McCain and Burkeanism:

Burkeanism isn't so much a philosophy as it is an attitude or disposition. As I see it, Burkeanism is not primarily about a commitment to any particular set of policy outcomes, though respecting tradition and continuity will tend to confine one's choices about policy in the short- and medium-term. Instead, Burkeanism suggests great humility about our capacity to effectuate significant change, distrusts a priori reasoning and abstraction, doubts our ability to fully appreciate the wisdom of longstanding practices and institutions, and worries a great deal about the unintended consequences of change. It isn't opposed to reform, of course, but is very cautious about it. Thus, the Burkean tends to favor incremental over convulsive change. For my brief description of Burkeanism (in the context of the debate over gay marriage), with relevant quotes from Burke, see this post.

Here is an example of what I mean by a Burkean attitude or disposition. I do not think there is a determinate answer to the question whether a Burkean, in 2003, should have supported the war in Iraq. But the reasons why one might have supported that war could be either Burkean or very un-Burkean. Supporting the war for reasons of national interest or security would have been defensible on Burkean grounds. Opposing the war for those same reasons would also have been defensible from a Burkean perspective, since ultimately the necessary judgments about the facts and the consequences of inaction were debatable. But supporting the war because one believed it would be possible by foreign invasion to "remake" Iraqi society, and "transform" the Middle East, would have been un-Burkean. Burkeanism is deeply hostile to the utopian concept of "nation building."

Further, the Burkean in one society will tend to have different policy preferences than the Burkean in another because his views will be shaped by his own society's customs, practices, traditions, and history. In this country, for example, the Burkean will be more committed to liberal and democratic values than to authoritarian and theocratic ones. When Burke expressed sympathy for the American rebellion, he did so on the grounds that the Crown had usurped the traditional rights of Americans as Englishmen.

Jon Rauch, always a thoughtful analyst, makes an interesting case in the Atlantic for John McCain's Burkeanism, at least as contrasted with many movement conservatives today. As Rauch argues, many people who call themselves conservatives are not very Burkean. Whether it's in the realm of foreign policy or judicial philosophy, they are too confident about their ends and too eager to use any means to have their way. They are too willing to ignore tradition and precedent, to be Burkean. They are too hard and pure. Right-wing ideology is not Burkeanism. McCain's legislative record demonstrates pretty clearly that he is no conservative ideologue, which is one reason so many of them have no patience for him.

Ilya correctly notes that some of McCain's political compromises have been necessary to get legislation passed, rather than an expression of what he really wanted. But compromise for a general conciliation is a Burkean move, and bowing to this kind of necessity is not a universally shared trait among today's conservatives. McCain was strongly criticized by movement conservatives, for example, for joining the Gang of 14 Senators who preempted a "nuclear" showdown in the Senate on judicial nominees that would have ended the longstanding practice of allowing filibusters. That was a Burkean moment for him, sharply criticized by those who wanted more radical and swift change.

Nevertheless, I am not sure whether McCain is really Burkean. The simple fact that he has taken particular policy positions doesn't answer the question. There is no Burkean tax plan.

The question of temperament, which Rauch does not discuss in his excellent Atlantic essay, is more important than any single policy position. What matters most to the question of whether McCain is Burkean, I think, is how he tends to approach public policy questions. Is it with caution and humility, with a preference for evolution rather than revolution? Or is it with a reformer's zeal, one who has an unshakeable goal in mind and will let nothing stand in the way?

On some issues and at some times, McCain has seemed the former. If memory serves, he supported the Iraq war on national-security grounds, not Wilsonian ones. On other matters, notably his enthusiasm for campaign finance regulations, he has seemed more the latter. If reports from some of his colleagues in the Senate are correct, McCain can be pretty arrogant and hotheaded. Those are not very Burkean traits. But if, at the end of the day, he's better described as patient and deliberate, there's reason to believe that he's closer to Burke than to Burke's critics.