Burke’s True Heirs
The problem with Yuval Levin’s analysis of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine is that he doesn’t follow his thought to its conclusion. As Sheri Berman’s review [“Paine and Burke Now,” Issue #31] points out, our present politics is very different. The right has embraced radicalism and the left has embraced moderation, at least in terms of mainstream ideologies of movement and party politics.
The progressive reform of Burke and Theodore Roosevelt is no longer part of a patrician tradition of enlightened aristocracy. Instead, it has been taken up by the left and rejected by the right, a strange reversal. Unlike Burke and Roosevelt, the new right sees itself as a radical capitalist meritocracy based on libertarian hyperindividualism and social Darwinism. These are precisely the type of people Burke and TR feared. The reason they feared the plutocracy, meritocratic or otherwise, is that it promoted mobocracy. Only if justice prevailed could social order be maintained.
Presently, the Democratic Party is more Burkean than the Republican Party. It is important to point out that Democrats are a big-tent party with only a third identifying as liberal (half of liberals identify as independent). Another third of Democrats identify as moderates and yet another third as conservatives. So, even self-identified liberals aren’t the majority of Democrats; a moderate-to-conservative element forms the majority of the supposed “liberal” party. Democrats of today are no friendlier to radical left-wingers than was Burke. The Democratic Party is more like Burke’s Whig Party, which was the liberal party of its day, but also was the party of moderation and a type of reform-minded traditionalism.
Burke was in the liberal party of his day and Paine was far left of the entire British party system. So the division between Burke and Paine might be more equivalent to the Democrats and the Marxists (or take your pick of radical left-wingers: anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, left-libertarians, etc.).
Benjamin David Steele
Iowa City, Iowa
Follow the Money
It’s always valuable to look beyond the tick-tock of daily headlines, searching for deeper trends and processes in politics. Michael Tomasky [“Follow the Leader,” Issue #31] has a valuable point to make, noticing that the contemporary populist right has some attitudes in common with the more radical elements of the left.
But there is a whole other story to tell about American politics in the post-Nixon era. That story has been documented by both Bill Moyers and Hedrick Smith. This is a story that has nothing to do with public attitudes toward authority, or public willingness to support the needy, or immigration fears, or social mores.
It is a simple story of financial interests coming to realize they could receive a significant return on investments in influencing the political and legislative processes of American government. That realization was made explicit in the famous 1971 memo written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and later appointed to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon.
Tomasky criticizes the right for its selective memory and distortion of history. But the deeper question here is not whether figures like Tea Party leader Matt Kibbe are correct or mistaken in what they say on the national stage. Rather, the question is whether they have any intention at all of contributing to any positive debate. If Moyers and Smith are right, then the Tea Party, funded by business interests, exists to deliberately distort the national debate. Meanwhile, laws are not decided in any legislature, but instead are formulated at conferences of the American Legislative Exchange Council by its corporate funders and their allied officeholders.
There is perhaps some scholarly value in refuting the absurdities Kibbe, the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and others rehearse in public. But no scholar is even listening to that hubbub.
The real work for journalists is to unmask these hucksters for who they really are. The text scrolling under Kibbe on MSNBC ought to be telling us the percentage of his organization’s funding that comes from oil companies. The sidebars on every liberal website should be links to reviews of Moyers’s and Smith’s coverage of the plutocratic project that determines all our politics today.
Values, Not Ignorance
Christopher Parker’s “Will the Tea Party Outlast Obama?” [Issue #31] was interesting, if certainly wrongheaded. Both my wife and I (each a Ph.D. holder) consider ourselves for fiscal conservatism, against the murder of innocent unborn children, for the advancement of any minority through achievement, for strict constitutionalism, and most willing to obstruct the legislative process to stop ill-advised policies and regulations.
If that makes us members of the Tea Party, then so be it. But such a label certainly does not define us as irresponsibly reactionary soldiers running ignorantly over the cliff. To stand for what we believe is no more and no less difficult to understand than someone who is labeled a progressive.