The Corner

Re: Obama . . . Burkean

Jonah, I agree completely (catching up on a busy day on the Corner). There has been a peculiar strand of commentary on Obama (from David Brooks, Jon Meacham, and a few others) describing the president as a “Burkean,” apparently for his understanding of, as that New Republic piece put it, “complexity and the organic nature of change.” I think this is downright bizarre.

A certain kind of progressivism and a certain kind of conservatism have long both claimed to possess a deep understanding of the “complexity” of society. The American progressives of the early 20th century (and here I tread on Jonah’s turf and he can surely correct me) insisted that traditionalism might have been suited to an earlier simpler time when the lives of individuals and communities were contained in their narrow circles, but now in modern times our lives were shaped by massive social forces that must be understood by social scientists and marshaled by policy experts who command the whole and understand its full complexity.

But the conservatism of prescription and practice, the conservatism of Burke, had never taken life to be simple. It argued against radical liberalism — and against ways of thinking we now call progressive — in just the terms the Left would later use against the Right: that their worldview was simplistic and naïve, and ignored the inescapable complexity of human things.

So there are left-leaning and right-leaning strands of students of complexity. But they have in mind quite different things. For the Progressives, the world is too complex to be understood in human terms — in terms of sentiment, experience, honor, habit, and piety. For the Burkeans, the world is complex precisely in those human terms, and is too complex to be understood in abstract rational terms — in objective, theoretical, scientific, detached, specialized terms. In this sense the Burkeans have an organic idea of politics, while the progressives have more of a scientific view of politics.

Measured in these terms, I cannot imagine how anyone observing the Obama administration could think the president a Burkean. Community organizing — which aims not to strengthen a community’s rooted institutions but to recruit it into action in a larger setting so it can demand the outside expert assistance it deserves — is the epitome of the progressive project, and, I would think, anathema to a Burkean approach to politics. And the ambition, flavor, and character of the Obama administration’s agenda thus far reek of the hunger for rational control, not of an appreciation for the organic and gradual nature of lasting change. Burke’s warnings against ignoring the difference between change and reform read like an indictment of the Obama health-care plan, and his views about the limits of the government’s appropriate role in the economy are certainly out of line with the administration’s doings.

This is not to say there are not or cannot be Burkean liberals. Edmund Burke was in some important respects a Burkean liberal, and some contemporary liberals are too (some communitarians, for instance). But Barack Obama decidedly is not.

That in itself is not necessarily an indictment of the man. No one said he has to be a Burkean. But those who say he is one are, I think, well off the mark.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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