There is much talk these days about the need to find unity and common ground in our politics so we can come together and "get things done" for the American people. But for this talk to be anything more than facile, we need to delineate the ideological viewpoints that are in need of communicative discourse. In this article I focus on conservatism, with an eye toward understanding how the type of conservatism advanced by Edmund Burke, who is regarded as its philosophical founder, has little to do with the conservatism that has come to dominate the contemporary Republican Party.
Let us begin with the influential essay titled "Conservatism is Dead," published by historian Sam Tanenhaus in The New Republic in February 2009, just a month after Barack Obama was inaugurated as president. (1) "What passes for conservatism today," wrote Tanenhaus, "would be incomprehensible to its originator, Edmund Burke."(2) The Dublin-born Burke, who served in the British House of Commons from 1766 to 1794, had a distrust of totalizing ideologies and warned against the "destabilizing perils of revolutionary politics" that "placed an idea of the perfect society over and above the need to improve society as it really existed." Yet, he believed that "governments were obligated to use their powers to meliorate intolerable conditions" and that "a state without the means of some change is without the means of conservation." As Burke said, those who aspire to be statesmen must be able to combine "a disposition to preserve and an ability to improve."(3)
In his essay, Tanenhaus identifies two main strains of conservatism in the United States. In the tradition of Burke, a consensus-driven "realist" strain that believes in compromise and understands government as playing a positive role in adjusting to changing conditions, and a "revanchist" strain that has a profound distrust of government and is dedicated to sowing social division by mobilizing grievances and resentments about a lost past. The former seeks to "conserve," while the latter seeks to "destroy."
Revanchism is a concept derived from the French term for revenge and connotes the desire to regain lost territory. It is akin to "reactionary," which Andrew Sullivan describes as an acute despair with the present historical moment and a desire to reverse course backward, a counterrevolution, to an imagined golden age before "everything went to hell. ... It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo," resentment toward those who they think maintain it, and a desire to blow everything up before the old order can be reinstated. (4)
According to Tanenhaus, conservatism at its best serves "the vital function of clarifying our shared connection to the past and of giving articulate voice to the normative beliefs Americans have striven to maintain even in the worst of times."(5) It asserts that a large majority of Americans have a deep attachment to the existing society and will be resistant to challenges to its legitimacy. E....