My Response to Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett was a senior policy adviser in the Reagan White House and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under George H.W. Bush. He’s worked with and around conservatives—from Jack Kemp and Gary Bauer to Ron Paul and the Cato Institute—for decades. In recent years, he’s become a major critic of the Republican Party and the right, joining the ranks of Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, and other conservative apostates. He is, to cite a t-shirt my three-year-old daughter likes to wear, “kind of a big deal.”

So I was more than pleased when he decided to respond, in the comments section, to my most recent post on the utopianism of Sullivan’s brand of conservatism. Given Bartlett’s stature, and my hope for further dialogue, I’ve decided to post our little exchange. For context, read my post on Sullivan.

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Bruce Bartlett: I think you are much too dismissive of the Burkean strain of conservatism that was an important part of the Republican philosophy until quite recently. In their own ways, I think Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush 41 were all Burkeans, as was 1997 GOP nominee Bob Dole. Clearly, Bush 43 was not and there is certainly no evidence of small-C conservatism anywhere in the Republican Party or the conservative movement today. But times can change. All that is really needed is a leader for the Sullivan/Frum/Bartlett philosophy to have an impact. Great oaks from little acorns grow.

Corey Robin: First, Bruce (if I may), welcome to the blog! Very exciting to have you round these parts. Second, since you’re someone who knows the GOP and the conservative movement from the inside — and at the highest levels — I’m very eager to hear your perspective on all this. Particularly eager to know how/why you think the figures you cite were all Burkeans. Definitely elaborate! But for now I’d say three things in response:

1. As Philip says above, I don’t believe Burke was a Burkean (perhaps in the same way Marx is supposed to have famously said, “I am not a Marxist.”) I’d be eager to explain why, but if you’re at all interested, you can check out this post: Or, if you’re really interested, I’m happy to send you my book The Reactionary Mind, in which I make the case at greater length. Feel free to email me your address at

2. I think the second half of your statement here gives the game away. You say “there is certainly no evidence of small-C conservatism” in the GOP or on the right. Yet, you think a great leader can, through force of leadership, make something that does not exist come into existence. That seems like a decidedly non-Burkean sensibility to me. In fact, it’s downright Jacobin. In the same way that the Jacobins, at least according to the conservative critiques like Burke’s, were supposed to have imposed an alien ideology on inhospitable soil, on soil that offered up no native or indigenous elements that would be receptive to the Rights of Man. And they did it, again goes the conservative critique, because they believed in the capacity of the revolutionary will, embodied in their leadership, to impose itself on and against the force of circumstance. The syntax of your claim moves in the same direction.

3. Lastly, often when people say Reagan was a Burkean what they mean is that he was pragmatic, realistic, that he responded and was sensitive to the institutional resistances to his agenda, that he was adaptive, willing to change course as circumstances dictated, etc. I think we need to be wary and leery of that definition of Burkeanism. For two reasons. First, it’s not what Burke himself thought, or at least not simply thought; and indeed, he often castigated his allies for their pragmatism and so-called realism, which he thought was a cover for cravenness. Second, that kind of pragmatism and realism — a sensitivity to circumstances, etc. — is hardly the monopoly of the right or even the Burkean right. Lenin has often been described in exactly the same terms (as against, supposedly, the greater rigidity of Trotsky and his followers.) As someone who certainly kept his eye on the prize, but who had a great deal of tactical savvy, and knew how to adapt to circumstances and be sensitive to certain institutional constraints and resistances. I suspect any successful revolutionary — genuine revolutionary, that is — must possess a certain amount of that kind of supple realism. It kind of goes with the territory.

Anyway, very eager to hear thoughts on any and all of this. And more important very eager to get your own insider perspective on all this.

Thanks for writing.



  1. Bruce Bartlett December 4, 2011 at 9:44 am | #

    I’m not a political philosopher and my knowledge of Burke is entirely second-hand, mainly from Russell Kirk, who was once a very important figure in the conservative movement. What I mean by “Burkean”, which may be an improper term for it, is classical small–C conservatism that values stability and prudence, is skeptical of change for the sake of change, distrustful of the masses, deferential to elites and so on. I think these are qualities that virtually all Republican leaders from Eisenhower through Dole embodied to one extent or another. Certainly they contrast drastically with Bush 43, Newt Gingrich and all Republican leaders today. Arguing about the degree to which the previous generation of Republican leaders were or were not Burkean in some precise sense doesn’t interest me. What is clear is that some sort of sea change took place in the Republican Party in the 1990s that has created a party radically different from what it previously was. This is most apparent in the area of tax policy, which is the primary focus of my interest, but many other areas as well. Getting at the roots of this watershed is what interests me because it may provide clues as to how it can be reversed. In my comment about the need for a leader, I was simply acknowledging that people like me, David Frum, Andrew Sullivan and a few others are not capable of providing the sort of leadership that is needed. We are policy wonks more comfortable behind the scenes than preaching to crowds. Until a leader comes along, I think what we are trying to do is build a foundation and plant some seeds that hopefully will attract a leader who can articulate a proper conservative vision and who can pick up the pieces when the GOP finally crashes and burns.

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