McCain the Burkean?

Jonathan Rauch has a fascinating short essay in the May edition of The Atlantic (not yet available online) labeling John McCain as a solid conservative, with his seeming anti-establishmentarian iconoclasm nothing more than another indicia of the G.O.P.’s desertion of its core values.

McCain, you see, is a true follower of Edmund Burke, who was “[t]radition-minded but (contrary to stereotype) far from reactionary,” believing in “in balancing individual rights with social order” and advocating only incremental, thoughtful reform. Modern conservatives (or at least Republicans), on the other hand, disdain “small ball” and want to blow up the government.

It’s a clever analysis, especially the contrast of conservative ideas with conservative temperament (though a candidate whose temper is often said to be an Achilles heel is hardly the best vehicle for making that distinction). Ultimately Rauch is too clever by more than half, however, torturing McCain’s policies until they confess to the writer’s thesis. For example, even if it were true that McCain’s campaign finance work ultimately “produced a reform that was mostly modest in its aims,” the Senator’s attack on free speech is a square peg that cannot be forced into a round Burkean hole. And McCain’s latent support for the extension of the Bush tax cuts can much more easily be attributed to presidential politics than to a convoluted notion that after a few years a policy “becomes well established and woven into everyday life” (and therefore must continue lest societal stability be torn asunder).

“McCain,” Rauch concludes, “is an antirevolutionary, not a counterrevolutionary.” That may be true in some sense – and McCain’s views on many issues are genuinely conservative (just as others are libertarian and yet others herald a trust-busting populism) – but it doesn’t make him Burkean.