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 The Utopian Conservatives 

January 25, 2005 
The capital is still buzzing about President Bush’s inaugural address. Liberals tend to deem it empty, overreaching, extravagant in its promise to end tyranny all over the world. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Conservatives have found it inspiring, “intellectually rich,” even “revolutionary.”

Since when is revolutionary a conservative compliment? Modern conservatism is usually dated from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1791), a profoundly anti-revolutionary book that warned against an imprudent disdain for tradition. Burke presciently argued that France’s hot pursuit of “the abstract rights of man” could lead only to violence and, finally, tyranny, probably under some strongman. He wrote this years before the world had heard of Napoleon Bonaparte.

France had just undergone a self-inflicted regime change, and after a year of observation from across the English Channel Burke found himself “alarmed into reflection” on the bloody events in Paris. He set down his thoughts in some of the most beautiful English prose ever written, a model for all future conservatives.

Burke stressed such principles as prudence, tradition, and a sense of limits, as opposed to utopian hopes for perfect political arrangements on earth. Political wisdom begins with the realization that man is a fallen creature whose passions need to be checked, not inflamed. Until recently, nearly all professed conservatives would have agreed.

But today the new conservative consensus seems to be that Burke’s principles are applicable when Democrats are in power but may be set aside when Republicans rule. Conservatives, in just a few years, have been transformed into utopians.

Many pundits have noted that Bush’s speech sounds very much like John Kennedy’s inaugural address. No doubt this was intentional. It sounded so elevated in 1961: America would pay any price, bear any burden, in the world struggle for freedom.

Bush was straining for the same effect. America’s freedom depends on freedom everywhere. We will eliminate tyranny, everywhere, forever and ever! And just how do we do that? By expanding the War on Terror into a War on Tyranny? And once we uproot it, is there any chance it will someday grow back?

[Breaker quote: 
Forgetting Edmund Burke]Jumpy White House officials rushed to clarify the speech’s meaning; the rhetoric had gotten alarmingly out of control. Did this mean that allies of the United States will henceforth have to be democratic? Or else?

Don’t take it too seriously, these officials cautioned. This carefully honed message, in preparation for weeks, composed by professional speechwriters, scrutinized by dozens, including the president, didn’t speak for itself. It needed a gloss. Sure, it meant universal liberty. But not all at once.

What happened? Did someone in the White House suddenly remember his Burke, maybe from his college days? We may never know. What we do know is that a mild panic seized the White House as it sank in that people were taking the president at his word. This possibility apparently hadn’t occurred to the people around the president.

That is understandable. An inauguration is a time for festivities. The inaugural address itself is just one of the rituals: The president is supposed to make idealistic JFK-type declarations about freedom and resolve that nobody takes very literally.

But in Bush’s case, you never know. He may mean every word of it, to judge by his policies. A global crusade for democracy is not out of the question.

Or maybe he was just looking for a quick bump in the polls, as when, a couple of years ago, he came up with the idea of sending a man to Mars. That didn’t seize the public imagination as hoped, so we’ve heard no more of it.

What is clear, though, is that Bush is pretty nearly the diametric opposite of a Burkean conservative. Modern conservatives like Robert Taft, Russell Kirk, and Michael Oakeshott wouldn’t recognize him as one of their own. His zeal for utopian language and utopian projects marks him as an alien to the breed. He shares the Napoleonic ambition to impose a new international order.

And other self-described conservatives are following him in this, as if conservatism were a mere appendage of the Republican Party, rather than a body of standards by which all parties must be judged. And what principles will they be living by next year? That seems to be up to Bush.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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