Along with Friedrich Hayek, Edmund Burke is among the intellectual fathers of American conservatism. Hayek taught conservatives to love freedom. Burke taught conservatives to respect tradition even when its rationale seems obscure, for tradition often represents the accumulated wisdom of generations past.
Burke gave us another set of ideas that seems to have fallen by the wayside in contemporary American politics, and in contemporary American conservatism: the value of prudence and judgment in public life, and along with those virtues, the merits of republicanism rather than plebiscitary democracy. Written in 1777, Burke's letter to his electors at
Over the course of the last week, House Republicans--allegedly, the keepers of the conservative flame in the federal government--have behaved in a manner that should leave all true Burkeans appalled.
On Monday, the House Republicans killed the bailout/rescue package on some combination of two grounds: constituent phone calls and letters were running heavily against the package, and Nancy Pelosi's pre-vote speech suggested that, if it passed, both the package and the crisis to which it responds would be used by Democrats as a club with which to beat Republicans in November's election. Apparently, a solid majority of House members believed the package ought to pass, that its passage was, under the circumstances, in the country's best interest--but given those phone calls and letters, it might not be in the best interest of all those voting "aye." On Friday, enough of those same conservative Republicans voted for a modified rescue package--this one containing a host of tax breaks (my favorite: the break for manufacturers of wooden arrows, which Charles Krauthammer read out loud on Fox News) and earmarks that had nothing to do with economic rescue and everything to do with winning the favor of assorted members' more powerful constituents. From start to finish, the legislative process in this case was as un-conservative, as inattentive to public duty and obligation, as can be imagined.
That's no fluke. Anyone who has observed American politics over the last generation cannot help but notice that members of Congress--especially, House members (who must run for reelection every two years)--have become more attentive to short-term swings in public opinion. Oddly, this change has coincided with the rise of computer-based districting plans that all but guarantee reelection to the overwhelming majority of these wet fingers testing the political winds. Even as our elected representatives have more room to exercise judgment, they seem less prone to do the exercising.
Any way you slice it, that is a terrible development. Stock market prices incorporate the best information traders have, and their best estimate of the future performance of the stocks they buy and sell. The market rewards those who know more and estimate better, and punishes those who know less and whose predictions are faulty. Polls and focus groups have neither advantage: voters with the most information have no more influence than those with the least, and those who answer pollsters' questions have little incentive to take account of the future course of events. When dealing with issues that have arisen swiftly, like the issues at stake in the economic rescue package, such polls reflect nothing but voters' level of trust in the wisdom of their representatives. Ironically, those representatives who thought themselves most responsive to voters' wishes were only confirming those voters' damning diagnosis of what passes for governance in Congress these days.
If that is what American conservatism has become, I want no part of it. And if House Republicans were seeking to consolidate the support of registered Republicans in what looks to be a hard election, they have lost the support of this registered Republican. As far as I'm concerned, the more of them who lose in November, the better.