and discovers a character which it is impossible to mistake. What shall we think of him who never differed from a certain set of men until the moment they lost their power, and who never agreed with them in a single instance afterwards?

Independence, however, was a simplistic path — an earnest one, but ultimately weak and ineffectual in disregarding the organizing strength of parties:

It is an advantage to all narrow wisdom and narrow morals that their maxims have a plausible air, and, on a cursory view, appear equal to first principles. They are light and portable. They are as current as copper coin, and about as valuable. They serve equally the first capacities and the lowest, and they are, at least, as useful to the worst men as the best. Of this stamp is the cant of Not men, but measures; a sort of charm, by which many people got loose from every honourable engagement. When I see a man acting this desultory and disconnected part…I am not persuaded that he is right, but I am ready to believe he is in earnest. I respect virtue in all its situations, even when it is found in the unsuitable company of weakness. I lament to see qualities, rare and valuable, squandered away without any public utility.

Burke had no use for those who saw the sidelines as the moral high ground, and considered themselves too pure or principled for party politics in the first place:

When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle. It is not enough . . . that a man means well to his country; it is not enough that in his single person he never did an evil act, but always voted according to his conscience, and even harangued against every design which he apprehended to be prejudicial to the interests of his country. This innoxious and ineffectual character, that seems formed upon a plan of apology and disculpation, falls miserably short of the mark of public duty. That duty demands and requires, that what is right should not only be made known, but made prevalent; that what is evil should not only be detected, but defeated. When the public man omits to put himself in a situation of doing his duty with effect, it is an omission that frustrates the purposes of his trust almost as much as if he had formally betrayed it. It is surely no very rational account of a man’s life that he has always acted right; but has taken special care to act in such a manner that his endeavours could not possibly be productive of any consequence.

Burke, by the way, never said the quote sometimes attributed to him that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” But the opening line of that passage is his formulation of the same concept. It is why, in spite of my many and well-documented issues with Donald Trump’s public character and fitness for office, it was genuinely painful to me not to able in good conscience to vote for him in the 2016 and 2020 general elections, and why I have never criticized the choices of those who did, or those who found some way of working with Trump in office. Disagreement with one man should not mean abandoning the broader ties of party, forged by common principle. To Burke, refusing ever to join a team made no sense:

How men can proceed without any connection at all is to me utterly incomprehensible. Of what sort of materials must that man be made, how must he be tempered and put together, who can sit whole years in Parliament, with five hundred and fifty of his fellow-citizens, amidst the storm of such tempestuous passions, in the sharp conflict of so many wits, and tempers, and characters, in the agitation of such mighty questions, in the discussion of such vast and ponderous interests, without seeing any one sort of men, whose character, conduct, or disposition would lead him to associate himself with them, to aid and be aided, in any one system of public utility?

Principle required men to join parties rather than remain aloof:

[W]here duty renders a critical situation a necessary one, it is our business to keep free from the evils attendant upon it, and not to fly from the situation itself. If a fortress is seated in an unwholesome air, an officer of the garrison is obliged to be attentive to his health, but he must not desert his station. Every profession, not excepting the glorious one of a soldier, or the sacred one of a priest, is liable to its own particular vices; which, however, form no argument against those ways of life; nor are the vices themselves inevitable to every individual in those professions. Of such a nature are connections in politics; essentially necessary for the full performance of our public duty…Commonwealths are made of families, free Commonwealths of parties also . . .

Burke ultimately reminded his audience that politics is a human calling, requiring engagement with the world in ways that meant compromising with the world:

I remember an old scholastic aphorism, which says that “the man who lives wholly detached from others must be either an angel or a devil.” When I see in any of these detached gentlemen of our times the angelic purity, power, and beneficence, I shall admit them to be angels. In the meantime, we are born only to be men. We shall do enough if we form ourselves to be good ones. It is therefore our business…[t]o cultivate friendships, and to incur enmities. To have both strong, but both selected: in the one, to be placable; in the other, immovable. To model our principles to our duties and our situation. To be fully persuaded that all virtue which is impracticable is spurious, and rather to run the risk of falling into faults in a course which leads us to act with effect and energy than to loiter out our days without blame and without use. Public life is a situation of power and energy; he trespasses against his duty who sleeps upon his watch, as well as he that goes over to the enemy.

Beware, as Burke would, the counsel of despair: the argument that conservatives in American politics should abandon the only party in which they could have any effect, simply because the work is hard, the company sometimes uncomfortable or even hostile, and the attainment of goals frustratingly elusive. That lesson should be heeded by conservatives of every stripe, from classical liberals to populists, from religious conservatives to libertarians, from constitutionalists to free-marketers. We can respect those who mostly stand with us, even when they stand apart on occasion on their principles, or against ours. We are not angels, and are not made for the work of a world of angels. That means, in the long run: Choose a side.


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