Is Hope Lost for Principled Conservatism in America?
Like everyone else I know, I laughed about Jon Stewart’s most recent evisceration of Glenn Beck (on The Daily Show last night). It was amusing to see Beck’s failure to recognize that the “free books” from the library by which he claimed to educate himself are part of the progressive socialist conspiracy he despises.
But the most interesting part of the clip that Stewart showed from Beck’s CPAC performance came before the “free books” gaffe. As Stewart briefly pointed out, Beck seems not to have any idea what he’s talking about with regard to the difference between revolution and evolution on the question of progressivism. He suggests, in fact, that the two things are essentially the same, except that evolution happens slower and without guns.
And this is where things get really interesting for me, as the difference Beck is failing to highlight is an incredibly important one — for him. That is, what Beck should be trying to argue is that progressives in this country are proponents of revolution while conservatives in this country are proponents of evolution. The reason that he should be taking this position is that it’s Edmund Burke’s position in Reflections on the Revolution in France. As Burke stands at the head of modern conservatism and as Beck fancies himself the mouthpiece of American conservatism, it’s a position that Beck should almost certainly know about and find compelling.
Burke sets himself against proponents of the French Revolution, arguing not that progress is a bad thing but that everything depends on how progress is made. He’s not an opponent of extending freedom or liberty, for example, so long as we do so slowly, cautiously, and always with a view to our particular history. In particular, he cautions against the idea of the revolutionaries who were desirous of shattering the entire political edifice to entirely remake the world according to abstract philosophical principles. Conservatism, for Burke, isn’t about stagnation; it’s about making progress with one eye on our ancestry and our historical inheritance. Doing so, he argues, “leaves acquisition free; but it secures what it acquires.” In short, this is an evolutionary view of progress.
Of course, to tell a roomful of conservatives that they are evolutionists would likely have fallen flat. Or else he doesn’t know anything about Edmund Burke, the father of conservative political thought. So he decided that progressives are both revolutionists and evolutionists. What this means is that conservatives favor no change, under any circumstance. Not incremental change and not sweeping change. No change. Ever. Maybe this is what Glenn Beck believes and maybe a lot of his viewers actually agree with him. But I’d be surprised.
To my mind, all of this leads to one conclusion: Glenn Beck’s brand of conservatism — the one that is being sold by Fox News and consumed by a great many Americans today — is simply thoughtless conservatism, very different from the thoughtful, principled conservatism whose roots are in Burke’s writing. Beck and his ilk stand for an “I Want What I Want” version of conservatism whose proponents oppose progressive ideas that might benefit others while favoring the very same ideas when they stand to benefit themselves. This isn’t a political theory; it’s just selfishness. It’s not based on any broader ideas and its proponents see little difficulty in holding contradictory positions, like Beck’s abhorrence of communism and his happiness at benefiting from goods made available to him by the community.
It’s not at all clear how to engage in productive debate with those who hold to this way of looking at the world. The best hope is that those with honest conservative sentiments will avail themselves of the “free books” made available by communist institutions like the public library and learn how far off the tracks the conservative movement in this country is being steered by thoughtless conservatives like Glenn Beck.