The field of Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential nomination has already been noted as formidable, but do any of the candidacies actually reflect notions of a Burkean conservatism? In previous posts I have outlined Burke’s definition of conservatism but also noted that few if any conservative leaders pay homage to his ideas or principles in modern American politics. Thus far the same has held true in the 2016 presidential race with no candidate routinely mentioning Burke as a key influence. Nonetheless, several of the Republican candidates have taken positions and articulated principles which coincide with Burke’s criteria of conservatism. In this post I shall outline several examples of this at work with my primary goal being to connect theory to politics rather than to influence anyone’s vote in the upcoming elections.
In terms of Burke’s definition of freedom—which includes an emphasis on social relationships, restraint, and mutual respect—the clearest articulation in the campaign cycle thus far occurred during this exchange between actress Ellen Page and Senator Ted Cruz. What is striking about the confrontation is not that Senator Cruz predictably defended the religious liberty of evangelicals, but that he also argued on behalf of the LGBT community. At the 3:10 mark Senator Cruz claims that, “No one has the right to force someone to abandon their faith or their conscience.” In this vein Senator Cruz calls for a limitation on the public will of members of his own faith. Freedom as Senator Cruz articulates it requires that evangelicals restrain themselves and expect limitations on their commercial rights in order to enjoy their own religious expression. Such principled restraint echoes the Aristotelian freedom staunchly defended by Burke.
While each candidate has publicly discussed their definition of patriotism, perhaps no candidate has made love of community and country more a center of their campaign than Dr. Ben Carson. Through his speeches and books, Dr. Carson has articulated a profound and resonating love of country which draws upon his own experiences growing up amid poverty and racism. The patriotism which Dr. Carson expresses is not simply unbridled nationalism but an examined and personal loyalty which recognizes not only the virtues of American culture but also its defects. Much like Burke, Dr. Carson connects his patriotism to education, as he explains in his famous National Prayer Breakfast Speech that it was his mother’s encouragement to self-educate which gave him control over his own destiny and the ability to overcome bitterness.
In a similar mindset, Senator Marco Rubio has routinely cited his family's experience with Cuban communism as reason to believe in America’s promise as well as “certain unalienable truths.” Key among these truths for Senator Rubio is the claim that human rights are gifts of God rather than products of human invention, a conviction which closely mirror’s Burke’s belief in natural law. Like Dr. Carson, Senator Rubio draws critical lessons both from his own life as well as American history as he argues that the country’s future can be guided from lessons of the past.
In terms of prudence, perhaps no candidate has applied Burke’s perspective better than businesswoman Carly Fiorina in this interview. Rather than dismissing the existence of climate change, Ms. Fiorina shifts the focus to the nature of America’s public response to the issue. She criticizes the Obama administration’s ability to manage regulation while calling for a standard of innovation which will cause less disruption to existing livelihoods. In this manner, Ms. Fiorina intertwines innovation with a Burkean responsibility to preserve what is best in present society.
Examples such as these substantiate the hope that Burkean conservatism is alive in Republican politics, even if it is primarily subconscious and operating below the surface. The full promise of Burkean conservatism offers more than these examples, however, as I have shown that the principles Burke espoused constitute a comprehensive view of statesmanship. Were they articulated properly and publicly, Burke's views could inform not only isolated political positions but America’s entire view of conservatism and the path our country should follow.
We simply need a leader bold enough to claim him.