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edmund burkeWASHINGTON — Let’s praise a struggling conservative reform movement seeking to disentangle the right’s cause from extremism and to make its ideas more compelling to a younger and broader swath of Americans.

It’s a movement of diverse strands and competing motives. Some conservatives are looking for a much larger dose of reform than others.

The change-as-little-as-possible wing would keep the same old creed but adorn it in new, more attractive clothes. But the Serious Rethinking crowd is trying to engage problems that conservatives usually ignore — notably, rising inequality and declining social mobility. And the 14 Republican senators who helped give the immigration bill a big majority in their chamber last week sent a signal that many on the right understand the need to appeal to an increasingly diverse electorate.

For the GOP’s political consultants, the effort’s real purpose is to win future elections. But other innovators on the right worry about governing. They have grown impatient with a thin doctrine that sees lower taxes, smaller government and deregulation as the solution to every problem we confront.

Whenever conservatives are in this sort of pensive mood, they repair to the thought of the philosopher whom Jesse Norman, a Conservative member of the British Parliament, labels “The First Conservative,” the subtitle of his new book on Edmund Burke.

Norman’s Burke biography ought to be one of the hot books for the right over the next year. Like Burke (1729-1797), Norman is a philosopher as well as a politician. He offers a brisk and engaging introduction to the iconic thinker’s life and thought.

Burke’s conservatism was based on a proper understanding of that word. He believed in preserving the social order and respecting old habits. He persistently warned against the destructive character of radical change. He was wary of ideology and grand ideas, rejecting, as Norman puts it, “universal claims divorced from an actual social context.” Burke saw the well-ordered society as a “partnership of the dead, the living and the yet to be born,” a nice formula for a forward-looking traditionalism — and not a bad slogan for environmentalists.

His critics (Tom Paine was among the fiercest) saw Burke as an apologist for the privileged and an enemy of free individuals. Norman vigorously defends Burke against these charges, emphasizing his fundamental moderation and support for reform as an alternative to revolution. Burke believed not so much in small government but in what Norman labels “slow government,” rooted in modesty and humility about what politics can achieve.

But it’s to Norman’s credit that he recognizes how “Burke also clips the wings of many contemporary conservatives.” While he “helped establish modern conceptions of nationhood and national allegiance” he “rejected military adventures.” He “celebrated religious observance, but despised moral absolutism.”

Norman also sees Burke as implicitly offering “a profound critique of the market fundamentalism now prevalent in Western society.” He thinks that Burke would “note the extraordinary greed and self-dealing seen over the past decade by the modern nabobs of banking and finance in a series of cartels disguised as markets.” And a Burkean conservatism would be wary of any ideology that “causes people to lose sight of the real social sources of human well-being and to become more selfish and individualistic, by priming them with ideas of financial success and celebrity.”

As you can see, it’s no accident that American liberals tend to welcome Burke revivals on the right whenever they come along. In a 1955 essay written during an earlier burst of enthusiasm for Burke, the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. praised Burke’s approach as “inspired by a belief in the organic character of society, where power implies responsibility and where all classes should be united in harmonious union by a sense of common trust and mutual obligation.”

The problem for conservatives now is remarkably similar to one Schlesinger identified nearly 60 years ago. Burke, after all, was defending an old landed aristocracy that grew out of “centuries of feudalism.” The United States had no feudalism, Schlesinger wrote, so “our upper classes base their position not on land or tradition or a sense of social responsibility but on the folding stuff.”

Ah, yes, money. Conservative reformers should contemplate Burke to remind themselves that their intellectual heritage is about so much more than cuts in taxes and a special concern for “job creators” with large amounts of capital. Burke expressed an affection for the “little platoon” in society. Conservatism will flounder unless it remembers the imperative of addressing the interests of the many, not the few.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.