Publius, writing at Law and Politics, posted “Meet the New Conservatives, Same As the Old Conservatives” this morning. Publius begins his discussion with the proto-conservative Edmund Burke, noting his place in the conservative pantheon:
Burke’s thought became the intellectual seed of modern conservatism. The conservative principles we all know and love – anti-government programs; anti-nation building; rejection of abstract revolutionary principles (e.g., Communism); distrust of mankind; distrust of reason – were all heavily influenced by Burke’s writings.
Republicans have taken modern conservatism quite far afield from Burke’s time, though:
Today’s GOP is un-conservative in the traditional sense because of its loving embrace of abstractions and its willingness to overthrow existing regimes (both domestically and internationally) in the name of these abstractions. This is most obvious on the international front.
The modern GOP has also rejected the idea of limited government. On the economic front, the GOP has shown that big government is a-ok when you can use it to subsidize your friends in the pharmaceutical, gun, energy, and credit card industries – and let’s not forget about farm subsidies (that go almost entirely to “Big Farming”) and the pork-fried highway bill. The only principle here seems to be that taxpayer money should be redistributed to campaign contributors and friendly corporate interests.
Publius tries to preserve GOP intellectual consistency by noting that “If you read Burke cynically, you could argue that the policies he favored were (surprise, surprise) generally in the interests of the aristocracy.” Carrying this class consciousness forward to the present, he writes:
In the past, “big government” has generally been a tool of redistribution from higher concentrations of wealth to lower ones. The New Deal and the Great Society were obviously not in the interest of the monied interests of America and they understandably opposed it. But they did so not so much by appealing to crude materialism but by using politically expedient abstract principles like limited government or states’ rights. These principles were not ends in themselves, but means to the end of their material interests.
Some people think the modern GOP has lost its coherence. I disagree. It’s actually a very coherent party, though the only coherent principle is to help the powerful.
But that was the whole point of conservatism even in Burke’s day. Indeed, that’s what it’s always been about.
I have previously made several comments about the GOP’s principles-versus-tactics problem; Publius does nearly as fine a job of linking it to their faux economic populism as does Thomas Frank in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas?